Question 9 My Chareidi and Modern Orthodox Struggles Part One

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 12 april 2019

In memory of our good friend: Caroline (Carry) Scheindel Packter z.l. Amsterdam-Jerushalayim.

Recently, I have been invited to respond to ten questions by Rav Ari Ze'ev Schwartz of Yerushalayim. I have agreed to answer them honestly and to the best of my ability. For the earlier questions and answers see here.

Question 9
In the early part of your life, you spent 12 years studying at various ultra-Orthodox Chareidi yeshivot, beginning with Gateshead, and later on at Mirrer Yeshiva and other kollels in Yerushalayim. Eventually you would leave that realm and enter the Modern Orthodox world, which fuses Torah with secular philosophy, psychology, academia, and non-Jewish religious texts.

Rav Shagar, who was a renowned Religious Zionist Rosh Yeshiva, encouraged his modern students to embrace what he called "the authentic Chareidi," the good qualities found in the ultra-Orthodox world – their passion and dedication to God. Rav Cardozo, even though you eventually left the Chareidi world, would you agree with Rav Shagar's idea of the "authentic Chareidi," that there is something modern Jews can learn from the Chareidi world? Do you see any positive qualities and values that you learnt from your time spent in the Chareidi world?

Nathan Lopes Cardozo: This is a very complex question, and I'll probably need several "Thoughts to Ponder" to explain want I stand for. I hope I'll succeed.

I consider myself neither Modern Orthodox nor Chareidi. I have big problems with both denominations. And I definitely don't identify with the Reform or Conservative movements. However, I certainly admire many aspects of the Modern Orthodox and Chareidi communities. And I've learned a lot from the Reform and Conservative ideologies, their religious struggles and crises, and their disagreements with the Orthodox perspectives.

I very much like the idea of Rabbi Shagar's "authentic Chareidi". Chareidim have a lot to offer in terms of passion, commitment, and religiosity. But they fail miserably in other extremely important matters. The same is true with the Modern Orthodox. They, too, have a lot to offer in terms of dealing with the modern world, but it seems to me that they're obsessed with secular studies at the expense of religious passion, which has disastrous consequences.

All of this has to be properly explained, and I'll try to do that later. First, something more personal as an introduction.

The Need for Multiple Conversions
Although, as you know, I converted when I was 16 years old after having discovered Judaism on my own, over the years I got so used to it that it nearly died within me, even though I honestly believed that I did very well, religiously speaking. One day, however, I woke up and asked myself: Where have you been all these years? Are you sure you still want to be religious and Jewish? I went through the motions but had lost the essence of what it means to be religious. Also, I started to question certain Jewish (Orthodox) beliefs, since my knowledge of the Jewish Tradition had increased considerably, as did my secular knowledge. Besides belief in the divinity of the Torah, which was challenged by the academic community of Bible scholars, there were some severe moral problems with the narrative of the Torah, even more so with some of the divine commandments, and certainly with several rabbinic edicts.

But above all, it was the feeling that I was really a completely secular person who lived a halachic life. This may sound strange but I think that to this day, many religious Jews – especially the Modern Orthodox – live with this kind of ambiguity. And I believe that I belong in the same category. Perhaps the difference is that I'm terribly disturbed by it and it gives me no rest, although I try not to show it.

So I really need to start all over again. It's a kind of surgery, but this surgery is going on for years and the anesthetics are wearing off. It's important to realize that nobody can inherit religion, not even from oneself. It has to be an ongoing discovery. I converted when I was 16, but over the years I've come to realize that to convert only once is almost meaningless. Nearly every Erev Shabbat I immerse myself in a mikveh (ritual bath), and when I step into the water I say to myself: Let's see if this time it will make me into a real Jew. Last time I failed. I did not get it. I couldn't and still can't "touch" real Judaism – neither its implication nor its transforming power. Sure, this is not an easy way of living, but for me it's the only way.

