"A person cannot create something out of nothing, but she possesses a much more exciting ability, the ability to create one thing out of another thing. She creates new combinations and constructs out of the fragments and pieces of existence." ~Rav Shagar, "The Remainder of Faith," p.24.
This shiur explores Rav Shagar’s emphasis on “at-homeness” and the way loss of at-homeness is a central aspect of human experience, something he connects to both the primordial sin and to the specifically Jewish loss of the Beit Hamikdash. It then examines two steps away from this state of crisis, the first in our capacity to find a home in the Torah, and then in the capacity to bring new Torah into the world.
This is the sin of Adam. By sin, I do not mean the sort of gluttonous trespass which we typically call “sin” in our world. By “sin,” I refer to seeking independence through shattering the existing harmony and going in a different direction. Sin gave Adam freedom—though he matured and left home, in leaving he lost his home in the Garden of Eden. From that point on, he could no longer go home again. This is “the fiery ever-turning sword” (Genesis 3:24) which cannot be passed.
“The Destruction of the Home”
The Kabbalists explained that the destruction of the Temple ultimately meant the destruction of at-homeness. This feeling disappeared, creating the fullest experience of the mourning a person carries with him his whole life. Though a person must take care that this feeling does not expand to overwhelm his life, a mourning for this lost at-homeness still rests at the foundation of every human being. It is the same with the issue of exile. Exile is a national predicament, but it is also personal and cosmic, each person ultimately remaining alone.
“The Destruction of the Home”
The restless impossibility of finding a home is an inherent part of the human—and Jewish—condition… Just as the master, God, has no place in the world because his house has been destroyed, so too the servant, the righteous so identified with their master, God, has no place or rest in this world.
This is the meaning of the trauma and mourning of the Three Weeks that commemorate the destruction: It is enough for a person to be like his master, and to feel the trauma of the destruction in the routines of his daily life. We all have homes, some place or another where we can rest our heads at night. However, on another level, we have no physical home. We exist in the world in a state of wandering. Our reality is a secularized reality of destruction characterized by a deep sense of abandonment and mourning.
The Torah as a Home
“The Destruction of the Home”
However, the Tikkunei Zohar teaches that, in a sense, we do have a house even when in exile… In contrast, a house full of words of Torah fills with a reality that transcends destruction. Torah is the last form of at-homeness that remains available to us. Anyone who learns Torah can strongly feel that, on some level, the Torah enables us to escape. Life is full of confusions and disturbances, but we can still find calm respite in the Torah.
God’s holy house left the physical world when the Temple was destroyed, but there is still one place where I can feel at home: a place where people speak words of Torah. The Torah, or in modern terminology, the text, is the Jew’s home. I am not speaking metaphorically. Though we exist within physical space, there is also a mental space wherein we Jews feel sheltered, as if beneath the wings of the mother bird. This mental space is the Torah.
The Torah of New Souls
“The Destruction of the Home”
The souls that appear in the world after the destruction are no longer new souls, but rather old souls that acts as combinations of souls that already existed and appeared in the course of history. On a deeper level, they have nothing new to say and no new perspective to offer. They are nothing more than different, recycled versions of the past…
Innovating in Torah does not mean coming up with some novel idea, a ḥiddush, which is ultimately just a combination or rearranging of older, pre-existing elements. Innovating the Torah means renewing the Torah. During the time of the exile, the Torah functions like weeds, growing from seeds already in the ground. However, in this case there are no new seeds. The mystical aspect, the inward or the inspirational, has disappeared from the Torah, and there is no way to innovate it. All that remains is to play with or switch out elements that are already there.
In this sense, the Vilna Gaon asserts that the destruction of the Temple was a destruction of the Torah. This is the part of the destruction that people see as metaphysical, or cosmic. Just like in the time of the Tannaim and Amoraim, we lack a righteous person who could create new ideas. As such, there are no new souls: the world is arid and dry because the divine fertility has left it. Whereas Luria views redemption as the creation of new souls, the Vilna Gaon sees it as the creation of a new Torah. Ultimately, the two are inseparable: when a truly new soul appears, he reveals and waters the new Torah, as the Vilna Gaon said.
“The Destruction of the Home”
Rabbi Kook showed us that the return to the land meant the end of the exile. Because he showed us this, we were able to achieve stronger, bolder possibilities of Torah. I believe that it also made it possible for new souls to sprout up… Today, I see novelties, guys with all sorts of “combinations.” I do not always understand these people. If you were to load their program on my computer, so to speak, it would just short the circuit. Perhaps these are new souls. Let us hope that these souls help the river flow stronger and help the passionate desire return. Let us hope that the couplings in the upper worlds and Torah innovations in this one will both be fruitful and creative. The father will then bring the mother back to the home, rebuild the home, and the sons will once again find a fitting place to rest in the world.
The first part of what was supposed to be a much larger exploration of Zionism and Redemption in Rav Shagar’s thought. For scheduling reasons, this ended up being the only class on the topic, and it focuses on how Rav Shagar imagines Judaism existing before Zionism, the way that leads him to frame Zionism as a revolutionary movement within Judaism—articulating from an internal perspective the Haredi critique of Religious Zionism—and his idealized vision of Haredi society in Israel today.
This was the first part of what was supposed to be a much larger exploration of Zionism and Redemption in Rav Shagar’s thought. For scheduling reasons, this ended up being the only class on the topic, and it focuses on how Rav Shagar imagines Judaism existing before Zionism, the way that leads him to frame Zionism as a revolutionary movement within Judaism—articulating from an internal perspective the Haredi critique of Religious Zionism—and his idealized vision of Haredi society in Israel today.
Sources for the entire planned topical exploration can be found below, though the recorded shiur only explores the first few texts.
Exile & Redemption, State & Community
Bayom Hahu, 234–235
What was the spiritual situation before Rav Kook’s teachings? What was that “religious Jewishness” that we mentioned? … Rosenzweig taught that Jewishness manifests as commitment and being rooted in the covenant, which are the fundamental acts of Judaism. According to this definition, the Jewish exile is when you create a sheltered, a-historical, family space, without being concerned for surroundings or engaged in the rules of history. The Jews “lack the passionate attachment to the things that constitute the primary… ‘objects’ of other historical peoples and nations, attachments that ultimately constitute their vitality and endurance as peoples and nations: land, territory, and architecture; regional and national languages; laws [=state laws], customs, and institutions.” Their land exists only as a holy land for which they yearn, and their holy language is not their first language, not the language that they speak in their daily lives. Jewishness is bound up and connected only and entirely in itself… The Jew being connected only in himself, the nation in its very existence, creates a two-fold relationship with the “outside.” Other nations and cultures, either do not exist from the Jew’s perspective, the “outside” does not enter his horizon at all…
Panekha Avakesh, 165–166
Zionism was unquestionably a revolutionary, even rebellious, movement. Its revolution was not just political, but also spiritual and cultural. “Rejecting the exile” meant, first and foremost, rejecting the spiritual reality of the exilic Jew… When the Zionists rejected the exile, they rejected the life of the Jewish people in exile. Undeniably, for most secular Zionists this meant rejecting the Torah and the commandments, which they identified with exilic life. When the majority of the Jewish people’s leaders polemicized against Zionism, they did so because of this rejection… What I have said is true beyond secular Zionism as well. Religious Zionism was also a rebellious, revolutionary, movement… Religious Zionism and Zionism writ large are in this sense the same: they rejected exilic life, which means rejecting the life of Torah and commandments as it existed in exile.
Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, 195, 198–199
Haredi suspension of reality is not ideological suspension. It does not deny reality and concrete existence; it consciously and intentionally disconnects from them. This suspension is itself existence, performed not through defensiveness but through estrangement… the construction of a heterotopic all, a realm which external reality does not at all enter. We could describe a traditional Jew as someone who lives in a heterotopic whole without any other, since this whole is the entire whole, and is its own boundary. This suspension alienates the Haredi Jew from reality… Haredi suspension of reality is built on the creation of a heterotopic space which suspends itself from everything around it.
Zot Beriti, 158
Religious Zionism is… a faith of hyphens… religion and state, religion and science, traditionalism and modernity. The hyphen plays an essential role in the creation of personal identity… Is the hyphen a “connecting and” that appropriates? An “and” of mixture or combination? Does the hyphen know how to preserve distinction despite its connecting function? Is this a Hegelian dialectic, or the identity of the hated other that becomes, through negations – as Sartre claims about anti-Semitism – my identity? … Personally, I like the “connecting and” of Rosenzweig, which is the crowning stone on which the rest of the framework depends, the keystone that gives structure to the form. This is the Maharal’s middle line, on which the Maharal locates the Jewish people. This is the nothingness (ayin) that lacks any content, and which therefore is infinitely varied.
The “connecting and” that is so characteristic of Religious Zionism – yeshivah and military service, yeshivah and academic education, Torah and secular studies, Torah and physical labor – is not an external synthesis… It should be explained the way Franz Rosenzweig explained the “connecting and,” as the keystone which holds up the whole arch and gives it its meaning…
Nahalekh Baregesh, 348–349
We must build Judea, but as a community, not a state… We will see in isolating ourselves (to a degree) in our community an exile in the midst of redemption, exile within the land of Israel… It is an exile that means recognizing the dream that is not yet realized, and that we are not willing to give up on it… we must maintain the boundary between secularism and religiosity. This will not lead to alienation and rejection of the covenant, but will preserve the “not yet.” … We are forbidden to forget the exile… We must internalize the exile into the state itself. There were and are Haredi Israelis, and non-Orthodox thinkers like Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig, who for this reason opposed the very idea of a Jewish state. They claimed that authentic Jewish existence is exilic existence, and that Jewishness is inherently opposed to history and politics. The answer, they claim, must be establishing a state without rejecting the exile. It should be a dialectical—I would even say Hegelian—process that internalizes exile into the state and thus elevates it to the next phase of political existence, a state of justice and mercy… The current solution, fitting to the spirit of the age, is communal. It’s a solution within the framework of what they call the citizen society, which involves suspending the identity between religion and state. This does not mean that we’ll stop being Religious Zionists and loyal patriots… However, alongside this feeling of loyalty we will know that the state cannot now fulfill our dreams.
Living Up to Redemption
Panekha Avakesh, 163
What would happen if the state of Israel absorbed “the territories,” conquered the entire promised land of Israel and reigned over it? What if we really achieved political liberty and were politically and economically independent from other nations? Would this be redemption (ge’ulah)? Would all our sufferings really disappear? Certainly not. The basic suffering of the Jews is first and foremost a spiritual, mental, and religious suffering. It is the suffering of our distance from God. This is the suffering described by the terrifying curse, “I will surely hide my face” (Deuteronomy 31:18), when God hides his face. This is the suffering of a person who has no faith, a person drowning in despair, whose life is torn and imperfect, who does not “live in the light of the face of the king” (Proverbs 16:16), the king of kings, the king of life.
All the sages of Israel have agreed that the meaning of redemption, and not just the World to Come, which “eyes other than God’s have not seen” (Isaiah 64:3), which the human mind cannot comprehend, but also the lower redemption, the Messianic Era, cannot be summed up by physical or political redemption.
Bayom Hahu, 133–134
The idea that the state is the realization of the hoped-for redemption grates… because of the specific way the dream of the state has come to fruition in practice, in the past and present… An anecdote that emphasizes this grating encounter with the reality of the state came to me this week while I was listening to the radio; it was a report about the sinking of a Tamil rebel ship and the killing of some of its occupants by the Sri Lankan government, with the aid of Israeli weapons… Israel has become a significant weapons supplier… It seems that the will to abandon politics because of how it is bound up with bloodshed, has itself abandoned us.
Bayom Hahu, 228–230
The state decreed the Disengagement upon this strip of land, revealing the painful foundation of sovereignty, the violence that underlies its laws… More than anything, the Disengagement signifies the crime of the legislation of the law itself, the violence that it bears within it. It signifies the recognition that, in truth, violating the law is a less serious crime than making the law. The inner decay within the rule of law is expressed by the claim we constantly hear from those who support the Disengagement law: This is the law, and the law is the law! – And therefore, it must be respected. The legislation’s arbitrariness strengthens the law’s tautology. It lacks any “judicial wisdom.” … The law is justified not by ethics or judicial wisdom but by the simple fact that the majority legislated it. The violence required to enact this law, removing people from their land, is not an extraneous remnant from the process of legislation, but the very heart of law: the violent claim that the law is law… The love of the land and the sovereign violence of the state are clashing tragically before our very eyes – law versus love. As Religious Zionists, we experience this clash incredibly harshly. Just as Rav Kook implanted love of the land within Religious Zionism, he similarly implanted it with the understanding and the faith that the state is the greatest manifestation of, and pathway to, redemption… Faced with the Disengagement, it is impossible not to ask: Is the State of Israel really the beginning of redemption? Can it, or any state, really take part in salvation? The threat of exile hangs over the residents of Gush Katif, rooted in the forcefulness of the state, presenting us with the sharp contrast between the “idealistic content” full of light and love from the teachings of Rav Kook, and the opaque and unmoving law of the state.
Messianism of the Future
Bayom Hahu, 241
To truly rebel against force, you must abandon it. The ability to abandon the game of force and violence is truly a messianic option. We do not dream of a time when the right power will win out, but for a time when power and might will not make right at all. We seek pleasure (oneg) and not reality (metsiyut)—this is true messianism.
Bayom Hahu, 346
I don’t know how to depict this redemption, but Rebbe Naḥman’s words inspire me to think that, perhaps, if we stand vulnerable before God… this will enable a shift, something transcendent will reveal itself, something that is beyond difference. I am not talking about tolerance, nor about the removal of difference. The Other that I see before me will remain different and inaccessible and, despite this, the Divine Infinite will position me by the Other’s side. Again, how this will manifest in practical or political terms, I do not know. But Yom Yerushalayim will be able to turn from a nationalistic day, one which has turned with time into a tribalistic celebration of Religious Zionism alone, into an international day.
