My Struggle with Persuasion and the Truth Concerning other Religions

Tenth of 10 Questions for Rabbi Cardozo – An interview with Rabbi Cardozo by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz  (For the first question, click here. For the second question, click here. For the third question, click here. For the fourth question, click here. For the fifth question, click here. For the sixth question, click here. For part one of the seventh question, click here.  For part two of the seventh question, click here. For the eighth question, click here. For the first part of the ninth question, click here.  For the second part of the ninth question, click here. For the third part of the ninth question, click here.  For the fourth part of the ninth question, click here.)

Question 10, Part 1:

In your writings, you quote both rabbis and philosophers. On the one hand, you draw your insights from great rabbis such as the Rambam, the Kotzker Rebbe, Rav Kook, Rav Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rav Eliezer Berkovits. On the other hand, you seem to equally find inspiration from great philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza, Emmanuel Levinas, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber. Rabbis tend to focus on loyalty to tradition, while philosophers seem to feel freer to question and seek truth, regardless of tradition. Rav Cardozo, do you see yourself more as a rabbi, or as a philosopher? And part two of this question: Do you think that having the official title of “Rabbi Cardozo” suppresses your true thoughts, or does it rather help to express them? 

Nathan Lopes Cardozo:

In my younger days, I never contemplated becoming a rabbi or a philosopher, but a businessman. My father z”l ran a very successful business, “Roco & Cardozo,” selling sewing machine wholesale in Amsterdam. (Mr. Immanuel Roco, my father’s partner, was also of Jewish Portuguese background and also married out.) They jointly owned one of the large “Herenhuizen” mansions, at the Keizersgracht (Emperor’s Canal)—one of the most famous canals in Amsterdam—where they employed about 60 people.

Later, the building caught fire and partially burned down. It was sold for pennies, which was a huge mistake. Today, it would be worth millions and all of our family would have been somewhat rich! Because of this and my father’s heart condition we lost nearly all our money.

But before all that, we were well-to-do—though certainly not very rich—and my brother and I were raised in a small villa outside Amsterdam, in a village called Aerdenhout, with two large gardens. You can see it in the documentary about my life “Lonely but Not Alone” (https://www.cardozoacademy.org/documentary-lonely-but-not-alone/).

The idea was that my brother and I would enter this business and take it over one day. I even went to a “handelsschool” (trade-school), where I learned about the business world, and still remember much of what was taught. But I despised the school, found it utterly boring, and decided that it was not for me.

Interestingly, my family believes that I am not at all business-orientated and therefore completely unsuitable for this; especially after I entered the realm of Jewish learning and became very soft in my dealings with others when it relates to interacting with people and the business world. But they are utterly mistaken. The truth is that I probably would have been a very good businessman. But they never saw me in that capacity.

Let me explain:

Business largely depends on the power of persuasion and on making an object or deal attractive to a potential buyer. That’s the way to make good money. But to do so, you yourself have to believe in the object or deal. If you don’t, you will either be unable to sell it, or you’ll be a charlatan. This is also true about making Judaism and its profundity appealing, to oneself as well as to others (only without the money)! It’s all about persuasion!

During much of my life, I have tried to convince people of what I believe is the beauty of Judaism. In other words, I use my talents to influence people to “fall in love” with Judaism. (A terrible expression: Since when can one fall in love? One can fall in a pit, but not in love!) So in principle, it’s not so different from business.

The difference is that I found convincing people to buy an object to be of little meaning, although it is surely a mitzva to help people live a more prosperous and comfortable life. This is no doubt a great thing to do, as long as it is done honestly. Let us not forget that in the old days many of our greatest sages were also businessmen, because they felt they should not receive any money for learning or teaching Torah (something we should make possible again). But for me, that wasn’t enough. I had to find something more spiritual. So I left the business option.

But in both cases there is an element of selling or promoting something. And to do so successfully, for the most part people must have the talent to express themselves well and articulate their ideas. In other words, the method is the same. The difference is in what you are selling. I chose to sell Judaism, although the word “sell” is not very appropriate when speaking about religion. The other difference is that promoting (authentic) religion requires intellectual profundity. This doesn’t mean that business people don’t possess intellectual (philosophical) profundity, but it’s not a requirement for business per se. Something I did learn in trade-school, as well as from my dear father, is that big business people are also extremely creative thinkers—sometimes more than certain philosophers—and some are clearly geniuses, far beyond the average.

As an aside, this goes hand in hand with something else as well. My family and others believe that I can be easily fooled and lied to, and that I’m a little naive. The truth is very different. I know exactly when people are fooling me and lying to me. I have a special ability for this, which I don’t think is so good to have! The reason why I let people get away with it is because I’m a rabbi (perhaps against my will!), and a rabbi must have compassion and be “ma’avir al midotav” (See Rosh Hashana 17a), go beyond retribution and instead be tolerant, so as to make sure not to cause any strife, which will give the rabbinate and Judaism a bad name. Too many rabbis are already involved in cases of corruption, dishonesty, or just unnecessary discord. I do not wish to add to this.

But it certainly comes with a heavy price, which I paid many times when I became the victim of dishonest people. And I am fully aware that I still do. They think they manage to fool me, but I see straight through them and keep silent. That way, I can at least rest my head on my pillow at night and know that I have not been the cause of a chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name).

Sure, there are cases where people hurt themselves or others without being aware of it, and then you must step in. But it means that at times you have to be unkind—sometimes even unforgiving—and then you get blamed for having hurt them because they don’t realize why you did what you did. This happens to me repeatedly because of my special circumstances. It is extremely painful, particularly with one’s loved ones. But there is no choice, and one has to carry this with a heavy heart. This is exactly what happened to Joseph and his brothers. (See TTP 621–Parshat Mikeitz: The Pain of Being a Tzaddik) For me this is hell, but better hell than letting people get hurt or hurt others, which is so much worse.

To be continued

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Times of Israel