No, Rabbi Cardozo, the Torah is Not Flawed
This article first appeared in Times of Israel.
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s The deliberately flawed divine Torah is by far the most problematic article yet by this writer. Whereas Rabbi Cardozo has written that he did not fully observe Tisha B’Av this year, and has called for dispensing with the Codes of Jewish Law and the abolition of Halacha that strikes him as regressive (please also see here), Rabbi Cardozo has now accepted the approach of the Conservative movement, which postulates that Halacha is not objective divine truth, is not fixed, and that it must change in accordance with the values of the times and with various needs.
Rabbi Cardozo’s position is that this is all somehow part of God’s plan — yet it is difficult to distinguish this from the “Divinely Inspired/Ongoing Revelation” theology of Conservative Judaism. Rabbi Cardozo’s introductory verbiage underscores this notion (notwithstanding his invoking a Hasidic source which most certainly did not mean that the Jewish People were not present for the Giving of the Torah):
I believe that the Torah is min hashamayim (“from heaven”) and that its every word is divine and holy. But I do not believe that the Torah is (always) historically true (sometimes it seems like divine fiction), or that it is uninfluenced by external sources. On top of this, I am reminded of the observation by the famous Hasidic leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, who suggested that the children of Israel heard only the alef of Anochi of the Ten Commandments, which means that they did not hear anything since one cannot pronounce the alef!
Rabbi Cardozo continues:
Nor do I believe that its laws, literally interpreted, are all morally acceptable. They are not. Rather, I believe that the Torah is often morally, deeply, and deliberately flawed, and that furthermore, God Himself intentionally made it flawed.
Rabbi Cardozo proceeds to argue that the Sages invented axioms to correct the Torah’s flaws — flaws that signal the Torah’s defective morality — as part of a divine scheme for humans to perfect the Torah on their own. In other words, maintains Rabbi Cardozo, the role of the rabbis is not to objectively interpret the Torah and draw forth its rules, rooted in Sinaitic principles; rather, the rabbis had a progressive agenda to correct the Torah and bring it up to date. Please see Rabbi Cardozo’s article for his full presentation of this hypothesis.
Early Conservative rabbis promoted this same exact idea by claiming that the Oral Law, Torah Shebe’al Peh, was a rabbinic invention, such that Oral Law/Talmudic interpretations of biblical precepts were really fabrications of the Sages, responding to contemporary values and needs. The Conservative argument was that since the Talmudic Sages of antiquity could “reinterpret” the law in accordance with their subjective goals, so too can modern rabbis, for there is no tradition of fixed law.
The mechanism of prozbul was especially cited by Conservative rabbis as “proof” that talmudic law represented progressive reinterpretation and even abolition of “problematic” Torah concepts, so as for these Conservative rabbis to thereby grant themselves similar license to modify Halacha in modern times. Hence did the Conservative movement in the mid-20th century permit driving to synagogue on Shabbos and permit Kohanim to marry women whom the Torah forbids to them. We see today how far the Conservative Movement has strayed from fidelity to Halacha, and it is largely based on the movement’s early stance toward the Oral/Talmudic Law.
Rabbi Cardozo likewise claims that the Sages of the Talmud fabricated exceptions and loopholes which are not permitted by the Torah itself. While it is interesting that Rabbi Cardozo does not cite prozbul as an example of such, the Talmud (Gittin 36) specifically addresses our point, bothered and refusing to accept the fact that the Sages (Hillel, in this case) could institute something that violates the Torah. The Talmud takes pains to explain that of course, Hillel’s enactment of prozbul did not violate anything in the Torah, and the talmudic discourse spans a full page elaborating why prozbul is not a violation of Torah Law and is not an inauthentic fabrication.
In his introduction to his Commentary on the Mishnah, the Rambam writes that every Talmudic interpretation of biblical law is Sinaitic. For example, the Written Torah does not specify how kosher slaughter, shechitah, must be done, but the Talmud explains that there are five basic rules of shechitah; these five rules — and all other Talmudic interpretations of the Written Torah — are Sinaitic, and one is not allowed to claim that they are mere fabrications of the Sages.
In this light, the Talmud presents the four example cases cited by Rabbi Cardozo (“an eye for an eye” being monetary punishment, ben sorer u’moreh/rebellious son, etc.) as part of the Sinaitic Oral Law; there is absolutely no basis in our tradition to claim otherwise, and to do so places one squarely into the camp of the Conservative movement.
Yet there is something even more fundamental going on.
We read in Tehillim 19:8: “The Torah of God is perfect, restorative to the soul.” The claim that the Torah is flawed, even as part of a divine scheme, contravenes our entire tradition and is certainly without source or basis from the perspective of Orthodox Judaism. One of the major themes expounded upon by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, is that of surrender to the values of the Torah, even when these values stand in conflict with contemporary morality. Rav Soloveitchik presents this concept with great detail in his discussions of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, and elsewhere. But it is not merely a belief of Rav Soloveitchik. The total perfection of the Torah as a moral code, in terms of both its regulations and values, and the Jew’s duty to yield, submit and lovingly accept the Torah’s regulations and values as perfect, are the basis for all that Torah tradition represents. For Rabbi Cardozo to deny this concept and assert that the Torah is flawed and partially immoral, even as part of a divine scheme that Rabbi Cardozo creatively hypothesizes, is a smack in the face of the Torah and our mesorah (religious tradition). It is not the Torah that is flawed, but it is rather Rabbi Cardozo’s critique of the Torah that is flawed.
I have friends who were profoundly impacted by Rabbi Cardozo in his early days as a master lecturer in hashkafah (Jewish philosophy) at a famous Jerusalem yeshiva. I think that all of us one way or another benefited from Rabbi Cardozo’s early writings, as an expositor par excellence of authentic Torah perspectives, using scholarly academic tools to reach the minds of those who otherwise would not appreciate the material. We are quite saddened by Rabbi Cardozo’s departure from this model and his embarkation on a path of subverting Torah teachings and Torah authority. We long for the previous Rabbi Cardozo to reemerge and again spread the light of genuine Torah wisdom.