Toward a Jewish Religious Renaissance
Part 1 of a 5-part essay
Ideology and Philosophy
In the last decade there have been many upheavals in Israel that no one would ever have imagined and that may be affecting Diaspora Jewry as well. In fact, the situation of the Jewish people throughout the world is undergoing fundamental changes. It is unclear where Israel and the Middle East are heading, and it will take some time before a more peaceful era will emerge. Still, we must look beyond this. We must prepare Israel and its citizens for the time when it will become crucial to make decisions about their identity and their connection to Judaism. While that connection is currently ambivalent, to say the least, it will one day become a matter of such importance that the refusal to address it will no longer be an option. Not only will it be decisive as far as the spiritual condition of Israel is concerned, but it will actually determine whether the State of Israel will continue to exist. Much of the turmoil taking place at this moment in history is due to Israel’s lack of Jewish spiritual direction and imagination. It will soon become evident that the physical survival of the State of Israel will one day become so dependent on Judaism that it will be necessary to convey the great teachings of this tradition to the Jewish people in a completely different light.
This is true not only in the State of Israel but elsewhere as well. Major changes are required to guarantee that Judaism once again becomes the Jews’ raison d’etre. If this is not actualized, the Diaspora Jewish community will further disintegrate and, in the years to come, will no longer be able to survive as an important force in world Jewry. This may ultimately lead to a change in American policy toward Israel, which could have far-reaching consequences. We must therefore prepare ourselves now. (The David Cardozo Academy is primarily dedicated to meeting these very challenges.)
The Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu
There are two schools of thought in Judaism, two types of batei midrash: the Bet Midrash of Moshe Rabbeinu and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu. Although both of them are integral parts of Judaism, the difference between them is critical.
Maimonides states that Avraham Avinu started a movement of emunah (deep religious faith). While Maimonides sees Avraham’s discovery of God as the result of philosophical contemplation, other interpretations reflect the view that it is not a purely intellectual discovery, but rather the direct result of an existential encounter with God. What Avraham discovered is not so much that God exists but that “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance”.
This discovery effected a major transformation in Avraham’s personality. It infused him with a great amount of wonder for all existence and deep concern for the well-being of humankind. This was not just a matter of the mind but also of the heart. As such, Avraham became the driving force behind a movement that turned the world on its head; an irresistible movement of which emunah and chesed (kindness) became the central pillars. Emunah filtered through Avraham’s very being and initiated him into a previously unknown world. The long-term effect of this transformation becomes clear when we remind ourselves of Rashi’s comment that Avraham was able to “convert” many of his contemporaries. Why was he so successful in doing so? Was it because of his great intellect? Surely, this must have played a role, but there is little doubt that it was mainly due to the type of person he had become. Those who are positively affected by God do not just add another dimension to their personality but become totally different people, while still maintaining their individuality. Consequently, such people are able to connect with others in ways that are not available to those who do not share that positive experience of God.
Confronted by Avraham’s unique character, the world around him stood re-created, trembling in a new light, radiating a fresh spectrum of colors.
Not Textbooks but Textpeople
Abraham Joshua Heschel once observed: “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but textpeople”. The difference between a student and a disciple is that a student studies the text while a disciple studies the teacher. It is midot tovot (exalted characteristics), integrity, and sensitivity that are the essential qualities necessary to successfully teach a religious tradition. This is the grundnorm (foundation) on which the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu stands: to teach in order to inspire a re-awakening and transformation of the soul. It is here that we find the roots of Judaism in their most central form. We must therefore understand that Judaism began as an existential movement in which all that humankind does, thinks, feels, and says is touched by the spirit of God.
Incubation Time, Judaism’s non-Halachic Start
Judaism was not originally a halachic tradition, as we know it today. It took hundreds of years before the Sinai revelation, with all its halachic implications, could take place and have any impact, and before Halacha could become possible. Much had to happen prior to such an exalted moment. Halacha had to grow out of the Abrahamic experience. It was only then that the Bet Midrash of Moshe Rabbeinu became possible. This is the bet midrash of halachic discussion and decision-making. But such a bet midrash must first be grounded in the existential emunah-orientation of the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu.
There had to be a period of incubation during which concepts of emunah would take shape and the spiritual foundations of Judaism could develop. The magnificent Jewish traditional weltanschauung (worldview) had to mature and find its way through actual faith experiences before it could become a halachic way of living. Thus, the Sinai revelation can only be seen as the result of the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu, which found its solidification in the halachic foundation of Sinai. It is there that the faith experiences of the earliest generations, starting with Avraham, were transposed into a practical, spiritual way of living.
We can call these moments “root experiences” (a term used by Jewish philosopher Emile Fackenheim), since they had to become epoch-making events, making inroads in the Jewish people’s subconscious and laying the foundations for Halacha to be used when the time would come for its revelation. These experiences would permit a glimpse of the sphere in which an unrestricted power, the root of Halacha, is at work. They needed, in some way, to destroy the security of all conventional knowledge and undo the normalcy of all that is ordinary. Above all, the enduring amazement of these moments is most crucial. It must make every natural explanation deepen the wonder of the experience. No knowledge or cognitive understanding should weaken the ability of the moment to astonish.
To be continued…
 This essay is based on an inaugural lecture given in 2005, by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, at the opening of the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu, a division of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem of which Rabbi Dr. Lopes Cardozo is the founder and dean.
 Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:1-3.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976) p. 92.
 A. J. Heschel, I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology (NY: Crossroad, 1983) p. 63.