Conversations with Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Chapter 1, The Problem of My Conversion, My Complacency and Mental Clichés
Question: Rabbi Cardozo, many of us have been deeply impressed by your short spiritual autobiography Lonely but Not Alone (published in 2013 and accessible online). Some of us have read it several times. You have opened a world for us, through which many of us are asking ourselves whether we are genuinely religious even when we live an observant lifestyle. Conversely, others among us wonder whether they can claim to be truly secular. You challenged our religious and secular attitudes and beliefs in a way that opened up new vistas, which are sometimes very painful and disturbing. So you can well imagine that we began reading your other books as well as your many “Thoughts to Ponder” essays. They’re all very intriguing and daring, and many of us surely have many questions. So… may I begin asking my questions?
Rabbi Cardozo: Of course you may! The purpose of this short autobiography was to make people think. I know that many people struggle with their Judaism. I felt that I could help them by showing an alternative way to deal with crucial and challenging issues based on my own experiences.
Let me explain. As you know, I converted to Judaism when I was 16 years old. I am a child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, who also converted many years later. Before my conversion I was extremely excited about Judaism. As you read in the short spiritual autobiography, I was deeply affected by secular thinkers and above all by Spinoza’s attack on Judaism, which was impressive and made much sense. But this was also the reason why I wanted to learn more about the very Judaism, they attacked. After all, I was half Jewish and felt personally challenged! What were these philosophers attacking? So I plunged into Judaism. I read every book I could get my hands on. Sometime later, I realized that Spinoza, who was no doubt a sublime philosopher, was simultaneously ignorant of Judaism and often misrepresented it. Sometimes this was due to wrong information (taught by his teachers); on other occasions, he attacked Judaism with the express intention of courting the good graces of his liberal Christian friends.
At that time, my readings of Judaism were extremely exciting. I was drawn to it and felt an enormous urge to live as an authentic Jew. These were perhaps the greatest days of my life.
But once I converted and became part of the religious community, things went downhill. Believing that I had to identify with that community, I bought into its ideas, lived its lifestyle and slowly lost my enthusiasm. It all turned into a “traditional” way of life, filled with complacency, mental clichés and adjustment to conventional notions. The fire in my soul got partially extinguished and my Judaism turned into a mechanical “going through the motions” mode.
The trouble was that I did not realize that I had fallen victim to this mentality. The Judaism that was practiced around me bore little resemblance to the Judaism I had discovered before my conversion. It was all very dogmatic and was taken for granted. Healthy doubt had given way to religious certainty, which was extremely comfortable.
The “Denial” of the Orthodox
I was deeply disturbed by the fact that many Orthodox Jews were not in the least spiritual, had no interest in a real encounter with the Divine and were digging themselves into a secular routine while keeping the commandments. They were secular Jews who happened to be observant. These were all very nice people, but they were guilty of religious plagiarism, copying others and even themselves. One religious day was identical to the previous day, without any new encounter with the Divine and the Torah. Everything was “under control,” to the point that any novel spiritual and intellectual struggle was completely absent.
But most disturbing was my realization that I myself had become guilty of this! It took years and years before this hit me. I went to synagogue every day, learned Torah and Talmud, ate kosher, observed the commandments (or at least so I believed!). I “talked the talk and walked the walk”, using the language of those who were totally convinced of the absolute truth of Judaism. All this went hand-in-hand with a lot of religious arrogance! I knew it all or so I thought.
The fact that it is specifically the most religious members of the Orthodox community who do not come to lectures that discuss the most crucial issues and problems facing Judaism continues to astonish me until this very day. There are many serious moral and religious challenges to Orthodox Judaism, but many, although not all, within this community, turn a deaf ear to these problems.
It appears as though they are expressing an attitude that seems to say: we do not need these lectures. We know everything, there are no problems, so what is the point in attending these lectures? They give the impression that they are set in their ways and that there is no need for religious growth. But when I speak with them, I realize that they often have no clue what they are actually professing and are somehow ignorant about a good part of the Jewish Tradition. They hide behind their observance as if this were all that is required of them. I suspect that there is a deeper reason for this, that is that they do not want to be confronted with difficult questions of faith or moral problems within Judaism. They are afraid of facing challenges that may undermine their belief system and complacent “religious” lifestyle. By convincing themselves that they know everything, they are hiding and escaping what should really bother them day and night.
I have discussed this with some of my colleagues, who tell me that many of their congregants share the same experience. This is most tragic. Not only for these observant people themselves but even more so for their children who often feel that the Judaism which their parents profess is so shallow and simplistic that they feel uninspired by it and “go off the derech”, (leave the fold). The fact that these children do not attempt to discover Judaism on their own despite their parents is another huge issue that needs to be addressed. But I am always astonished when these parents tell me that they cannot understand why their children left Judaism. When I sometimes suggest to some of them that perhaps it is their own fault, they are utterly astonished. When I tell others that I probably would have walked out myself if I would have had this kind of run-of-the-mill Jewish education at my parents’ home, they are completely shocked, as if they were suddenly hit by a thunderbolt.
“Emunah Peshuta” and Rudolf Otto’s “Das Heilige”
Still, I must confess that there is something beautiful about some people I have encountered who do not ask these questions or are not bothered by them. Unlike the people I just described, these people possess emunah peshuta, a simple but also very profound living faith in which they feel the overwhelming presence of God and are inspired by the Jewish tradition to the extent that it surpasses all challenges.
This usually goes hand-in-hand with a deeply authentic religiosity and piety combined with ecstatic prayer in a manner reminiscent of former Chassidic masters who prayed with great hitlahavut, (religious fervor and elation). This is far more than a just an emotional condition, but the result of an encounter with the Divine, which Rudolf Otto (1868-1937), the great protestant thinker, described in his famous work Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy) as the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”, which is translated by the Encyclopaedia Britannica (s.v. study of religion) “as a mystery before which humanity both trembles and is fascinated, is both repelled and attracted.” Perhaps we can discuss this later at greater length.
I must admit that I am a little jealous of these people who have reached such a profound level of faith! I have still a long road to go to reach that level.
To be continued.