Challenging Faith in a Traditional Setting (on Rav Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo)

In lieu of my post on Rav Steinzaltz who aimed at challenging his students’ religious convictions to strengthen them, here is an eloquent argument by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopez Cardozo making the same plea (h/t: Shades of Grey, regular commenter over at Hirhurim). Here’s the critical excerpt:

While it is most important that we give our children and ourselves the best Jewish education possible, we will succeed in creating strong religious personalities only when we ensure that they are confronted with strong ideological opposition. Instead of creating a Jewish educational system that is self-contained and ideologically self-supporting, we should build yeshivot and high schools in which students are constantly challenged in their beliefs and commitment, in order to give Jewish religious tools to explain and defend these beliefs. In fact, they should learn how to challenge the very teachings that oppose Jewish tradition. To make this happen, Jewish teachers should bring to the attention of their students critiques against the Jewish tradition and show them how these criticisms could be answered through the world of Jewish wisdom as found in the Talmud, Midrash and writings of Jewish philosophers.

A reading of Spinoza’s Tractatus and Nietzsche’s critique of religion would do wonders in the Beth Midrash. John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration” should be studied and debated along with the tractate of Sanhedrin. The teachings of Sartre should be challenged by Chassidic texts such as those of the Kotzker Rebbe and the Mei Hashiloach.   This would sharpen the minds of students and show them the profundity of the Jewish tradition. They would learn how to challenge these non-Jewish works or in fact, through them, deepen some of the most important Jewish teachings. It would generate a new appreciation of what Judaism is all about; make it much more relevant and vital.

Once in a while, a yeshiva should invite an apikores (heretic) and make him challenge the students’ beliefs. The debate that would follow would spark a whole new way of seeing what Judaism really has to offer. Instead of shunning such a proposal, it should be encouraged. Sure, this can only be done with mature and serious students and it needs to be carefully guided, but it would create strong religious Jews who know what they stand for, enjoy the challenge and move Judaism forward.

Judaism was born out of opposition, rebellion and protest. It overthrew and outlived mighty empires and gave the world a radically new understanding of itself. Judaism has nothing to fear. It has prevailed over all those who critiqued it but it has also learned much about itself by listening to opposing voices.  Through these voices, it has been able to sharpen its own claims and if necessary change its mind when the inadequacy of these claims has become clear. Only in this way will it continue to play a central role in the future of mankind.

We need new religious leaders, but they will only emerge when those we have today stop fearing any and every challenge to Judaism. It is easy to be brave from a safe distance but that does not create great leaders. Judaism was built with courage. Let us overcome fear and behold its wonder. Let Judaism be challenged; it will only improve.

As C.S. Lewis once said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”

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About AIWAC

Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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15 Responses to Challenging Faith in a Traditional Setting (on Rav Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo)

  1. fred says:

    youre asking for trouble. besides for the obvious, there are issues of time-management here.

  2. S. says:

    >A reading of Spinoza’s Tractatus and Nietzsche’s critique of religion would do wonders in the Beth Midrash.

    How about a reading of, I don’t know, Radak’s Sefer Hashorashim? There’s a lot that would do wonders in the Beth Midrash before we get to Spinoza.

  3. AIWAC says:

    >>How about a reading of, I don’t know, Radak’s Sefer Hashorashim? There’s a lot that would do wonders in the Beth Midrash before we get to Spinoza.<<

    The more the merrier :). I completely agree that we should start with the traditional before we get to the challenges.

    BTW, please forgive my ignorance, but what is in Radak's Sefer Hashorashim that isn't in, say, Moreh Nevuchim or R. Albo's Sefer Ikarim?

  4. S. says:

    The Sefer Hashorashim is a book of grammar, not theology. My point is that in “the Beth Midrash” of today – not all, obviously – apart for like six massekhtot and Chiddushei Hagriz and a few other things, there are worlds upon worlds of traditional literature that is entirely foreign. You mentioned the Moreh or the Ikarim – these are also unknown and not within the purview of the Beis Midrash.

    I understand R. Cardozo’s point, but what about Iyov and Mishlei? Are these then already in the Beis Midrash? In 2007 Rabbi Zev Leff wrote “is there a serious yeshivah student who is ignorant of Rabbi Yosef Albo’s Sefer HaIkarim or Rabbi Moshe de Trani’s Beit Elokim?” in Jewish Action, which is so self-evidently false as to boggle the mind with its sheer audacity. Spinoza? Most people who frequent the Beth Midrash aren’t even ready for Ibn Ezra, let alone Spinoza.

