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Johann Sebastian Bach: Judaism and the Art to be a Rebel

Nathan Lopes CardozoFilmed at Limmud South Africa

I believe that to be a Jew is to swim eternally against the mediocrity of this world.  Listen to my talk and hear why I decided to become religious, why I love rebellion and spiritual war and why I can't live in boredom or without the inspiration of Bach.  Listen to my talk and to Johann Sebastian Bach and hear the music of Jewish tradition.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo is a prominent lecturer, thinker and author who is world renowned for his original insights into Judaism and his ability to communicate the relevance of Jewish values and practice in today’s complicated world. A native of the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish community of Holland who holds a doctorate in philosophy, he received rabbinic ordination from the Gateshead Talmudic College and studied in Israel at the Institute for Higher Rabbinical Studies of Chief Rabbi Unterman and at the Mir Yeshiva. He is founder and dean of the David Cardozo Academy, the Aron and Betsy Spijer Institute, a think tank for rabbis and educators trying to lay the foundations of a new approach to Judaism based on the classical sources. He also lectures to non-Jewish groups about comparative religion and the fundamentals of Judaism.

Winston Churchill once sent a very long letter to a friend. At the end he wrote; “I’m sorry but I have no time it write a short one.” It takes 18 minutes to bake a Matzah and it comes out flat and JDOV gave me 12 minutes and told me that it must sound like Johann Sebastian Bach, Piano Concerto Number 1 in E Major. So here we go.

(Music plays)
I was born in 1946 in Amsterdam. Born by breech delivery, very painful. My mother endured it with iron strength we nearly did not make it. The same iron strength which she showed when she saved the lives of all my father’s family, all Jews, from the hands of the Nazis. My parents were a mixed marriage; father Jewish, mother not. These two facts; breech delivery and born from a mixed marriage, set a stage of my life. I see everything upside down and always as an in and outsider. I see great beauty where others see only the ordinary. I see problems where others believe that everything is fine. For me the average is astonishing. Our name is Lopes Cardozo, that’s a real Jewish name, not Goldstein or Rabinowitz, these are goishe names. On my father’s side we came from Spain and Portugal after the inquisition in 1492. We are “Anusim”, “Marranos”. Our forefathers were raised as Christians and only in Holland could they again start to live a Jewish life. My father was a very proud Jew, he could not stop speaking about it, but it had no religious meaning. My mother lost her parents when she was very young and moved in ways in my father’s family and so she grew up in a strong socialistic but a cultural very strong Jewish family and society. Friday night was holy with lots of delicious food also they were as poor as church mice. They did not eat kosher but no treif meat would ever enter the house. Jewish expressions, customs, jokes were the daily language. My father was a great admirer of Spinoza, the great Jewish philosopher in Amsterdam in the 17th Century who walked out on the Jewish tradition and got a ban on his head by the rabbis. It’s the most famous Jewish ban ever. It made him world famous and I’m still trying to get a similar rabbinical ban but to no avail. It would sell my books much better. Spinoza got me thinking; he attacked the Jewish tradition vigorously. “There is no God”, he said “At least no biblical God. The Torah is not defined, not Godly, in fact it is primitive and nearly meaningless. Judaism is a lot of nonsense.” And so I wanted to know what he was attacking, why did he not have any good words for the Jewish tradition, and what is this Jewish tradition all about? And so I started, my friends, to read without ends. Speaking with Rabbis, Orthodox, Reform, philosophers, religious, non-religious, atheists, believers. To make a long story short; I got so fascinated with the Jewish tradition that I went to the Chief Rabbi of Amsterdam and told him to convert me and that is what he did. I was 16 years old. Many years later my mother also converted after I convinced her about the beauty of the Jewish tradition and my parents got married three months before I got married with a very nice lady sitting here in the audience. All by the same Rabbi in the same Sephardi Synagogue in Amsterdam. I learnt 12 years in charedi yeshivot and I have a PhD in philosophy. I love yeshivot but I never felt that they gave me the full picture. Judaism and the Jewish tradition is much greater than what yeshivot is. Let me tell you a story of what happened to me when I was learning in yeshiva. A non-Jewish friend of mine came to visit me and asked me to see the Beit Midrash, so I put a yarmulke on his head and told him to come in. Now he expected a large hole where all students were whispering like in a university library, but what did he encounter? Three hundred young fellows walking around nervously, shouting to each other as if the world was coming to an end. In total shock he asked me; “What is this? A demonstration against the Queen of England?” “No” I said, “they are discussing what God actually said three thousand years ago at Mount Sinai.” “You still don’t know?” And I said; “No indeed we still don’t know even after 4 000 years and because of that we outlived all of our enemies”. A tradition which keeps arguing with itself will stay alive and grow. Now listen to Johann Sebastian Bach.
(Music plays louder)

It is God speaking to us in music, with so many options how to play, without an end. Like the rabbis speak God’s words with so many interpretations. Remember Glenn Gould, Richter, Arthur Rubinstein and so many others? And so Abaye v’Rava and many other sages in the Talmud, each one playing totally different music but simultaneously strict adherence to the music notes, to the rigid rules of musical genius. An iron fist and an uncompromising dedication to detail, resulting in a phenomenal outburst of emotion. That, my dear friends, happened at Sinai. God gave heavenly musical notes at Sinai for us to play our music on our souls, strict notes but to be played with infinite passion. To listen to Bach is like being struck by an upper cut under the chin and staying unconscious for the rest of the day. And so it is with the Torah, it is like an archaeologist forced to go rock bottom in search for all the hidden possibilities and they insert him under the earth and therefore found incredible treasures. God owes a lot to Bach. He put God in the centre of his world. Where would God be without Bach? But the music of Bach is more than just that; it is a rebellion, a rebellion against all earlier forms of music against music going sterile, stagnated, boring and flat. It opened new dimensions which people did not want to see or hear and the same is true about the Jewish tradition. It is a religious protest against complacency, spiritual boredom, mediocrity. Religion means to live in utter amazement, in astonishment, to live like Bach. To walk around in total wonder and to know what to do with that wonder, to translate it into deep feelings and a solid side of human deeds; the Mitzvah, the Halacha. What Halacha teaches us is how to approach life and to live in utter amazement. After Moshe Rabbenu, Bach was the greatest halachist who ever lived in modern times. The iron fist, the heavenly explosion and the rebellion, and what did we do with the Jewish tradition? We denied Bach’s music to play any role any longer to the central point of Halacha and so we made it flat and boring. We tell our children to obey, to conform, to fit in, not to disturb the establishment, not to challenge the religious and secular beliefs and by that we nearly killed the Jewish tradition. Eating kosher is a rebellious act, an act of disobedience against consumerism that encourages people to eat anything as long as it tastes good. When we go to the synagogue it is a protest against man’s arrogance, thinking that he can do it all himself. Observing Shabbat is an attack on society in a world which believes that our happiness depends on how much we produce. Avraham, Abraham was the first ultimate rebel who destroyed idols and so were the Prophets and so is the Torah. A rebellious text declaring war on the world which has still not learnt how to live a spiritual life of incredible greatness whilst standing firm with its feet on the ground. And so are we Jews; to be a Jew is to swim eternally against the mediocrity of this world. We are a nation of protestors, we are the real Protestants but we forgot that we are, and therefore I decided to become religious. I love rebellion and spiritual war. I can’t live in boredom. I will continue to play Bach; the rebellious man of Halacha who introduced me to the Gods of Israel and the Torah. So just listen to Johann Sebastian Bach and hear the music of Jewish tradition.

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