Reminder: for the second half of 5775, the DCA Think Tank is reading excerpts of the manuscript of Rabbi Cardozo’s forthcoming spiritual autobiography Lonely But Not Alone. Though the book is still very much in process these summaries of the TT meetings will give readers a preview into what the book will contain.
The first discussion of this meeting opened around Rabbi Cardozo’s use of the metaphor of the mikveh. Rabbi Cardozo converted at age sixteen, but came to realize that to “convert” only once is nearly meaningless. Immersing in a mikveh symbolizes an inner transformation, resembling emerging afresh from the womb; and he deeply desires to emerge transformed from each and every visit to the mikveh, as he did upon his conversion many years ago.
One TT member connected powerfully to this metaphor. He felt that we must take the spiritual transformation of mikveh into our lives, since Judaism challenges us to enter into life, to let go of the absolutely pure and engage with the real world. However, another member, while greatly appreciating the call for constant renewal, asked whether it is ultimately demanding too much of us to expect every dip in the mikveh—or, indeed, every mitzvah—to feel fresh and new? Do not habit and routine have their place, like the relationship between a long-married couple, in contrast to a fresh romance with all its turbulence and instability? Anything stale and meaningless requires attention; but life also goes in sine waves (“ratzoh vashov”) and to expect it to be eternally new and stimulating places unnecessary pressure upon us. A third TT member suggested that the Jewish year might embody the habitual, while the chagim represent the opportunity to rise above, into the renewed.
Next, a discussion arose about Rabbi Cardozo’s choice many years ago to send his children to Ultra-Orthodox schools—why did he do that, and would he do the same today? One TT member revealed: “My impression is that [today]… you would still send your kids to a hareidi school. The issues you want people to deal with cannot be dealt with on a child’s level, the child must learn about Judaism first.” Another member suggested that it is less about learning and information, and more about shaping the child through positive feelings arising from being immersed in a total Jewish atmosphere. Several members were troubled by the potential for racist or chauvinist messages taught in these schools. One member also challenged Rabbi Cardozo: “You are asking your children to go through an easier process than you did yourself. Why not let them go through the same process you did?” We discussed whether Rabbi Cardozo is truly willing to have his children explore, and come to all kinds of unexpected conclusions differing from his own.
We then moved on to revisit the question of subjective beliefs. When Rabbi Cardozo writes a sentence such as “Conservative and Reform Judaism are not options for my soul. They are too easy, too academic and unable to create a spiritual upheaval,” is he simply speaking for himself, for the stirrings of his own soul?
One member suggested that an authentic relationship with God is predicated on full accountability for all human actions and choices. Actions that, after thorough study together with an examination of one’s motives, are still ultimately deemed as being for the sake of God and the Jewish people, constitute a real expression of religious authenticity, per Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai’s “Give me Yavneh and her sages.” The TT member argued that Rabbi Cardozo’s views—and those of anyone truly striving for an authentic relationship with God— can and should be understood within these parameters.
We moved on to a discussion of the thorny issue of whether the entire Torah, and all 613 commandments, are divine, and if so what does the word “divine” mean? Must it of necessity mean “given directly from G-d?” What are the Orthodox red lines?
Rabbi Cardozo’s position was that we do not have to argue that the entire written Torah was given on Sinai, but that an Orthodox position demands a belief that the mitzvot, as opposed to the narrative sections, were indeed given directly by God Moreover, the written Torah is not an ideal. While G-d’s word remains in unwritten, oral form it is fluid, but that once it is written down, that creates a certain frozen state. The Oral Law (torah sheba’al peh) was divinely given, intended to redeem the Written law (torah shebikhtav) from its static state, and enable dynamic interpretations; but when the Oral Law got written down, then the entire system became half frozen, and needs redeeming.
Several members objected to the idea that the Oral Law redeems the Written Law. On the contrary, they felt that the Written Law contains gaps that we are supposed to fill in anew in every generation; but the massive corpus of Oral Law serves to fill it in for us, and sometimes to stifle our own voices.
During the course of the session, members also gave thought to how Rabbi Cardozo should put across his ideas in the book. Should he initially lay things out in their most unapologetic—sometimes radical—version, and only then qualify them? or should he from the start be presenting a nuanced picture, aware of the pitfalls, and mentioning opposing viewpoints? One member felt that, although there is a danger of being misunderstood and even of the reader closing the book, nonetheless Rabbi Cardozo needs to present first who he is, what he thinks, and what his dreams are for Judaism. Asking him to constantly qualify what he says is akin to requesting that he drive with one foot on the brakes and one on the accelerator.
We look forward to the next excerpt!
Questions to Ponder (raise them at your Shabbat table, or discuss with your friends):
– Should our ideal be to feel renewed and engaged each and every time we do a mitzvah? Or do habit and routine also have their place, providing sufficient peak moments to prevent stagnancy?
– Is it preferable to send children to schools that are more religious than the parents’ practice? and if so what prices might be paid?
– Should we always tell the truth about our religious doubts to our children, or rather present a more naïve and non-nuanced picture until they are older and properly entrenched in a particular religious view or narrative?
– Do you believe the (Written) Torah is divine, and if so what does that mean to you?
– Do you prefer that people present their own opinion unequivocally and powerfully, and let others do the work of disagreeing—or that people present their own view in tandem with the opposing views, creating a more multi-faceted picture?