  5. AIWAC says:

    S.,

    I have a different vantage point living in Israel, but many if not most of the yeshivot hesder/RZ yeshivot have at least some degree of Tanach (pshat, R. Bin-Nun) and Machshava study (Kuzari, Rambam, Rav Kook, RYBS &c). The same goes for yeshiva high schools. Some yeshivot even have specializations (Gush has Tanach, Siyach has spirituality &c).

    I am sorry to hear that so much of the fertile ground of tradition has been abandoned in the yeshiva world in the US. חבל.

  6. S. says:

    True. I thought of that, but I figured, is the US chopped liver? I guess R. Cardozo did mean a more open kind of Bet Midrash, but I wanted to point out that desperate repair is needed in many, many Batei Midrash far in advance of the absence of Epikoros Day at the Yeshiva. (Did it ever occur to him that Professor Epikoros should not be treated like a zoo animal?)

  7. AIWAC says:

    S.,

    I don’t see how one can encourage change in a world where according to you the only acceptable intellectual source is the Brisker. (BTW, is it really THAT bad? If I did an informal survey of people in the American Yeshiva world, would the ignorance really be that endemic and pervasive?). Do you have any suggestions as to how to convince the Batei Midrash to do so?

    Also, I did not get the impression that he’s saying Professor Apikorus is a “zoo animal” or should be treated thus. Many academic departments have occasional guest lecturers who espouse positions contrary to that of the people there. Are they “zoo animals”?

    I’m actually more in favor of careful study and discussion of issues and challenges rather than simply having an “Epikorus day” once a month/year. Obviously the people involved should be advanced students who underwent the necessary training, but I think the results could be positive. See the following link for just such a proposal:

    https://aiwac.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/throwing-down-the-gauntlet-yeshivot-and-general-philosophy/

  8. S. says:

    >I don’t see how one can encourage change in a world where according to you the only acceptable intellectual source is the Brisker. (BTW, is it really THAT bad? If I did an informal survey of people in the American Yeshiva world, would the ignorance really be that endemic and pervasive?). Do you have any suggestions as to how to convince the Batei Midrash to do so?

    It is and it isn’t. For the masses? Definitely – and this includes people recognized as talmidei chachamim and senior rabbis. Of course there are exceptions.

    My suggestion is to try to force people to confront the fact that we have many testimonials of what the greatest of giants advocated, whether it was the Maharal or the Vilna Gaon. Yes, the Gaon disdained philosophy. But didn’t he cultivate didkuk, pshuto shel mikra and Yerushalmi? How can we smugly claim that we are an unbroken shalsheles from the Gra via R. Chaim Volozhiner and yet learn Torah as we do? Instead of making fun of learning aliba de-hilchesa like the stupid Chasidim, why not confront the fact that essentially *every* gadol disdained pilpul (even if they themselves unwittingly were mefalpel)? What about the Netziv, whom the yeshiva world also considers an antedecent?

    In short, raising consciousness about the vast discrepancies between how things are done and what the gedolim actually advocated, even if the present yeshiva world was shepherded by R. Aharon Kotler, Rav Shach, etc., and they “also” knew how to learn.

    The reason why I feel that R. Cardozo is treating them as a zoo animal is because – well, the very idea of labeling someone an apikores. Besides, he must be advocating fake debate and fake chakira, unless he is actually open to the possibility that a Beit Midrash full of Orthodox Jews might become Spinozists. The reason why this is different from the university is because the Beis Midrash is not a place of academic freedom. Even with the most minimal sort of dogmatic Orthodox Judaism there is, the Beis Midrash is not open to becoming a society of epikorsim. If you will argue that in reality the university also isn’t open to becoming, say, a Creationist think tank, I agree. But I don’t think the university is really opposed to some students becoming persuaded to the points of view of guest lecturers, even if they are not liberal (small l).

  9. AIWAC says:

    >>The reason why I feel that R. Cardozo is treating them as a zoo animal is because – well, the very idea of labeling someone an apikores.<<

    S., I fail to understand the issue here. Someone who espouses intellectual positions which deny fundamentals of the Jewish faith is an "apikores". We can debate how to treat him, his opinions and challenges, but I fail to see how, say, someone who is convinced that God does not exist can be declared an acceptable opinion according to the Jewish RELIGION.

