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.
You are known for your incredibly controversial articles about religion and ethics. In one article, you write about the spiritual danger involved if wearing a kippah becomes robotic and meaningless; you discuss the possibility of taking off one's kippah from time to time in order to feel more spiritually connected to it. Even though you end up deciding against this possibility, the very raising of the question is highly thought provoking. In another article, you criticize Orthodox rabbis for being too afraid to speak at Limmud, a conference that includes Conservative and Reform rabbis. You write that if Orthodox rabbis were confident in their own beliefs, they wouldn't be afraid of speaking alongside leaders of other religious denominations. Rav Kook, after the founding of the State of Israel, showed enormous courage in supporting the secular Zionists even when he was severely criticized and rejected by the Chareidi world for doing so. Where do you get your courage to write these controversial articles? Do you ever worry about the consequences? Or is this something that you have learned to ignore over time?
Nathan Lopes Cardozo: Somebody once remarked that to study Talmud properly one needs to be an apikores (a Jewish heretic). I fully agree with this. After all, the idea is not just to accept what the Talmud states but to question it, challenge it, and see whether or not it is still true in our days. The big question is: Would the Sages have commented and ruled today the same as they did in the days of the Talmud? Although one cannot compare religious insights to scientific investigation such as astronomy, we should still take an example from people like Copernicus, Galileo and Einstein who gave us new insights into our universe.
Sure, the mitzvot are divine and cannot be abolished (although the Talmud teaches us that sometimes the Sages "uprooted" a commandment, but that's a topic on its own, which I have discussed in my book Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage). But much of what the Talmud discusses deals with rabbinical laws that made sense at the time and were essential. Today, however, they may just stand in the way of protecting the mitzvot and moving Judaism forward. A famous example is the observation of the great Rabbi Menachem Meiri, who was one of the most outstanding Talmudic scholars of the 13th-14th centuries in France. He stated on many occasions that most of the laws related to non-Jews no longer apply, because the non-Jewish world has drastically changed and is no longer involved in idol worship. So, many of the Talmudic prohibitions that relate to them are irrelevant.
It doesn't make sense to argue, as a few poskim (decisors of Jewish law) have, that we shouldn't take Rabbi Meiri's insights into consideration, since his commentary on 36 tractates of the Talmud was unknown for so many generations. That's also true about many other manuscripts we have found, which we do make use of. Yes, one needs to have a lot of knowledge and have the Talmud at one's fingertips, but it's also essential to have a keen understanding of other (non-Jewish) areas of human knowledge in order to decide what should go and what should stay. Our generation is blessed by God with the availability of almost infinite Jewish and secular knowledge, and we should surely make use of it!
Most important is to remember that great controversies are also great emancipators. They give us new and fresh insights. We are in dire need of them. We should not only allow them but encourage our students to advance them!
But it is also important to remember that courage is resistance to fear, not absence of fear. "Courage is a kind of salvation," as Plato said in The Republic (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2019, p. 74).
There was a time when I was afraid of the repercussions of expressing my observations. But that was a long time ago. I have now thrown off this fear; although that may not be a good sign. After all, fear keeps us watchful. And there is a great advantage to achieving wisdom won through pain. I always keep this in mind when I speak or write. I hope it keeps me humble.
Much of the criticism I sometimes receive is nothing more than the result of people not reading carefully what I wrote. Sometimes I get the impression that people don't even read the essay at all, for fear that they may become biased and convinced! I often use unusual (controversial) titles so as to catch the reader's attention, but for some it seems to be enough of a reason to disapprove and not even read the article.
Personally, I read every serious article at least three or four times so that I (hopefully) understand entirely what the author is claiming. Often I realize that I got it wrong the first, second and third times!
It is symptomatic that through one small remark some of my critics make, I know immediately that they didn't have the slightest idea what I was trying to convey. If I'm in a discussion with them, I try to spare them the embarrassment. So I attempt to raise their comments up to a higher level so that they feel like they made a major point.
Still others may indeed make compelling observations and criticize me with very valid arguments. They do this with great erudition and integrity. I learn a lot from them and will frequently change my mind and thank them for that. I have no monopoly on truth. All I want is that people think about my ideas, not necessarily agree with them.
