Ten Questions for Rabbi Cardozo by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz
For question 9 Part 2, see https://www.cardozoacademy.org/thoughts-to-ponder/my-chareidi-and-modern-orthodox-struggles-part-2/
Question 10 (Part 1)
In your writings, you quote both rabbis and philosophers. On the one hand, you draw your insights from great rabbis such as the Rambam, the Kotzker Rebbe, Rav Kook, Rav Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rav Eliezer Berkovits. On the other hand, you seem to equally find inspiration from great philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza, Emmanuel Levinas, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber. Rabbis tend to focus on loyalty to tradition, while philosophers seem to feel freer to question and seek truth, regardless of tradition. Rav Cardozo, do you see yourself more as a rabbi, or as a philosopher? And part two of this question: Do you think that having the official title of “Rabbi Cardozo” suppresses your true thoughts, or does it rather help to express them?
Nathan Lopes Cardozo:
In my younger days, I never contemplated becoming a rabbi or a philosopher, but a businessman. My father z”l ran a very successful business, “Roco & Cardozo,” selling sewing machines wholesale in Amsterdam. (Mr. Immanuel Roco, my father’s partner, was also of Jewish Portuguese background and also married out.) They jointly owned one of the large “Herenhuizen” mansions, at the Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal)—one of the most famous canals in Amsterdam—where they employed about 60 people.
Later, the building caught fire and partially burned down. It was sold for pennies, which was a huge mistake. Today, it would be worth millions and all of our family would have been somewhat rich! Because of this and my father’s heart condition we lost nearly all our money.
But before all that, we were well-to-do—though certainly not very rich—and my brother and I were raised in a small villa outside Amsterdam, in a village called Aerdenhout, with two large gardens. You can see it in the documentary about my life “Lonely but Not Alone” (https://www.cardozoacademy.org/documentary-lonely-but-not-alone/).
The idea was that my brother and I would enter this business and take it over one day. I even went to a “handelsschool” (trade-school), where I learned about the business world, and still remember much of what was taught. But I despised the school, found it utterly boring, and decided that it was not for me.
Interestingly, my family believes that I am not at all business-orientated and therefore completely unsuitable for this; especially after I entered the realm of Jewish learning and became very soft in my dealings with others when it relates to interacting with people and the business world. But they are utterly mistaken. The truth is that I probably would have been a very good businessman. But they never saw me in that capacity.
Let me explain:
Business largely depends on the power of persuasion and on making an object or deal attractive to a potential buyer. That’s the way to make good money. But to do so, you yourself have to believe in the object or deal. If you don’t, you will either be unable to sell it, or you’ll be a charlatan. This is also true about making Judaism and its profundity appealing, to oneself as well as to others (only without the money)! It’s all about persuasion!
During much of my life, I have tried to convince people of what I believe is the beauty of Judaism. In other words, I use my talents to influence people to “fall in love” with Judaism. (A terrible expression: Since when can one fall in love? One can fall in a pit, but not in love!) So in principle, it’s not so different from business.
The difference is that I found convincing people to buy an object to be of little meaning, although it is surely a mitzva to help people live a more prosperous and comfortable life. This is no doubt a great thing to do, as long as it is done honestly. Let us not forget that in the old days many of our greatest sages were also businessmen, because they felt they should not receive any money for learning or teaching Torah (something we should make possible again). But for me, that wasn’t enough. I had to find something more spiritual. So I left the business option.
But in both cases there is an element of selling or promoting something. And to do so successfully, for the most part people must have the talent to express themselves well and articulate their ideas. In other words, the method is the same. The difference is in what you are selling. I chose to sell Judaism, although the word “sell” is not very appropriate when speaking about religion. The other difference is that promoting (authentic) religion requires intellectual profundity. This doesn’t mean that business people don’t possess intellectual (philosophical) profundity, but it’s not a requirement for business per se. Something I did learn in trade-school, as well as from my dear father, is that big business people are also extremely creative thinkers—sometimes more than certain philosophers—and some are clearly geniuses, far beyond the average.
As an aside, this goes hand in hand with something else as well. My family and others believe that I can be easily fooled and lied to, and that I’m a little naive. The truth is very different. I know exactly when people are fooling me and lying to me. I have a special ability for this, which I don’t think is so good to have! The reason why I let people get away with it is because I’m a rabbi (perhaps against my will!), and a rabbi must have compassion and be “ma’avir al midotav” (See Rosh Hashana 17a), go beyond retribution and instead be tolerant, so as to make sure not to cause any strife, which will give the rabbinate and Judaism a bad name. Too many rabbis are already involved in cases of corruption, dishonesty, or just unnecessary discord. I do not wish to add to this.
But it certainly comes with a heavy price, which I paid many times when I became the victim of dishonest people. And I am fully aware that I still do. They think they manage to fool me, but I see straight through them and keep silent. That way, I can at least rest my head on my pillow at night and know that I have not been the cause of a chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name).
