In Honor of the Marriage of Melissa Zeloof and David Lasday
May they be blessed!
Below is an interview (with a few additions) which Rabbi Cardozo gave to the Jewish Press on May 25th, 2016
(Please note that this is conversational English.)
“The Beauty of the Jewish tradition is that it is not always precise and consistent,” says Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo. “And that is a very wise thing. You have to have flexibility, because life is not clear-cut or coherent. Moving here, moving there, you work out the different opinions somehow, and you let it be. As such Jewish Law and beliefs stay fresh and thriving. A musical symphony. But the moment we codify or dogmatize it all, we are basically destroying it”.
One of the areas where Dutch-Israeli Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, and Jewish scholar Nathan Lopes Cardozo differs from the Orthodox mainstream is the Torah’s commandments to annihilate whole peoples, such as the nations of Canaan and the mythical nation of Amalek, God’s proverbial enemy.
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo: I believe that in the case where moral issues come up, there, even where the Torah says that we have to annihilate these people, whether it is Amalek or the nations of Canaan, my feeling is that these were challenges given to Moses and the people to see how they would react, in the same way as Abraham reacts in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah. God says, I’m going to wipe them out, and Abraham responds: Will the Judge of the world do such a thing? And God responds by saying, You have a point, let’s see what we can work out.
And then you get this incredible dialogue, between Abraham and God on how many righteous people you need so He will keep the inhabitants alive… I think that should be the point of departure whenever we discuss moral issues in the Bible, related to our fellow man. There my feeling is that even when the Torah sometimes comes with requirements which are problematic from a moral point of view, that we have the option or even obligation, like Abraham, to say to God: Sorry, this won’t go with us. And my reading, which I understand is controversial, is that God is challenging these people: Let Me see how they’ll respond. Did you, people, understand My larger picture of righteousness? Are you understanding what I’m trying to say ? And as I did in the case of Abraham, when I challenged him by telling him I’m going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham correctly said, No, or at least he was willing to fight it, so I hope and expect you do as well whenever I want you to annihilate people.
We see this reflected in the sages’ opinion that these nations no longer exist and by doing so they declared these laws inoperative. After all such a law can’t operate unless you hear such a command from God Himself and not by tradition. (And how will you ever know that it is really God speaking?) Thirdly, did you object and fiercely protest?
The Jewish Press: And yet shortly thereafter, God tells Abraham to execute his son Isaac, and gives him kudos for the fact that he tried to comply.
NLC: I am of the opinion that Abraham, by being prepared to do so, to sacrifice his son, failed the test. I think that the reading of the binding of Isaac should be different from the conventional approach as some chassidic texts indeed seem to suggest . For an excellent overview read: The Fear, the Trembling and the Fire by my dear friend, Professor Jerome (Yehudah) I. Gellman, published by University Press of America in 1994.
JP: God no longer speaks directly to Abraham after the binding of Isaac. Does he lose his prophecy?
NLC: It seems he lost his prophecy. There are all sorts of psychological issues which take place after the incident with the binding of Isaac, which seem to mean that God was not so pleased with the outcome, even though He says, Now I know that you have fear of Me, but that may have a different meaning. It may even mean something like, now that you went for it, you showed you had the correct intentions, but you got My message wrong.
But let us be careful, I only suggest such a reading when speaking about moral problems, but when you speak about Shabbat, holidays and other mitzvot, where there are no issues between the individual and his fellow man, there we do not have the right to say, we’re changing the commandments or refusing to accept these laws because they’re not convenient.
Nathan Lopes Cardozo was born 70 years ago in Amsterdam, and was named after his father’s youngest brother who was murdered in the Holocaust. His father was a secular Jew who was nevertheless proud of his Portuguese-Jewish origin. His mother, who was not born Jewish, was raised by the Cardozo family and was an integral part of the Jewish community. Later on, she saved her husband and his family from the Nazis by hiding them in her Amsterdam apartment. Her son, Nathan, converted to Judaism when he was sixteen through the Amsterdam Rabbinate, and his mother did many years later as well.
Cardozo spent the next 12 years studying at various Haredi Yeshivas such as Gateshead, whose dean, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Gurwitz z.l., ordained him as a rabbi. At 21 he married Freyda Gnesin, a young Dutch woman from Eastern European parents he met at the Haarlem synagogue. That’s the Dutch Harlem synagogue.
CAN JEWS PERPETRATE A HOLOCAUST?
We return to the question of whether God commanded the Jews to annihilate certain nations with the expectation that the Jews would defy Him.
JP: In the story of the prophet Shmuel and King Shaul, where Shaul has spared the life of Agag, king of Amalek, and Shmuel takes a sword and finishes the job — did Shmuel fail?
NLC: What was it that Shaul did wrong, and why did God object to it? It seems that Shaul was more concerned with the animals he had acquired and kept alive than about the people he had killed. There is where the moral failure lies.
JP: But Shmuel is not sanctioned for his action.
NLC: It seems that Shmuel was of the opinion that Agag was liable for the death penalty. This is a very complicated story. I don’t think that Jewish tradition is always consistent, very often it is not. And I think there’s a reason for that, because it shows different sides of a very complex situation. The Russian British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who was not religious but remained very close to his Judaism, has an essay about morality where he says that morality is much more complex than most people think it is. There’s no black and white — this is moral and this is immoral. It depends on your perspective, on how you walk into the problem. So there are cases where the complexity is so big that whatever you do, from one point of view it is morally correct and from another point of view it is absolutely morally unacceptable. So Berlin speaks about a trade-off, which every judge and every legal system has to make, to find a compromise: how much justice, how much mercy? A way in-between, by which you remove excessive damage on both sides and you’re left with a compromise which is far from ideal, but that’s part of the human condition.
There is no such thing as black and white responses to these sorts of issues, and I think that plays a role in Jewish law as well. We have to deal with clashing Jewish moral forces.
There are reasons to annihilate Amalek and there are reasons why not to do so, especially when it comes to their women and children. But because there’s this tension of how you look into the story, which is purely subjective, therefore in the end you will have to find a way in-between. Shmuel is right and wrong at the same time. God says to him, Shmuel, I understand your point of view, I will let you get away with it. But don’t think that this is the ideal outcome. Under human circumstances we have to wipe out these people of Amalek, they are very dangerous, even in the future, and at the same time we have to keep them alive because who can say that all of them will be evil?
Jewish Law even discusses the question of what to do in case an Amalekite wants to become Jewish, and several authorities believe that we have an obligation to convert him as long as he has no blood on his hands!! The Talmud in Gitin (57b) and in Sanhedrin (96b) makes the observation that the grandchildren of Haman, the Amalekite, were studying in the Beth Midrash in Bnei Berak. This observation is most telling. It shows the ambivalence of the Jewish tradition towards its arch enemy. Shall we really annihilate this nation and its children? See what happened to its descendants!!! They were great Talmudic scholars!
THERE’S MORE TO JUDAISM THAN MITZVOT
JP: Are you suggesting that there is a Jewish morality outside the realm of the commandments?
NLC: Yes, I think there is, in the sense that there are certain intuitive moral feelings that human beings have, Jews and non-Jews, which are of great importance, and which do play a role in the halakhic decision making process. While there is no doubt that our moral instinct is often very subjective and we may often disagree, there are surely cases where we do agree. Killing innocent children and women is one of them. Still there is much in the Jewish tradition which believes that our moral intuition may be the voice of God even in cases which are not as extreme. If you look into the works of the great poskim (halakhic authorities), you see differences of opinions between them. It is because of their intuitive moral approach to certain issues. Sometimes a posek will say, I have to find a heter (lenient ruling) for this problem. He may even have made up his mind how he wants the decision to be before he starts to investigate. And then he looks around all the arguments to justify his position and puts it in an halakhic framework, after which he exclaims: You see, I was right in what I said at the beginning. He knows quite well that the arguments were all colored by his need to come to a lenient conclusion. And the beauty of this is that this is completely legitimate within Judaism.