Johann Sebastian Bach, My Wife’s Wig and Leaving the Establishment
Whenever I listen to Bach's phenomenal music, I feel as if I was hit with an uppercut to the chin and remained unconscious for several hours. That should also, and even more so, happen when I exit the mikveh and try to enter Judaism once more, but it doesn't. And that's my problem. I'm still not entirely Jewish in the spiritual sense of the word. I still don't get as overwhelmed by Judaism's music as I do by Bach's. And what I would like to achieve is to have my students and fellow Jews enter the mikveh together with me and ask ourselves: Are we really Jewish? Are we constantly being transformed by the tradition called Judaism?

The awe-inspiring sense of the presence of God is the awareness of being known by God. God and Judaism are a challenge rather than a notion. How do I reach them? Is it possible? I still don't know because I haven't yet gotten out of the mikveh. I'm still standing in the water and waiting. If I don't get out, I'm defeated. Or am I? Perhaps we only need to keep on trying. But seriously trying, and not just by being very careful halachically. And I want others to try as well. Perhaps more cannot be expected from us.

This is indeed very painful. But who says that a person should live without pain, especially if that means living a life of conventional notions and mental clichés? To be a Jew is to know and feel that one lives the unbelievable. I admit that my life is far from easy but spiritually it is surely unbelievable and "painfully beautiful." But is that enough? Looking back, I believe that my life turned out to be very unusual if not a little absurd. When I was young and it all happened – my so-called transformation and conversion – I thought it was very ordinary. Who, after all, lives a normal life? But now that a good part is behind me and I'm surrounded by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I realize that it's all really very strange.

Here I am with these children, all of whom are religious, including some Chareidim with payot (sidelocks) behind their ears, and most of them living in Israel, and I wonder how this all happened.

When I see my wife with a sheitel (wig) on her head, I realize that in my earlier religious days I took this for granted, while now – more than 50 years later – I'm suddenly shocked and question the validity of it. I can't see anything normal about it. Who in the name of God hides her hair and puts on a wig! This needs not only an explanation, but deep soul-searching to discover the meaning and the experience behind it.

It seems like yesterday that I was at a non-Jewish school playing with a non-Jewish girl whom I was sure I would marry one day; yet now my wife wears a sheitel and I find myself speaking with my grandchildren about a difficult Meshech Chochma (a famous commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk [1843-1926]). I sometimes think that God has a great sense of humor. But why does He try it out on me?

I think that over the years I became more consciously religious, but that also meant I had to leave the religious establishment, as far as my ideology and sometimes even as far as conventional Halacha is concerned.

So it is not at all what some people think when I question Judaism or Halacha – that I have turned my back on Judaism. The truth is that today I have not only a much better appreciation of it, but also a deeper commitment to it.

The Calvinistic Dutch
However strange this may sound, there is another problem. I'm Dutch! Dutch Jews – and, by the way, German/Swiss Jews as well – have always been inflexible and terribly Calvinistic. Everything was done the "proper" way and neatly arranged in mental boxes. That was even truer of Orthodox Jews. I am reminded of a story concerning Rabbi Meir Shapira, the Rav of Lublin and one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of his time. When he came to Frankfurt's Orthodox community, they showed him a kosher ice cream emporium. Rabbi Shapira saw a large notice stating: "All our products are frozen under the supervision of the Rabbinate." "True," he could not help saying, "of the whole of your Judaism!"

They were Calvinistic shomrei mitzvot (observant of the Jewish tradition and Halacha) with a flavor of Christian theological behavior. Their top hats were often just as important as their tallitot, if not more! I still see this in some of my Dutch friends – even those in Israel. They try hard to break out of this Calvinistic harness but don't seem to succeed. And above all, I surely see it in myself as well. When I laugh at them I'm also laughing at myself! We can't help it. It's in our genes! There are positive aspects to it, of course, but it has confined many Dutch Jews, denying them the chance to try new worlds and turning them into constrained behaviorists. The difference with me is that while my mentality is not so far from theirs, my weltanschauung has totally broken with that world. But I carry the genes!

