The following words were spoken at Limmud, Johannesburg, South Africa on August 11.2013 for the JDOV, video program. This is a slightly edited transcription of my lecture. (1)
To hear the music of Bach while you are reading the words, just click here[audio:https://cardozoacademy.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/01-Concerto1in-D-Minor.-Allegro.mp3]
If you want to watch the presentation, go to: http://www.jhub.org.uk/jdov/portfolio/johaan-sebastian-bach-judaism-and-the-art-to-be-a-rebel/
Winston Churchill once sent a very long letter to a friend. At the end he wrote: I am sorry but I had no time to write a short one.
It takes 18 minutes to bake a matzah and it comes out flat. JDOV gave me 12 minutes to speak about my life and my love for Judaism and told me that it must sound like Bach’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor.
So here we go.
But let’s first listen to Bach.
I was born in 1946 in Amsterdam, by breech delivery. It was very painful. My mother endured it with iron strength. We nearly did not make it. It was the same iron strength that she showed when she saved the lives of all of my father’s family, all Jews, from the hands of the Nazis.
My parents were a mixed marriage: my father Jewish, my mother not.
These two facts – breech delivery and being born from a mixed marriage – set the stage for my life. I see everything upside down and always as an in-outsider. I see great beauty where others see only the ordinary. I see problems where others believe that everything is fine. For me, the average is astonishing.
Our name is Lopes Cardozo. That is a real Jewish name – not Goldstein or Rabinowitz. Those are “goyishe” names.
On my father’s side we come from Spain and Portugal, after the Inquisition, in 1492. We are anusim, Marranos. Our forefathers were raised as Christians, and only in Holland could they start to live a Jewish life again.
My father was a very proud Jew. He could not stop speaking about it. But it had no religious meaning.
My mother lost her parents when she was very young and moved in with my father’s family, so she grew up in a strong, secular, socialistic, but culturally very strong Jewish family and society. Friday night was holy, with lots of delicious food, although they were as poor as church mice. They did not eat kosher, but no treif meat would ever enter the house. Jewish expressions, customs, and jokes were the daily language.
My father was an ardent admirer of Spinoza, the great Jewish philosopher in Amsterdam in the 17th century who walked out on Judaism and was banned by the rabbis. It is the most well known Jewish ban ever. It made him world famous; I am still trying to get a similar rabbinic ban, but to no avail. It would considerably raise the sale of my books.
Spinoza got me thinking. He attacked the Jewish tradition vigorously. There is no God, he said, at least no biblical God. The Torah is not divine, not godly. In fact, it is primitive and nearly meaningless. Judaism is a lot of nonsense, he declared. And so I wanted to know what he was attacking. Why did he have no good word for the Jewish tradition? And what is this Jewish tradition actually all about?
So I started to read without end, speaking with rabbis – Orthodox and Reform; philosophers – religious and non-religious; as well as atheists and believers.
To make a long story short: I became so fascinated with the Jewish tradition that I went to the chief rabbi of Amsterdam, Chacham Shlomo Rodrigues Pereira, and told him to convert me, since I was the child of a mixed marriage – and so he did.
I was 16. Many years later my mother also converted, after I convinced her of the beauty of Judaism. My parents got married three months before I was married to a very nice lady sitting here in the audience – all by the same rabbi in the Sephardic Synagogue in Amsterdam.
I learned 12 years in Chareidi yeshivot, and I have a Ph.D in Philosophy. I love yeshivot, but I never felt that they gave me the full picture. Judaism is much greater than what yeshivot teach.
Let me tell you what happened to me when I was learning in yeshiva. A non-Jewish friend came to visit me and asked to see the Beit Midrash. So I put a yarmulke on his head and told him to come in. He expected a large hall with all the students whispering, like in a university library. But what did he encounter? Three hundred young fellows walking around nervously, shouting at each other as if the world was coming to an end.
In total shock, he asked me. “What is this, a demonstration against the Queen of England?” “No,” I said, “they are discussing what God actually said 3,000 years ago at Mount Sinai.” “You still don’t know?” he asked. “No,” I said. “Indeed, we still don’t know, and that’s why we are still alive after 4,000 years, and because of that we outlived all our enemies. A tradition that keeps arguing with itself will stay alive and grow.”
Now listen to Johannes Sebastian Bach.
It is God speaking to us in music – with so many options for how to play it, without end. Like the rabbis speak about God’s words with so many interpretations. Remember Glenn Gould, Richter, Arthur Rubinstein and so many others. Such were Abaya, Rava and many other sages in the Talmud – each one playing totally different music, but simultaneously, with strict adherence to the music notes, to rigid rules of musical genius. An iron fist, and an uncompromising dedication to detail, resulting in a phenomenal outburst of emotion.
That, my dear friends, is what happened at Sinai. God gave heavenly musical notes at Sinai for us to play on our souls. Strict notes, but to be played with infinite passion. To listen to Bach is like being struck by an uppercut under the chin and staying unconscious for the rest of the day. And so it is with the Torah. It is like an archeologist forced to go to rock bottom in search of all the hidden possibilities; to exert himself in order to unearth them and find infinite treasures.
God owes a lot to Bach. He put God in the center of our world. Where would God be without Bach?
But Bach’s music is more than that. It is a rebellion. A rebellion against all earlier forms of music. Against making music sterile, stagnated, boring and flat. It opened new dimensions that people did not want to see or hear.
The same is true about Judaism. It is a religious protest against complacency, spiritual boredom and mediocrity.
Religion means to live in utter amazement, in astonishment. To live like Bach. To walk around in total wonder. And to know what to do with that wonder. To translate it into deep feelings and the solid side of the human deed: The Mitzvah, the Halacha.
Halacha teaches us how to live life in utter amazement. Just as Bach did.
After Moshe Rabeinu, Bach was the greatest halachist who ever lived in modern times – the iron fist, the heavenly explosion, the rebellion and the strict adherence to rules and detail.
And what did we do with Judaism? We denied Bach’s music to play the central role in Halacha any longer. And so we made it flat and boring.
We tell our children to obey, to conform, to fit in. Not to disturb the establishment. Not to challenge religious and secular beliefs. And by doing so, we have nearly killed Judaism.
Eating kosher is a rebellious act. An act of disobedience against consumerism that encourages people to eat anything as longs as it tastes good. When we go to synagogue, it is a protest against man’s arrogance in thinking that he can do it all himself. Observing Shabbat is an attack on society in a world that believes our happiness depends on how much we produce.
Avraham was the first ultimate rebel who destroyed idols. And so were the prophets.
And so is the Torah – a rebellious text declaring war on a world that has still not learned how to live a spiritual life of incredible greatness while standing firm with its feet on the ground.
And so are we Jews. To be a Jew is to forever swim against the mediocrity of this world. We are a nation of protestors. We are the real protestants. But we forgot who we are.
And therefore I decided to become religious. I love rebellion and spiritual war. I can’t live in boredom.
I will continue to play Bach, the rebellious man of Halacha who introduced me to God and the Torah.
So, just listen to Bach and hear the music of the Jewish tradition.
(1) Regarding my Thoughts to Ponder 364, “Bravo, Chief Rabbi Mirvis! Courage, Dayan Ehrentreu!” (The Jerusalem Post, November 8), and Jonathan Rosenblum’s subsequent reply, “Limmud: A Rejoinder to Rabbi Cardozo,” (The Jerusalem Post, November 15), I have invited Jonathan Rosenblum to a public debate in Yerushalayim and am still awaiting his response.