It all started with the dishwasher.
Twenty years ago, as my wife, Jody, and I were buying appliances for our new apartment in Jerusalem, we bought our first dishwasher. We’d never owned one while we lived in the US, so we had to choose not only a brand but the appropriate approach per Halacha (Jewish law) for how we were going use the dishwasher within the confines of keeping kosher.
This was at a point in our lives when we were unequivocally Orthodox, so keeping to the letter of the law was important to us. The problem was: when it comes to dishwashers, there’s a whole alphabet of competing approaches.
We started by asking our friends who owned dishwashers what they did. Everyone seemed to have a different story.
Some used the dishwasher for either milk or meat but not for both.
Some bought two sets of dish racks and swapped them in and out, depending on whether the dishes were for meat or dairy.
Some used just one rack, but ran an empty load of hot water in between the milk and meat dishes. Some used just one rack but ran an empty load of cold water in between.
And some just used the same rack for both milk and meat (but never together), without any empty loads separating them.
There seemed to be rabbinic authorities for every approach: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said this, the followers of Rabbi Elazar Shach did it that way.
It was more than confusing – it prompted our first true religious crisis.
Jody and I both came to Orthodoxy as ba’alei teshuva, returnees to observant Judaism, from secular upbringings. My own introduction to Judaism was through the Ohr Somayach yeshiva in Jerusalem, where I learned that there were clear, unambiguous answers to every halachic question.
Yes, different Jewish groups might have slightly varying customs, but the religious ideal I absorbed in those years was to pick a community and then do what it does.
One of my teachers at Ohr Somayach was Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo. He taught a daily class in Jewish philosophy in which he would mix halachic, secular and even non-Jewish concepts, with a healthy dose of Freud, Kant and Woody Allen. Cardozo’s class was challenging to the worldview I was eager to adopt, but also terribly exciting.
Cardozo, who is now the founder and dean of the David Cardozo Academy (and a Jerusalem Post contributor), has always been a maverick. These days, he pushes the Jewish envelope even further with thought pieces titled “Let us violate Shabbat so as to sanctify it” and “The joy of religious doubt.”
Cardozo and I couldn’t be more different in our approaches to observance today – he’s still firmly committed, albeit fiercely combative, while I now identify as secular yet searching. But when it comes to our thinking about Halacha, we find ourselves surprisingly on the same page.
Indeed, if I’d consulted Cardozo 20 years ago, perhaps buying that dishwasher wouldn’t have precipitated such an existential Jewish dilemma.
In a recent column, “The problem and future of true Halacha,” Cardozo lays his cards on the table from the get-go.
“Most religious Jews are not aware that Halacha has nearly become passé,” he writes. “They believe it is thriving. After all, Halacha is very ‘in’ and there are more books on this subject than ever before. Despite this, it lacks courage.”
Cardozo believes that Halacha has become fossilized; that “we have grown scared” of innovation. Provocative ideas “are condemned as heresy.” As a result, “trivial, simplistic, and often incorrect information replaces significant ideas [which are] reduced to a catch line... yet still presented as ‘the answer.’”
Cardozo takes aim at yeshivot for ba’alei teshuva like his old employer. “Outreach programs, although well intentioned, have become institutions that, like factories, focus on mass production and believe that the more people they can draw into Jewish observance, the more successful they are,” he emphasizes. “The goal is to fit them into the existing system.”
This was not the way it always was, Cardozo stresses. The rabbis in the Talmud “were not interested in teaching their students final halachic decisions, but instead asked them to take those decisions apart, to deconstruct them so as to rediscover the questions. The greatness of the Talmudic sages was that they shared with their students their own struggles and doubts and their attempts at solving them.”
The dishwasher was our Talmud. After extensive research with friends, community members and even a few rabbis, we came to the conclusion that there is no one conclusion.
All of the answers were right and we wouldn’t be sinning if we chose one over the other.
At the time, we were disheartened – what did that say about the immutability of the Halacha? Today it feels liberating. More important, it started a personal process that is still in progress, and is about much more than just dishwashers.
I don’t remember anymore whose opinion we opted for when we made our dishwasher kosher, but it has stayed that way all these years and no one has ever poked his or her nose into the sudsy water to question whether our rinse is cold, hot or none of the above.
In that way, I like to think we are practicing what Cardozo calls “the art of audacity” – the only way to be authentically Jewish.
I hope he would agree.
The author is a freelance writer who specializes in technology, start-ups and the entrepreneurs behind them. www.bluminteractivemedia.com