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My name is Nathan Lopes Cardozo. I was born in Holland in 1946 and was raised in a half-Jewish, totally secular family, which for decades watched the European Song Festival with great joy. We were always very proud when our country, Holland, won the contest, as it did last Saturday night. Today, I live in Jerusalem with my family.
After many years, I discovered Judaism and threw in my lot with this unusual nation. Although I observe Shabbat and many other Jewish precepts, I’m not sure I have the right to call myself fully religious. I still have a long way to go.
Many of my readers know that I cannot be accused of falling in line with the religious establishment. I have suggested that moving this beautiful country forward sometimes requires the violation of Jewish law, including some Shabbat laws when the problem is of national urgency and clearly insurmountable, and when Jewish Law would actually encourage us to do so.
This brings me to you and last Saturday night’s song festival. I heard on Israel radio, and have read in newspapers, that you observe Shabbat and that you refused to rehearse last Saturday in honor of this holy day. I hope it’s true; if so, more honor to you!
In fact, I am also very proud of the extraordinary Shalva Band, which I have been told would probably have won the contest but refused to come to the rehearsal last Shabbat because its members believe that one needs to live a principle-centered life. For them, as for me, that includes the need to preserve the holiness of Shabbat.
The same is true of South African born businessman Kivi Bernhard, who has become a world-famous, sought-after speaker and was invited by Microsoft some years ago to deliver the opening address at an international conference, which was to take place on a Saturday. Mr. Bernhard refused, as it would require him to violate Shabbat. Microsoft offered him enormous sums of money, but Mr. Bernhard did not budge. He told them that no money in the world would entice him to violate Shabbat. Finally, Microsoft gave up and moved the conference to Sunday. When Bill Gates heard about this, he remarked: I can buy any airplane, yacht, or building that I want. I can even buy outstandingly talented people. But I cannot buy one Shabbat of an observant Jew.
It is for this reason, Madonna, that I turn to you with a request.
As history has proven over and over again, we Jews are not a conventional people. Our long history is by definition one of existential oddity. We are nearly 4,000 years old and have outlived all of our enemies, from the Egyptians to the Nazis. Even today, our enemies have no way to destroy us. As sociologist Milton Himmelfarb stated, “The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain bigger than our numbers” (Jews and Gentiles, 2007, p. 141).
No other nation has overturned the destiny of all humanity as much as the Jewish people have. It gave them the Bible and the greatest prophets. Its spiritual and moral laws still hold sway over all of humankind, influencing entire civilizations. It gave birth to Christianity, Islam and many secular moral teachings. It provided humankind with a messianic hope for the future and endowed human beings with dignity and responsibility. In his book The Gifts of the Jews, non-Jewish author Thomas Cahill said: “We [gentiles] can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice are the gifts of the Jews” (1999, p. 241).
After 2,000 years of exile, and after the inconceivable cruelty of the Holocaust, we returned to our homeland. This is sui generis, without precedent.
The Jew must pay a high price just to remain a Jew. And history has constantly asked us why we are still prepared to do so. After all, being a Jew seems to be an utterly heart-rending experience. The only answer is expressed by Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Our existence is either superfluous or indispensable to the world” (God In Search of Man, 1976, p. 421). And we need to decide on which side we want to be.
Since the days when God called on Avraham, the first Jew, it became clear that we took on ourselves a holy mission to be a “light to the nations” and to promote a way of living through which all of humankind would be blessed. And so we became indispensable and God’s stake in history.
That gave us the power to overcome all our suffering. We believed in ourselves and, against all odds, considered ourselves privileged to serve mankind.
We should therefore never forget that we finally came home to our country, not as Israelis but as Jews. Otherwise, there is no land to return to.
There’s little doubt that one of the main reasons we became an eternal people was the institution of Shabbat. The oft-quoted statement “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews” remains as true as ever. Once we give up on its holiness, we are guilty of self-destruction. Modern Jewish history has proven this over and over again. Jewish assimilation began the same day that Jews forgot their Shabbat.
Shabbat is the day on which we are asked to put aside all the profanity of clattering commerce and the fury of greed; of trying to convince ourselves that we are the absolute owners of this world. It is a day of protest against all the external pomp, glitter, and power. Its purpose is to turn the world into an island of tranquility in the stormy sea of worldliness, for one day each week.
But it is not only Jews who need Shabbat. All of humankind should have the merit to celebrate this holy day. Without it, the world collapses under its own weight. And it is the task of all of both Jews and non-Jews, to ensure that this doesn’t happen.
The secular renowned Jewish thinker and psychologist Eric Fromm (1900-1980) wrote: “The modern Sunday is a day of fun, consumption and running away from oneself. One might ask if it is not time to re-establish the (traditional) shabbat as a universal day of harmony and peace, as the human day that anticipates the human future.” (To Have or To Be, 1976, p 58.)
What happened last Saturday is very tragic. I’m happy for my people to have all the fun in the world, but never at the expense of their Shabbat, their mission, integrity and pride. It worries me terribly when a large number of our citizens, who are otherwise fine and proud people—some of them even religious—seem to be so mesmerized by so much dazzle and glitz, which sometimes lack the basics of all modesty and inner human beauty.
True, every Jew has the right to decide for her or himself, whether or not to observe Shabbat, but on a national level we cannot afford to openly desecrate its holiness, even for rehearsals or other work to make the event succeed. There was no urgency or unsurmountable need for this. Israel should have refused to stage this event unless it would have complied with the holiness of Shabbat. Jewish pride is more important than the European Song Festival, especially when it could have sent a message to the world that there are values in life which are more important than fame and dazzling performances.
What is perhaps even more tragic is the fact that there wasn’t even the slightest manifestation of anything Jewish. How great it would have been if a special Havdalah ceremony and prayer to say farewell to Shabbat had been sung in front of millions and millions of viewers throughout the entire world. It would have embodied such Jewish pride!
So here is my request to you. Perhaps you, together with Shalva Band, Kivi Bernhard and Bill Gates could do what we traditional and religious Jews and our rabbis are seemingly unable to do: Convince our fellow Jews and non-Jews of the privilege of observing Shabbat; of how unique it is to be Jewish.
After all, the road to the sacred often runs through the secular.
Nathan Lopes Cardozo