For all these reasons, I cannot relate to the great Chareidi rabbis who today are the spokesmen of this community. While there may be some great people among them, they do not speak my language and I don't speak theirs. They remind me of Rabbi Shapira's description: frozenness. Nevertheless, there are no doubt exceptions.

Being a Western Sephardic Jew
The same is true concerning me, being a Portuguese Sephardic Jew. The Sephardic rabbis in Israel are even further removed from my culture, since they came from Middle Eastern and North African countries with their own culture. They have very little in common with the Western Sephardic mentality, where I come from. The latter is really a very nice tradition: deeply religious, flexible, and very cultured. But over the centuries that the Portuguese Jews stayed in Holland they also became very Calvinistic.

Only in later years was I able to understand these worlds and appreciate them for what they are, although my views on many matters are far removed from theirs. It was, however, very refreshing that there were some Sephardic halachists who showed tremendous courage and clearly spoke my language. They understood the situation of Jewry in the 20th century better than most of their colleagues. I'm thinking of the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Chacham Ben-Zion Uziel, former Chief Rabbi of Haifa Rav Yosef Mashash, and some others.

So I get caught up between all these worlds.

The Idolization of Rabbis
Another factor that plays a role in my difficulties with the Chareidi community is the idolization of what they call the gedolei hador (the great ones of the generation). That never sat well with me. I had always understood that Judaism taught us to stand on our own feet, and to ask great rabbis for their halachic rulings only when the questions were complicated. One could, of course, also ask their advice on matters, but these were never to be considered halachic rulings that had to be followed. Around the time that I came to Israel, it started to become fashionable to view these people as faultless. They were turned into almost divine beings.

When I discovered the Religious Zionist world – including the writings of Rav Kook, Rav Eliezer Berkovits, Rav Yehuda Amital – and even some who didn't belong to the Orthodox world but were deeply religious, such as Franz Rosenzweig and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – a new world opened up for me. Though they were never considered by the Chareidi establishment to be gedolei hador, they were, in my opinion, much greater than some of the Chareidi gedolim, but I was completely ignorant of them. Besides having a broad understanding of Jewish law, they were independent thinkers and real tzaddikim. But since no one gave them much attention, I wasn't aware of them. This was also due to the fact that they were never seen as "gedolei hador" by their own followers because the whole concept of a gadol hador, as understood by the Chareidi world, is completely foreign to the Religious Zionist community.

One more word about the idolization of rabbis: When I was learning in Gateshead Yeshiva, a very Chareidi institution, there was little of that. Everyone had enormous respect for the rabbis, but there was no idolization. They gave advice, but it was never turned into a ruling if it was not of a purely halachic nature. In fact, any attempt to idolize them would have made them deeply upset. But now we've been introduced to an even more disturbing dimension of this – Da'as Torah – a type of semi-prophetic insight of the rabbis, which is to be seen as the final, objective word on any issue, as if God Himself has spoken. I find this a little amusing, since these rabbis, who have so many varied and even opposing opinions, all claim to have Da'as Torah. It's difficult to see how that works. And if they would respond to this difficulty by saying that there are many opinions within Da'as Torah, then we're back to square one!

I do, however, believe that there is something that I call "Ruach haTorah." Something can be said in the spirit of the Torah, and that can include many opinions!