Bayom Hahu, 363-367 (derashah-letter from 2007)
We yearn for more than just “natural” redemption, which some of the rishonim, such as Maimonides, thought would be realized in the Messianic Era, differing from this world only in terms of “subservience to the Nations.” Our messianic pathos also contains the melody of the open miracle, what Rebbe Naḥman called the melody of the land of Israel, which stands opposed to the melody of nature. This miraculous redemption means the shattering of nature’s lawfulness. Reality itself will metamorphose. The world will shine differently, as reality’s crude matter will be purified and receive the translucency and illumination of the day that is entirely Shabbat and rest. […] This is redemption as described by the Kabbalists, the Hasidim, and all varieties of mystics, as well as by modern, anarchistic, utopians. The indwelling of the Shekhinah which they are waiting for is real divine presence, which not hidden behind the lawfulness of nature, no matter how pure it is.
A three-part class I gave in the month of Adar focusing on Rav Shagar’s understanding of Divine Providence as both random and as inhering in reality itself, rather than in some transcendent divine plan.
This is a three-part class I gave in the month of Adar focusing on Rav Shagar’s understanding of Divine Providence as both random and as inhering in reality itself, rather than in some transcendent divine plan. The sources are below.
Randomness and Reality
Rav Shagar, “Amalek – The Will to Power,” Chance and Providence, 40–42
The Megilla spins its tale between two poles—chance and fate. Amalek-Haman, is the manifestation of chance in the world… The random outcome of the lottery becomes the locked-in fate of Haman. The Megillah tells the tale of the unbearable lightness of chance that turns into the dead weight of fate from which there is no escape. The accidental series of coincidences, lacking any reason, is soon revealed as an elegantly contrived plot. The drunkard Achashverosh, by chance, orders Vashti to show off her beauty. She refuses, Achashverosh gets angry, Mehuman advises, Vashti is gotten rid of, Esther becomes the new queen, etc., etc. Haman trusts his own fate to the roll of the dice, believing that he can force the world to conform to his devices. Soon he gets caught in his own web from which he finds there is no escape. The macabre atmosphere of a “confused” Shushan soon turns festive as all watch his downfall and demise as he attains new “heights” thanks to the helpful hint of Charbona about the gallows that Haman had erected for Mordechai.
Rav Shagar, “Nascient Knowledge,” Chance and Providence, 31–36 (Some Modifications)
What are the differences between chance, fate and providence? Chance tells us that things could turn out like this or like that. The essence of chance is possibility. Fate proclaims that things must turn out just so. They could not have been different. Yet fate itself is random. In this way it is similar to chance. There is no discernable reason behind its dictates. So the Hebrew goral has two disparate meanings. It can mean lot, like the tossing of a coin, an expression of pure chance. It can also mean fate—the sealing of a multiplicity of chances into one predetermined outcome. Yet both meanings share in the desperation of the arbitrary. Providence, however, tells us that things have turned out as they should. They are exactly as they should be. The world runs in accord with Divine Justice. God is just.
Chance is the outward appearance of the world. A chain of unconnected events. Fate, though, has its roots in God’s will. Thus God desired, and so, thus it is. We cannot fathom God’s will. We can only understand that it is an expression of the absolute, the essential.
The source of providence, explains the Rambam, lies in God’s intellect. God’s knowledge encompasses all of His creations and it can know them by knowing itself. Megillat Esther, as an expression of Divine Providence, deals with the eternal struggle against Amalek. Amalek attempts to usurp God’s reign by vilifying His nation with no real provocation. His attack on Israel stems from Israel’s status as God’s throne in the world. “So Shlomo sat on God’s throne” (Divrei HaYamim 2, 29:23). This is a metaphysical war. Amalek seeks to prove that the world is meaningless. All is random chance…
The realm of intellect is generally understood as separate from the realm of pure will, which lacks any real sense. However, on a deeper level, the destiny that is God’s will and the providence that is His knowledge and intellect, are one. As the Rambam explains, God’s knowledge and volition are one because neither His intellect nor His will exist outside of Himself. Rather, since both his intellect and will reside within His essence as perfect Unity, they are necessarily united themselves.
From here we reach the realm of un-knowing. This is the level that exists beyond both volition and intellect. The Divine Self is hidden from us and it is not in our power to comprehend its essence and unity. This is because our own intellect, our own will and our own lives are not essential to ourselves, but rather the terminology of Medieval philosophy) accidental. There is a necessary relation between our existence, then, and God’s. In the words of the Rambam, “We cannot understand what God is, but only that He is.” So we realize that the “true object of knowing is not knowing.” The more clearly we can grasp our inability to truly understand God, the closer we get to actually understanding that which we can about the Divine. This un-knowing is no mere ignorance, however. We know that we do not know, and we know why. So, we are quite knowledgeable about our not knowing.
It is in this context that we regard chance. Chance, as we have said, is indifferent, meaningless. Life lived by chance is similar to the life of the drunkard who lives with no cognition of his actions, but rather moves randomly from one thing to another. “One must get drunk enough on Purim until one cannot differentiate….” Paradoxically, it is chance, randomness, that serves to express the Divine on a higher plane—the realm of the ein sof, the Boundless. Chance is rooted in God’s essence mamash—which is known through not knowing. That is, it is connected to that place where our own knowledge is meaningless and “any clarity returns to mere unintelligibility.” There, in the light of the ein sof, the possible itself becomes essential.
Chance is possibility. However, when the possible is understood as having its own independent existence, it becomes essential and capable of uniting will with intellect.
We can explain this differently. You may ask yourself from time to time, why am I what I am and not something else? One answer is: This is what happened to you, what happened to your life. This is the answer of Amalek. There is no preexisting meaningfulness to life; rather randomness is the governing force in the universe. There is no transcendental meaning waiting to be discovered. A second answer is: The entirety of your existence is an exact reflection of your inner being. Nothing that you are is the result of chance. A third answer is: This is your fate. This is the will of God. These three answers, however, seem to leave one out in the cold. Infused as they with indifference, they all leave something important unsaid. They do not satisfy. In the boundless freedom of the divine, nothing is forced for possibility is endless. Everything that may exist, can exist. Explanations can wait.
Freedom from this burdensome query comes only through the loss of the rational; by way of inebriation that erases all difference and brings us to a state of equilibrium—the place where both Haman and Mordechai are the same. This place is where there is no good or evil, no hierarchy of more or less important, no chance and no meaning. Everything reflects upon its Creator in an equal fashion. In this place, the distress of chance and meaninglessness vanishes. Here one can taste his life fully, as it really is – full of the joy of the ein beyond all reason. Acceptance of chance returns us to the very root of the Divine ein sof—fully acknowledged un-knowing. All is what it is, and needs no external justification.
Rav Shagar, “Amalek – The Will to Power,” Chance and Providence, 43–45
Fate and chance share much in common—both are capricious. A man’s fate is sealed with no relation to his deeds, without asking his opinion, with no choice on his part. His attempts to escape his destiny are pitifully futile. Chance, too is not resultant of any will or action of the individual. But even with their common grounding in the random, fate and chance are opposites. Chance is the unbearable lightness of being that is resultant of the possible. Things can turn out this way or that. Why did they turn out as they did? As long as possibility exists, so too does chance and with it life’s lack of meaning.
Not so fate. Fate constricts; it decides for us. Fate carries the difficult weight of being. Fate exhibits an existential depth- depth that chance lacks. Unfortunately, this depth is beyond our grasp, for its source lies in the Divine Decree. The Divine Will cannot be fathomed, and so fate too is seen as arbitrary. And herein lies the source of its crushing weight.
The secret of the Megilla is the profound insight that chance is fate. The end is determined by the beginning. The only difference between the two lies in how we look at them. Changing our point of view is, in essence, the path to victory over Amalek—the victory over chance and meaninglessness… Chance turns into fate the moment that one is ready to accept it as such. This choice fixes possibility and changes it into meaning. When one chooses to see the events in his life as free rather than arbitrary, when one accepts himself, accepts life as it is, in all its complicated corporeality—life gains depth and meaning. It becomes a realized life, life as it really is. One can then understand that the circumstances comprising his life are the result of God’s will.
We consistently struggle in self-conflict, refusing to accept ourselves as we are. We live lives defined by the arbitrary. This is a life disconnected from the Real. Accepting ourselves as part of God’s will grants us a unity of spirit. This is the secret of Israel who fights against the disunity—the split personality—of Amalek. This is the secret of battling the schizophrenia of being that which one is not. This acceptance grants us Being, or in the language of the Maharal, reality.
Rav Shagar, “On Faith,” She’erit Ha’emunah
I will attempt to examine the significance of providence and faith with the aid of a provocative metaphor of Jacques Lacan: “The letter always reaches its destination.” How do you explain this utter faith, which shocked even Derrida? The answer is that the letter reaches its destination, not because it has a fixed address, as in the traditional-teleological approach to providence, but because the destination reached is always its destination. The letter reaches its destination when the person “‘opens his eyes’ and realizes that the real letter is not the message we are supposed to carry but our being itself.” The person is not the addressee before the letter is sent; he becomes the addressee the moment the letter reaches him, the second the person confronts the transpiring event (the letter). So too regarding the meaning of the letter; if the letter was not intended for me from the beginning, what message could it convey to me? Its meaning does not exist outside its destination, but the place it arrives at is what gives it its interpretation. That is its meaning, the hermeneutic circle that closes upon itself.
This creates a different type of mindset, one that does not see concrete reality as a projection of a pre-existent rule. For this mindset, [the believer] derives the rule from concrete reality. In context of religion, one can talk about faith in providence, in a divine plan that precedes reality. “A person does not prick his finger below unless it was thus decreed above.” This mindset leads to the attempt to lay bare the logic of the providence that precedes reality. This logic signifies the divine plan, and thus gives reality meaning. Challenging this is the realization that there is no duality of the signifier and the signified. The signifier is itself the signified, and reality itself expresses the divine will…
Events in our lives do not signify something that precedes them, latent hidden meaning, but rather they are the message (the stain) itself. A person’s life is not something separate from him; there is no duality of events and their meaning. A person’s fate is the person in his entirety; you are what you are, and what you are determines the meaning of what happens to you…
The true interpretation is in the hands of the addressee: the meaning of his life is given to him and him alone. He determines the contents of the letter.
This is not as if there was some pre-existent edict that is finally revealed, for it is history that determines that which was pre-existent: the interpretation determines the inception. However, this is the point: the persuasion – the turning of it into a fact – is illumination, with a sense of self-evidence that ties things together. The letter reaches its destination the very second the illumination ties the threads together, and through this comes the narrative…
An additional Lacanian formulation brings the present investigation to a slightly different resolution: one could speak of faith as an occurrence of “the Real,” “the domain of whatever subsists outside symbolization.” [The Real] is the formless chaos that precedes all symbolization, labeling, and speech, much like an infant’s world prior to all examination and distinction. In the language of faith, an event is how the divine existence reveals itself, for it precedes all of these things. “He alone is He just as He was before the world’s creation, absolutely was He alone […] He is absolutely without any change as it says: ‘For I am the Lord, I do not change’ (Malachi 3:6).”
In the Real there is not yet duality, whatever happens happens, without it signifying or symbolizing anything. Here is “the life substance in its mucous palpitation,” before any symbolization and interpretation. The peeling away of all interpretation from reality, “when the words suddenly stay out” and when what is left is oneself, makes it possible to encounter this reality. A stance like this leads a person to astonishment and wonder in encountering existence, in the existence of existence, in reality revealing its realness. This leads the believer to feel gratitude for the happenstance of existence, for everything that happens to him. Providence is found within this happenstance, since the divine is found wherever the “Real” is! Thus, the letter inevitably reaches its destination, not because of the interpretative work of the addressee (which makes him into the addressee), but because he does not need to give a theological account of the phenomenon – it is enough that the letter reaches his hand…
Rav Shagar, Shiurim Al Likkutei Moharan I 13
For Rebbe Naḥman, providence is the reflected light (or haḥozer) of the Torah. The Torah is how God sees the world. When I learn Torah with this in mind, I illuminate the world and make it meaningful, a world with providence. Providence is not a specific plan and we cannot describe in advance how God runs his world. Providence is reflected light, or our reflectivity on reality. As we saw in Walter Benjamin’s discussion of redemption, providence depends on our interpretation of what happened, on constructing a narrative that finds God’s wisdom in the various events. Providence is the ability to see the inner sense and logic of all events, how the things that happen to us come together. The individual details create a story or a work of art. Practically speaking, this is how the Torah is revealed in the world. A person in the rare state of providence merits understanding the meaning of his life, saving him from a sense of happenstance (mikriyut). Sometimes a person with a providence mindset feels a strong religious intensity, a clarity about what happens to him, in advance of the event itself. Rebbe Naḥman calls this “the Torah of the ancient sealed one” (“torah atika setimah”), the Torah of the future yet to come. This state feels like falling in love, when every event feels sharp and clear. Providence is essentially this sharpness.
A 5-part class focusing on revelation as a fundamentally disruptive, rather than constructive, event.
This was a 5-part class, focusing on revelation as a fundamentally disruptive, rather than constructive, event. It was part of my Orayta ’21 Rav Shagar Habura. Below are parts 2–5, interspersed throughout the sources for the class. The first video is the audio from part 2, which began with a recap of part 1.
Rav Shagar, She’erit Ha’emunah, 122–123
Revelation is an event… It is a jolt that shakes up, rather than clarifying, what already exists. What does it mean to receive the Torah? It means suddenly experiencing an explosion of truth – “For my words are like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that shatters rock” (Yirmiyahu 23:29); “Something that happens in situations as something that they and the usual way of behaving in them cannot account for.” … No specific revealed content stands at the center of revelation. The event of revelation is not an opinion, but rather “the name of the void” that in its nature “cannot be named entirely.” This is where the need for a covenant arises in revelation – “The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Ḥorev” (Devarim 5:2), a covenant that is fulfilled in the declaration “We will do and we will listen.” This covenant is the response to the “name of the void,” the requirement for uncompelled loyalty that creates “a new way of being and acting within the situation,” because “the event was excluded by all the regular laws of the situation.” The heart of revelation is therefore universal, in that it is free of any named content, leaving only singular loyalty to it; creating new laws and approaches, through which a person enables a “way of being” for the new event. This is true for more than just the giving of the Torah: scientific revolutions, like Einstein’s, for example; political revolutions, like the French Revolution; the revolution that is in constantly innovative artistic creation; religious and spiritual revolutions – these are all expressions of constructive loyalty to a revelatory event, the creation of a new language for the “name of the void.” These are illuminations from “the primordial intellect,” a dimension that precedes the intellect and renews it. According to Badiou, truth appears as the commitment of the subject to the event – the combination of revelation and loyalty to that revelation. The event demands loyalty because it itself appears only as an excess, as a void with no place in language and disconnected from everything. The lightning flashes without context and disappears as if it had never been. It is to this lightning that we must be loyal, and this loyalty constructs the lightning as truth. This is what the Kabbalists and Ḥasidim called raising Malkhut to Keter, an instance of “the crown of sovereignty” (“KeterMalkhut”). Keter is the lightning bolt of reality and Malkhut, which has no independent content, is the loyalty and decisiveness that realize the event.
