For the second half of 5775, the DCA Think Tank, consisting of fourteen men and women, of various ages and backgrounds but all committed to inquiring deeply into traditional Judaism, will be reading excerpts of the manuscript of Rabbi Cardozo’s forthcoming autobiography Lonely But Not Alone. They will function as a sounding board, discussing and critiquing the ideas and stories therein. Rabbi Cardozo has sat down to write this volume following the very positive responses to his short autobiography of the same name, published in Conversations (the Journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals)in May 2013. These summaries from the TT meetings will give readers a sneak preview into what the book will contain.
From the outset, Rabbi Cardozo explained that in his book he aims to be extremely honest, regarding Jewish tradition and his own private life. He outlined the goals and structure of the book and noted that the audience will probably run the gamut, including Jews of many stripes and also non-Jews.
The first TT member to give feedback on the book excerpts noted how exciting and fresh the writing feels. Unlike the many Jewish books where nothing new is said, and instead old material is rehashed or reframed, Rabbi Cardozo has put in writing words not commonly spoken by people with authority, including critiques and radical ideas. The personal touch intertwined with the academic is also very powerful. The member wondered, though, whether readers will be left, in the end, with more questions than answers; and whether that will leave people more confused than when they started. Rabbi Cardozo responded that he will offer many answers too along the way, though much will be left open—he does not want to create some kind of final, absolute theology for the Jews. Another TT member suggested that rather than aiming to provide answers, “Your goal should be to move people and to catalyze change.”
Members deeply appreciated the fact that it is his personal experiences that have brought Rabbi Cardozo to the questions he poses in the book and to who he is today. He has committed to a path of deep authenticity, which is not a simple one. It comes through that Rabbi Cardozo has courageously faced even the most difficult and painful parts of his life’s journey, and has not shied away from being the person that G-d seems to be asking him to be. His unusual background no doubt helps him to understand many kinds of people and their specific challenges. It was noted, however, that while emotion and experiences are triggering many of his questions, the answers need to be (and will be) based on halachic knowledge and Jewish sources, not just emotions.
The purpose of the book is to make a kiddush Hashem. Although Rabbi Cardozo has some unconventional ideas, and is happy to learn valuable things from the non-Orthodox world, the book’s center of gravity is located within Orthodox society and outlook, to make change from within. The aim is to criticize for the sake of rebuilding. “In the end, I believe that the future of Judaism lies in the Orthodox world, but it will require a lot of surgery. We’re not there yet,” he observed.
Members also asked Rabbi Cardozo to clarify whether he thinks his path—of constantly questioning and living with contradictions—is one meant for only a few people, such as himself and people like him, or whether many people should be encouraged to take it. If the latter, would that not undermine tradition, at least for some of them? For if you encourage people to ask questions, they will inevitably come up with a range of answers for themselves, some of which will not be what one might hope or expect; this is the nature of questioning. In response, Rabbi Cardozo explained that he does, in fact, believe in the mainstream, conformist (not too questioning) path for most people; but that for other people like himself, there are legitimate alternative ways of being traditionally Jewish.
Rabbi Cardozo’s frequent references to the promptings of his soul raised questions. How do we evaluate which of our soul’s demands is legitimate and which not? What are the limits in satisfying these stirrings of the soul? Along the same lines, we asked: what are the acceptable boundaries for change in Jewish tradition? A simple answer would be “halachic red lines”; but there is more to this discussion than that answer. (Rabbi Cardozo even wondered if such boundaries can be fully delineated, or are somehow beyond articulation.)
A member suggested that it would be good to have advice in the book for people who begin to question their path at a younger age. Another member noticed the shadow of Spinoza, accompanying both Rabbi Cardozo’s life and his ideas, throughout the text. She suggested Spinoza as a kind of “mirror image” of Rabbi Cardozo, a fascinating idea that he had not previously considered.
To conclude—many times, Rabbi Cardozo responded to a question by the Think Tank with the words, “That is explained in my book later.” We are looking forward to reading more!
Questions to Ponder (raise them at your Shabbat table, or discuss with your friends)
– Do the Jewish books you read contain fresh, exciting material, or does it seem to be a lot of the same ideas rehashed?
– Are you on your authentic path, and if not, what is stopping you from being on it?
– What weight should we give (and do you yourself give) to personal experience when thinking about questions of Jewish philosophy and practice?
– Is the path of questioning and critiquing good only for the small minority, or should more people be encouraged to set out upon it?