The Marvelous but Isolated World of Gateshead Yeshiva
Let me also say that my many years of learning in the Chareidi Gateshead Yeshiva in England were very important to me and gave me much happiness. Rabbi Chaim Rodrigues Pereira and Rabbi David Brodman, both remarkable people to whom I owe a lot for having taught me so much, were serving in the Amsterdam Rabbinate and fought for me to get into this illustrious yeshiva. But there was a lot of adjusting to do. When I got in, I was not prepared for the shock that I suffered. I still remember that my father took me there, and once we entered this strange world we were overwhelmed by the kindness of the families who hosted us, but it was millions of years away from anything we knew. Hundreds of bachurei yeshiva, all in black suits and hats, walking around nervously, shouting at each other while learning Talmud – this was not exactly what we were accustomed to. My father wanted to take me home immediately and rescue me from this obscure world. Remember, I was only 16! I recall asking myself what made me want to be part of this insulated world, which seemed to have no connection whatsoever with the outside world, not even the larger Jewish community. However, I kept silent and asked my father to let me stay. He left a few days later with a heavy heart. This was one of the most difficult moments in his life.

Anyway, I threw myself into the deep waters of yeshiva life, which was both very painful and wonderful. I missed my family and their lifestyle, and for many months I would write a letter to my parents weekly that I was coming home to attend university. But whenever I threw myself into the Talmudic studies, I felt great and would decide not to send the letter. I forced myself to get into this fascinating world of chakirot and pilpulim (sharp Talmudic inquiries and argumentation) only to once again long for the "other" world. It was a strange situation that I never really got used to. I believe that I remained the insider-outsider even to this day. Today I watch myself watching myself. It makes little sense but is a great experience! It feels like watching yourself in a mirror while looking in a couple of mirrors one behind the other, so that you see yourself in multiple copies, each one true but different from the others.

It's important to mention that Gateshead Yeshiva was not Yeshiva University in New York. There were no secular studies, and there were no "enlightened" people in the conventional sense of the word. There was no place to have a coffee in a kosher restaurant, and surely no opportunity to meet a girl. The girl who later became my wife, Freyda Gnesin, was also in Gateshead at the same time. She studied in the famous Gateshead Jewish Teachers Training College, known as Gateshead Seminary. There were several hundred girls there and its many buildings were only a few hundred meters away from my yeshiva. But that was an optical illusion. In truth, they were living on another planet, light-years away. There was no contact with this seminary's residents. I knew Freyda from the Dutch town of Haarlem, where we used to meet at the synagogue and had become friends. Sometimes I wanted to speak to her, but how could I in Gateshead? My trick was to try to get her on the phone by pretending that I was her brother. The problem was that everybody knew she had no brother! But it still worked. We would also meet at the home of a partially Dutch family that was extremely nice to me and helped me through this difficult time at yeshiva. The mother of this family was of Dutch origin and had some concept of a more secular Jewish community, such as the one in Holland. So their home became somewhat of an ir miklat (city of refuge).

The Timeless Yeshiva World and Spinoza
The fascinating thing about the yeshiva was that it existed outside any concept of time. Once you were inside, you couldn't sense that it actually operated in the 20th century. It could have been the 12th or 17th century, and no one would have known the difference. All externals disappeared. This was a world unto itself, made up of singularly focused people learning Torah in full force. There was no walking out to the street for a few minutes to get some fresh air. Not only was it dangerous, since so many drunken people wandered around, but it was considered bitul zman (a waste of time). There was only one thing: to throw yourself into the Talmud. This wasn't a Jewish university for religious studies; it was life in the messianic age. Most of the yeshivot in Israel have nearly nothing in common with Gateshead. Perhaps in B'nei Brak or in Meah Shearim you can find a few, but even in those places there's an atmosphere where one can walk around and have a talk over a cup of coffee in a restaurant next to the yeshiva. None of that existed in Gateshead.

And therein lies my problem. I loved this world and felt like a fish in water, but subconsciously I knew that this was not the real Jewish world. It couldn't have been because there was a huge gap between this world and what the Talmud told us about real Jewish life. Something didn't make sense. We were reading texts that described the greatest sages as farmers and businessmen who discussed the financial world, interest, damages, sexuality, agriculture, farming and so on. But in our world in Gateshead there were no farms, no animals running wild destroying a neighbor's property, and not one of our rabbis was a farmer or peddler. There were only our shtenders (lecterns), on which the Talmud was placed and at which we were able to study its fascinating text. But the distance between what the text described and what the yeshiva was all about was the distance between heaven and earth. And that's where I got stuck.

