My Controversy With the Mainstream Orthodox Community
When I was about 14 years old, I was drawn to Judaism for reasons I have discussed earlier. We lived in a small town called Aerdenhout, 20 kilometers from Amsterdam, and I attended a non-Jewish high school, known as a gymnasium. The school, Het Jacques P. Thijsse Lyceum, was housed in a beautiful castle on magnificent grounds. It was known around the country as an exclusive school, where, besides core subjects, we also studied Latin and Greek, and whoever wanted could learn classical Hebrew so as to ready themselves for studying the great classics at the best universities.
I was the official representative of our class. All of my friends were non-Jews. We often had social evenings at the homes of some students. There was food, drinks, and dancing with the girls.
I decided I had to prove myself, to stand out and become a bit of a strange bird. I could no longer eat the non-kosher food, and refused to dance with the girls. When I suggested to my fellow students that perhaps I should step down from my role of representative and not come to these evenings anymore, they insisted that I stay. They brought me fruit, and the girls understood and respected my request not to dance with them. This was a strange, uncomfortable experience because I was the only one sitting on a chair in the corner while everybody else was swaying. It made me feel like a stick-in-the-mud, and a stranger. What I think kept me popular was the fact that I asked the most unusual questions and caused fierce debates.
I felt a need to explain myself to my non-Jewish friends. I believe that this was the first time in my life that I had to have the courage to elucidate why I was trying to become religious, and what it meant to be religious. But by doing so, I was turning myself into an outlandish fellow. This was a completely secular school in the extreme. Fierce debates often erupted with strong opposition to my religious inclinations, but my faith also elicited a lot of admiration for my willingness to explain and defend a highly unpopular view.
When I explained to them that I would no longer pick up the phone on Shabbat, I was attacked for wanting to return to the Middle Ages. I told them that the opposite is true — that I was far ahead of our times. After all, we are becoming completely enslaved to all the devices we create, with the disastrous consequences that we have no time anymore for our own lives and those of our spouses, children, and friends. This caught them totally off guard.
This experience strengthened my very being and gave me a lot of courage, and since those days, fear has never stopped me from having courage. I do, however, remember serving in the Israeli army (I was already over 50 and a grandfather) and being taught how to shoot an Uzi sub-machine gun, which could kill another soldier or other innocent people. The thought that I would make a mistake, or have no other option but to fire (collateral damage), made me quite anxious, but I persevered and pulled through.
But my time in the army turned out to be one of the most remarkable experiences in my life. The feeling that I was defending the Jewish people was worth the risk. It was a privilege, and there was a metaphysical dimension to it.
At the beginning, I found army life difficult since nobody gave us older people any mental training. We were thrown into it with no mercy or consideration. And the age of 50 is not the best phase in life to adapt to entirely new and tough but necessary conditions.
I remember that once at 5:00 a.m., we had to appear in front of our officer, who was many years younger than most of us. When he started using foul language, I stepped forward and said in my broken Hebrew that we who were born outside of Israel were not used to this kind of language and would not accept it. I surprised myself by speaking up, and to my utter astonishment, after being stunned by my remark, the officer apologized instead of reprimanding me.
I am often attacked for my views, and I understand why. To get people, including ourselves, to think and to question our views with the implication that we may need to change our ways is not always pleasant. But if we want to make sure that Judaism has a big future, we have no option but to take that road.
At the same time, we are forced to question some components that are now seen as essential parts of Judaism, but may, after all, not qualify as such. We must be careful not to embalm Judaism and claim that it is alive simply because it continues to maintain its external shape.
I have been studying the Jewish tradition for over 50 years, and have discovered that it is much more profound than I imagined and much more “pluralistic,” with many fascinating ideas that the average rabbi, yeshiva student, or religious person doesn’t know. Some of them are surely much greater Talmudists than I am, but I know a lot about the Jewish tradition that they have never heard about. To say that a great Talmudist is by definition also a great Jewish religious scholar is somewhat misleading. There is much more at stake.
My advice for others is to go back to the drawing board. Start learning again; not just Talmud but also much of the literature that is post-Talmudic, which is nearly infinite. In fact, Talmudic study alone could stifle the mind and spirit if one doesn’t know how to approach the text and how to read between the lines. Let’s not forget that it’s not even a text, but a transliterated voice that one needs to learn how to hear. There is a very good reason why the Talmud was written in a kind of Aramaic telegram style, where words are deliberately left out to be filled in by the imagination of the student. It is made up of highly unconventional debates, most of which remain oral. There is nothing like this in all of world literature. The less one reads between the lines, the less the capacity to increase Talmudic and Halachic possibilities.
I must confess that my essays are often removed from the “parashat hashavua pamphlet desk” of the Modern Orthodox Zionist synagogue where I pray. At first, I found them torn up and dropped in the trash can; now they occasionally disappear altogether. I’m sure that it is a fanatic outsider who is guilty, and not a member of the synagogue. But the fact that this is tolerated is most unfortunate.
My experience has taught me that there may be too much literal-mindedness in today’s Orthodoxy; but literal meaning is only the minimal possibility, and completely misses the boat on what the Torah tries to convey.
I mentioned all this to some of my close friends, who told me that I should leave the synagogue and pray somewhere else. But I don’t see it like that, and leaving this community would be a reflection of small-mindedness, which doesn’t solve the problem. I’m not made of that stuff. Much of the objection to what I have to say is the result of ignorance and fear, not willful intent. What’s needed is a different educational approach, which will remove this fear of anything that seems unconventional.
It’s very sad that a Modern Orthodox synagogue seems to fall victim to fundamentalism. I hope that my words are a warning, and will serve as a call and plea that this has to come to an end before things get worse within Modern Orthodoxy’s so-called open-minded communities.
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, as well as the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism.