Smashing the Aravot to Bits as a Reenactment of Jewish History

Sukkot is, to modern eyes, perhaps the strangest Jewish holiday, and its seventh day is by far the strangest. For the whole week of Sukkot, Orthodox Jews take a four-part floral arrangement and shake it in all directions. On the seventh day, known as “Hoshanah Rabbah,” they take one of the four parts, willow branches, and smash a bundle of them into the ground repeatedly. The original reason behind the ritual is unknown, but it’s energetic alienness demands explanation. While attempts to divine it’s reason abound, none can ever definitively claim to be the original reason. In what follows, I want to do something different, similar to what John Caputo has called a “short-circuit” (See the first few chapters of “The Weakness of God”) – I want to wire together this ritual with several texts that never had each other in mind, because they resonate deeply with each other, and because this short-circuit produces something true and worth saying. By the end of this process, I hope to have arrived not at the meaning of the ritual, but a meaning the ritual may bear today.

Jumping right in, there is a famous rabbinic text comparing the four species of flora use on Sukkot to four different types of Jews, based on their possessing or lacking A. Torah and B. good deeds (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12, which I have previously written about here). The last of the four that the text discusses is the willow: “‘And brook willows’ – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds.” The willow branches, as opposed to the other plants, represent Jews who have nothing specifically Jewish about them. They are characterized neither by Jewish cognitive content, Torah, nor by Jewish actions. In short, they are Jewish in name only.

Being Jewish in name only is a topic that Rav Tsadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin explores in Tsidkat Hatsadik #54 (English translation to come when the time allows):

עיקר היהדות – בקריאת שם ישראל. כמו שנאמר זה יאמר לה’ אני וגו’ ובשם ישראל יכנה. שלא יהיה לו רק מעלה זו שמכונה בשם ישראל די. ומצינו בריש פרק כלל גדול (שבת סח:) גר שנתגייר בין האומות ומביא חטאת על החלב והדם והשבת ועבודה זרה, עיין שם דלא ידע כלל שזה אסורה ואפילו על עבודה זרה ושבת. ונמצא שלא ידע כלל מכל התורה, ובמה הוא גר להתחייב חטאת, רק בקריאת שם ישראל די.

In this first paragraph, Rav Tsadok discusses the Babylonian Talmud’s statement (Shabbat 68b) that a convert who converted among non-Jews has to bring a sacrifice when they join the Jewish community, to atone for sins they may have committed unknowingly. The convert has no knowledge of even Shabbat or idolatry so in what sense have they converted, ask Rav Tsadok. His answer: they are called by the name “Israel” – they are Jewish in name, if only that. This, in fact, is the essence of conversion, for “the essence of Judaism is being called by the name ‘Israel.”

What does it mean to be Jewish in name, and even only in name, that it is so much more significant than having Jewish thoughts or actions? What is the advantage of the willow branches over the other Sukkot plants?

When you have Jewish thoughts or actions, then you have specific Jewish parts of who you are. You do Jewish acts and you think Jewish thoughts, and you may participate in non-Jewish thoughts and actions alongside these. When you are Jewish in name, then all of your thoughts and actions are Jewish by definition, regardless of their content. To be Jewish in name is to be all-pervasively Jewish; every part of you is Jewish simply by definition. It is this Jewish name that characterizes willow branch-Jews, as opposed to all others.


What does all of this mean for the Hoshanah Rabbah ritual, wherein the willow branches are smashed against the ground, coming apart with every blow? I would like to explain that in light of a passage from Frank Rosenzweig’s “The Star of Redemption.” In context of a discussion of Jewish chosenness, Rosenzweig states:

Judaism, and it alone in all the world, maintains itself by subtraction, by contraction, by the forma­tion of ever new remnants. This happens quite extensively in the face of the constant external secession. But it is equally true also within Judaism itself. It constantly divests itself of un-Jewish elements in order to produce out of itself ever new remnants of archetypal Jewish elements. Outwardly it constantly assimilates only to be able again and again to set itself apart on the inside. (trans. William Hallo, p. 404)

Whereas other nations and religions maintain themselves by expanding, Rosenzweig says, Judaism maintains itself by contracting. Like other groups, Judaism constantly develops new forms, absorbs new ideas, and generally finds new ways to grow. Unlike other groups, however, Judaism quickly sheds all of these new manifestations, in a constant process of elimination, ever condensing toward a core Jewishness, a Jewishness that has no content, that is Jewish in name only. This core, which Rosenzweig identifies with the prophetic “remnant of Israel” (שארית ישראל), is what persisted throughout Jewish history, as all kinds of specific types of Judaism have  disappeared or broken away. That isn’t to say that Rosenzweig identifies the remnant of Israel with traditional Rabbinic Judaism. Rather, he identifies it with Jews who are Jewish in name, whose whole existence is bound up in being Jewish, so that everything they do and say is Jewish, by definition.