On several occasions I showed my opponents – including great rabbis who call me a heretic – that certain statements by the famous Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook are much graver, and more controversial, exceptionally daring, and "heretical" than what I wrote or said. They are totally dumbfounded and don't know what to say. (See, for example, Rav Kook's astonishing work titled L'Nevuchei HaDor, especially chapter 13.)
My wife and children also don't always agree with me and even object to my ideas. I delight in that, because I see it comes from a place of love, deep religiosity and halachic commitment.
This is the reason that I'm not always able to live by my own teachings. While I suggest that I would love to take off my kippah because it would enhance my religiosity, I decided not to do so because my younger grandchildren and great-grandchildren are not yet able to understand my motivation and would surely see it as my lack of dedication to a rich halachic life. I would then set a bad example, God forbid.
The same is true for some of my friends who would love to use my thoughts concerning the kippah and other matters as a way to allow themselves to be less committed, so as not to look overly religious when with their non-religious friends. Sometimes this is clearly spineless. On the other hand, in certain specific Sephardic communities it is actually the custom not to wear kippot except when one prays or eats.
It's what Jewish Russian-British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin said when dealing with moral problems: Often moral ideals clash. "…the idea of a perfect solution of human problems – of how to live – cannot be coherently conceived … there is no avoiding compromises; they are bound to be made: the very worst can be averted by trade-offs" (Ramin Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, London: Halban, 2007, 142-143).
If I were living on my own, I would no doubt take off my kippah without any problem, because I believe that this is the correct halachic/spiritual approach for me, as I explained in my essay. To be honest, when I'm on my own I sometimes take it off so that I can put it on again with the right elevated sensation I so much long for. But I must admit that most of the time it doesn't succeed and I don't gain anything from it. I have become numb to this, which greatly pains me.
Claiming that I don't dare to do so for religious reasons is really missing the point. It is educational reasons that motivate me. And so it is with many other suggestions I have made, some of which I actually implement. I drink kosher wine when it is touched by fine non-Jews, since I believe that the prohibition against drinking that wine when the non-Jews were idol worshippers no longer applies. It also doesn't stop assimilation, which was in the past another reason for this proscription. Similarly, there are numerous other halachic prohibitions that I believe are no longer applicable. One day I will publish a full article with many examples.
I also believe that we have to make some new rabbinical suggestions to prevent certain acts that are not in the spirit of Judaism, even if they are now permitted. I mention only one: Reading secular newspapers on Shabbat. Although the actual Halacha does not consider them muktzeh (forbidden to be handled on Shabbat), and one can read or touch them , for me they are muktzeh and prohibited. It is a violation of the spirit of Shabbat. Even worse is when people start speaking about finances. I cannot understand how people who are often busy with finances the whole week continue to speak about it on Shabbat. Would they not prefer to take their minds off from their work and concentrate on something else entirely? As the prophet says:
"If you restrain your foot because of the Sabbath, from doing as you please on my holy day, and you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD's holy day honorable, and you honor it by not going your own way, by not pursuing your affairs or speaking idle words, then you shall delight with the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the high places of the land, and I will feed you the heritage of Yaakov your forefather, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken" (Yeshayahu 58:13-14).
Those people also don't seem to realize that they do great damage to their children who quickly realize that Shabbat is not their parents' priority and that money is more important!
It is always interesting to note that those who don't have the knowledge to criticize are the people who, out of frustration, sometimes use vulgar language and sporadically curse me. I laugh about it, because I'm blessed with a good sense of humor. But it's obviously very, very sad.
I sometimes wonder if the reason I don't get upset about it is nothing but arrogance. This is an old Portuguese-Jewish "malady," which I probably inherited from my ancestors when they were dukes and lords of nobility in the days before the Spanish Inquisition. They were also often immensely rich. Today, the wealth is gone but the arrogance is alive and well in the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam! I love that community dearly – not for its arrogance, but for its beautiful customs and "gravidade" (Portuguese dignity) with their top hats, style and allure. (It was this community that imposed a ban on Spinoza who, as anybody can read in his writings, possessed a great amount of superb arrogance!)
