New Book About Halacha Is Exciting and Invigorating
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo developed his philosophy on Halacha — Jewish law — over many years. His views on the subject include what he sees as problems in Halacha, what should be changed — and how it can be changed. His is a unique perspective of problems that exist with Halacha. And — more importantly and impressively — he has the courage to do something about it.
In Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Cardozo makes no bones about his deep concerns, as he seeks to provoke, disturb and even annoy people out of their complacency about Jewish law. Instead, he urges a return of authentic religiosity.
Just seeing the title — “Jewish Law as a Rebellion” — got my rebellious spirit intrigued. I wanted to know exactly what was written between those covers. The impressive volume consists of numerous essays organized by theme, which grip the reader from the first page.
Rabbi Cardozo is known to speak about the lack of courage in rabbinic and Halachic leadership. Throughout the book, he courageously tackles the complacency and stagnation that he claims must be addressed to save Jews from themselves.
As Cardozo posits, the very purpose of Halacha is to disturb people — to wake them up. Yet somehow, over the years, Orthodox Jewish people, in particular, have begun to live by conformity, without truly thinking about their actions.
Halacha developed over the millennia of exile. We were a minority wherever we resided, and Halacha evolved as a literal way to protect us as a people. Conformity was enforced, and veritable walls were erected to prevent assimilation.
In modern times, Cardozo postulates, with the State of Israel, things are different. We need to get out from our enforced isolation, and to prevent our own stagnation by going back to the original sources. We need to re-evaluate rabbinic law that is no longer doing what it was designated for — and re-evaluate what we want it to achieve.
Cardozo likens the Torah to the masterful score of a unique symphony, and he says that every Jew is a musician: “We have been given the notes and it is left to us to bring them alive. … Sticking to the notes on the sheet might prove difficult, but in the end, it is the only way to make real music.”
Rather than see this analogy as restrictive, Cardozo understands it to be “the release of the most robust creativity.” After all, like any musician knows, the notes are anything but a burden; rather, they are a guide.
Cardozo fervently believes that all Jews must work together to overcome disagreements — not just different streams of Orthodoxy, but Reform and Conservative as well. And Rabbi Cardozo thinks we can solve the supposed “disagreements” among these sects.
This seems contradictory. In fact, some of Cardozo’s own essays contained in this one work are contradictory to each other. He has no problem with this, stating that every idea within Halacha itself is multifaceted — filled with contradictions, opposing opinions and unsolvable paradoxes.
There are rabbis who shun Cardozo’s work, suggesting that it is heretical and will even push people away. They’re wrong. As Cardozo writes: “Either our youth walk out on or maintain a lukewarm relationship with Jewish observance, or they become so obsessed with its finest points that they are incapable of seeing the forest from the trees and they consequently turn into rigid religious extremists.”
He’s right. I’ve seen those youths. I’ve been one of those youths. Judaism has been desperate for solutions for so long, yet most are afraid to even ask the right questions.
In the book, Cardozo writes: “What has been entirely forgotten is that the Torah was the first rebellious text to appear in world history. Its purpose was to protest. It set in motion a rebel movement of cosmic proportions, the likes of which we have never known.”
These are the words of a rabbi who isn’t afraid to buck the trends and speak his mind — while remaining fiercely committed to Torah.
Why was I excited about this book? Because it is a book on Halacha that made me think, and woke up my Jewish soul. He must be doing something right.