You see it with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, you see it with some very Haredi literature as well, it all has to do with a philosophical and ideological attitude which is deeply influenced by the moral intuition of these particular people, and that’s also why there are tremendous differences between the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi poskim. The Ashkenazi outlook to life is much more pessimistic than the Sephardi one. This has its roots in their different experiences in the countries from which they hail, and consequently we find different halachic responses.
There’s an ideology to halakha. And there are different opinions as to what that ideology is. The halakha tells us what to do and what not to do. But it is often a much larger weltanschauung, an outlook to life, which lies behind these halakhic requirements. They are never clearly stated anywhere in the Torah, unless they are stated in very general terms, such as ‘you must be holy’, but that still requires an explanation about what holiness really is. So ideologies play a great role. The ideological differences between the Haredi and the national-religious rabbis concerning the State of Israel’s religious meaning is a good example.
JP: Are we practicing halakha the way we should?
NLC: Let me tell you an interesting story. Rav Haim Zimmerman z.l. ( 1914-1995) was one of the greatest Talmudic geniuses in our generation. In his later years he lived here in Jerusalem. I was told that he was the study partner of the famous Reb Shimon Shkop (1860-1939) back in Lithuania. I met him once or twice. He had all of the Talmud at his fingertips. He wasn’t so well known because he belonged to the Zionist camp and not to the Aguda one. He once gave a class and he quoted Maimonides and he said, “Maimonides agrees with me.”. So his students objected and said, “You mean to say that you agree with Maimonides.”. So he said, “No, Maimonides agrees with me. I am today the living authority, Maimonides is no longer alive. So he has no power any more to decide on halakhic matters — I do. And if Maimonides wishes to disagree, please, let’s hear his point of view, but I have the same say in this matter as Maimonides himself had in his days and therefore I could over-rule him. Today I am the halachic arbitrator, not Maimonides.”
I think that is a most important statement, which the yeshiva world has totally forgotten. And this has a lot to do with the codification problem. I’ve written at length about this problem. The Shulkhan Arukh (“Set Table,” the most widely consulted Jewish legal code, published in 1563) was meant at the time to be the abbreviated halakhic guide for the layman. It was the product of an historical development. Since we were living in the diaspora, we had to make sure that Jews would somehow live within the same framework where they were doing more or less the same things, to keep this little nation alive. It required erecting big walls around us to keep the non-Jews and their influence out. So the Shulkhan Arukh, a basic Jewish code, is a typical sociological outcome of a diaspora condition . The Shulkhan Arukh at the time correctly said, we need to make sure that we all operate within the same framework and that requires conformity. This is the only way we can create the powerhouse required to keep us alive among a largely anti-Semitic world.
Both the Shulkhan Arukh and earlier Maimonides’ famous codification of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah (“Repetition of the Torah,” a code of Jewish religious law compiled between 1170 and 1180) are tremendous scholarly achievements. But what Maimonides did was extremely dangerous. By writing down the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides finalized the halakha. He basically said, this is the halakha and nothing else. He even wrote in the forward to this masterpiece, that there is no longer any need to study the Talmud because he had put it all in front of us. Here it is! For once and for all. He provides no minority opinions, he acts precisely as what he probably he was, as the greatest talmudic genius of his time and possibly of all time, and we—after a period of resistance when his books were burned in some communities—have turned him into an halachic idol: If Maimonides says so, then there’s nothing left to discuss. We canonized him.
We never had, as the Catholic Church did, a particular body such as a conclave which decided these matters. Not even in the days of the Sanhedrin. With us it was always fluid. A matter of moving forward and going back and so on. You actually see it if you look in the Shulkhan Arukh, and you look into Maimonides, the commentators around the texts often take issue with them. But they can’t stand up against Maimonides; he is too overpowering. The same is true with his famous thirteen principles of faith: he dogmatizes Jewish belief and by doing so creates a crisis in Judaism for which we still pay a heavy price. Since when are there finalized Jewish beliefs? There are none.
