Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo pulls no punches in telling ‘In Jerusalem’ how Judaism and the rabbinic establishment can begin to respond to the current reality.

‘Jewish tradition and Halacha have become stagnant’
‘Jewish tradition and Halacha have become stagnant’


Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo has an unusual background for a rabbi. Perhaps that is why his thinking is so different from that of other rabbis, and why he can say the things he says. Or perhaps other rabbis feel similarly, but do not have the confidence or fearlessness that is so evident when Cardozo speaks.

Whatever the reason, his belief in the justice of Judaism, the morality with which we are charged, and the capacity we have to resolve the seemingly unresolvable gives hope that the Judaism and ethics we hold so dear can in fact work together to produce the society that many of us want to see.

Cardozo grew up in Holland. His father was a secular Jew of Portuguese-Jewish origin; his mother was a Christian who had always felt at home in the Jewish community, which had taken her in when she was orphaned.

Cardozo’s parents married a few weeks before the Germans occupied Holland. His mother hid her husband and his family in Amsterdam, saving the lives of 11 family members.

Born in 1946, he was raised in a secular but culturally Jewish home, where Friday-night meals were a sacred ritual. His father was an admirer of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was shunned by his 17th-century Jewish community for his writings and attacks on basic tenets of Judaism.

Ironically, it was Cardozo’s study of the vilified philosopher that brought him to Judaism. He became curious to know more about those Jews whom Spinoza was continuously attacking. Reading everything he could, in the multiple languages he knew, he grew fascinated with Judaism, and by 16 he had converted. His parents were supportive, with his mother even making the kitchen kosher so that he could eat at home. Eventually she, too, converted.

Cardozo went on to study in England’s Gateshead Yeshiva, Europe’s largest yeshiva, and despite feeling a bit out of place, stayed for eight years out of love of learning. He attained rabbinical ordination and then studied in the Mir Yeshiva, becoming very much a part of the haredi world.

He taught Jewish philosophy at a yeshiva for the newly religious, but a major ideological difference of opinion brought that to an end. For Cardozo would teach his students the words of anyone from whom they could learn. This did not sit well with the leadership, and he left.

Cardozo started his own school to teach rabbis and teachers things they had never heard in university or yeshiva. A think tank that is still active emerged from this effort.

No longer haredi, he writes prolifically – his office is a study overflowing with books, magazines, papers, pamphlets and articles – and he lectures around the world.

When asked what motivates him, he says, “Jewish tradition and Halacha have become stagnant and unable to respond to the current reality, especially the Jewish state, which has created a completely new situation, for which Halacha was not prepared.

“Halacha became very defensive, and for the thousands of years that we were in exile, this was good. It held off the non-Jewish world and protected Judaism and the Jewish people. But it no longer works in the State of Israel. We need a completely different type of Halacha but one deeply rooted in Jewish tradition.”

A different type of Halacha sounds like a very un-Orthodox way of thinking. Not so, says Cardozo.

“Take the army, for example. We never had a Jewish army in a sovereign state! The codes of law do not address this. We had to create the halachot ourselves from the sources in Torah and Talmud. That is what [first head of the IDF’s Military Rabbinate] Rabbi [Shlomo] Goren did when he wrote a code of law for the army. We must continue in this vein. How do we run a Jewish and democratic modern state, where the majority is not halachically committed?

“For example, on issues of conversion, I believe that we must use the most lenient rulings found in Jewish law, especially for the 400,000 people from the former Soviet Union. We should hold a type of mass conversion for those who want to become Jewish and are prepared to keep a minimal amount of Jewish ritual. We should encourage them to keep what they can, and encourage them to learn more.

“I would even suggest another way – that we create non-Jewish Jewish communities. There are people who feel that if they become Jews, they will need to keep all of Halacha, but feel that it is too much for them. Why not make a community of these people, where they keep what they want and live as Jews without being fully Jewish?”

Cardozo acknowledges that this approach is very controversial, but his argument is that the children within these families would be brought up surrounded by Judaism and could then choose to become fully Jewish as adults.

It is easy to see that this idea is inspired from his own experience of having been brought up in a culturally Jewish home and making his own decision to convert to Judaism. He believes that many would choose to become fully Jewish as well. “Judaism is irresistible,” he says.

Other authorities seeking to find solutions advocate converting minors, for whom the halachic process is less complex.

Cardozo says, “I respectfully disagree. Where will the minors learn their Judaism from, if we convert them when their parents are not Jewish? I believe that we should be as lenient as possible, and rely on Hacham Ben-Zion Uziel, the former chief rabbi of Israel, who says we should try to convert anyone of Jewish descent who wants to be Jewish. It is not the ideal approach; but for the sake of unity in Israel, we should take that road.”

And this seems to be the crux of the issue in many areas. The way Halacha is currently practiced is disconnected from the reality on the ground. For example, agunot. Tzvia Gordinsky has been waiting 17 years for her husband, in jail for denying her a get, to change his mind. The rabbinate declares it has done all it can.

What should be done for women whose husbands deny them a halachic divorce?

“We do what Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, Bar-Ilan University’s former president and a talmudic scholar, suggested. There are always ways to undo a Jewish marriage retroactively, where we declare the marriage nonexistent. Halacha says that a Jewish marriage is only a Jewish marriage as long as the rabbis agree to that marriage. The moment that they no longer agree with it, we have the halachic option to declare the marriage not valid from the start.”

Many refuse to take this approach.

