Time to Revitalize Judaism: A Respectful Challenge to the Jewish Establishment

By Prof. Richard H. Schwartz

As author of Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, I was immediately intrigued by the title of Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s new book, Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage. The idea that Jews should not blindly accept the status quo, but should use Jewish law as a source for rebelling against complacency, denial, injustice, oppression and more, with the courage to apply Jewish teachings to help promote a better world, excited me.

Jewish Law as Rebellion.I was even more eager to read the book after reading the eight pages of quotes from a large group of distinguished Jews who extolled Rabbi Cardozo’s work, including former chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (”a challenging, even provocative book” and “a work well worth reading“); Rabbi Irving Greenberg and his wife Blu (“For decades Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo has been a prophetic voice in contemporary Judaism … before you is an intellectual spiritual feast.“); Prof. Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, (“raises profound questions that disturb complacency and demand the attention of our hearts and minds“); and Rabbi David Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland, (“Anyone who wishes to appreciate both the potential of halachic Judaism as well as the challenges it poses will be greatly enriched by this impressive work.”).

Additionally enticing was the acknowledgements section of the book, where Rabbi Cardozo identified Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as one of the most influential people on his thinking. I too have long regarded Rabbi Heschel as a hero and an inspiration.

So I started reading “Jewish Law as Rebellion” with great anticipation — and I was not at all disappointed. The book, which contains almost 450 pages of Rabbi Cardozo’s essays and articles, is a constant source of challenging ideas and inspiration, which are much needed today. I strongly recommend the book for its potential to revitalize Judaism, making it relevant to today’s challenges.

Here is just a sample of the ideas lovingly expressed by Rabbi Cardozo in his book, which if heeded, would shift Judaism to a transformative religion with great benefits to humanity:

  • The purpose of halacha is to disturb, to not only comfort the troubled but also to trouble the comfortable. But, “Halacha has become nearly passe, … jailed in compartmentalized and awkward boxes.”
  • Our yeshivas are failing to properly educate students, having retreated from creative thinking and instead, teaching students what to think rather than how to think. “We are in need of a radically different kind of yeshiva: one in which students are presented with serious challenges to Halacha.” But, “we are instructing our students and children to obey, to fit in, to conform, and not to stand out.”
  • “Judaism needs to be instilled with greater spiritual vitality and religious vigor.” But, today’s Jewish community is generally characterized by conformism, with independent thought and difference of opinion condemned.
  • “Orthodox Judaism has become over-codified and is on its way to becoming irrelevant.” Many young Jews are searching for an authentic Jewish life, but are turned off by a Judaism that they find is not a response to a search for meaning, but rather, monotonous, standardized and external.
  • While Jews are to live with a sense of radical amazement, seeing the hand of God in all of life, “Halachic living is severely impeded by observance becoming mere habit.”
  • While there is a Jewish obligation to be a “light unto the nations,” universal issues are generally being ignored as most present-day halacha is self-centered, with very few halachic authorities addressing current national or global crises. Searching Jews are finding an absence of a sense of mission or concern for the rest of humanity, animals and the planet.
  • To combat the above problems, Judaism desperately needs bigger, bolder ideas.

Responding to Rabbi Cardozo’s loving, respectful, challenging critique of Jewish life today would help revitalize Judaism and bring many currently alienated Jews back to active involvement in their religion.

Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at the College of Staten Island and president of the Society Of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV).

This book review appeared on the site Jewcology.org under the title “My Review of ‘Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage,’ by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo.” It has been edited and reprinted here under the terms of the Creative Commons License.


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