It reminded me of Spinoza, who in some way was a bachur yeshiva. He lived in a small room in Rijnsburg, the Netherlands. That was his beit midrash (study hall) and, like the yeshiva students, he almost never left it. There he built his universe and wrote his masterpiece, the Ethics. But just like in the yeshiva, his deep thoughts, insights and noble feelings, which are timeless, are not of this world. They are ahistorical, and that is exactly what makes them suspect. I love many of Spinoza's ideas, but I am certainly not a Spinozist. His ideas are so beautiful that for most people they're totally unreachable. His famous sub specie aeternitatis, in which he tried to see everything from the perspective of eternity, is beautiful but for the most part unreal. Spinoza's problem was that he wasn't married and didn't have children, so he never had to deal with a crying baby in the middle of the night, or stepping on a toy while looking for a pacifier! Or making sure his marriage wouldn't fall apart. To a certain extent, the same problem existed in Gateshead Yeshiva. While the Talmudic text was generally – although not always – very down to earth, the rabbis and students lived in Spinoza's universe.

I kept asking myself how this would work in real life. Although the Talmud is down to earth most of the time, the question that needs to be seriously considered is whether its laws can be implemented in a sovereign Jewish state. I think they can. But only if we make use of its many minority opinions and understand the meta-halachic background to all these laws, which takes into account the social conditions, which have drastically changed in the last 1600 years since the Talmud was written. We should also not forget that there was a very different perception of religiosity then.

Judaism was badly compromised. It became purely religion, only to be experienced in the synagogue or Jewish home, because the Jews had lost their homeland and a large part of Judaism was made inoperable. The Talmud was actually a product of the diaspora and deeply influenced by it.

What if the Talmud had been written while the Jewish commonwealth was still fully operating? You get a partial taste of this in the Jerusalem Talmud, which was written in Israel. The truth is that this is a huge and complicated problem. The question that must really be asked is whether the Talmud needs an upgrade, since many of its presumptions are part of a world that no longer exists. But perhaps we can say something about this another time. (See my new book: Jewish Law as Rebellion: A plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Urim Publications.)

I never completely left the Chareidi world. It's true that I became critical of it (more about that later), but my roots are definitely there. Gateshead Yeshiva shaped me and I have strong nostalgic feelings toward that world. What was most amazing about the yeshiva staff was its absolute integrity. The roshei yeshiva were close to being angels. They lived lives of absolute purity. There were no politics and no self-aggrandizement; only total simplicity. In the earlier days of the yeshiva, there was nothing to eat and the roshei yeshiva saved every little bit of food and gave it to their students.

They lived their lives as Spinoza lived in Rijnsburg, the only difference being that they had no arrogance, only humility. This made a deep impression on me. There was no competition between them, no scandals, and no quarrels – just Torah in all its sublimity. There was Rabbi Moshe Schwab z"l, who was the mashgiach ruchani (spiritual guide) of the yeshiva, brother of the famous Rabbi Shimon Schwab z"l of Washington Heights. Rabbi Moshe gave mussar shmoozen. They weren't intellectual discourses like Kant's sophisticated insights about ethics; they were emotional, often spontaneous, outbursts of love for God and humans. They would lift us up to heaven and ask of us to be supreme human beings and Jews. Those moments are unforgettable. Nothing in the world comes close to those experiences. Later, it was Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon – today's mashgiach in the illustrious Lakewood Yeshiva in the United States – who would give beautiful and inspiring talks on parshat hashavua (the weekly Torah portion). I would cling to every word. Today I may not agree with some of their opinions, but it was certainly deeply inspiring!

To be continued after Pesach.

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