Smashing the willow branches against the ground reenacts Rosenzweig’s vision of Jewish history. The willow branches, representing the in-name-only Jews, the Jews who are Jewish whether or not they know Torah or do mitsvot, are smashed against the ground of history. They slowly come apart, losing bits of leaf with every strike, but the core of the branch remains. So too the core of Judaism, the Jews whose Judaism has defined them inherently, regardless of their thoughts or deeds, has survived the travails of history. When we smash the willow branches into the ground, we may remind ourselves of the necessity of this in-name-only Jewishness. The ritual could challenge us, calling us to be “called by the name ‘Israel.’”


[as with many of my recent posts, much of my thinking and interpreting here is owed to influence from Yishai Mevorach, a student of Rav Shagar and an editor of his writings, and an interesting thinker in his own right. An English interview with Prof. Alan Brill about Mevorach’s new book, “A Theology of Absence” can be found here, and Mevorach’s Hebrew lectures on a variety of topics can be found on his youtube channel here.]


Audio Class Recording: Rav Shagar on Teshuvah and the Disengagement

This is the audio of a class I gave, on 14/09/17, on excerpts from Rav Shagar’s essay “תשובה והתנתקות” in the lead-up to the High Holidays. Just a warning to any listeners, it was a very discussion-based class, so it stretched circuitously for most of two hours (~01:40:00, I think). The audio is in m4a format. (It’s also on YouTube).

This is the source sheet upon which the class was based. I translated the selections myself, without any proper proofreader, so they are not perfect.

This is the original Hebrew essay from which the English excerpts were translated.

If you have any questions, comments, or feedback they are always appreciated.

The God of Broken Things: Thoughts on Maimonides and Rav Tsadok


As a general rule, we like it when things work the way they’re supposed to work, when things go according to plan. And yet, across the range of human experiences, this is not what actually occurs. In contemporary society, this perhaps most commonly takes the form of technology failing to live up to the expectations of its owners. Beyond the functioning of tools, this is a basic problem of human will, where we want to do one thing and yet end up doing another. In ancient Greek philosophy this was thought of as the problem of akrasia, and Freudian psychology has generated a massive theoretical discourse exploring this facet of human existence. In theology and religion this problem arises in terms of evil in the world and attempts at theodicy. If a good god made the world then why does it fail to be good? While the technological problems tend to be minor annoyances in our day to day lives, the anthropological and theological problems concern fundamental issues in how we think about God, reality, and what it means to be a person.

In this essay I want to explore three texts, one from Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” and two from Rabbi Tsadok Rabinowitz Hakohen’s (Rav Tsadok) “Tsidkat Hatsadik,” which touch on these issues. In doing so, these texts place God in the uncommon, and perhaps uncomfortable, position of the source of failure. These texts suggest that, in one form or another, God is the reasons that things don’t “work.”

Before launching into the texts, I want to make a methodological note. I am not going to attempt here to present a thorough and broad understanding of the theologies of either Maimonides or Rav Tsadok (with the former, at least, I’m not even sure that is possible); I am simply going to look at these texts in and of themselves. My goal is to examine the theological intuitions and ideas contained within the texts, rather than explain what Maimonides and Rav Tsadok think more broadly.

Guide II 32 – The Failure of Prophecy

Maimonides discussions of prophecy in the Guide for the Perplexed cover all of the traditional issues bound up in the concept: what it is, what type of information it conveys, who can get it, how they get it, are there different levels, etc. In one of his discussions of it, in Guide II:32, he suggests that there are three primary opinions about the nature of prophecy. Only the third is of relevance to us, but it must be understood agains the background of the first two.

The first is that of the people, including Jews, whom Maimonides calls “ignorant people”:

Among those who believe in Prophecy, and even among our coreligionists, there are some ignorant people who think as follows: God selects any person He pleases, inspires him with the spirit of Prophecy, and entrusts him with a mission. It makes no difference whether that person be wise or stupid, old or young; provided he be, to some extent, morally good. For these people have not yet gone so far as to maintain that God might also inspire a wicked person with His spirit. They admit that this is impossible, unless God has previously caused him to improve his ways. (Guide, II 32, Friedlander translation)

According to the first group, the ignorant people, prophecy is a totally miraculous event (notably, this group seems to include Rav Sa’adiah Gaon. See “The Book of Beliefs and Opinions” chapter 3). It occurs when God decides to impart it to a person, regardless of any other conditions. Moreover, it is entirely driven by God’s initiative, rather than man’s; it is entirely “top-down” as it were. Prophecy is, in this sense, entirely chaotic and arbitrary. There can be no question of prophecy “working” or going according to some plan, because there can be no plan.

This is in stark contrast to the opinion of the second group, the philosophers:

The philosophers hold that prophecy is a certain faculty of man in a state of perfection, which can only be obtained by study. Although the faculty is common to the whole race, yet it is not fully developed in each individual, either on account of the individual’s defective constitution, or on account of some other external cause. This is the case with every faculty common to a class. It is only brought to a state of perfection in some individuals, and not in all; but it is impossible that it should not be perfect in some individual of the class; and if the perfection is of such a nature that it can only be produced by an agent, such an agent must exist. Accordingly, it is impossible that an ignorant person should be a prophet; or that a person being no prophet in the evening, should, unexpectedly on the following morning, find himself a prophet, as if prophecy were a thing that could be found unintentionally. But if a person, perfect in his intellectual and moral faculties, and also perfect, as far as possible, in his imaginative faculty, prepares himself in the manner which will be described, he must become a prophet; for prophecy is a natural faculty of man. It is impossible that a man who has the capacity for prophecy should prepare himself for it without attaining it, just as it is impossible that a person with a healthy constitution should be fed well, and yet not properly assimilate his food; and the like. (Ibid.)

