Reminder: for the second half of 5775, the 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.
In “Conversation 3” in his book, Rabbi Cardozo addresses some major issues of halachic life. Reading his words, Think Tank members found themselves in turn intrigued, provoked, disturbed and exhilarated. The discussions were rather heated, even more than usual. We feel that if Rabbi Cardozo’s aim in his book is to provoke people into thinking things through, he certainly succeeded with us… we were, indeed, provoked!
A Think Tank member took issue with Rabbi Cardozo’s description of religious experience. For him, one “know[s] that there is another Being involved, a Being who surpasses all description…” The member asked, “How can I know that this is true religious experience, and not something else (e.g. a psychotic episode)?”
She also felt that Rabbi Cardozo’s suggestion that “The birth of your baby, sunrise, a remarkable performance of a piece of music or a moment of tremendous gratitude” must be considered a religious experience, even for those who are not defining themselves as religious, constitutes an unfair hijacking by religious people of the sense of awe and wonder.
Rabbi Cardozo clarified that in any event, “religious experience” is not what makes Judaism into Judaism, but rather what you do with the experience. Halacha serves to translate experience into something down to earth, to prolong and maintain the feeling (or at least, ought to do that – whether Halacha as applied today actually does that successfully is another matter). One member who is a fan of the Conservative rabbi Max Kadushin’s thinking, cited Kadushin’s idea of “normal mysticism”, which involves taking religious experience and expecting it – normalizing it. This, she explained, is halacha’s function, what it should do. Halacha is behaviorism and should be, though that’s not all it should be.
A discussion ensued (inspired by the philosophy of Hasidic master, the Mei Hashiloach) about how we can discover our unique selves within the halachic system – how we can maintain “the element of surprise.” “Halacha is wild – that’s the beauty of it. Codification tamed it,” explained Rabbi Cardozo. To write down the law is to destroy the spirit of Halacha.
One member for whom the Mei Hashiloach is a guiding light, suggested that his point is less abut the element of surprise, and more about acting in accordance with every new moment. She, moreover, expressed concern that the Hasidic master’s philosophy, which today is sometimes conscripted for radical antinomian agendas, be properly represented; not used to legitimate wholesale breaches of Halacha on the one hand, yet on the other hand, if as Rabbi Cardozo suggests, in the footsteps of the Mei Hashiloach himself, that “his philosophy it is only for Messianic times” then we will fail to learn something valuable from it. Trying to find the right balance in studying his thought is a very important goal for our time, this member suggested.
A final discussion revolved around taking on chumrot (stringencies). How much does this action have to do with genuine religious experience, and how much is it self-serving, or to do with social pressures or fear? There was some dissent on this subject. Finally we discussed who is responsible in cases where the halachic system does become distorted in the direction of stringencies that are not for the sake of heaven. Is it the people or the leaders? This question was left open.