Heresy Is a Necessity

We need new and bold religious leaders, but they will only emerge when those we have today stop fearing any and every challenge to Judaism.

via Shutterstock
via Shutterstock

By Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Leadership is one of the most difficult qualities for man to achieve. It requires a rare combination of wisdom, courage, knowledge and experience. Very few people possess all these qualities, and even fewer know the art of combining them in a balanced way.

When looking into the personality of Moshe Rabeinu, we learn an astonishing story of how he became capable of undertaking the arguably most challenging leadership role in human history: liberating a few million slaves from an anti-Semitic dictatorship and transforming them into a nation of God, with the additional mission of teaching mankind the highest level of ethics.

One might think that the ability to inspire a few million people to love God would necessitate the best religious education, with only the finest teachers. Such a person would have to be holy, and that would require a well-protected environment into which outside heretical ideologies could not penetrate and where secularism would play no role. Only under such conditions could a leader emerge who would be great enough to experience an encounter with God, receive His teachings and guide millions.

Yet, when reading the story of Moshe, we are confronted with an altogether different truth.

When Moshe first leaves the palace of Pharaoh to visit his own enslaved brothers, he is struck by the hard realities of life. Right in front of him an Egyptian strikes a Hebrew, possibly with the intention of killing him. With no hesitation, Moshe smites the Egyptian and buries him in the ground.

This is most astonishing.

Why would Moshe take the side of the Israelite? Brought up in the world of Egyptian culture and instructed by elite Egyptian educators, possibly receiving private tutelage from Pharaoh himself to prepare him for the monarchy of Egypt in years to come, Moshe must have seen the Egyptian as a compatriot. This was a man of his own culture! Why take any action against him and defend the Israelite?

Still, it is clear that Moshe had warm feelings toward the Jew, despite the fact that Jews were total foreigners to him. This is made very evident by the text, which tells us, “He came to see his brothers.” Whether Moshe was actually told that he was of Jewish stock is not clear, but it is highly doubtful. His identifying with “his brothers” must therefore be the result of an inner voice that told him of his shared destiny with the Israelites. This must have put Moshe in a very difficult position. Psychologists would no doubt raise the question of dual loyalties. How was he going to be the next Pharaoh while feeling strong sympathy for the Jews, who were considered arch enemies of the Egyptian regime? What would he do to resolve this?

A deeper reading of one verse may give us some insight into this psychological quandary. After the Egyptian attacks the Israelite, we read:

“And he (Moshe) turned this way and that way, and he saw there was no man, and he smote the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Shemot 2:12).

As suggested by an unknown commentator, this may allude to Moshe’s situation, albeit in a metaphorical way. Moshe suddenly realized that he was living in two worlds. While his youth was spent immersed in Egyptian culture, as far as knowledge, art and religion were concerned his heart was elsewhere. Deep down he heard a voice demanding the opposite of everything Egypt stood for. It is for this reason that “he looked this way and that way.” Moshe realized that he was at a crossroads in his life and that “there was no man.” Until he could decide to which world he belonged, he lacked identity and would have neither character nor strength. Consequently, he decided then and there that he was to be a Jew and therefore “smote the Egyptian man” within himself and, figuratively, buried him in the sand.

It is this decision that turned the world on its head, steering mankind in a completely different direction. This decision, taken in the blink of an eye, is possibly the most radical one ever made in human history. It brought a whole new world into existence. It was the first step toward the realization that monotheism and ethical living were becoming the greatest players in the history of mankind. When Moshe decided in favor of his authentic self, he laid the foundation for becoming not only the greatest leader of all time, but also the most godly of all men. He was able to speak with God and receive the Torah, the most profound religious ethical code. This code gave birth to Judaism, and later its offshoots, Christianity and Islam, and even the secular ethical code by which many countries conduct their affairs to this day.

But Moshe also must have realized that by ending his ambivalent situation, he would be destroying his entire Egyptian future. Not only could he no longer aspire to become the new monarch of Egypt, but he would surely turn the whole of Egypt against him and become a wanderer and refugee with no money or future. And indeed, so it was. He became a rebel and ran for his life.

It is only after this heroic act that God revealed Himself to Moshe at the burning bush, viewing him as a man suited to be the leader of the Jewish people and able to speak with Him on a daily basis.

This is most surprising.

Wouldn’t God have preferred for His people a leader who had been educated in a strong Jewish environment by the best religious educators and protected from the influences of the outside world? How could a man who was raised in a foreign world, committed to idol worship and absent of all morality, emerge as the most outstanding leader of God’s nation and the greatest religious teacher of all time?

“Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm,” said Latin writer Publilius Syrus. But it is the resistance and rebel within a person that creates the real leader. Leadership, borne of opposition, can only emerge in an environment at odds with the comfortable. The man who can swim against the current knows its strength and will therefore become stronger himself.

We owe almost all our inner strength not to those who have agreed with us but to those who have opposed us.

Had Moshe been educated in a strong religious environment, with the best Jewish educators to guide and protect him from the influences of the outside world, he could never have become Moshe Rabeinu. Only in a foreign environment that challenged all Jewish moral criteria could a man like Moshe emerge.

While it is most important that we give our children and ourselves the best Jewish education possible, we will succeed in creating determined religious personalities only when we ensure that they are confronted with strong ideological opposition. Instead of developing 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 them the Jewish religious tools to explain and defend these beliefs.

In fact, they should learn how to challenge the very teachings that oppose their tradition. To make this happen, 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 Beit Midrash. John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration should be studied and debated along with Tractate 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, use them to deepen some of the most important Jewish teachings. It would generate a new appreciation of what Judaism is all about and would 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 could spark a whole new way of seeing what Judaism really has to offer. Instead of shunning such a proposal, it should be embraced and encouraged.

Of course, this can only be done with mature and serious students who have a good understanding of religious Jewish texts. It needs to be carefully guided by talented, well-informed teachers who have struggled with heresy, religious doubt and questions in their own lives.

After all, how can one be truly religious without having experienced an inner fight? 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 criticized it but 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 and bold 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.”

Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Think Tank, and a prominent lecturer and author of many books and essays on Jewish philosophy and halachic renewal.