According to the philosophers, prophecy is not miraculous but natural. It is a capacity with which all people are born, though they have to develop it properly. If someone does develop their moral and intellectual faculties properly, and they have the necessary imaginative capacity, then they inevitably attain prophecy. This might be characterized as a “bottom-up” approach. Prophecy “works” in the sense that I have been discussing; it goes according to plan. If you attempt to achieve prophecy, and you meet every condition, you will necessarily receive prophecy. In contrast to the divine chaos of the first opinion, there is an entirely natural order.

The third opinion, which Maimonides attributes to Tanakh and to the fundamental principle of Judaism, is a significant variation on the opinion of the philosophers:

The third view is that which is taught in Scripture, and which forms one of the principles of our religion. It coincides with the opinion of the philosophers in all points except one. For we believe that, even if one has the capacity for prophecy, and has duly prepared himself, it may yet happen that he does not actually prophesy. It is in that case the will of God [that withholds from him the use of the faculty]. (Ibid.)

Prophecy, according to this opinion, is achieved by way of a natural process wherein a person develops their moral and intellectual capacities to the point of perfection. As opposed to the opinion of the philosophers, however, achieving prophecy is not inevitable for the person who reaches the end of this process. A person could reach this peak of moral and intellectual perfection and still not attain prophecy, because God can prevent her from doing so. God intervenes in and disrupts the natural prophetic process.

To sharpen this a little bit, I want to correct a common misunderstanding about this text. I have often heard or read this third opinion explained as a combination of or midpoint between the first two. If the first is top-down and the second is bottom-up, then the third, it is said, is when the two sides meet in the middle; a person develops herself to a certain point and then God decides whether or not to bestow prophecy upon her. However, it is pretty clear from Maimonides’ words that this is not the case. The third opinion is not a midpoint or combination of the previous two, it is simply a variation on the second. Prophecy remains an entirely natural process; God only comes into the picture when the process fails.

This point is driven home in the continuation of the passage, where Maimonides expands this concept from prophecy to miracles.

According to my opinion, this fact is as exceptional as any other miracle, and acts in the same way. For the laws of Nature demand that every one should be a prophet, who has a proper physical constitution, and has been duly prepared as regards education and training. If such a person is not a prophet, he is in the same position as a person who, like Jeroboam (1 Kings xiii.), is deprived of the use of his hand, or of his eyes, as was the case with the army of Syria, in the history of Elisha (2 Kings vi. 18). (Ibid.)

According to the natural order, someone fitting to receive prophecy will necessarily do so. It is only through miraculous intervention that such people on in some instances do not receive prophecy. Moreover, this miraculous intervention is the same in form to all other miracles; they all consist of God interfering with and disrupting the natural order. Maimonides brings two proofs from Tanakh to show that this is how miracles work. Regardless of the existence of counter-examples, Maimonides could not have found better proofs if he wrote them himself. The first is from 1 Kings 13, when God saved an unnamed prophet from the Israelite king Jeroboam by causing the king’s hand to wither, and the second is from 2 Kings 5, when God blinded the Assyrian army. Maimonides argues that the withered hand and the blindness, rather than being direct acts of God, result from God disrupting the regular functioning of the natural order. Prophecy is a natural human capacity just like seeing and use of the hand, and God’s role in prophecy is solely causing it to fail.


Tsidkat Hatsadik 102 – “God sets up problems and obstacles for a person”

Rav Tsadok dedicates a good deal of his notebook, Tsidkat Hatsadik, to meditations on sin and repentance and their interplay with the divine will. In one piece on the topic, #102, he presents a creative reading of the rabbinic statement that people who have sinned and repented are on a higher level, in whatever sense, than people who have never sinned.

This is the meaning of the saying that in the place where repentant individuals stand, even the completely righteous cannot reach. God sets up problems and obstacles for a person, and the person must then repent and atone for his “sin.” Through this process he extracts treasure from garbage. (Excerpt from Tsidkat Hatsadik 102; translation is mine. [The linked version is missing a section that was censored out beginning with the second edition and only restored in more recent printings.])

Rav Tsadok is working with an intuition very similar to that of Maimonides, but he is talking about human sin instead of prophecy. The way most people think of sin is that there is a theoretical list of things that people should not do, and sometimes people attempting to adhere to this list fail to do so. Rav Tsadok argues, in contrast, that sin is not simply a function of human failure to adhere to this list, but is in fact, or can be, God making a person sin (cf. Tsidkat Hatsadik, 40, 43). Much like Maimonides’ natural order, human willpower works. A person can decide to do or not do something, and follow through on that decision. Sometimes, however, a person will fail to follow through. While note ruling out other potential reasons for this failure, Rav Tsadok says that, at least sometimes, it is because God wanted the person to sin. In this passage, Rav Tsadok suggests that God wanted the person to sin because the process of repenting for this sin is itself valuable. In some of the passages that appear after this one, Rav Tsadok meditates on other possible reasons. He maintains throughout this basic idea that God directly causes a person to sin. Notably, this is a distinct step beyond Maimonides assertion that God merely keeps people from getting prophecy, though the basic idea is the same.