“There is a statement in the Talmud that says a woman would rather be married to an awful person than not be married. Rabbi Rackman says, certainly it was true then, when it was said. Then, women were dependent on men and had no status; being married, even to a horrible man, afforded her protection and security more than she would have on her own.

“But now women can certainly stand on their own and not fear starvation or homelessness. In fact, there are many legal assumptions that the Sages did away with, saying that they were no longer applicable. (One example is that a woman would not dare to deny to her husband’s face that she was divorced from him if it were not true. Later authorities stated that this is no longer accepted, since reality proved otherwise.)

“For a woman who no longer wants to be with her husband, because he is abusive or cruel, we can use the approach that had she known how he would treat her, she never would have agreed to the marriage. We can retroactively annul her marriage, and she will have no need for a divorce. The rabbinate is able to do this in emergency cases. But it does not. Consequently, and for other reasons, I have to agree that the Chief Rabbinate needs to be dissolved.”

What do we do once we have eliminated the Chief Rabbinate?

“We do away with a centralized rabbinate and create local ones in various cities. We will need to create a framework that works on a local model, which is far preferable. We must have a system where when a rabbi officiates a conversion or a get, it is automatically accepted by everyone.”

How do we create this reality?

“People who want to see change need to push for it, women and men. Change will happen the moment the damage is so bad that people realize that we cannot continue like this. We can make change.

“There are things in the Torah that are not Jewish ideas. For example, animal sacrifices. The Torah took them from the non-Jewish world. Rambam [Maimonides] says that God didn’t want to take these rituals away all at once, since humans cannot handle sudden change from what they are used to. Slavery is another example. It was allowed because society could not yet economically survive without it. The Torah permitted it, but insisted that slaves be treated in a more dignified way and have basic rights. The idea was that we would outgrow it. So, too, with women’s status. There were certain things in the Torah that at the time were necessary but no longer [are necessary] today.

“The Sages saw this clearly and said we have an obligation to reinterpret the Torah according to the current reality. If the Torah were given today, it would not be the same text that was given to Moshe Rabbenu.

“I believe that there is a need to make changes in Halacha. For example, the prohibition for women to testify in court. Even if we consider that this prohibition (that women may not testify in certain types of court cases) is rooted in the Torah, and not all scholars agree on this, this law is dependent on a historical situation that no longer applies. Our reality is very different than it used to be in the days of the Torah and long afterwards. Such matters we often see in the history and development of Halacha, and this is completely in accord with the spirit of the Torah.”

Can’t this be said about anything? Can we not then say, for example, that the laws of not eating meat and milk together no longer apply?

“No,” says Cardozo, “we shouldn’t do that, because there is no need for it. We are talking about concerns of bein adam l’havero [behavior between people], as opposed to bein adam la’Makom [between people and God]. These are two different circumstances. I wouldn’t like to change the laws of kashrut. It would undermine the very structure of the Jewish tradition, and there is no need, because it isn’t hurting anyone to have to separate meat and dairy, and it has tremendous meaning. It is in cases where people get hurt, such as in the case of a woman ‘chained’ in marriage, that a shift needs to occur.

“There are many different arguments that go back to the Talmud which the Sages abolished because they couldn’t be applied, such as the death penalty, which Rabbi Akiva did away with, or a city full of idol worship, which, according to the letter of the law, must be wiped out.

“There are many instances where Halacha shows tremendous flexibility motivated by human concern, and that is the beauty of Halacha, which I think many rabbis no longer catch. For example, much effort was made to remove the stigma of mamzerut from a child born from an illicit relationship. Arguments sometimes look far-fetched, but they are not, once one starts to understand the spirit of the Torah.

“But now, yeshiva boys are learning ‘for learning’s sake’ – they don’t realize they should be learning to figure out how to solve problems, especially bein adam l’havero.”

When did we begin to stagnate? When did we stop using the key to open doors and start locking ourselves in?

“It happened the first time when Maimonides codified Jewish law in his Mishne Torah. It is a tremendous work of incredible genius, but by codifying Jewish law, he did a tremendous amount of damage. Codification is disastrous. You cannot codify real life. The same is true about the Shulhan Aruch. Not because the people who wrote it didn’t have the best intentions; they wrote the Shulhan Aruch and Mishne Torah to create uniformity in exile. But it doesn’t reflect what Halacha is about anymore. In writing everything down in exact detail, not only does it eliminate other options, but it removes the entire thought process.

“I think the younger generation is starting to see that things need to change. But the Holocaust created a traumatic condition, most especially for Orthodox Jews – namely, what are we going to do with this God who left us behind and allowed six million people to be murdered? The result is that we don’t know what to do with Him. So instead, we talk Halacha and become very exacting with every detail. It’s an escape from what we are meant to deal with, which is: How do we deal with God after something like the Holocaust happened and, despite all of this, we need to relate to Him?

“People are more afraid of Halacha than they are in awe of God. Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “We have too many textbooks and too few text people.” People are alive, and law can never take over life. It can give direction, but it isn’t living.

“Halacha was a living organism, until it was put in a box. We lost the spirit and are left with the letters. Halacha isn’t the problem; it’s the people who apply it. Halacha is a very healthy construct. It is sublime. There is nothing like it.

“Now we are told what to believe and how to believe, and that is completely un-Jewish.”

Rabbi Cardozo’s newest book, Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, challenges the rabbinic establishment on many of these issues and will be available later this month.

As reported by The Jerusalem Post