…At that time the way of life generally accepted and customary in the whole world and the universal service upon which we were brought up consisted in offering various species of living beings in the temples in which images were set up, in worshipping the latter, and in burning incense before them – the pious ones and the ascetics being at that time, as we have explained, the people who were devoted to the service of the temples consecrated to the stars. His wisdom, may He be exalted, and His gracious ruse, which is manifest in regard to all His creatures, did not require that He give us a Law prescribing the rejection, abandonment, and abolition of all these kinds of worship. For one could not then conceive the acceptance of [such a Law], considering the nature of man, which always likes that to which it is accustomed.
At that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon the people to worship God, would say: “God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.” Therefore He, may He be exalted, suffered the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them from created or imaginary and unreal things to His own name, may He be exalted, commanding us to practice them with regard to Him, may He be exalted. Thus He commanded us to build a temple for Him: And let them make Me a Sanctuary; to have an altar for His name: An altar of earth thou shalt make unto Me; to have the sacrifice offered up to Him: When any man of you bringeth an offering unto the Lord; to bow down in worship before Him; and to burn incense before Him. And He forbade the performance of any of these actions with a view to someone else: He that sacrificeth unto the gods shall be utterly destroyed, and so on; For thou shalt bow down to no other god. And he singled out Priests for the service of the Sanctuary, saying: That they may minister unto Me in the priest’s office. And because of their employment in the temple and the sacrifices in it, it was necessary to fix for them dues that would be sufficient for them; namely, the dues of the Levites and the Priests. Through this divine ruse it came about that the memory of idolatry was effaced and that the grandest and true foundation of our belief – namely, the existence and oneness of the deity – was firmly established, while at the same time the souls had no feeling of repugnance and were not repelled because of the abolition of modes of worship to which they were accustomed and than which no other mode of worship was known at that time.
And this is known as the oven of akhnai. The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of akhnai, a snake, in this context? Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: It is characterized in that manner due to the fact that the Rabbis surrounded it with their statements like this snake, which often forms a coil when at rest, and deemed it impure. The Sages taught: On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him.
After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream.
Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning.
Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion?
Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.
Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, 142
The sovereign act, like other forms of revelatory experience, only achieves a stable place by transforming itself. To remember God’s presence is not the same as to experience God’s presence; to remember love is not the same as to be in love. At moments of revelation, we stand within the mysterium tremendum. Nothing can be more exhilarating or more threatening than to find oneself within a revolution. Sacrifice is the medium of sovereign presence. Permanent revolution is always a terrifying idea for just this reason. To succeed, revolution must transform itself into a regular political form, that is, it must produce a constitution. That constitution binds as long as it is seen as a remnant o f revolution. To see through the constitution to the popular sovereign whose act it records is what makes it literally our constitution, despite the fact that we, as finite individuals, neither wrote it nor approved it. This is not a matter of “implicit consent” but of a social imaginary that grounds faith. The constitution claims us not because it is just—although we want it to be just—but because it is a remnant of a politics of authenticity that we still imagine as our own.
Rav Shagar, Luḥot U’shivrei Luḥot, 140–142
I asked him, “Who truly fears heaven. Is it not the person who asks ‘What is God’s will?’? Who asks himself if it is really God’s will that he leave the Arab to die? Do I not need to ask this question, and answer with total sincerity? Some people obey without hesitation, totally self-confident, never once standing before God and asking themselves with respect and sincerity, directly and without intermediary, “What is God’s will?” Do these people really fear heaven?” I concluded, “I am unsure: perhaps they really don’t doubt what God’s will is, or perhaps they don’t actually have faith that he wants something.” … What had I done? Had I taken that boy who asked me about saving a non-Jew on Shabbat and thrown him into a world of uncertainty, chronic doubt, and undecidable misgivings? I had actually hoped that I opened up for him the possibility of faith and real contact with the divine. I quoted for him the statement of a Hasidic rebbe, the Mei Hashiloaḥ, who said that a righteous man (tsaddik) who consciously inserts himself into doubts is greater than one who avoids them.
Rav Shagar, She’erit Ha’emunah, 144
Rebbe Naḥman teaches us that a person must be open to experiencing revelation and responding to it, as well as to the price of this response. The reason people don’t experience revelation of truth isn’t that they seek it but don’t find it, it’s that they are never even open to its presence. They are not willing to pay the price of revelation. As Rebbe Naḥman says at the beginning of his sermon: “For in truth, the Torah is constantly proclaiming and shouting and admonishing” … Attaining truth demands a sort of openness, rather than intellectual effort. You have to be willing to set yourself free from all the typical ways of thinking and hear “the call of the proclamation.” You must give sensitive attention to the thunder of the event. This sort of awareness leads to dedicating careful attention to the events through which God speaks to each person. When things resonate with a person, he can discover that they came to awaken and illuminate him in preparation for a new Torah.
Rav Shagar, Shiurim Al Likkutei Moharan, vol. 2, 41–43
When Rebbe Nahman expresses the view that it is possible to create God’s will, he is not aiming for a religious “reform” that would enable a person to get rid of Torah and mitsvot for the sake of the individual’s will to do other things. What he is doing is giving the individual the option of holding on with all his strength to the truth in the depths of his soul, to follow it all the way through to the end, because this truth and the will that flows from it are a divine revelation. The idea underlying Rebbe Nahman’s words is that it is impossible to separate the Torah from a person’s inner will. However, it’s important to emphasize that Rebbe Nahman lived with a sense of belonging to Torah… and within it he found his inner truth…
On the one hand, we are born into the reality of tradition, halakhah and Torah. On the other hand, the Torah itself legitimizes renewal based on inner-truth, which is the only possibility for reaching the service of God. Living between these two poles demands that a person find his spiritual world, locates his level, his faith, and tries to understand what God wants from him, what his unique rectification is, what is his personal truth. According to Rebbe Nahman in this teaching, he doesn’t worry that this personal search will lead a person away from Torah and tradition; the assumption is that someone who learns Torah will find his spiritual world within it and will of course feel a sense of identification and belonging. Obviously, in practice, if a contradiction between a person’s inner world and the Torah were to develop, he must sacrifice his own will. However, this is only a theoretical possibility, for such a contradiction should not manifest.