Tsidkat Hatsadik 101 – Nothing Works

Both passages that I have looked at so far, from Maimonides and Rav Tsadok, asserted that God causes systems or processes to fail, for whatever reason. This idea is built up on the assumption that there are systems or processes that, barring external intervention, work the way they are supposed to work. I want to turn now to a passage from Tsidkat Hatsadik, the one directly preceding the last one we looked at, and see how Rav Tsadok reads a famous rabbinic statement about the creation of the world in a way that direct challenges that assumption (there are ways of resolving the tension between these two pieces, but I’m not concerned about that in this essay). As it is somewhat shorter than the other pieces we looked at, I will quote it in full:

In practice it is impossible for a person to stay within the boundaries of the law (shurat hadin), as the verse says, “there is no righteous person on earth who does good and does not sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). A righteous person (tsadik) is careful not to stray outside the boundaries of the law [it is common knowledge that in the realm of practice (Olam Ha’Asiah) there are many kelipot, at all levels, but that is beyond the scope of this piece]. This only possible in thought, not practice, and in a person’s inner conscious will, where he decides in his mind that he will act in a specific way and not sin, only there is it possible for him to desire and think like this.

In truth, in the thought and will that transcend the worlds, that sinful act is also part of the plan and does not go outside the boundaries of the law, for everything is within the law (hadin).

This is what the rabbis meant when they said that initially God thought to create through his attribute of law [but God saw that the world could not exist like this, so he created it with compassion (rahamim) as well -LM]. Action therefore necessarily means going outside the boundaries of the law, while thought is the attribute of law, and does not exceed the boundaries of the law. In the verse, “God is righteous in all his ways, and pious in all his deeds” (Psalms 145:17), “his ways” means words of Torah, as the beginning of Tractate Kiddushin says and in line with the verse, “He made his ways known to Moses” (Psalms 103:7). God, too, behaves according to the Torah, but when it comes the deed he is pious, meaning not according to the strict boundaries of the law, as discussed in Tractate Shabbat (120a, and see Rashi there).

This is in line with the verse, “I will be gracious to anyone I want” (Exodus 33:19). This too is a verse in the Torah and is known to be one of God’s ways, just as “it is a time to act for God and reject the Torah” is an established halakhah, just as, when we get back to the level of thought, this too is part of the plan and the proper boundaries. (Tsidkat Hatsadik 101; translation is mine, as is the emphasis)

In this piece, Rav Tsadok argues that failure is built into the system. People and the world are not supposed to perfectly live up to their ideals. As a support for this, he references a rabbinic narrative describing how God intended to create the world such that it would function according to strict laws. However, God saw that such a world could not be sustained, and so he created the world with compassion instead. Compassion, Rav Tsadok claims, is just one form of exceeding the boundaries of the law, and now it is an inherent part of the world. People fail to live up to their ideals because that’s part of how people work. As opposed to the assumption underlying the passages we saw from the Guide for the Perplexed II 32 and Tsidkat Hatsadik 102, systems don’t work. Thinking that things work out the way they are supposed to work out is a mistake, verging on self-delusion. God does not directly cause failure, but God built a world that is broken, along with everything in it; none of it works as it ideally should, and that’s how it is supposed to be.


In this piece we have seen two different ideas positing God as the source of failure, built around two different intuitions about how whether people and the world “work.” The first says that things basically work, and God interferes with their functioning, causing things to fail. The second says that things don’t work, that failure is built into people and the world, and that God made it that way. These two ideas bear some significant implications for our religious lives.

Religion is in many ways about living up to certain ideals of action, belief, or both, something in which we are not always successful. We need to consider the degree to which we are really meant to succeed in this goal all of the time (Rav Tsadok says in piece 101, quoted above, that the system of halakhah includes its own violation). If we really are meant to succeed, if the system works, then failure might just mean that we didn’t do our part properly, and we have to work harder on our end. The real possibility exists, however, that we will find no fault of our own, and the fault for our failure must fall to God (cf. Bavli Berakhot 5a, “יסורים של אהבה”). In such an instance, we must reconsider how we understand failure. It shifts from being sin to “sin,” as Rav Tsadok put it, from failure to the first step of success.

If, however, failure is built into the system and success is never assumed, then it may be impossible to know why we failed in any given instance. However, failure also becomes less dramatic. It might not even be “failure” in the way we normally mean it. Failure is a part of what it means to be created by God, and humbly accepting our creatureliness means accepting the fact that we fail all of the time.

Finally, I would note that this is an issue of obvious significance for the days of Elul, when Jews have repentance on the mind. Both of these ideas take the edge off of sin, meaning that perhaps it should not be the focus of repentance. Instead, repentance should either focus on how the sin can be the first step in something better (the first approach), or in accepting the fact that we are not divine, and thus sin is to some degree an unfortunate inevitability. Either way, the primary emotion of repentance is not guilt but determination or humility.



