Confronting The Challenges Of Jewish Law


“Show me a person who has no problems, and I’ll show you and idiot,” announced Abraham Joshua Heschel in an interview shortly before he died.

In his book, “Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halakhic Courage,” Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopes Cardozo shows he is no idiot. He has lots of problems—the constructive kind. He is bursting with thoughtful anxiety over the state of Jewish life and our current misguided use of God’s Torah and Jewish law. Cardozo is a contemporary Isaiah, filled with prophetic indignation over the gap between how Jews actually live and what God wants us to be, over the abuse of religion and the lack of courage of today’s rabbis.

Neither is Cardozo a naif. A learned Orthodox scholar who studied for many years at England’s Orthodox Gateshead Yeshiva, he has devoted his life to poring over the hallowed texts of rabbinic authorities. He lives in Jerusalem where he founded the David Cardozo Academy, which confronts the modern crises of religion and Jewish identity. Former Chief Rabbi Jonatan Sacks regards him as “one of the most thoughtful voices in contemporary Orthodoxy, a man of faith and wide intellectual horizons who is unafraid to confront the challenges of the age.”

Cardozo is the anti-Marx: His Torah is not an opiate, but an unceasing stimulus for growth and tikkun. He insists that “religion is meant to disturb,” to shake us out of our spiritual slumber and attune us to life’s wonders. A dreamer on a relentless spiritual quest, Cardozo refuses to grant complacency any kosher seal of approval. For him, halachah is a protest against the routine, ennui and conformity that we all fall prey to. Jewish law is “deliberate chaos,” and at its best “a response to the ultimate questions of existence.” Cardozo is an artist trapped in a community of rule-followers, a musician among mathematicians. He recommends that “a rabbi listen to Bach, Mozart or Beethoven before making a halachic ruling.” As a poet, Cardozo resonates to the spirituality of Heschel; as a halachist he mirrors the intellectual boldness and conviction of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits.

Cardozo does not shy away from recommending creative solutions to most of the thorny halachic issues he raises.

Halakhah as Rebellion” is a series of readable, bite-size essays written over many years, and it will appeal to nearly every type of serious Jew: Its non-technical, flowing style makes Cardozo’s thinking accessible to the intelligent layperson. Its copious footnotes will excite rabbis steeped in halachah. Its broad references to Western thought will stimulate the philosophers and humanists among us. For Israeli Jews, Cardozo tackles local problems like Shabbat in the public square and Israel’s Chief Rabbinate; for Jews in New York, Los Angeles and Paris, he addresses general issues like the meaning of kashrut and religious irrelevance. The book’s references to Cardozo’s fellow Dutchman, Baruch Spinoza, will even intrigue our atheists.

You only need to peruse the book’s table of contents to see the breadth of Cardozo’s caring and how accurately he has his finger on the pulse of contemporary Jewish life: Personal freedom versus religious obligations, same sex marriages and traditional sexual prohibitions, the multiplicity of religious rules in places where rules should not exist, the problem of agunot, Jewish identity in our modern pluralistic culture, absurdity in religious commitment, conversion to Judaism, democracy and Jewish law, “frumkeit” vs. religious authenticity, and philosophy’s challenge to Judaism.

Cardozo does not shy away from recommending creative solutions to most of these thorny issues: He advises Israelis to “take the bike or tram, get a free coffee and observe Shabbat.” Because halachah is best understood as a partnership between God and the Jewish people, he shows how rabbis can activate halachic loopholes and advance rabbinic power to reduce the number of mamzerim and agunot to zero. He would like to see “non-Jewish” Jewish communities as a way to solve Israel’s conversion crisis. He implores contemporary rabbis to be courageous and unlock “frozen” Torah texts in order to bring Torah into line with the cultural, social and moral reality of the Jewish people today.

Because he is a committed Orthodox rabbi, Cardozo subordinates himself to halachic norms. Yet he is bold theologically and recognizes the limits of thought and halachic decisions. There are no perfect solutions in life or law, and therefore compromise, humility and tentativeness are the watchwords of wise Jews. It is providential that traditional rabbinic texts are pluralistic, almost always preserving multiple opinions that can be used to address the ever-changing Jewish condition. So halachic rules are best understood as but temporary norms, and halachah is always open to new creative solutions that allow to the Jewish people to flourish. It is up to us to find and utilize those divine secrets.

Today more than ever Judaism should be an anchor and an inspiration. Yet many Jews view Judaism as irrelevant and oppressive. Halakhah as Rebellion is an attempt to imbue Judaism with a new spirit and recover that inspiration and meaning. Whether you admire Cardozo’s boldness or deem it heresy, whether you sympathize with Cardozo’s solutions or find them too radical, you cannot fail to discern that the book is written by a thinker with great love for Judaism and his people.

After reading the book some will agree and others will disagree with its author, but every thinking Jew will realize that he or she cannot cavalierly dismiss the thought of Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopes Cardozo.

Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn is academic director of the Center for Jewish Christian Understanding in Jerusalem.