    [snipped long section regarding the different methods of learning]

    What does this have to do with the topic at hand?

    "Besides, he must be advocating fake debate and fake chakira, unless he is actually open to the possibility that a Beit Midrash full of Orthodox Jews might become Spinozists."

    S., I have to wonder how you became such a deep-seated cynic. I understand your frustrations, but I don't think the tone of your response is warranted, certainly not when it comes to R. Cardozo and indeed many other talmidei chachamim. I'm curious, for instance, if there are not "Stop! Here We Think" societies on your side of the Atlantic.

    In any case, R. Cardozo is no fool and neither is anyone who challenges their students (such as R. Steinzaltz; see my post on the subject) to think critically or hear positions they consider outside the pale. All are aware of the risks involved and they know that there is a risk that at least some of the people will indeed be convinced that Orthodoxy is wrong. To condemn them a priori as being intellectually dishonest (i.e. conducting a sham hakira) can only be done if we assume they are idiots as well.

    If we are already on the matter of universities – yes, academic conferences (and I've attended quite a few and seen many programs) tend to be stacked (often very heavily) in favor of a particular side of a debate. The dissenting view is sometimes allowed, sometimes not. That doesn't mean debates don't happen – people read the dissenting views in articles and conduct debates. However, when it comes to personal interaction, it's simple human nature to want to outnumber your opponent. Batei Midrash are no different.

    Right now, the only real intellectual discussions taking place are usually between skeptics and Orthopraxers among themselves, or between "nevochim" who read forbidden literature under the table (usually on the internet). In other words, intellectual OTD is happening anyway, and the Orthodox/Yeshiva world's decision to completely "give up the field" makes it all the easier. At least with attitudes like Rabbis Steinzaltz, Cardozo, Avraham et al, intelligent Orthodox Jews stand half a chance.

    Or do you think such an effort is hopeless?

  10. S. says:

    >S., I fail to understand the issue here. Someone who espouses intellectual positions which deny fundamentals of the Jewish faith is an “apikores”. We can debate how to treat him, his opinions and challenges, but I fail to see how, say, someone who is convinced that God does not exist can be declared an acceptable opinion according to the Jewish RELIGION.

    I’m not necessarily disputing this, but what if we had Invite an Unbeliever Day, where Jews with their perfidious trickery were invited to strengthen the faith of the faithful?

    >What does this have to do with the topic at hand?

    Sorry for the digression, but my point was that a lot of straight thinking needs to be introduced into the (American) Beis Midrash long before Spinoza.

    >S., I have to wonder how you became such a deep-seated cynic.

    Partly by nature, and partly because the cynicism was well earned.

    >I understand your frustrations, but I don’t think the tone of your response is warranted, certainly not when it comes to R. Cardozo and indeed many other talmidei chachamim. I’m curious, for instance, if there are not “Stop! Here We Think” societies on your side of the Atlantic.

    Not in any Bais Midrash I know of.

    I know he’s no fool, but I’m not impressed by maverickism for the sake of maverickism. Look, maybe in Israel what he is saying would be written here as “introduce Moreh Nevuchim into the Beth Midrash,” rather than Spinoza.

    Also, I must admit that I am not confident that Orthodoxy has answers other than that we are all free to choose to be Orthodox Jews nevertheless.

  11. AIWAC says:

    “Also, I must admit that I am not confident that Orthodoxy has answers other than that we are all free to choose to be Orthodox Jews nevertheless.”

    Even if I accept such a pessimistic position, which I don’t, it still needs intellectual coherence. Is one’s choice to be Orthodox an “identity” issue? A “lifestyle” one? Is the basis post-modern or Leibowitzian?

  12. S. says:

    It is identity and lifestyle.

    As for the basis, it can be either of those, or a kind of blind spot, willful or otherwise. I mean you can be a true believer if you don’t know that our ideology can’t really answer all the challenges. I also don’t see Every Man His Own Hashkafic Justification as a real solution, because that’s not really Orthodoxy.

    (As an aside, I can’t believe that more than a handful of people would be attracted to Leibowitz and accept Orthodoxy on that basis. In addition, there is the problem that Orthodox halacha is decided by actual Orthodox Jews. No Spinoza for the poskim.)

  13. S. says:

    By the way, I hope I don’t come across as combative. I’m actually very amiable. 😉

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