[This post was influenced by lectures by Yishai Mevorach, a student of Rav Shagar and an editor of his writings, and an interesting thinker in his own right. An English interview with Prof. Alan Brill about Mevorach’s new book, “A Theology of Absence” can be found here, and Mevorach’s Hebrew lectures on a variety of topics can be found on his youtube channel here.]

The Commandments and their Reasons as Hardware and Software: Toward a Materialist Understanding of Mitsvot

In this post I want to continue exploring new metaphors for talking about aspects of Judaism (an exploration I started here). Specifically, I want to look at what it might mean if we think of the commandments and their reasons (traditionally referred to as “ta’amei hamitsvot”) as analogous to hardware and software, respectively. This analogy will enable us to draw out and discuss various aspects of the commandments and their reasons, and the relationship between the two.

To clarify a little what I mean by the terms “hardware” and “software,” hardware is the physical devices we interact with in order to access software, while software, the thing we actually want to access, can only be accessed via hardware. I use my computer to access Microsoft Word; using Word is a goal that is only accessible via my computer. Similarly, once we say that the commandments have reasons (not uncontroversial in the history of Jewish thought), it makes sense to articulate reasons that can only be achieved via the commandments. If giving charity makes you a more generous person, “becoming a more generous person” is something that is only accessible via the generous act of giving charity. I therefore use charity to access “becoming a more generous person.”

However, while giving charity is one way of becoming a more generous person, it is certainly not the only way; similarly, my computer is not the only device with which I can access Word. We might therefore ask why we should use these specific pieces of hardware rather than any other. On one level, it’s worth noting that the question is not so fair. Sure you could use any device, but you have to use one, no matter which one it is. So you might justify the one that you use based on simply having to pick one, rather than any specific traits about it. Charity is as good a way as any to become a more generous person.

You also might justify your choice of hardware based on the fact that it is the one you have. Maybe you got it as a present, maybe it’s the one that all of your friends had, maybe you just found it lying on the curb and took it home; however it came to you, now you have it and it is yours. Barring significant issues with the device that interfere with its functioning, this alone is enough to justify using it, as opposed to switching to some other device. I have my phone, I like it, I identify with it, it’s mine. Sure the screen is cracked and the battery-life is stress-inducing, but I identify with its flaws as much as its functions. Moreover, having to pick out and purchase a new phone would be a difficult process.

This leads us toward Maimonides’s historicist conception of the commandments, and their relationship with the idolatrous rituals of ancient Israel’s neighbors. Maimonides argues that human nature cannot change rapidly, that it must be shifted gradually, and that God therefore gave the Israelites commandments that were the same or incredibly similar to the idolatrous forms of worship they were already familiar with. If the ancient Israelites wanted to “access” worship, they would inevitably turn to the “device” animal sacrifice, simply because it’s the one with which they were most familiar and comfortable, and so God accommodated this fact of human nature (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32). This, Maimonides argued, despite the fact that animal sacrifice has noticeable drawbacks, and prayer or silent meditation would work much better. Sacrifice worked, however, and it was the hardware they already had.

If Maimonides conception assumes the difficulty of changing “hardware,” it assumes  some more ease in changing software. Animal sacrifice used to run “worship pagan pantheon X” and was now being used to run “worship YHWH, the one god.” This holds true to our analogy to software, which was always replaced more easily than hardware, particularly now that even major upgrades and shifts in operating systems can be achieved via the internet.

This brings us to an important point: software is not self-justifying. I use my phone to access WhatsApp, but I don’t use WhatsApp just for the sake of using WhatsApp, I use it for communicating with other people. If a certain piece of software isn’t getting the job done, I am likely to replace it. Moreover, because software is replaced so easily, it is not as easy to hold onto it simply“because it’s mine,” as in the case of hardware.

The analogy to reasons for commandments here is a bit tricky, but I think also important. Commandments are, as I have said, intended for the sake of the reasons for the commandments. But are those reasons for anything outside themselves? I think they are. I think we should understand reasons for the individual commandments as pivoting around larger ideals, such as holiness, morality, covenant, etc. The reasons for individual commandments serve to give us “access” to the larger ideals, much the same way as the commandments themselves give us “access” to the reasons for the commandments.

This is important for the way it enables us to view the historic assertions of reasons for the commandments, some of which we have moved well away from today (for a good example of this regarding the laws of Niddah, see Jonah Steinberg’s “From a Pot of Filth to a Hedge of Roses”). If there is one reason to which a given commandment is meant to provide access, then debates and differences of opinion in regard to the reason for that commandment require deciding who is right and who is wrong. However, if we conceptualize the reasons for the commandments as tools for accessing the larger ideals, then different reasons can coexist without one needing to be “the right one.” Moreover, in changing historical circumstances, with the people already used to certain actions and thought processes, different reasons might be just what is necessary to access the same larger ideal. Whether the details of commandments are based on the ritual worship of the Israelites’ neighbors (Maimonides) or on strict symbolism (Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch), both reasons are part of shaping the life of the nation in relation to God (cf. Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Shemoneh Kevatsim, 2:54-57). Because the reasons are not ends in and of themselves, they can be replaced when they are not serving their function and we can change between them as necessary. Moreover, different people use their phones and computers for different things, and different people can perform the commandments for different reasons. People even generally use their hardware to access a variety of softwares, and there’s no reason that the commandments and their reasons could not work similarly.