Rav Shagar, Shiurim Al Likkutei Moharan, vol. 2, 28–29
What is the “yetser” in this context? In my opinion, it is a person’s fear of stepping outside the familiar in order to reach a higher space, his fear of the radicalization of the Torah. This the “religious yetser” that desires to stay within the lines of the familiar, “to be acceptable.” However, connecting intimately with God really requires breaching boundaries; you can’t stay within the well-mannered, normative realm, the familiar and the self-evident. Despite the negative way the religious world looks at this sort of rebellious assertiveness, it can in certain contexts require a religious act of submission no less intense than that required by simply obedience to halakhah… This act really is quite difficult, because this sort of overcoming clashes with the Torah’s social aspects. When a person is loyal to his radical faith, he is likely to pay a heavy social price. This is exactly why the act requires overcoming your yetser: you must overcome the yetser for honor (kavod), as well as your self-image, which is part of honor…Rebbe Nahman connects the illumination of the letters and the revelation of the Torah to observing the 613 commandments. The religious way of life provides the sensibility and spiritual inspiration that enable meaningful renewal. Only when you actively live a way of life shaped according to the mitsvot does Jewish religious language have meaning, and only then is it possible to innovate new concepts within that language. Rebbe Nahman’s words point in two directions: The first is to revitalize the halakhah through religious radicalism, and the second is to give the renewed religious structure the halakhic platform on which to rest… Without the halakhic mindset… the most you end up with is a weak sense of freedom.
The second of a two-part class on faith, doubt, “perhaps,” ideology, and idolatry in the thought of Rav Shagar. Unfortunately, the first part was not recorded. From my 2020–21 Rav Shagar Haburah at Yeshivat Orayta. Sources for both parts can be found below (this part starts with source #2).
Rav Shagar, Shiurim al Likkutei Moharan, vol. 1, 269–271
I was recently at a symposium on the relationship between certainty and faith. One of the speakers told of a certain forum where a person raised the possibility that there could be a third destruction, as opposed to Rav Herzog’s famous words, spoken in the earliest days of the state, about how we have God’s promise that there will not be a third destruction. In response, he was thrown out of the forum, because of the “heresy” involved in casting doubt on the continuing redemptive process of the modern state of Israel. The speaker told this story in praise of the certainty of faith, and looked positively on the total unreadiness to hear claims like his. He saw it as a revelation of true faith. I was shook. I saw this as making faith into an idol, expressing an arrogant religion that refuses to accept the other. It comes from the violence laid bare in religious discourse.
To my mind, rejecting the idea of a third destruction comes from patriotism in the negative sense, rather than from a position of deep faith. Absolute certainty is a handhold that lets the speaker feel confident about the righteousness of his path, but faith happens only in the moment when a person gives up on certainty and opens up to the possibilities that exceed the limits of his understanding. In this context, raising doubts is not only not opposed to faith, it itself is the thing that can lead us to real faith. Raising doubts is not an educational goal, and I do not mean that we must encourage doubts, mainly because some people remain in a chronic state of baselessness. The trap of ideological excess can lead to acting like an idolater, coating their opinions with words of faith.
It’s important to remember that an answer like “perhaps” is a real possibility in existence, which can be just as certain as certainty. The very existence of a positive option itself changes the feeling of your life. For example, things in my life don’t have to be good in a simplistic sense in order for me to have faith; it is enough that I have faith that things could be good, that the potential exists, in order to experience the presence of God. Faith is not necessarily certainty, and therefore it’s possible for a faithful answer to the question “Is there a creator of the world?” to be: Perhaps. From this perspective, the presence of faith in the world depends on people, on their readiness to accept the existence of God in the world despite the lack of certainty…
It is specifically doubt that can lead to faith, because language forces us to define every phenomenon, and thus instead of actually encountering the phenomenon we suffice with defining it externally. Doubt opens up a language anew, in order to prevent rigidity and to enable us to once again come into contact with reality. If we say, “Yes, God definitely exists,” this statement can lead us to block off the possibility of revelation. It is specifically the ability to answer “perhaps” in regard to religious life that creates a space where the sudden possibility of revelation could take place.
Rav Shagar, Beriti Shalom, 139–140
My impression of some of the long people opposing the Disengagement is that—in contrast to their thoroughly ideological rabbis—they are driven by authentic faith, and this itself is what makes them so dangerous.
What makes the religious terrorist dangerous is that he lacks a lack of faith—he lacks doubt. This lack is what enables him to murder. Paradoxically, lacking faith protects a person from transgression. The faithless ideologue, in contrast, is plagued by a hole that he attempts to overcome through ideology, and that is what makes him dangerous. In general, however, he will not go too far, and will find formulations and justifications (even ideological ones) to prevent himself from transgressing.
We must thus open up to the lack of faith—to the ability to cast doubt—to the ironic, distanced gaze. Is such a gaze opposed to fear of heaven? Not necessarily. In a certain situation, it itself is the fear of heaven, or at least, it enables a powerful possibility for the fear of heaven.
God is not a fact. He exists without existence. This is the secret of the tsimtsum, which is also the source of lack of faith, as Rebbe Nahman teaches. The internal logic is simple: God is not a fact, so how is it possible to believe in him? How can you believe in not-a-fact? How? The answer is that you must conscript the lack of faith in service of the cause. Believe without believe just as God exists without existence. Paradoxically, “not believing” in this sense can only function in tandem with “believing,” without which it would become simple negation—nothingness, simple absence, rather than absence that exists. This is the revelation of the Ayin.
Rav Shagar, Nahalekh Baragesh, “Teshuvah and the Disengagement”
We have to understand that in the postmodern world we are incapable of bringing a “winning proof” in this argument. However, this does not mean that our claim has no merit. On the contrary, this is the test of faith; it does not draw its strength from absolute truths but from our choice and our loyalty to our “narrative.” The difference between us and the left is exactly the faith that this is our land, that our right to the land is ancient and immeasurably greater than that of the arabs, that we were exiled from our land because of our sins, but we never abandoned it and we never gave up on it.
Rav Shagar, She’erit Ha’emunah, “Appendix: Praying Without Hoping”
Self-sacrifice (mesirut nefesh), suicide, is a condition for prayer because it liberates a person not just from the language, but from its logic as well. Prayer is therefore divine grace (ḥesed) because it is impossible and yet occurs, or at least, perhaps occurs. This “perhaps” is important, because the “perhaps” elevates it to the realm of worldly possibilities; it therefore exists, if only as a possibility. Perhaps someone hears and takes part with me in the prayer? Is this enough to create hope? I pray, but am I certain that I will be answered? No, I am not certain. I am also not certain that I will not, but the prayer does something.
The most recent in the “Erez Series of Concise Guides,” A Concise Guide to Mahshava is a wonderful volume to have on your shelf. The book keeps the promise of its title, providing a focused, structured entryway into issues in Jewish thought.
ACGM has a surprising structure: It is divided into three sections, only one of which (the second) is composed of classical theological categories like “Faith” and “Divine Providence.” The topics of the first section follow the human lifecycle, beginning with “Birth” (and “Pregnancy,” an exciting inclusion!) and ending “Death,” with each topic in the section containing relevant texts from the corpus of Jewish thought. The third section contains short biographies of the books and authors cited in the previous two sections, a resource sure to be helpful to novice and knowledgeable alike.
