Conversations with Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Chapter 2, A Return to the Beginning
Question: Rabbi Cardozo, you mentioned in the last chapter, that you felt that in your younger years you had fallen victim to a kind of simplistic Orthodox Judaism which you needed to investigate again. What made you feel this way?
Rabbi Cardozo: When I got older, I started to read much more widely about Judaism than I had done previously. As a result, I was exposed to a much broader perspective of Judaism than the mainstream Orthodox Judaism as we know it today. I realized that although I was very enthusiastic about Judaism before my conversion, my understanding of this great tradition at that time was too simplistic. There was so much I did not know and I started to feel an emptiness gnawing away at my very being. I came to the realization that although I longed for those early days of discovery before I converted, my enthusiasm at that time was not grounded in reality. I got too carried away with a highly idealized and romanticized version of Judaism. Subsequently I began to struggle, question, and rethink my understanding of Judaism. In fact, I discovered that my questioning was encouraged by the Jewish tradition itself. Nothing could be better than that!
This happened many years after my conversion. One day, I woke up and asked myself: where have you been all these years? Is the Judaism that you are living now really what you are looking for? Is it real Judaism? Are you sure you still want to be religious and Jewish? Yes, you discovered Judaism on your own, but over many years it became routine and dull, and perhaps it no longer works for you. Maybe you created for yourself a picture of a Judaism that was not completely realistic? Perhaps your knowledge was inadequate at the time of your conversion and you may have misread it. Were Spinoza and his cohorts right after all?
Thus, I had to start all over again. This was an excruciating decision to make, and it created a lot of unrest in my life, but I knew that I had two options. I could either continue the monotonous routine of going through the “religious motions” and live within the secure confines of my religious comfort zone. Or I could plunge into the sea of doubt and try to re-discover Judaism as I experienced it before I converted, but on a much deeper level, knowing that I would have to unlearn many things that I had previously taken for granted and accepted as self-evident truths.
Becoming Secular Again?
I also had the option of becoming secular again. This would mean that I would return to the spiritual home of my parents, which was totally secular. The problem was that this would mean that all the questions I had been asking during the days before my conversion, as described in Lonely but Not Alone, which ultimately led me to Judaism, would remain unanswered or would require a satisfactory response within a secular philosophical framework. From my previous experience, I greatly doubted that this would work.
Furthermore, this approach would only be justified once I had studied Judaism thoroughly, realized its problems, evaluated its pros and cons and did not fall victim to the illusion that all was well with Judaism and that it could be accepted at face value. Only then would I be capable of making an informed decision. After all, it is completely impossible to reject something when one does not have a thorough understanding of the thing being rejected. It was clear to me that I was not in a position to do so. My knowledge of Judaism was woefully inadequate to reject it honestly.
This matter was complicated by the fact, as indicated before, that I suspected that the Judaism of the last 2000 years no longer represented the authentic and original essence of Judaism. This may even be true of the Halacha. Perhaps the Jews had “to live a lie” during the past 2000 years from the time when our forebears were forced to live in foreign – and often hostile – countries, since it was no longer possible to live an authentic Jewish life in the present.
Perhaps Judaism was no longer entirely genuine and needed rethinking. I suspected that a thick scab had grown on the face of Judaism and that it needed to be scraped off. Judaism had become artificial and had been derailed. With the establishment of the State of Israel, we had to find a way to get it back on track. Perhaps a purifying process, a spiritual and halachic catharsis, was needed. The question was how to do this while at the same time making sure that we did not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Thus, I decided to embark on a thorough investigation of Judaism.
Moreover, I also read the works of various Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jewish thinkers which contained many interesting ideas. I also reflected on my encounters and discussions with Reform Rabbis which were thought-provoking, although they never satisfied me. I felt that they were not profound enough, that they were to a certain extent mistaken, too academic and lacked religious passion. I felt that they would not bring me to an encounter with the Divine (in case the Divine was a reality!) and the inner vitality of authentic Judaism. One day I hope to explain this in greater length. Nevertheless, I must emphasize that within the ranks of these movements, there are individuals who possess great religious authenticity and profound scholarship. This fact made my struggle more complicated.
Only a Pioneer Can Be an Heir
Consequently, I had to undergo radical surgery without the benefit of anaesthesia. After all, no one can inherit religion, neither from one’s parents nor one’s teachers. Only by embarking on a relentless quest for truth can one reap the rewards of personal discovery. As Abraham Joshua Heschel stated so eloquently, “in the realm of the spirit only he who is a pioneer is able to be an heir.” (See Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1951), p. 164). It has to be an honest fight. Yes, I converted when I was 16 years old, but I now realized that my conversion turned into an obstacle. It blocked me since I believed that I had reached my goal. I did not realize that my conversion was only the beginning of a long journey and discovery. Thus, my conversion had become more or less meaningless.
So, there I was. I had to start all over again! This was very painful and full of risks, but it was also very exciting and full of promise.
To be continued.