By way of conclusion, I would like to take note of how this analogy structures the relationship between the commandments and their reasons. In a sense, it makes the reasons more primary. The commandments exist and are performed for the sake of the reasons. However, the reasons themselves serve larger ideals and are easily replaceable. The commandments themselves, on the other hand, have a significant presence in the life and laws of the people, and thus are not easily replaceable. This very real presence, and the difficulty it would create in trying to change the commandments, make the commandments more primary. Barring gradual change, the physical commandments are sticking around, while their reasons may shift. This emphasis on the primacy of the physical actions that make up the commandments in the historical life of the nation leads me to call this a materialist understanding of mitsvot. This approach also puts an emphasis on the shifting historical situation of the nation and the way it shapes the reasons for the commandments. The Jewish people have carried these actions with us through various contexts over the millennia, and we have been different in these various contexts. The commandments therefore have served, and continue to serve, different reasons at different times and for different people, just as different people use their hardware for different softwares.


Destruction and Centralization – Monopolizing the Worship Market


I want to take a moment to explore Deuteronomy 12:1-7. In doing so, however, I want to make an analogy to the economics of contemporary technology. This is part of a larger goal of “hitting refresh” on the metaphors and analogies we use to talk about God and Judaism. Most of our analogies stretch back aeons and now lack the everyday sensibility that makes metaphors and analogies helpful. The best example of this is traditional comparison of God to a king, when few, if any, people living today have experienced living under a real king. Finding new ways of talking about God and Judaism enables us to better understand God and Judaism, as well as integrating them more into our everyday lived experience. However, analogies and metaphors don’t just convey information, they also shape it. Changing the way we speak about God and Judaism also changes how we think about them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact it offers up exciting possibilities, but it is something we should do with our eyes open. I want to explore some of these possibilities in this post on Deuteronomy 12:1-7, and at least one more on a different topic.

Deuteronomy 12 discusses the laws of centralization and sacrifice that the Israelites must observe after they enter the land of Canaan. These laws open not with Israelite cultic worship, however, but with how they should destroy the physical sites of worship that they find in the land, only thereafter going on to the topic of centralization

These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land that the Lord, God of your fathers, is giving you to possess, as long as you live on earth. You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.

Do not worship the Lord your God in like manner, but look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there. There you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices, your tithes and contributions, your votive and freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks. Together with your households, you shall feast there before the Lord your God, happy in all the undertakings in which the Lord your God has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:1-7)

These two paragraphs are generally understood as two contrasting ideas; “here’s how you treat bad worship, here’s how you treat good worship.” The religions of the natives are bad and must be destroyed, while the good religion of the Israelites is meant to be performed at a single location. In what follows I would like to propose that these two paragraphs are not meant to be contrasting ideas but complementary ones, both part of securing the Israelites involvement in the proper form of religious activity.

To get to that idea, I want to look at a two instances from the recent history of the technology market. The first is the role the iPhone played in the competition between Verizon and AT&T in the United States cell phone market.

Back in 2006 Apple sought to release the original iPhone on Verizon; the leading carrier in the U.S., though, was wary of Apple’s demands that there be no Verizon branding, no Verizon control of the user experience, and no Verizon relationship with iPhone users beyond managing their data plan. Therefore, Apple launched the iPhone on the second-place carrier (AT&T née Cingular); AT&T accepted Apple’s demands in full with the hope that Apple’s famously loyal customers would see the iPhone as a reason to switch.

That, of course, is exactly what happened: in the five years following the iPhone launch, AT&T went from trailing Verizon by $400 million in wireless revenue to leading by $700 million; that’s a $1.1 billion switch thanks in large part to Apple loyalists’ willingness to switch carriers to get an iPhone. The effect was even greater on smaller carriers, which had no choice but to accede to Apple’s increasingly demanding terms: not only would Apple own the customers, but carriers had to agree to significant marketing outlays and guaranteed sales to carry the iPhone(Ben Thompson, “Apple Should Buy Netflix”)

Before the iPhone was released, Verizon was the unquestioned leader in the United States, seemingly because of their better service and plans, and they felt very secure in that position. What they did not count on was the power and influence of the physical devices that customers used to access their services. It turned out that the physical devices had the power to be a determining factor. Once the iPhone was introduced, people flocked to it, and that meant flocking to the only cell phone service to which iPhones gave access.

Something similar happened with the introduction of the Windows operation system on IBM computers, before the OS market was really even getting off the ground.

IBM spun up a separate team in Florida to put together something they could sell IT departments. Pressed for time, the Florida team put together a minicomputer using mostly off-the shelf components; IBM’s RISC processors and the OS they had under development were technically superior, but Intel had a CISC processor for sale immediately, and a new company called Microsoft said their OS – DOS – could be ready in six months. For the sake of expediency, IBM decided to go with Intel and Microsoft.

