January 19, 2020

Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage

As I’ve been a close student of Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s for many years and am very familiar with his philosophy, I found myself excited and eager to read his latest book: Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage (Urim Publications, 2018). I was not disappointed. In this masterful work, Rav Cardozo not only critiques the great challenges that Jews face in the world but also lays out an inspirational and comprehensive vision of contemporary Judaism, one where, “Halacha’s main [function] is to protest against a world that is becoming ever more complacent, self-indulgent, insensitive, and egocentric” (21). 

Most Jewish definitions of the purpose of halacha (usually translated simply as “Jewish Law”) is about halacha’s function as being in “service of God” or “submission to God.” This “sacrifice,” in turn, means we might have to silence our values, our philosophies, our relationships in order to fulfill the commandments as provided by the Jewish texts. Such an approach has often been coupled with a frozen thinking that halacha cannot change. Yet, so many committed to a life driven by halacha find themselves in moral paralysis, stuck between a harsh status quo and an enlightened consciousness that attempts to push humanity towards something called progress. Rather than feeling at peace with our blind submission to a higher truth, Rav Cardozo lays out a substantially different vision of halacha:

The purpose of Halacha is to disturb [emphasis added]. To disturb the world that cannot wake up from its slumber because it actually thinks that it is alive and well. This is not only true of the secular community, but also many religious communities that have fallen victim to the daily grind of halachic living while being disconnected from the spirit of Halacha, which often clashes with halachic conformity just for the sake of conformity. Many religious people convince themselves that they are religious because they are “frum.” They are conformists, not because they are religious but because they are often self-pleasers, or are pleasing the communities in which they live (21).

So often, liberal education (in the classical sense) is discouraged because yeshiva teachers know that the moment students become open-minded about the broader world, the ensuing curiosity and creativity become dangerous to the current situation. If an enterprise is about answers, rather than questions and submitting not struggling, piety not seeking, authority not empowerment, then the holy system is put at risk. Indeed, as Rav Cardozo explains:

It is time to start thinking big about Halacha. Great opportunities are awaiting us and too much is at stake to let them pass by. For too long, Halacha has been jailed in compartmentalized and awkward boxes. It is time to liberate it. Most religious Jews are not aware that Halacha has nearly become passé. They believe it is thriving. After all, Halacha is very “in” and there are more books on this subject than ever before. Despite this, it lacks courage. We have fallen in love with—and become overwhelmed by—an endless supply of all-encompassing but passive halachic information, which does not get processed but only recycled. We only tolerate and admire bold ideas when they provide us with profit-making inventions—when we feel our empty pockets—but not when they dare challenge our hollow souls (35).

Even more so, Orthodox Jewish education today generally prioritizes Talmud study and the intricacies of halachic observance but ignores the broader world of secular philosophy, spirituality, problem-solving, emotional intelligence, and relationship-building. While the Talmud is an incredible repository of rhetoric, debate, and radical epistemology, its worldview is of its time. That doesn’t discount it as a foundation of understanding our tradition and our world, nor does it mean that it should be discounted. On the other hand, keeping the Talmud as the sole focus of secondary Jewish education does a disservice to future generations of leaders. The Talmud needn’t serve as an isolated pedagogic tool, but as a springboard to explore the wondrous, manifold ideas that hover in the ether. Unfortunately, this approach is not the case, and Rav Cardozo pinpoints what happens when this stagnant form of learning is the norm:

Jewish education today is, for the most part, producing a generation of religious Jews who know more and more about Jewish observance, but think less and less about what it means. This is even truer of their teachers. Some are even Talmudic scholars, but these very scholars don’t realize that they have drowned in their vast knowledge. The more they know, the less they understand…Doing so, they rewrite halachic Judaism in ways that are totally foreign to the very ideas that it truly stands for. They are embalming Halacha while claiming it is alive, because it continues to maintain its external shape (36-37).

Religion, at its best, is about embracing wonder and mystery with humility, rather than hiding away in the narrow straits of certainty. “The quest for certainty paralyzes the search for meaning,” Rav Cardozo writes. (37). Yet there continues to be so much money thrown at kiruv programs (programs that steer unaffiliated, secular Jews with urgency towards an immersive ultra-Orthodox lifestyle) that some young people who are searching for meaning are steered in a wrong direction:

Outreach programs, although well intentioned, have become institutions that, like factories, focus on mass productions and believe that the more people they can draw into Jewish observance, the more successful they are. That their methods crush the minds of many newcomers who might have made a major contribution to a new and vigorous Halacha is of no importance to them. The goal is to fit them into the existing system. That their outdated theories make other independent minds abhor Judaism and Halacha is a thought they do not seem to even entertain. To them, only numbers count. How many more people did we make observant. Millions of dollars are spent to create more and more of the same type of religious Jew. Like the generation of the Tower of Bavel, in which the whole world was “of one language and of one speech” (Bereshit 11:1), we are producing a religious Jewish community of artificial conformism in which independent thought and difference of opinion is not only condemned, but its absence is considered to be the ultimate ideal. WE have created a generation of yes men. We desperately need to heed what Kierkegaard said about Christianity: “The greatest proof of Christianity’s decay is the prodigiously large number of [like-minded] Christians” [1] (38-39).