The first and second sections provide two paths into Jewish thought: the life cycle, and topics. The first makes it easy for anyone to find material for an upcoming event or for a new stage of life, while the second is meant for someone who is already interested in the themes of Jewish thought. The table of contents includes a full list of every topic in each section, so it’s easy to peruse the list to see what strikes your fancy.
The real value-add of ACGM, of course, lies in the presentation of the selected texts. Each topic begins with a short introductory paragraph or two, after which appear selections from medieval and modern Jewish thinkers. Each selection is introduced by another few lines providing the necessary context for understanding the selected passage. The selected passages are then broken down into digestible sub-sections, each prefaced with a single summarizing line. This structured, explanatory presentation echoes the way a teacher might present these texts in class, making it easier for the unfamiliar reader to appreciate the points each text attempts to make.
This is all in addition to a fact which cannot be emphasized enough: these texts are being presented in English translation, and in good, readable English at that! If all ACGM did was collect good English translations of classic texts, that alone would be a huge service to the Anglo community. The pedagogical presentation is, in some sense, just icing on the cake.
I have thus far focused on the value of ACGM for someone unfamiliar with the corpus and texts of Jewish thought, but as someone who has multiple degrees in Jewish thought and regularly teaches classes on its themes, I anticipate getting a lot of use out of the volume. I am currently preparing to give a class on free will in a few week, and ACGM not only has put together a decent collection of texts on the topic to help me begin to build my class, it has them in English, which means I don’t have to translate them myself (many of the texts have existing English translations, but those translations are not always physically or linguistically accessible to all people). I imagine this will not be the last time I open ACGM for inspiration before teaching.
I should note that structure and conciseness are not ultimate virtues. The topics in ACGM are presented in a manner that guides the reader along a relatively direct path from earlier to later thinkers, a process that can be too narrow to include the full spectrum of Jewish views on the topic. This is not a critique! Any presentation of a topic will necessarily leave some things out. But it is important to note that something is being lost. For example, the texts presented on the topic of free will do not include Ralbag’s suggestion that Divine Foreknowledge does not impinge on human choice because human choices are not the sort of things God knows, nor does it include R. Don Hasdai Crescas’ opinion that human choices are always determined, and that reward and punishment are meant to change a person’s inner causal nature (much like education!) such that they naturally “choose” to do better actions. These opinions exist toward the edges of the range of Jewish thought, and it makes sense that a concise guide would have to leave them out.
Another consequence of the book—like any book—being limited is that the selection resonates with the personality of the author: R. Adin Steinsaltz, zt”l. While the texts quoted in ACGM span the explane of the Jewish tradition, the later text are often pulled from the Habad tradition (a library unto itself!). This is unsurprising, given how rooted in Habad R. Steinsaltz was, but it is quite useful for someone like me with only limited exposure to Habad outside the Tanya. For these and other riches A Concise Guide to Mahshava contains, reader will rightfully be grateful to R. Adin Steinsaltz, zt”l, and the people endeavoring to make his work available in English.
How we remember the Holocaust has been controversial since the moment it became a thing of memory, rather than a living reality. This controverse rises to a fever pitch around the issue of historical comparisons: can we suggest that other historical events—or even, heaven help us, current events—are similar to the Holocaust in some way? Or is the Holocaust necessarily beyond the scope of any comparison—untouchably and intangibly unique? Can there be “concentration camps” after the Holocaust, or were Auschwitz and Treblinka fundamentally different from anything that came before and anything since?
This question is not about some trivial historical distinction—the memory of the Holocaust carries moral force. If something can be compared to the Holocaust, it bears the stain of great evil. If everything can be compared to the Holocaust, then the Holocaust loses its uniqueness and consequently its moral force. And if nothing can be compared to the Holocaust, then the Holocaust’s moral charge goes has nothing to say about how humans should behave in the real world—about morality. We therefore must learn to remember the Holocaust that maintains both its uniqueness and its comparability to other events in world history.
It is exactly this tension between similarity and difference—between self and other—that is the bread and butter of Dialogic thought. Dialogic thought, roughly speaking, theorizes dialogue. It tries to parse out how any encounter between different individuals could be possible, and uses it as a basis for thinking about human existence more broadly. The field is not a monolith. Even just among its Jewish members—such as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Emmanuel Levinas—differences abound. But both where they agree and where they disagree, these thinkers can help us navigate the uniqueness and comparability of the Holocaust.
A key insight found among the various dialogic thinkers is the foundational distinction between the unique individual and their traits which are common property of all people. The most famous version of this is Martin Buber’s distinction between 2nd and 3rd person speech, between talking to a “You” and talking about an “It.” The “You” is the person themselves, the core of the other that can freely choose to be whoever it wants. In contrast, the “It” is an object, anything that can be reduced to characteristics and descriptions that are common to all other objects. For Buber, this is an all-encompassing thought. This is an ethics—we must treat all people as “You”s rather than as “It”s (as ends rather than means, in Kantian terms). This is an ontology—the very nature of human existence is structured in line with this distinction. And this is a theology—God is the “You” of “You”s and defining a “You” by making it into an “It” is the greatest possible sin.
Obviously, the “You” side seems more positive. On a certain reading of Buber, the goal is to relate to everything as a “You” at all times, even dogs, trees, etc. Relating to things or people as “It”s is at best instrumentalist, and at worst it is the root of all evil. So, on this reading, speaking to a “You” is good, while speaking about an “It” is bad—everything is unique and nothing is comparable.
Ironically, this sort of stark distinction results in true dialogue becoming wordless. The only way to encounter the other is to get past the wordy facts that they share in common with everyone else, to the truly unique “You” who they are behind the veil. All of the things a person shares in common with others, their home, language, interests, beliefs, affiliations, etc. can only be expressed while speaking about them as an “It”, not while speaking to them as a “You.” It is only where a person is incomparable that they are unique (again, on this reading).
Parenthetically, this is essentially a recreation of the medieval theological problem of divine attributes: All attributes are human, so God must be beyond them, but a God without any attributes seems like not much of a God at all. Dialogic thought relocates this problem within an intersubjective framework: All attributes are social descriptors, so the incomparable individual must be beyond them—must have some sort of existence outside of their social life—but a person without any form of social existence has lost much of what makes them a person.
Returning to the question of the Holocaust: Do we speak to Auschwitz or about it? Is Auschwitz incomparably unique or does it share common features with other historical events?
The claim that we cannot compare the Holocaust to anything essentially echoes the above reading of Buber. Subjecting the Holocaust to comparison makes it a common (and partisan) tool. The only way to leave its sacral nature pristine is to silo it off from all comparison.
However, to do so is to say that it has no facts, that there are no words that describe it. This is obvious absurd, as there is obviously so very much to say about the Holocaust. It took place in specific areas, involved concrete people, in specific times, etc. In fact, forgetting these details would itself be a betrayal of the Holocausts moral force. When we say Auschwitz is incomparable, we also say that it is an idea and not a real thing that happened. There’s danger here. In order for the moral force of the Holocaust to shape our lives, it must be able to speak to our lives in real, concrete ways.
