Monday, October 3rd | 8 Tishri 5783

February 25, 2016 7:09 am

Can Jewish Law Truly Define Who Is ‘Jewish’?

avatar by Nathan Lopes Cardozo

A Torah scroll. Photo: Wiki Commons.

A Torah scroll. Photo: Wiki Commons.

I was born by breech delivery, a very painful procedure that my mother endured with iron strength. We nearly did not make it. It was Friday night, the eve of Shabbat, and I was born to two marvelous people who — by Jewish law — would not have been allowed to marry. Theirs was a mixed marriage. My father was Jewish, my mother was not.

The physician was a religious Jew, Dr. Herzberger, who had to violate Shabbat to save our lives. It was Amsterdam, the 26th of July, 1946 — just after the Holocaust.

In many ways, both these facts — an unusual birth and being the child of a mixed marriage — have set the stage for my life. I often see things from a reverse position. What is normal for others evokes in me feelings of wonder and awe, and what others consider amazing, I see as obvious. As the product of a mixed marriage, who converted to Judaism at the age of 16, I became somewhat of an in-out-sider. I had always seen myself as a “father Jew,” of zera yisrael (Jewish ancestry) and therefore Jewish, but later on I learned that it did not make me a Jew according to Halacha.

My mother, while still a young woman, came to live with my father’s family once she had lost her Christian parents. So she grew up in a liberal, socialist, Amsterdam-Jewish cultural milieu, where Friday night dinners were comparable to chatunot [weddings] though my father’s parents were not religious and were as poor as church mice, as were most of Amsterdam’s Jews.

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My mother was completely integrated in this world, and while she knew she was not Jewish, she was an integral part of the community, spoke its language, and felt totally at home in this strange, secular, but deeply Jewish world. It is no surprise, then, that she converted years later, when she was in her fifties, after I convinced her of Judaism’s beauty. After all, she had always been a Jewess. With the permission of Hacham Shlomo Rodrigues Pereira, chief rabbi of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam, my parents were married kedat ukedin (according to Halacha) by the same rabbi who married my wife and me three months later. There was, however, a small but crucial difference: my parents had been married for more than 35 years, while my wife and I were just beginners!

I spent more than 12 years learning in ultra-Orthodox yeshivot and received heter hora’ah (rabbinic ordination) from Rabbi Aryeh Leib Gurwitz, Rosh HaYeshiva of Gateshead, who was, in his younger years, the chavruta of Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman — the best-known disciple of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, also known as the Hafetz Hayim. I know this world better than many do, but I am still not fully a part of it. Nor do I belong to the secular Jewish world, and surely not to the gentile world. I continuously struggle with my Jewish identity and religiosity; and now, at the age of 67, I am perhaps more involved in this endeavor than ever before.

Day and night, I am busy with my great loves: Judaism, Israel, and the Jewish people. Yet, I am unable to feel at home in the world of mainstream Orthodox Judaism. For many years I was a real bachur yeshiva, who had bought into the chareidi philosophy, but much later I realized that it had become too narrow, too insipid, and often trivial. Today, I believe that Modern Orthodoxy, too, has for the most part become tedious. Even the famous Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, head of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University in New York, was not able to lift it out of its spiritual malaise. Conservative and Reform Judaism are not options for my soul. They are too easy, too academic, and unable to create a spiritual upheaval. My Judaism is one of dissent, protest, and spiritual war against too much conformity. Self-critique is the crucial issue, not self-satisfaction. Not clichés, but insight; not obstinacy, but elasticity; not habit, but spontaneity; these and deep religiosity are for me the great movers behind this magnificent tradition.

My atypical beginnings have influenced my thinking in unconventional ways and to this day get me into trouble with some of my rabbinical colleagues, as well as with religious and non-religious Jews.

At the age of 21, I married a Jewish girl from an Orthodox home. We have been blessed with five children, special children-in-law, lots of grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. All of them are deeply religious, love Torah, and excel in a variety of professions. We have children who are rabbis, teachers, businessmen, and one who is an architect with a license in counseling! Some of my grandchildren wear black kippot, and some have pei’ot; others have colored kippot, small and large. Some are closer to ultra-Orthodoxy, others are Modern Orthodox; some fervent Zionists, others not. They all represent parts of my personality and I love the diversity.

My home is in Jerusalem, in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood where I no longer feel at home. With few exceptions, I pray with people I can’t speak with and I speak with people I can’t pray with. Still, I love them all. They are Jews, so they are my family. But I do not share with them an intellectual or spiritual-religious language. I have little in common with the Orthodox or the secular Jew in the way I see the world, God, and Torah. For some people I am much too religious; for others, something of a heretic.

This is my fate and I can live with it, though it sometimes feels a little — and at other times — very lonely.

My brother is 64 and although according to Halacha he is not a Jew, he is more Jewish than many Jews I know. For years he ran a kosher home with his non-Jewish wife, to accommodate our family visits. He nearly converted but never took the final step. He wants to be buried in Beth Haim, the Portuguese Jewish Cemetery in Ouderkerk, which is a small town just south of Amsterdam. But he knows that will be impossible.

When I suggested to him that perhaps he should be buried in the Reform community’s cemetery in Amsterdam, he told me that he only wants to be buried in the Orthodox cemetery; other streams of Judaism are not on his radar!

Knowing that he will not be buried in Beth Haim, or any other Jewish cemetery, pains me greatly. How will it be possible to bury him among the gentiles when he is one of ours?

To hear more of his life’s story from Rabbi Cardozo himself, as well as from the perspective of his brother, join them at the premiere of the documentary film Lonely But Not Alone, on Sunday, March 6th, at the Begin Center in Jerusalem. Buy your tickets here:

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