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A timid hero

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Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo CARDOZO ACADEMY PHOTO
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo CARDOZO ACADEMY PHOTO

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo has much in common with the late Rabbi David Hartman. Rabbi Cardozo was, as Rabbi Hartman was, ordained in an Orthodox yeshiva. Both immigrated to Israel in the belief that only there can Orthodoxy, indeed Judaism, renew itself and remain relevant. Both created institutions in Jerusalem to promote their ideas: the Shalom Hartman Institute and the David Cardozo Academy.

But despite their Orthodox training and way of life, the Israeli religious establishment has shunned them because they’ve challenged the rigidity of the Israeli rabbinate.

But Rabbi Cardozo seems to be less of a pluralist. Whereas the Hartman Institute welcomes students, fellows and teachers from across the Jewish spectrum, the lecturers listed in the Cardozo Academy are all Orthodox, albeit often somewhat on the fringe.

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I heard Rabbi Cardozo declare recently that Conservative and Reform Judaism isn’t for him. But the way he described his own religious outlook, he is decidedly not for Orthodox Judaism. Not surprisingly, therefore, as he told the audience, he’s no longer invited to speak, even in the Orthodox synagogue where he’s a regular worshipper.

He seems to bear the isolation and the implied humiliation with dignity. The film that was made about his life has the title of his brief autobiography, Lonely But Not Alone, which, incidentally, is also the title of the memoir of the late Queen Wilhelmina of his native Netherlands. His loneliness is obvious, but other than in the circle of his family and personal friends, he may also be quite alone, as he’s apparently excluded from the company of his Orthodox colleagues.

This he shares with the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs, the most erudite and kindest Jewish scholar it was my privilege to know. He was de facto excommunicated from the Orthodox establishment in his native Britain. An Orthodox synagogue even refused to call him to the Torah in connection with a family celebration.

But unlike his Israeli maverick colleagues, Rabbi Jacobs made common cause, albeit somewhat reluctantly, with the Conservative (Masorti) movement. The New London Synagogue that was formed around him became the mother congregation of the other Masorti synagogues that have since been formed in the United Kingdom.

Rabbi Jacobs, like Rabbi Hartman, seems to have realized that you can’t be a religious reformer without being open to all manifestations of Judaism. Thus, he taught for many years at the Leo Baeck College in London that trains non-Orthodox rabbis.  He may have realized that it’s not enough to argue from within that Jewish law has to change for Orthodox Judaism to become relevant. Practical – also political and organizational – steps must be taken outside the Orthodox framework.

Rabbi Cardozo seems to prefer to stay inside the Orthodox tent as a maverick rather than to accept, perhaps even celebrate, his outsider status. He appeals to his Orthodox colleagues to have courage to adapt Halachah to contemporary conditions, as he did, for example, in an article last year in the Jerusalem Post magazine, but like other internal critics of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel and elsewhere, he fails to accept that the effort is quixotic.

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It makes him something of a timid hero, a term used by my teacher, the late Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum, about Rabbi Jacobs, perhaps too harshly. The same can be said, apparently with greater certainty, about Rabbi Cardozo. For all the heroic and erudite efforts he’s making to bring about reforms from within, it’s only people outside who seem to heed his words.  The Israeli Orthodox establishment wields too much political power to tolerate internal challenges.

Rabbi Cardozo may get mild applause from maladjusted Orthodox Jews for his views, as he did when I heard him speak in Jerusalem, but in the end, he’ll only see results if he joins forces with other religious, not just Orthodox, women and men who care enough about Judaism not to allow it to be hijacked by extremists.