The rest, as they say, is history. The demand from corporations for IBM PCs was overwhelming, and DOS – and applications written for it – became entrenched. By the time the Mac appeared in 1984, the die had long since been cast. Ultimately, it would take Microsoft a decade to approach the Mac’s ease-of-use, but Windows’ DOS underpinnings and associated application library meant the Microsoft position was secure regardless. (Ben Thompson, “The Truth about Windows versus the Mac”)

Demand for the IBM personal computer was high, and it came preloaded with Windows. By virtue of that connection between the physical device and the operating system, Microsoft dominated the market for years, without Apple ever really having a chance. This is exactly the same as what happened with the iPhone, except that the iPhone was being introduced into  preexisting market while the IBM personal computer was basically creating a new one. In this new market, one physical device dominated, and therefore the operating system connected to this device also dominated.

The common idea in both of these examples is that physical objects, like iPhones or personal computers, determine the market, and that when these physical devices are connected to other things, like cell phone plans or operating systems, they give the market to those things. Returning to Deuteronomy 12:1-7, I would like to propose that we should see the laws recorded there as working off this idea in an attempt to shape the Israelites’ religious practice. Instead of iPhones and personal computers, the physical objects here are the places and paraphernalia of worship. When the Israelites destroy any place where the Canaanites worshipped, when they destroy the altars and pillars and trees that the Canaanites used in their worship, they are limiting the physical objects available to them in their worship. If the Canaanite objects are available, the Israelites may flock to them, and thus to the deities connected to those objects. Getting rid of those objects means that the Israelites have no choice but to worship with objects connected to God. Similarly, when God says they have to worship only at one central location, this means that the nature of worship in this one, easily controlled, environment, shapes the Israelites’ religious experience. These are not contrasting laws about how to treat good and bad religion but complementary laws ensuring God’s monopoly in the worship market.

As I said above, however, this new analogy requires some new understandings. This is all based on the idea that there is such a thing as a worship market, that the Israelites will necessarily participate in worship and religion, with the only question being with what physical objects and to which god(s). This assumptions is, I think, fairly well born out by the existence of religion throughout human societies across history. Moreover, it seems fairly evident from Tanakh. The book of Judges is full of the Israelites straying after foreign gods, seemingly for no other reason than the fact that they were there. Once we take that reality as a given, it makes sense that God would attempt to limit the available objects and sites of foreign worship, so as to manage and direct that basic religious impulse.

Perhaps more dramatically, this analogy allows us to move away from seeing Deuteronomy 12:1-7 as being about “bad” religion versus “good” religion. The reason that the Canaanite sites of worship must be destroyed is not because they are “bad” but simply because they are competition. This isn’t to say that they’re “good,” but simply to reevaluate the way we think about issues of idolatry and foreign worship. It is possible that the problem with worshipping gods other than God is less that they don’t exist and that the worship is false and more that we are supposed to be dedicated to God specifically. What other nations do is their own business (which, again, doesn’t make them “right” or “good,” just not our concern). In fact, something like this seems to be expressed in the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, where it is said that the heavenly bodies were given to the nations to worship (4:19) (see my piece on this understanding of idolatry here).

In conclusion, reimagining the laws of destruction and centralization in Deuteronomy 12 as attempts to shape and control a worship market highlights the idea that there is a “demand” for religion and the importance of “customer loyalty.” More importantly, I hope that it makes this passage more understandable to the average reader, and that it makes the ideas therein make more sense and more familiar to them. In another post, I want to look at another new analogy, exploring the connection between the commandments and the reasons for the commandments in light of the connection between hardware and software.

Rav Shagar on Being Religious as Being Weird and Avant Garde, with a Note about Academic Bible Scholarship

So apparently men wearing skirts is getting more and more popular (hold onto your hats, because this essay is going to end up talking about academic Bible scholarship). Just a few years ago, however, it was considered avant garde, meaning that the men doing it were breaking cultural norms, but they were doing so with confidence. That confidence is the key factor in whether breaking cultural norms makes you a weirdo, a loser, or makes you avant garde. If you can pull it off, this confidence often wins the respect of the culture whose norms you are breaking; often, however, the avant garde remain something of a marginalized group.

Any person who defines herself as both modern and religious invariably finds herself in this position. The cultural norms of contemporary western cultures are, to a great degree, secular, and so being religious means breaking those cultural norms. Being religious can therefore require being “weird,” or having the confidence to be avant garde.

Writing in the religious Zionist community in Israel at the turn of the millennium, Rav Shagar strived to create Jews who saw themselves as avant garde. Concluding an essay on love and marriage in the postmodern era, he writes:

I would love to see marriage as the true avant garde of today’s society, marriage as a covenant, in the rite of Moshe and Israel. The true rebellion is the Orthodox rebellion to be a “loser” (freier) in a world where not a single person is willing to be a loser, to commit in a place where everybody runs from commitment. This is intimately bound-up with self-sacrifice, but self-sacrifice in this sense is the very essence of the covenantal relationship. (“Love, Romance, and Covenant,” Nehalekh Beragesh, p. 286)

Finding postmodern sensibilities about romance to be decidedly more “frum” than modern ones, Shagar argued that religious Zionists should take up this postmodern yet very traditional view of marriage, even if it means breaking with the non-committal values of mainstream Israeli society. Notably, Shagar invokes the idea of being a freier, a “loser,” something Israelis are constantly attempting to avoid, and asserts that religious Zionists should embrace that role, being willing to sacrifice for the betterment of others, which is the foundation of a covenantal relationship.