This, I think, has created tremendous problems, because what we’re doing is we’re taking the halakha which developed in the diaspora for the last 2000 years, and we’re bringing it to the State of Israel, and applying it as if we are still living in diaspora—when we are not. And therefore you constantly have problems in Israel about halakha, because the traditional halakha speaks as if nothing has happened in Jewish history since 1948. But the whole situation has radically changed. So the Shulkhan Arukh is in many ways outdated. And I’m sure that if Maimonides, or Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulkhan Arukh, lived today, they would say: We never wrote our codifications for a time when the State of Israel would be established, why do you still apply our rulings which were meant for the time we lived in the diaspora?
JP: But the Mishneh Torah talks about the laws of the temple and other areas of Jewish life on the land.
NLC: Yes. But Maimonides never wrote about a secular Jewish state. That whole concept didn’t exist. [The late chief rabbi of Israel] Rabbi Yitzhak Ha-Levi Herzog writes in one of his letters, that the halakha is not ready to take on the State of Israel. Because we never developed the halakha in the diaspora to deal with the State of Israel where we’re running our own (secular) country. We were always under the administration of the non-Jewish world.
The Shulkhan Arukh starts by saying, that in the morning we have to get up, and we must imagine God before us and go to synagogue to pray. But let’s ask an important question: What are the conditions where you’re able to get up in the morning and are able to say these words and go to synagogue to pray? It requires that the Turkish government, under which the Shulkhan Arukh was written in Safed under Ottoman rule, will have created a legal system that enables you as a Jew to get out of bed in the morning and walk to synagogue without getting attacked. So you have already taken on all sorts of guarantees from a secular administration, to make your adhering to your religious obligations possible. But that was the Ottoman government, that’s not the situation in Israel today. So what you really need to do is rewrite all this, and then you’ll have a big problem because the law has to be able to develop and to constantly re-think itself. But how many poskim have made sure we do that? Instead, they will go back to the Shulkhan Arukh and say, no, Rav Yosef Karo says like this and that’s the end of the discussion.
THE ROLE OF THE POSEK
JP: Should a modern posek (halakhic scholar) relate to halakha as precedence law that must be consulted before ruling, or can they approach the halakhic inquiry directly from their knowledge of the Talmud? How much of the millennia of Shut (halakhik Q&A) should a modern posek take into consideration?
NLC: There’s no straight answer to this. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein z.l. would sometimes make rulings directly from the Talmud. The Rogatchover Gaon z.l. (Rabbi Joseph Rosen, 1858-1936) would often rule from the Talmud. Rav Ovadia Yosef z.l., although he tried very hard to get the Shulkhan Arukh to become the absolute voice within the Sephardi world, constantly contradicted himself in the sense that on one side he wanted to go by the Shulkhan Arukh and at the same time he constantly put it aside and went directly to the source.
My feeling is that some poskim today are overwhelmed by their knowledge and they get drowned in it. And therefore they can’t think creatively any more. If you have too much knowledge then you can’t think on your own anymore because your mind is taken up by this encyclopedic amount of knowledge and you can’t step out of the box. This is not only true with halakha, this is true in many other departments of human knowledge as well. We know so much and therefore we get completely overwhelmed and we don’t have space left any more in our brains to come up with something new. This has been happening with poskim for quite a while now.
Therefore the biggest religious Jewish scholars are not necessarily the greatest poskim any more since they can’t think outside the box. But if you go one step below, and in Israel you have quite a few of them, you will find people who know halakha very well but they are not stagnated by this staggering knowledge, so they are probably much better equipped for responding to the needs of the day.
Rav Yuval Cherlow, Rav Yoel Bin Nun, Rav Ariel Holland, Rabbi David Bigman. And there are many more around, especially in Israel — I don’t think you have so many abroad. But in Israel at the moment you have people who think on their own, have a lot of knowledge, and they can examine issues with a critical eye and make amazing rulings.
