In memory of Rabbi Chaim (Hans) Rodrigues Pereira z.l. of the Portuguese Spanish Synagogue in Amsterdam, who was my first Jewish Teacher and to whom I owe Infinite Gratitude. Passed away on 30 Sivan 5780/June 23, 2020.
I do not have many external memories. Only some have survived – jubilant and painful moments in my youth, and my teenage, and adult years. These moments are lodged in my memory and have become frozen emotions that were transformed into great symphonies in minor or major. But my inner life is very active. I can think of thoughts and emotions that go back decades. They are always uplifting. Those that were painful were apparently relocated by me to underground caves entirely surrounded by impenetrable, huge walls. I often think that because I stored my negative day-to-day memories in places I can’t get to, I was able to make space for my positive thoughts and religious experiences. It reminds me of a friend who told me that Beethoven was only able to write his mystifying music because he was deaf. Something has to go in order to provide opportunities that otherwise would not have been available. Meeting a new reality requires withdrawal from an old one.
In that sense, I am a poor man. Most of my memories are no longer with me. But later in life, Judaism taught me something I had never before contemplated. External experiences are of little importance when they remain trivialities. However, when these trivialities can be transformed into ways in which one can meet God, then the finite becomes infinite. It is during the last part of my life, long after I tried to become religious, that I suddenly realized this and changed my religious direction. I underwent conversion twice, if not more. Once, as the child of a mixed marriage, when I decided at the age of sixteen to become fully Jewish, and several times afterwards when I realized that my understanding of Judaism was too simple and that I had to fight the stagnation in Judaism in myself. I realized that there are no trivial moments in our lives since our entire lives take place in the presence of God. And what takes place in His presence can never be trivial. After all, it takes place in the company of eternity.
In truth, I learned that one needs to convert every day because there is no such thing as a religious arrival. There is only a road to travel. Part of this spiritual autobiography is dedicated to this experience.
I cannot deny that the road I have taken sometimes brings me in collision with mainstream Judaism. I believe there is much more to Judaism than what is taught in conventional institutions. I often feel that the Judaism that I chose, is no longer what mainstream Judaism offers today. It has been rewritten in ways which make it sometimes unrecognizable. In that sense, I am lonely. But it does not matter, because the wealth that Judaism offers me now is so much deeper that not only am I not alone, but I also have the constant companionship of something much greater. The reader should, therefore, not be surprised when I sometimes take a turn which he or she did not expect, and which is not in agreement with mainstream Judaism as we know it today. But I beg them to realize that I believe that the directions I take may be closer to the truth about genuine Judaism than one thinks.
All I ask of the reader is to contemplate what I suggest – not necessarily to agree, but to let it be a source of fierce debate. I will try to be extremely honest and I hope this is of great help to my readers. No intellectual or spiritual boundaries will be forbidden to me.
These essays will be the product of thoughts and feelings that have given me inner illumination even when they were painful. They have liberated my soul and pen. They were sometimes demolished and later reborn with greater intensity. It is a kind of confession of faith meant only for myself, but also offered as a help to those who are in search of theirs.
The reader should not expect a well-rounded method and weltanschauung, in which everything falls into place. I do not consider this possible at the current stage of humanity’s spiritual journey – a journey that resembles a juvenile phase in a lengthy spiritual evolutionary process. And in the case of Judaism, I consider it highly unhealthy to look for this consistency, since one of its greatest contributions is its multifaceted and paradoxical nature, which leads to constant discussion and re-creation. Still, there are some coherent lines of thought, which are, in these essays, only carried through to a certain degree, and about which I have much more to say.
Herein are ideas that I am yet only able to partially state because they have not yet developed in my mind and soul to the extent that I would like. I am also ambivalent about some of these ideas or have not yet read and thought them through sufficiently. They got stuck in the middle and I have to liberate them, which is a long process. I also hope that they are picked up by others who will move them forward, especially after my death.
In these essays, I have set down my thoughts against the background of my life experiences, through which the reader can see, or guess, how I have arrived at some of these ideas. One thing, however, is abundantly clear to me: No idea has value if one has not (re)discovered it in one’s mind and heart. It must be a creation, not a repetition. Therefore, it is of little importance to me to quote others, however eminent they may be, and I do so only when it helps to clarify my own ideas to the reader. It does not matter who said it, but rather what was said. Even more important is how it was said and the manner in which these thoughts and feelings resonate with the reader. This is of utmost importance, and the simple use of authority and fame should always be distrusted. It is a form of plagiarism, which is dangerous. Only self-discovery can lead to honest investigation and knowledge.
This has become a major problem in conventional Judaism. What we should look at are the struggles of others, who are sometimes victorious and other times defeated. It is for this reason that I am unable to trace all my thoughts back to concepts that others have expressed. I do not remember, and even when I do, I am not sure to what extent they are their thoughts and to what extent they are mine.