At the very end of an essay on the interplay of education and ideology, Shagar looks to the future of religious Zionist education in Israel and argues that we have to be educating for avant garde-hood.

For what, then, shall we educate? How will we want to see the next generation of religious Zionism? I would prefer to strive to make it an avant garde generation. What do I mean by this? – the stubbornness to hold on to ethics in a world without ethics; to faith in a nihilistic world; to be the “loser” of the world out of a sense that “This is how I am and this is how I want to be.” This is a holy rebellion: the rebellion against the rebellion, a postmodern rebellion against the modern rebellion. Education needs to create complex people, with many aspects and no need to construct ideological unity that will resolve them, by creating a deep and rooted Jewish identity that can connect with and absorb the different direction and oppositions. (“Education and Ideology,” Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, pp. 206-207)

Shagar is pushing for a broad embrace of values in the face of a culture that rejects them. Mainstream Israeli culture, he says, is unethical and nihilistic; we must therefore break with it in being ethical and full of faith. Religious values necessarily set us apart from the broader culture, and we must embrace that gap.

It is critical to note that Rav Shagar is not arguing for the approach taken by Haredi society, which in that same essay about education he calls a “heterotopia” (a term he adopts from Michel Foucault), a society that is so disconnected from all other societies that its boundaries are determined not by where it butts up against other societies but by its own nature. It’s so separate that it doesn’t really even know other societies exist. Shagar admits that this depiction is idealized, not necessarily fitting the reality of contemporary Haredi society, and he therefore calls it “rectified” or “authentic” Haredism (for the latter, see the essay “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” also published in English in the book “Faith Shattered and Restored”). However, real Haredi society is still very separate from mainstream Israeli society, particularly when contrasted with the religious Zionists who, as Shagar says, “live in multiple worlds” (Education and Ideology,” pp. 183-185). This means that Haredim cannot be avant garde; in a sense, you have to be part of the culture in order to be a counter-culture, while Haredim are simply a different culture altogether. Religious Zionists, as well as Modern Orthodox Jews in the US and anyone who finds herself in a similar situation, are fully a part of mainstream, modern, society. This is what makes it significant when we break away from it. Breaking with the norms of our own culture, or perhaps more accurately the norms of the larger culture, marks us as weird and often draws scorn. The trick, however, is to embrace that difference and wear it confidently, thus shifting from “weird” to “avant garde.” We must realize that we’re different, and not expect to fit in perfectly, which means accepting that we will not be embraced by our larger culture one hundred percent of the way.


By way of conclusion, and to keep my parenthetical promise from the beginning of this post, I want to apply this model to recent discussions about academic Bible scholarship. This most recent debate was inspired by R. Dr. Joshua Berman’s essay “The Corruption of Biblical Studies” on, which argued that “conservative” scholars and scholarship are consistently marginalized in the world of academic Bible scholarship. This inspired 4 responses on the site from other scholars, followed by Berman’s rejoinder, as well as other pieces around the internet such as a piece by Prof. Marc Brettler on and one on by Dr. Michah Gottlieb. This last piece concludes, based on R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, that “an Orthodox Jew engaged in biblical criticism is knotted in impossible self-contradiction.” This piece, as well as Berman’s first piece, fall prey to some of the problems I mentioned above. R. Hirsch, as portrayed by Gottlieb, seems to fit into the heterotopic-Haredi model, seemingly pushing for Orthodox or conservative scholars to withdraw from biblical scholarship entirely, not recognizing that there are models of Orthodoxy that can embrace some form of historicism (for some of Shagar’s approach to historicism, see “Religious Life in the Modern Age”). Berman, on the other hand, seems to not be accepting that Orthodox and “conservative” scholars are in some ways breaking from the mainstream culture of academic Bible scholarship (I make this point somewhat more tentatively than the previous one). Such scholars will therefore almost unavoidably be marginal figures, and that uncomfortable status ought to be proudly embraced. This doesn’t mean that it is a good thing or that it shouldn’t be pointed out, but it does mean that it’s probably here to stay.

Where We Start and How We Continue: Tsidkat HaTsadik #1-2

The first chapter of Tsidkat Hatsadik, by Rav Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin, discusses passages from the first chapter of the talmudic tractate Berakhot from a Hasidic perspective. The first two paragraphs of the book, however, diverge from this commentary-esque character, with the first discussing the Pesaḥ sacrifice and the second discussing Berakhot only in the most abstract sense.

The two paragraphs meditate on the same issues: where do we start and how do we continue (serving God and studying Torah/making blessings, respectively), touching on fundamental issues regarding the respective roles of God and man in the service of God and in life more generally. Below are the passages and their translations, followed by an exploration of the ideas contained therein.

Continue reading “Where We Start and How We Continue: Tsidkat HaTsadik #1-2”