The restless rabbinic spirit

An illustration by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
An illustration by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
RABBI DR. NATAN Cardozo is a restless soul. And this is as it should be. He is the anti-Marx rabbi, believing that religion is not an opiate but something “meant to disturb.” His book, “Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, ” does precisely that: It disturbs and provokes, designed to shake Jews out of their passivity and awaken them to the wonders and awe of everyday living. For Cardozo halakha is not a restraint on human freedom imposed by an authority from above, but “a genuine response to the ultimate questions of existence.”
Trained for many years at England’s H aredi Gateshead Yeshiva, Cardozo is an unconventional Orthodox scholar , whom former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks regards as “one of the most thoughtful voices in contemporary Orthodoxy, a man of faith and wide intellectual horizons who is unafraid to confront the challenges of the age.” Cardozo directs David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, which is dedicated to confronting the modern crises of religion and Jewish identity.
Cardozo has lots of problems – the kind that Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah had: He is filled with prophetic indignation at the state of religious life, the complacency of today’s rabbis, and the abuse of established religion. He is bursting with thoughtful anxiety over our current misguided use of God’s Torah and halakha. His book expresses his pain over the gap between how Jews actually live and what God wants us to be.
“Jewish Law as Rebellion” is a series of readable bite-size essays written over many years, and it should appeal to nearly every type of serious Jew: Its non-technical, flowing style makes Cardozo’s thinking accessible to the intelligent layperson. Its copious footnotes will excite rabbis steeped in halakha. Its broad references to Western thought will stimulate the philosophers and humanists among us. For Israeli Jews, Cardozo tackles local problems like Shabbat in the public square, the large number of non-halakhic Jews in Israel and the Chief Rabbinate; for Jews in New York, Los Angeles and Paris he addresses general issues like the meaning of kashrut and Judaism’s seeming irrelevance in modern culture. The book’s references to Cardozo’s fellow Dutchman, Baruch Spinoza, will even intrigue the atheists in our midst.
A dreamer on a relentless spiritual quest, Cardozo refuses to grant a kosher seal of approval to complacency. For him, halakha is a protest against the routine, ennui and conformity that we all fall prey to – a form of “deliberate chaos.” Cardozo is an unorthodox Orthodox Jew, an artist trapped in a community of rule followers, a musician among mathematicians. He recommends that “a rabbi listen to Bach, Mozart or Beethoven before making a halakhic ruling.” As a poet, Cardozo resonates to the spirituality of Rabbi Abraham Heschel; as a halakhist he mirrors the intellectual boldness and conviction of Rabbis Avraham Kook and Eliezer Berkovits.
Just peruse the book’s table of contents, and you see the breadth of Cardozo’ s caring and how accurately he has his finger on the pulse of contemporary Jewish life: Personal freedom versus religious obligations, samesex marriages and traditional sexual prohibitions, the multiplicity of religious rules in places where rules should not exist, the problem of agunot (chained wives), Jewish identity in our modern pluralistic culture, absurdity in religious commitment, conversion to Judaism, democracy and Jewish identity, “frumkeit” vs. religious authenticity, and modern philosophy’s challenge to Judaism.
Nor is Cardozo merely a beit midrash theoretician. He does not shy away from recommending creative solutions to most of these thorny issues. He advises Israelis to “take the bike or tram, get a free coffee and observe Shabbat.” Because halakha is best understood as a partnership between God and the Jewish people, he shows how rabbis can – and should – activate halakhic loopholes and advance rabbinic power to reduce the number of mamzerim (children of forbidden unions or their descendants) and agunot to zero. He would like to see “non-Jewish” Jewish communities as a way to solve Israel’s conversion crisis. He implores contemporary rabbis to unlock “frozen” Torah texts in order to bring Torah into line with the cultural, social and moral reality of the Jewish people today.
As a committed Orthodox rabbi, Cardozo subordinates himself to halakhic norms. Yet he is theologically bold and recognizes the limits of thought and halakhic precedents. There are no perfect solutions in life or law, and therefore compromise, humility and tentativeness are the watchwords of wise Jews. For him, it is no accident that rabbinic texts are pluralistic, almost always preserving multiple opinions that can be used to address the ever-changing Jewish condition. So halakhic rules are best understood as only temporary norms, and halakha should always be open to new creative solutions that allow today’s Jews to flourish. It is up to responsible Jews to find and utilize those divine secrets.
Today more than ever Judaism should be an anchor, an inspiration and a tikkun. Yet many Israelis view Judaism as irrelevant and oppressive. “Jewish Law as Rebellion” is an attempt to imbue Judaism with a new spirit and recover that inspiration and meaning. Whether you admire Cardozo’s boldness or deem it heresy, whether you sympathize with Cardozo’s solutions or find them too radical, you cannot fail to discern that the book is written by a thinker with great love for Judaism and his people.
Some will agree and others will surely disagree with its author, but after reading “Jewish Law as Rebellion,” every thinking Jew will realize that he or she cannot cavalierly dismiss the compelling thought of Natan Lopes Cardozo.
Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn is the former academic director of the Center for Jewish Christian Understanding and Cooperation (Jerusalem), which he helped found.