Thinking is self-realization aimed at becoming richer and more accomplished on the inside, and searching in deep joy. Through this, we realize that we are in God and God is in us because He gave us from His spirit. It is for this reason that I have frequently taken the thoughts expressed by others and moved them to new levels. This is especially true in the case of Chassidic texts. They are often ambiguous, and many interpretations are possible. The contours of these texts are vague and sometimes perplexingly entangled. There is a restlessness in these thoughts, as well as wrestling. They lack systematic thinking. It has been said that this was completely different, although with exceptions, in the ancient Sephardic world where strictly logical philosophical works were painstakingly written. But with all their beauty, they often missed the dimensions of deep religiosity. It is not just the mind that must seek God, but also the soul. This needs to be done with fervor and passion, which surpasses the intellect. It is a deeply emotional experience in which one constantly strives toward higher worlds. It is for that reason that on different occasions, I have taken the liberty of extrapolating ideas from a text, though it may or may not have been the author’s intention. I simply could not resist presenting new intriguing possibilities alluded to in these texts. They enrich my life and I believe that this will be true for other seekers as well.
And so, as said before, the text presented here deliberately lacks a systematic composition. Not only is that the natural consequence of a spontaneous conversation, which constitutes the bulk of these essays, but it is also absolutely necessary when discussing religiosity. It does not allow the restrictions of pure academic approaches. It cannot be reduced to logical deduction. It can’t use the “more geometrico” of Spinoza.
Some of the greatest works were written as turbulent tidal waves, penned in haste, as if not to lose the thoughts a moment later. (1) As such, these works often consist of contradictions that cannot be avoided. They reflect the many paradoxes of human existence that have no solutions. I believe that this was also the fallacy in Spinoza’s reasoning. His need for systematic thinking made it impossible for him to discover the God of Judaism. For the same reason, he was also unable to deal with the text of the Torah as an emotional response to the deep religious outpourings of the human soul. He was confined to a world that forgot about the soul’s awareness of the unknown. Thinking with one’s soul should never be confined by boundaries.
The reader will find some duplications and recapitulations throughout these essays. I deliberately left them there, in the hope that they sound a little like Mozart’s famous repetitions, sometimes of complete cadences in order to create new artistic articulations.
As I mentioned above, my previous concise autobiography Lonely But Not Alone became a major source of discussion. It led to interviews by several radio shows, academic institutions such as the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, Jewish programs at universities, discussions at the David Cardozo Academy’s Think Tank, and members of the well-known Limmud conferences. I recorded all these interviews, and they helped me to write these essays. As I wrote previously, at this stage these essays have no logical sequence but reflect my thoughts and feelings at a particular moment often written in response to the particular circumstances I was facing at that time. I have written it in an impromptu, conversational style, just like the discussions on which they are sometimes based. For this reason, I have written this autobiography in the form of a semi-discussion. Topics are introduced with a question but only in a minimal way to make it easier for the reader.
I wrote these essays in the company of great people: Itzhak Perlman playing Ludwig van Beethoven; Glenn Gould playing Johann Sebastian Bach; Mstislav Rostropovich playing his cello; and Arik Einstein singing his Israeli songs. Chazzan Josef “Yossele” Rosenblatt, as well as my cousin Abraham Lopes Cardozo who was the chazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue in New York, supplied the religious music for this work. They were a gift from God as I sat in front of my computer, sometimes for eight hours a day, to write these essays. It would have been hell; they made it Heaven.
Special thanks to my dear friend, chavruta and critic, Yehudah DovBer Zirkind. He, together with the members of the David Cardozo Think Tank, helped me with research, questions and possible answers. Still, I alone bear responsibility for the views expressed herein.
My infinite thanks go to my wife, Freyda Lopes Cardozo, who had – and continues to have – boundless patience with me during the writing of this autobiography. Sometimes I do not return from my study until midnight. (She does not even agree with many ideas expressed in these essays!) Thanks to my children, children-in-law, grandchildren, their spouses and my great-grandchildren, who give me the inspiration to write about this great sonata called Judaism and my personal life.
Due to severe lack of money I could not afford to hire a full-time editor to review these pages and turn them into a sublime English. In fact, much of what I wrote could have been written better, but the lack of time and money made that impossible. Perhaps one day, I will be able to rewrite this the way I really would like to and make it into a poetic reflection of my soul and mind.
In the meantime, I want to thank my dear friends Chana Shapiro, Yehudah DovBer Zirkind, and Yael Shahar for helping me to make the manuscript “reasonably readable”.
May the Lord of the Universe, my constant mysterious Partner, bless them all.
(1) Just think of Carl Gustav Jung’s famous work, Psychology of the Unconscious. The concepts therein were, according to Jung, outbursts caused by the stifling atmosphere of Freudian psychology.