I also must admit that while I learn, work, read or write Torah, I sometimes listen to some former (political) humorists. Wim Kan (1911-1983) and Godfried Bomans (1913-1971), well known to all my Dutch readers, are superb examples. Wim Kan managed, as no one else did, on the last day of almost every December, in one hour, to ridicule and expose the entire Dutch government in such an unprecedented way that the minute he started his one-man show, there was nobody in the streets throughout the whole of Holland. Everyone was so glued to their televisions and radios that if the enemy would have come in with its infantry and heavy tanks, nobody would have noticed. All his masterly puns were clean and of high caliber satirically. While in those days other countries' humorists would mercilessly target the government and politicians in small private gatherings, in Holland this was a national event in front of millions of viewers, and those ministers whose names were not dragged through the mud felt insulted! I know entire segments of these brilliant monologues by heart and still burst into laughter when I hear them again. Godfried Bomans was right when he observed that there was (and is) a psychological need among the Dutch for this. Holland is a flat country, without mountains and valleys, and this has a great influence on the characteristics of its inhabitants. The Dutch cannot live with people who stand out. So ministers and other governmental officials need to be equalized. Calling them by their first names and joking about them makes the Dutch feel better. The motto was that "Big" and "Important" people need to behave like anyone else. And anybody who lifts their head above the others needs to be taken down a notch. This is also the reason why most of the time Dutch Jewry couldn't get along with their rabbis. The latter were (and still are) dealt with as employees who had to listen to their bosses, who often hadn't the slightest idea what the task of a rabbi was, or couldn't value a great sage among them. The rabbis' lives were often made so unpleasant that they left. The most famous example is that of the great Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi, known worldwide as the Chacham Tzvi (1658-1718) who couldn't stay in Amsterdam more than four years.
So I am often almost hysterically laughing while busy writing the most serious stuff. It helps very much to keep me in a good mood in my rather isolated life. This is besides my deep love for classical music and occasional jazz, or even the Beatles who were in my younger days seen as outrageous while today their music sounds antiquated.
Some of my readers may see this as sacrilege when I'm writing Torah at the same time, but for me these humorists were a gift from God to give so much joy and laughter to the people that I consider it a religious moment of great magnitude.
No doubt this fact has helped me immensely not to get upset, because when I hear or read some of these curses, I recall Wim Kan's or Godfried Bomans' puns that would make such fun of these curses that they then become hilarious.
Regarding the Limmud Conference in England, several powerful rabbis tried to stop me from going, since Reform and Conservative rabbis were also teaching there. Many years ago, when the Beth Din of the United Synagogue in England told me, as well as the famous Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, that we were not allowed to go to Limmud, Rabbi Lamm and I wrote back that this "psak" (quasi halachic decision) did not make any sense. All it would do is deliver the entire Limmud conference into the hands of the Reform and Conservative movements. Nobody would hear an Orthodox point of view. This, we believed, would be a huge mistake – especially since nearly 3,000 people attended Limmud. We didn't want to carry this black stain on our souls. In addition, such an attitude clearly indicates that Orthodoxy is afraid of the Reform and Conservative; and we would have no part in that. Rabbi Lamm and I went and even taught together, which was a great success.
I try to go as often as possible to these conferences and have been to Limmud in England, Australia, South Africa, Germany, Holland and Los Angeles. It is a marvelous experience, a real happening, although it's true that there's a lot of hot air and foolishness in what's being taught there as well.
Many years ago, when Limmud invited an anti-Semitic British journalist to speak, I strongly disapproved and told them that I considered it completely unacceptable. In protest, I didn't go that year. As far as I know, it never happened again. There are also some problems with lecturers who occasionally attack Israel in ways that are unacceptable. What I normally do is go to these lectures and then try to debunk them.
I always sit on panels with Reform and Conservative rabbis, and sometimes with atheists, which is great fun and a wonderful opportunity to show the profundity of Orthodox Judaism. Occasionally, however, I agree with my fellow panelists because their critique of Orthodoxy is right on target. It would be a good idea for Orthodox rabbis and teachers to listen to these critiques. There's a lot to learn.
In any case, I have no problem with being controversial and although I'm an ignoramus compared to Rav Kook, I take an example from him. I just continue in my ways, as he did in his, despite the occasional outrage. Halevai (if only), may I be as religious as he was!
I am reminded of the famous quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt: "I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made"!