Rav Cherlow came up with some unprecedented rulings which got him in trouble with some of his his colleagues. He has responsa about women wanting to get a child without being married. Israeli poskim have also dealt with sex change operations. There are daring undertakings, Sure, one can also go overboard. It all needs careful consideration.
[Rabbi Cardozo related a personal example of thinking outside the halakhic box.]
I had a case two years ago: M, the son of a friend of mine, a cohen, from a Portuguese-Spanish family of Amsterdam, practicing Jews, wanted to get married to a convert who was also a divorcée. And since he is a cohen, he went to the Rabbinate of the Spanish Community in Amsterdam and asked if there was any possibility he could marry this woman since he knew that a cohen can’t ordinarily get married with a convert or a divorced women. (Both are very problematic laws in today’s society.) Both he and his bride to be were not so young any more, they were in their forties and had little chance to find other partners and have children. But the Rabbinate said no. After all: A divorcée who is also a convert — marrying a cohen: impossible. So they came to me. I don’t consider myself to be a posek at all, but I know a little about it. They asked, can’t you help us, so I sat down with them and I said to the woman, why are you a divorcée? Did you get a Get, a bill of divorce? Yes, she answered, I received a Get via the rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv. I was married to an Israeli man, and after a few weeks the marriage fell apart. I asked if she would mind telling me why, and the answer was that the husband had a physical problem and couldn’t have relations with his wife. He was severely impotent. So I said to her, did the rabbinic court ask you why you wanted to get divorced? No, she said, they just told me I should get a Get and that’s what I did. So I told her that it was my opinion that she was not a divorcée, and that she didn’t need a Get because there was no consummation of the marriage and therefore she was never married in accordance with Jewish Law. The Rabbinate in Amsterdam had failed to ask these questions. Not a small matter.
Then I said to the cohen, how do you know that you’re a really a cohen? You come from the same background that I come from, Portuguese-Spanish, from under the shadow of the Inquisition. Can you tell me that your family were really Cohanim? The man was actually called Cohen which would indicate that he really was one. But I knew that the name Cohen was in sephardi culture the same as “Lord” in England, and had nothing to do with having been a descendant of Jewish priests. They used to use this kind of name as an honorary name which did not mean that they were Cohanim halakhically. So after a lot of discussions with Israeli poskim, including Rav Bigman, and Rav Holland, I said to the couple: This it is our opinion: The young man is either not at all a cohen or he is a “Hallal”, a desecrated cohen. This is so because during the time of the Inquisition, cohanim were incapable of holding on to their cohen lineage by marrying only women that were permitted to them such as virgins and widows. If they however married Jewish women who were not permitted to them, then their offspring are no longer bound by the laws of the cohen and are allowed to marry every Jewish woman including a convert or divorcee. And so I officiated at this couple’s Chupah. In my home in Israel.
In my opinion there are very few real cohanim in the world today. Also the Ashkenazi community had to go through the most terrible conditions which made it often impossible for them to observe the specific marital laws for cohanim and few are real cohanim. There is much halachic literature about this. The only ones who are probably real cohanim are the Syrians and Tunisians.
ELECTRICITY AND SHABBAT
JP: When Edison invented the electric bulb, discussion began among US Jews whether or not electricity is fire. It determined the appearance and behavior of Shabbat for the next century. Today, when we have moved away even from the light-bulbs with heated coils, and with solid state devices, even issues of the labor of construction on Shabbat are no longer present, and with major poskim already saying that devices like the telephone are only a problem because of the danger of a slippery slope — is it time to do away with our fear of the Shabbat slippery slope?