Sure, there are cases where people hurt themselves or others without being aware of it, and then you must step in. But it means that at times you have to be unkind—sometimes even unforgiving—and then you get blamed for having hurt them because they don’t realize why you did what you did. This happens to me repeatedly because of my special circumstances. It is extremely painful, particularly with one’s loved ones. But there is no choice, and one has to carry this with a heavy heart. This is exactly what happened to Joseph and his brothers. (See TTP 621–Parshat Mikeitz: The Pain of Being a Tzaddik) For me this is hell, but better hell than letting people get hurt or hurt others, which is so much worse.
But to come back to business: As I said, I have a talent for “selling” Judaism to many of my “clients,” and I’m sure that I could have sold anything and could have easily become rich. But I decided against it.
To be honest, I find all this frightening. The power of persuasion can easily be used for the most evil ideologies or dishonest practices. Hitler is a typical example of that, in the extreme. He was an excellent speaker who turned into a demagogue. He could sell—to millions of people including academics and philosophers—the idea that the Jews had to be exterminated for the sake of a better future. So many other dictators throughout history were also very gifted speakers, and were thus able to bring great evil upon humankind.
The reason is obvious: Once you have convinced yourself of something you want to believe, you’re able to sell anything if you’re a good communicator.
So, while I feel blessed to have this talent, I am also most afraid of it. The truth is that I could have been not only a good businessman, but also a good priest, bishop or atheist. It all depends on what I could have convinced myself of as being the truth or worthwhile for me to pursue.
Although I don’t have any affiliation with Catholicism or other Christian denominations, I have read many of their theologies and fully understand their religious beliefs. I’m sure I could sell them, because even ideas that are repulsive to me—such as the trinity and incarnation doctrines—would make perfect sense to me once I would accept certain basic Christian beliefs. These beliefs can never be proven or disproven. They belong to a different category and are not open to intellectual scrutiny. As with music and art, one cannot prove or disprove such matters. They just “are,” and they depend on deep emotional needs or preferences. The same is true about secular or religious philosophy. So these Christian beliefs are true from within their own system and can therefore be “sold” as the truth. I could even bring some Jewish sources, if I just “bend” them a little. Christians are not dishonest, but truthful in what they believe. As long as one realizes that this is only true when seen from within the Christian perspective.
Still, to me as a Jew it is totally untrue. But I can never claim that it’s a sham. Even nonsense is serious stuff and requires our attention, because it’s the other side of the same coin that we can make sense of, especially because (common) sense is so limited. This is what most religious Jews don’t understand when rejecting Christianity and other religions, as I do. The difference between them and me is that I take Christianity very seriously, even if I disagree.
This is also the case with Reform Judaism. Once you buy into its ideology, it makes perfect sense. Still, I cannot and will not opt for it because my intuition tells me there’s something wrong about it. My neshama, my intellectual background, and reading about Judaism tell me that for me it is not authentic—although there are aspects of Reform Judaism that I believe are true and that Orthodox Judaism can learn a lot from. My reading of Conservative Judaism is a topic on its own, which we’ll need to discus another time.
It is because of my awareness that any religious belief can be sold that I have become so critical of mainstream Orthodox Judaism and skeptical about the way I promulgate my own Judaism, in the way I see it. Who says it’s correct? I am fully aware that the kind of Judaism I believe in and seriously practice makes perfect sense from within its own system. As such, I am honestly promoting it. But I keep asking myself whether its claims of truth are any more valid than the claims of other religions, other Jewish denominations, or secular philosophies. Am I “in it” because it’s something I have grown into and feel at home and comfortable with, or is there something more that makes my Judaism’s claim to truth stand out from all the others?
To be clear: I believe it stands out for many reasons, and one day we need to discuss them carefully. But I am aware that this conviction is at least partially bolstered by the fact that I was born into a secular, partly Jewish family and over the years became an Orthodox although rebellious Jew. Something inside tells me that Judaism has gotten it right. I also believe that my (Orthodox) Judaism is closer to the truth than other forms of Orthodox Judaism, with which I partially or sometimes completely disagree, although I have much in common with them in practice. But it may quite well be because I have a certain kind of Jewish neshome, a type of spiritual DNA that is perhaps different because of my unusual background, my vast knowledge, and my unique reading of this tradition. Still, I believe that for nearly all Jews Judaism is unparalleled because of some kind of language, feeling, and a certain way of thinking that is bound with the Jewish neshama. It’s what Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim would call “root experiences”—historical experiences throughout nearly 4,000 years that made us different from others; the result of various archetypal experiences.
That is true for me and my fellow Jews, but not for the Christian who doesn’t have the same “DNA” and is made up of different spiritual elements that I will never understand, identify with, or live by.
Therefore, I claim that Christianity is not inauthentic. It is authentic for the Christian, but I have no part in it. Perhaps it’s another way to God, which is absolutely authentic but only meant for Christians. For me, claims that the Mashiach has already come, that Jesus is the son of God, and that he is the incarnation of God are completely unacceptable and blasphemous. But that’s because all these claims make no sense from within traditional Judaism. It is clear to me, however, that Christianity reads them in a totally different way, and within that system they make perfect sense. But my neshama and Jewish way of thinking cannot make peace with that. What this means is: If Christianity had not spouted anti-Semitism for hundreds if not thousands of years, it could have worked together with Judaism on many matters that they have in common, such as promulgating monotheism, religiosity, moral responsibility, and the importance of Tanach.
I will end here, and we will continue our discussion next week!