Rather than striving for religious and spiritual authenticity, we are taught to replicate and emulate: “Spiritual plagiarism (a term used by Heschel) has been adopted as the appropriate way of religious life and thought,” write Cardozo (39). The problem here lies not only with religious institutions but in the home as well:

Parents today who are worried by their children’s lack of enthusiasm for halachic Judaism do not realize that they themselves support a system that systemically makes such passion impossible. What today’s Halacha desperately needs is verbal critics who could spread and energize its great message. It needs halachic Einsteins, Freuds, and Pasteurs who can demonstrate its untapped possibilities and undeveloped grandeur (40).

To borrow a phrase, Judaism dare not become an opiate for the masses. Instead, Judaism is here to awaken us from our slumber, to challenge our beliefs, and to make us think and work for spiritual growth:

Just like art, one cannot inherit Halacha and one cannot receive the Jewish Tradition. One must fight for it and earn it. To be halachically religious is to live in a state of warfare. The purpose of art is to disturb; not to produce finished works, but to stop in the middle, from exhaustion, leaving it for others to continue. So it is with Halacha. It still has scaffolding which should remain while the building continues (40).

Now, one may think that Rabbi Cardozo is being reckless and suggesting we change everything, that we tear down all the structures that have supported Jewish thought since the days of our ancestors. This notion couldn’t be further from the truth. Some conclusions in our courageous quest may lead us down a more progressive path while others may lead us down a more conservative path. The roadmap is not perfectly clear, nor are the answers pre-determined. He explains:

I am not advocating revisionist positions, presented just for the sake of being novel or to justify certain behavior. History has shown that such approaches do not work and often lack the genuine religious experience. We should not be overanxious to encourage innovation of doubtful improvement (41).

Some might think that its risky to embrace bold change in parts of the halacha, in our community building, or in our education. On the other hand, it is riskier to stay in the rat race of maintaining the status quo while ignoring the bigger forces that tug at our souls:

Broad change is not just window dressing, and it can be painful. It is liberating and refreshing, but comes with a price. Without it, though, not only is there no future for Halacha; there is also no purpose. What has been entirely forgotten is that the Torah was the first rebellious text to appear in world history. Its purpose was to protest. It set in motion a rebel movement of cosmic proportions, the likes of which we have never known (42).

All of halacha can be taught as a rebellion. For example, we don’t submit to Shabbat. No! We embrace Shabbat! We embrace Shabbat as a subversive way to honor worker rights, animal welfare, environmental justice, and self-care as no one and no thing can be worked or objectified during the Holiday of Rest. We don’t just submit to Kashrut. We embrace Kashrut! We follow the strictures of a kosher diet as a mechanism to deepen our moral and spiritual intentionality around ethical consumption. Each halacha likewise becomes a vehicle for self-change and social-change. We will continue to lose a lot of Jews from our communities if we just stay the path where halacha becomes less intellectually rigorous and less morally relevant to our times:

As long as our religious educators continue to teach Jewish texts as models of approval instead of manifestations of protest against the mediocrity of our world, we will lose more of our young people to that very mediocrity. Halacha, in its essence, is an act of dissent, not of consent. Dissent leads to renewal. It creates loyalty. It is the force that compels the world to grow (43).

Today, the Jewish world is heavily polarized. One camp is ultra-Orthodoxy that believes halacha cannot and should not change. Another camp is secular and finds no interest in halacha at all. Worse, they find it offensive and backwards. It is time that we develop a middle camp more deeply that truly values the potential of halacha and moves it into the twenty-first century in ways that are open, inclusive, loving, just, and wise. This may be the most crucial enterprise for the Jewish people. Rabbi Cardozo’s fascinating new book inspires us to roll up our sleeves and to become pioneers as we reorient tradition as the vanguard of an inspired Jewish future.

[1] M.M. Thulstrup, “Kierkegaard’s Dialectic of Imitation,” in A Kierkegaard Critique, ed H.A. Johnson and N. Thulstrup (NY: Harper, 1962), 277

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institutethe Founder and President of YATOM, and the author of thirteen books on Jewish ethicsNewsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.