NLC: If you would ask me, whether I am in favor of allowing turning on lights on Shabbat? I would say No, but not for solely halakhic reasons. My reason is this: the fact that I’m not allowed to use electricity creates a certain spirit, a certain atmosphere, which I need and I think my fellow Jews need to observe Shabbat in the right spirit. Not because it is halakhically forbidden — there are enough reasons to rule that using electricity does not contradict the prohibitions of Shabbat. But not all halakhic matters are pure halakha. They have to do with ideology. How are we creating the spirit of Shabbat? What is required there? Therefore, we may say, listen, let’s not use electricity on Shabbat. This is what Shabbat has stood for, for thousands of years. In the olden days there were candles which were prohibited to be lit, over the years this was applied to electricity as well, so that unless there are very specific circumstances where there is really no solution but to use electricity, I would say, don’t turn on electric lights. Nobody is paying a big price for this. There’s no moral issue here, let’s keep the system as it is.
But take for example the case of the “Shabbat goy”, a non Jew doing work for us on Shabbat. I think that the use of a Shabbat goy in Israel is highly unnatural and unhealthy. After all, it still means that we are depending on the non Jews, even when we are living in an independent Jewish state. In other words: We still need to have Arabs sitting in the electric company on Shabbat to make sure that we Jews have light on Shabbat. I put a very big question mark behind this. I don’t see it as a healthy situation. Perhaps we should find the technological means for Jews to do this work without transgressing Shabbat. There must be ways by which we can do it ourselves and we don’t need non-Jews to do that for us. As long as they are not terrorists but law abiding citizens, Arabs are surely welcome in our State and they are not our servants.
I have altogether a moral problem with using non-Jews on Shabbat, because what we’re doing is making an impression that the non-Jew is seen as a second class citizen; what we can’t do, he has to do. In other words, we are the so-called Chosen People, and we need to be served by the non-Jews. Now I know that this is not the intention of the Jewish tradition, and I know non Jews who are very proud to be a Shabbes goy. But it can’t be denied that this law created a negative attitude towards non-Jews in the orthodox Jewish community. Especially in Israel. It is very problematic and highly un-Jewish. With tongue in cheek, I would love to see a “Sunday Jew”, where we Jews can do some work for the non-Jews on their day of rest. Then at least we would be equals without losing our specific identities. Equal but different. The dignity of difference to use an expression by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks!
JP: You also have thousands of religious kids who are texting on Shabbat. Judging by the articles I’ve read on this issue I get the impression that it’s the norm rather than the exception in certain religious youth circles.
NLC: It’s a great tragedy, because it’s a sign that these young people are bored on Shabbat, that they don’t have something which replaces their smartphone, and we are remiss in offering educational ways by which to keep young people engaged so they wouldn’t even touch those devices on Shabbat. When you take something away from somebody you have to replace it with something even better. And if you don’t do that then you get these situations, which in the Modern Orthodox world has become a problem. Especially in the Lithuanian Jewish world, there’s a lot of spirituality and inspiration missing – the excitement about being a Jew, about wanting to observe the commandments. Real authentic Hasidism has a much better handle on this. In the non-Hasidic world we’ve become extremely mechanical, we have to keep all the laws and we’re no longer asking what is the music behind it, what kind of music are we playing out here? The original Hasidic thinkers of two hundred years ago, like Rabbi Tzadok Hacohen or the Mey Hashiloach (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica) — were able to give the Jewish Tradition a new spirit and they knew exactly what they were writing about, even being prepared to take risks and being highly controversial. They stated what they believed, and because of that the Hasidic world has been given a spirituality to Judaism which the Lithuanian world never offered us and still does not.
KASHRUT AND ANIMAL SUFFERING
JP: Should the suffering of meat animals influence their kashrut standard?
NLC: I have doubts about the kosher slaughtering of animals in America and here in Israel. The meat industry today has overwhelmed us. The number of cows and chickens which have to be slaughtered every day is so enormous that I can’t see how this will ever work halakhically. The method of shechita at the time was meant for a small town where once-in-a-while they would eat a piece of meat. You can’t compare it with the reality of the meat industry today, where tens of thousands of cows are killed every day.
