A call for change

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo says Jewish law has become stagnant, conformist and out of touch with reality.

RABBI NATHAN Lopes Cardozo thinks that Jewish law has ‘fallen victim to boredom’ (photo credit: CARDOZO ACADEMY)
RABBI NATHAN Lopes Cardozo thinks that Jewish law has ‘fallen victim to boredom’
(photo credit: CARDOZO ACADEMY)
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo is angry.
In his latest work, Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Cardozo seems irate at the current state of Judaism and Jewish law.
Throughout more than 400 pages of essays and articles, Cardozo, founder of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem and its think tank, expresses his frustration and impatience with Jewish law, the rabbinic system and Jewish education. The book’s jacket blurb promises that Cardozo’s work “provokes, annoys and disturbs,” and it surely does.
Jewish law, asserts Cardozo, is meant to disturb man from his self-assurance and ease. And, he says, this equally applies both to the observant and the secular.
“Jewish law itself,” writes Cardozo, “has generally fallen victim to boredom.”
In his view, the law, and most of today’s rabbis and educators who oversee it, have become complacent and conformist, lacking courage and creativity to contend with the realities of life in the 21st century. And while he acknowledges that a genuine Jewish religious life cannot exist without a commitment to the world of Halacha, he believes that it has become over-codified and dogmatized.
In Cardozo’s view, one of the main goals of Jewish education should be to create an atmosphere of “rebellion” among its students. Abraham was the first rebel, he explains, and he was followed by his children, by Moses, by the prophets, and by the Jewish people. Today, he laments, “we are instructing our students and children to obey, to fit in, to conform, and not to stand out.” According to Cardozo, we tell our children what to think, instead of how to think.
The book is divided into 14 sections, each of which contains a variety of essays related to Jewish law. Chapters include “The Contemporary Crisis of Halacha,” “Halacha, Moral Issues and Ethical Dilemmas” and “The Meaning and Mystery of Halacha.”
The rabbi’s criticisms of the existing halachic system are trenchant, incisive and forceful.
“Judaism needs to be infused with greater spiritual vitality and religious vigor,” he writes.
Cardozo asks important questions and suggests ways that halachic decision- making can be improved. In his view, acceptance of minority opinions within Jewish law will have to become an option, and some rabbinical laws will need to be relaxed so that a more “living” form of Judaism will emerge.
Cardozo’s criticisms and condemnations are extensive. Yet some of his criticisms are generalizations, and, as Mark Twain said, “all generalizations are false, including this one.” While Jewish law has indeed become, to a degree, overly legalistic and stagnant, there are congregational rabbis and halachic decisors who embody an understanding and appreciation of the realities of modern life, and who interpret Jewish law in a spirit of compassion and understanding. Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch of Ma’aleh Adumim, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former UK chief rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat and Rabbi Benny Lau of Jerusalem are just a few of the names that come to mind who embody this spirit.
Additionally, despite Cardozo’s criticism of Jewish education today, there are numerous Jewish schools, staffed by dedicated teachers and administrators, which inculcate not only Jewish information, but Jewish values and ideals, with creativity and sensitivity. Cardozo’s comments notwithstanding, all is not lost.
Once one gets past Cardozo’s somewhat strident criticisms, his suggestions and proposals about how Judaism should be lived, how Halacha should be practiced, and the necessity for a progressive approach, incorporating both Jewish tradition and modern thinking, make for fascinating reading.
Cardozo explains that the ideal halachic decisor needs to ensure that the decisions that he renders are not overly legalistic. Paraphrasing Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, the late philosopher and halachic expert, Cardozo writes that, over the last 2,000 years, Jewish law has become increasingly defensive and stagnant – which may have worked in the Diaspora, but isn’t working anymore today.
Cardozo’s personal background gives him a somewhat unique perspective on the role of Jewish law. Born in Amsterdam to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, he converted at 16. He studied at the Gateshead Yeshiva in England, as well as at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem – though today his ideological positions are quite far from the haredi world.
Cardozo not only asks excellent questions, but also attempts to provide practical answers to issues ranging from conversion to mamzerut – the prohibitions surrounding a child born from an incestuous or adulterous relationship – to Shabbat observance in the modern State of Israel.
While some may take issue with the practicalities of some of his suggestions, many of them are creative and imaginative. Since the book is a collection of essays, one can begin reading any article, at any point in the book, and find something of interest. The author has a knack for simplifying description of complex issues in Jewish law. Additionally, Cardozo is accessible and open enough that at the end of the book he includes an exchange of comments between him and one of his readers, complete with criticisms and suggestions.
Kudos to the rabbi for having the audacity and daring to raise the subject of halachic courage. Reading this book can do more than annoy and disturb; it can inspire and perhaps even cause a change for the better.