Jewish Law as Rebellion by Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Having heard Rabbi Lopes Cardozo lecture a few times over the past twenty years, and being familiar with his local reputation as an innovative, engaging Torah teacher, I was not disappointed by his most recent book.

Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage1 is a collection of his short essays, laid out as chapters, all written around a central theme laid out at the beginning of the book. From the beginning, one notes the hunger of Lopes Cardozo to understand and practice the mitzvot of Torah in innovative yet “true to the text” ways, ways that fit the modern world in which we live.

Lopes Cardozo develops the idea that halakhic development has become rigid and is in many ways a product of the defensive and reactionary development of a Diaspora-centered Judaism. Halakhic development and practice have been “jailed”, “embalmed”, and “paralyzed”, as he puts it, by the Orthodox Jewish rabbinate. He effectively pleads for us today—especially those of us who live in Israel—to wrestle anew with our holy texts and, in doing so, to develop new halakhic thought and practice that will help us alleviate difficult situations such as those that are often faced by the aguna (abandoned wife), the mamzer (part-Jewish or illegitimate child), and the ger/giyoret (convert).

I particularly enjoyed the chapters where Lopes Cardozo gives a sharp critique to the halakhic thought of Rabbis Joseph Soloveitchik and Eliezer Berkovitz, two revered authorities from the 20th century. He is not afraid to level criticisms at Rabbi Soloveitchik for not changing his halakhic approaches to our modern day world, despite the great authority that Soloveitchik had in his sphere of influence. (Soloveitchik is considered a halakhic hero by much of the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel today; the yeshiva where I studied considered him such.) Lopes Cardozo conversely praises Berkovitz along with Conservative Rabbis Abraham Heschel and Saul Liberman for their adjustments to their modern halakhic opinions and analyses. These are heavyweight halakhic authorities disputing vigorously with each other, which made that section of his work very engaging albeit one-sided; while Rabbi Soloveitchik cannot respond, one of his female students did so for him, with two letters written to Lopes Cardozo, well defending Soloveitchik’s positions, which Lopes Cardozo published!

I also very much enjoyed reading the chapter on his reservations about wearing a kippah: a perspective which, for an Orthodox rabbi, is nearly non-existent among our people. He writes of his consideration of no longer putting on a kippah, because it is such a mundane, automatic act bereft of any meaning (most of the time). Then he divulges his personal reflections: what should wearing a kippah mean? How should it affect us? And his conclusion on this matter, though not surprising, is novel and quite enjoyable to read. On one hand, he writes in somewhat of an irreverent fashion; yet on the other hand, I have rarely read a person with as much holy intensity and fight for a genuinely Torah-based life.

Lopes Cardozo strives to restore the wonder of discovery in our Torah studies. Instead of being satisfied with rote replies to questions, imitation in our discourse, and non-changing methods of studying our texts, we must “fight” to understand and apply our holy texts, and “earn” them. Instead of advocating more rabbinic authority in our lives, he cries out for “more rabbinic authenticity,” that is, engaging the people of Israel not only from the study halls of yeshivas and rabbinic courts but also in the real day-to-day lives of our communities.

While Lopes Cardozo does defend Orthodoxy as opposed to adopting the premises of Conservative and Reform Judaism, throughout his book he advocates for fundamental and sweeping changes in today’s Orthodox world. He writes of halakhic practice as being “an act of dissent” (and thus the title of his work). This means that as our modern world takes life for granted, the Jew must engage in halakhic practice as a declaration that God exists and has created the world. In essence, Lopes Cardozo believes that this is how Judaism can and should affect the entire world: “Halakha must be an expression of excited passion.”

He views Israel’s orthopraxy as needing strong reform: “Rituals and prayers are often mechanical . . . let us (be) receptive to G-d’s presence through a daring new encounter with Him . . . to forget this is to betray Judaism.” Although he sounds like some Hasidic Jewish thinkers from years ago, his desire is to rebuild the Orthodox world as the center of a genuine warm, caring, and halakhically relevant community life.

While the book is long and at times repetitive among its various chapters, on the whole it is a very enjoyable read. Lopes Cardozo clearly emerges as a brave voice calling out for changes that much of the Jewish world, especially the Gen-X and Millennial generations, desire. The growth of today’s modern Orthodox movement from Gen-X and Millennial young adults (for example, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Efrat and Telshe-Stone communities and Rabbi Aaron Lebowitz’s Jerusalem community) shows the relevance of Lopes Cardozo’s pleas.

On another note, Lopes Cardozo proves himself to be well-learned in medieval Jewish and modern European philosophy, and he often reaches into the well of various philosophical writings to prove his points or to punctuate his perspectives. This part of his book, appearing in the majority of his early chapters, is reminiscent of some writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, which many readers will appreciate. His European education also shows its traces in these statements.

The only weakness of the book is that Lopes-Cardozo is not particularly detailed on how to implement and bring about his proposed reformations. As is common with visionary writers, he leaves us with a general perspective, even wondering alongside his readers just how changes in orthopraxy can ever come about, given today’s politics and power centers of the Orthodox world. Answers to these challenging questions escape the pages of this volume.

I highly recommend this read to our movement’s rabbis. Our holy Rabbi Yeshua would have agreed with a good bit of Lopes Cardozo’s criticisms and hopes for future halakhic practice. Also, Lopes Cardozo is considered a leading Orthodox Jewish voice in Jerusalem today and is worth reading simply due to his reputation. Along with Rabbis Riskin, Lebowitz, Steinsaltz, Bonchek, and Mark Smith, Lopes Cardozo represents a hope for a large-scale reformation of Orthodox Judaism, a reformation that faces huge difficulties, and thus admittedly may or may not occur in the future.

Reviewed by David Friedman

1 Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2018.