I believe that the prohibition on needless suffering by animals makes our whole system highly problematic and probably non-kosher. Again this is not a pure halachic issue. It is a Jewish religious-ideological issue. Because if indeed there’s a lot of needless suffering of animals taking place, and I’ve seen this personally, the way they deal with those animals is beyond all description, then the Rabbinate should say: No way are we permitting this. Now this is a very complicated story, because since we are a meat eating society, we have to produce an amount of meat that the shechita laws can’t live up to. It has to go too fast. Too many animals get hurt before they undergo shechita. I don’t know how many shochtim there are in Israel, there must be lots of them, but how is it possible that the shechita will nearly always go well? You can use statistical rules of thumb, you can cite a permission here and an allowance there but how far does that go, especially when we are bound by laws about how to treat animals mercifully? I don’t believe that any piece of meat today is Kasher l’mehadrin (perfectly kosher).
We should start educating people to no longer eat meat. This is a process, an educational process. The trouble is that if we slowly start to diminish the amount of meat which we require, we’ll have an economic problem on our hands. What’s going to happen to all of the people who are making their living from this industry? And there are lots of them: Shochtim, butchers, supervisors, whatever else there is. You’ll have to find a financial solution for these people, you can’t just say, we should stop eating meat. We have to find a slow way by which we will get people off of eating meat. Finding solutions to the financial problems of the people who will be left without their livelihoods is going to take fifty, sixty years. The trouble is that I’ve never seen the rabbinate or the rabbinic courts really dealing with these issues.
DISMANTLE THE CHIEF RABBINATE
JP: Do we really need the Chief Rabbinate in Israel?
NLC: We need to end the Institution of the Chief rabbinate in Israel. I have the greatest respect for Chief Rabbis Yosef and Lau, they mean well but they are the victims of a system that isn’t working. The truth of the matter is that the Rabbinate in Israel is the Knesset and not the Chief rabbis. It is a political institution. Some people in the Knesset are telling the Rabbinate what they should say and do. There is corruption taking place. The institution is no longer functioning. It was meant for the general, often secular Israeli population. But it has been taken over by the Haredim, the ultra-orthodox. This was not the intent for the Chief Rabbinate, because the Haredim have their own Rabbinate.
The Chief Rabbinate lacks the halakhic poskim of great stature to deal with some very urgent issues: conversions, agunot, feminism, kosher slaughtering, running a modern state, which require these people to be great authorities in halakha and be creative thinkers, and the chief rabbis of today are not up to this. They are not on that level. They don’t seem to possess the prerequisite knowledge. Neither do I, but I am not the Chief Rabbi.
Today’s Chief rabbis are not like the famous Rav Avraham Yitschak Kook, Rav Ben Zion Uziel or Rav Isaac Yitschak Herzog. I think that in the Ashkenazi Rabbinate the last person of greatness was Rav Shlomo Goren. He had the knowledge and he had the creativity. Afterwards this whole Institution disintegrated.
JP: So you would replace it?
NLC: Sure. The last Knesset had already decided that every local rabbinate would have its own conversion system in their own cities, and no longer be subject to the control of the chief rabbinate. Orthodox rabbis who have the authority should decide in their own cities who are the people eligible to become converts. This should not be left up to the chief rabbinate, because the chief rabbinate doesn’t know these people. So how can they decide without actually knowing the people who is eligible for conversion?
I am of the opinion, as is the well-known Israeli Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, that we should try to convert the nearly four hundred thousand Russians of Jewish decent in Israel in a mass conversion, even though a priori it’s not the best manner of conversion according to halakha. The reason why I am in favor of this is this: if we do not convert these people, they’ll marry our children and in no time we’ll have a million non-Jews here, to the point where it could undermine the security of the State of Israel. It can create enormous social problems. So, here you have to consider not just the halakhic religious conversion issue but the security of the state, too. A halakhic state issue.
This is no longer a diaspora reality where you decide on halakha for individuals who are Torah observant. We are dealing here with the State of Israel, which requires that we remain a unified political entity, and that we can marry each other and secure the State of Israel.
But the rabbinate hasn’t for one moment even considered this point of view. That is a serious dereliction of duty.
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