The above reading of Buber has been critiqued because when you take away all of the words about a person, all of the facts about them, you have made them into an idea—and “It”—not a “You.” Pretending you know nothing about a person is not actually respectful of their singular individuality, all you’ve done is fit them into the boxes of your interpersonal theology—a more rarified “It,” but an “It” all the same.
A better reading of Buber says that we need both “You” and “It,” both to and about. The “It” is unavoidable, and makes us who we are. It provides our identity (“US citizen,” “Israeli,” “Jewish,” “teacher,” “father,” “book lover,” etc.). The “You” is what prevents objectification, keeping us from reducing a person to their identity and nothing more. I am my identity, but I also transcend it and can escape it if I so choose. It is an inextricable part of who I am, but it is not a prison cell.
We need a similar balance with Auschwitz. We need to be able to recognize that it was a real historical event, given to description in terms of facts and numbers, just like any other. Were the Nazi concentration camps similar to other concentration camps? If so how? Those are factual, empirical questions that can be answered through historical research. Is the Holocaust incomparably unique? Yes. That’s a theological assertion, one that feels obvious to me whenever I take a moment to stop and silently encounter the reality of the event (but theological intuitions differ). This is “dialogue” as theorized by Emmanuel Levinas, the infinite judging command of the face of the other. To encounter the Holocaust is to encounter the specific millions who died and refuse to let them be anonymous. It is a ghastly reality that demands—commands—memory. To reduce the Holocaust to a list of numbers and names is to respond to that command with indifference.
In dialogue, we meet the incomparable uniqueness of the “You,” without denying the real historical facts that give our dialogue-partner their identity. A loved one doesn’t need to be identity-less in order to be unique. In fact, their identity is a condition of their uniqueness. The Holocaust is similar. In order to hear it properly, to give it all the dignity and reality it demands, we have to let it be both an “It” and “You.” It must be both infinitely, incomparably unique and a historical reality given to comparative description—commanding silence and commemoration as one.
The Jewish tradition has long depicted the revelation at Mount Sinai as the marriage of God and the Jewish people (Bavli, Taanit 26a). Going back at least to the Mishnah, the Jewish tradition sees the giving of the Torah as a moment when God comes together with the Jewish people under the mountain in love and intimacy (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:4; Mekhilta Derabbi Yishmael, Masekhta Debaḥodesh, Yitro 3). However, if we want to talk about love and the revelation, we would do well to travel back two chapters before Mount Sinai, to the arrival of Yitro and the appointment of judges.
The story is well-known, and the questions it raises are just as well known. Yitro arrives at the encampment of the Jewish people and promptly discovers that Moshe spends his days adjudicating the Jewish people’s legal issues, from dawn till dusk. Yitro proposes that Moshe select qualified individuals from among the people and appoint them as judges alongside himself, in order to relieve some of his own burden—a proposal which Moshe quickly enacts. Just like that, the Jewish people have a fully-formed legal system.
Or it would be fully-formed, if the Jewish people had laws yet, but seemingly they won’t receive any sort of laws for a few more chapters. So how was Moshe judging the people? Second, if these judges were so necessary, why hadn’t Moshe already appointed them? Why did it have to wait for Yitro to show up—unexpectedly, and from outside the Jewish people?
The first issue has driven many commentators on the Torah to assert that the chapters detailing the revelation at Mount Sinai are not in chronological order. They suggest that the story in chapter 18 actually happens after the revelations of chapters 19–20, or even after the more thorough revelation of civil laws in chapters 21–23, and that Moshe was applying the laws given by God in the immediately following chapters. Alternatively, some other commentators attempt to uncover subtle moments of divine revelation in the details of earlier stories in the Torah, such as in the “law and ordinance” God gave the people after they complained at Marah (Shemot 15:25).
While the details of this debate are occupied with questions of narrative chronology, it’s underlying themes are those of law, revelation, and—by association—love. On this level, the debate is about the structure of love: do moments of great intimacy precede the detailed construction of a shared life, or vice versa? If law necessarily comes after the great revelation, then it is moments of great intimacy and closeness that provide the basis for a shared life of love. In this line of thinking, love is like a burst of energy, and the couple need to try and construct a life which can contain and hold onto that energy. If law and judgment precede revelation, on the other hand, then the worked-out norms and behaviors can—and might need to—come before moments of romantic intensity. These norms and behaviors, the things the couple learns about one another and how to best interact with each other, provide the raw material for moments of great intimacy. In this sense, it doesn’t matter where the judges of Shemot 19 get their laws, because any time people come together they have laws and norms, even before they have moments of great intimacy.
This dichotomy is given dramatic new life in a piece by Rav Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin in his popular work, Tsidkat Hatsaddik. In teaching #231, Rav Tsadok explains the juxtaposition of the story of the judges and the giving of the Torah by saying that “All hierarchy and authority is a function of words of Torah.” However, he then distances hierarchy and authority from Torah, saying that because each Jew has their own “portion” in Torah, hierarchy and authority can never develop. Every Jew is equally valuable, because each is of singular, incomparable importance. Rav Tsadok thus speaks of two different kinds of Torah: 1. Torah that is the same no matter who learns it, so that when one person knows more of it than another person, the first person has a comparative advantage. This is the laws and texts of Torah, the raw material underlying Jewish life. 2. Torah that can be learned and experienced by only one person. This is the singular Torah a person encounters when they learn a text anyone else could learn, but which speaks to them uniquely, in a manner all their own, unavailable to anyone else.
A modernist, romantic reading of Rav Tsadok would emphasize his authority-shattering, individualistic idea of Torah. On this reading, Rav Tsadok posits the law and judgment of Shemot 19 as at best a fallen necessity, at worst a falsified, corrupted version of Torah. While there are elements of this in the teaching, Rav Tsadok ultimately does not point his readers in that direction. Instead, he associates the first form of Torah, the Torah of shared norms and laws, with the very material of this world. As long as Jews live a life shared together in bodies and communities, they must share texts, rules, and authorities. Only in the world to come—or in “world to come moments” in this world—can we live based on pure, individualistic singularity.
Rav Tsadok also answers the second question we raised above. Why does the appointing of the judges come about through Yitro? For Rav Tsadok, this emphasizes the way the Torah was given in a shared space. Yitro came from outside the Jewish people and introduced this element of hierarchy and authority into Torah. Similarly, loving relationships are never made up of just the couple involved. They always take place embedded within a network of friends and family. A love that shatters all connections with any other people is ultimately false, pretending as it does that the couple could ever exist without any other people. Love always gives rise to moments of intimate magic, where all the thirds melt away and only the two are left alone in all the world, but before and after those moments lies the broad social life of the couple in the world around them. The ideal spoken of at Jewish weddings is a bayit ne’eman b’yisrael, a faithful household within the Jewish people. It is within our people that our love comes together and ignites.
This two-fold Torah takes a slightly different form in the writings of one of Rav Tsadok’s contemporaries, the German-Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig. Living during and just after Rav Tsadok’s lifetime, Rosenzweig was similarly concerned with issues of the intimate and the shared, the passionate and the rote in revelation. Whereas Rav Tsadok saw these dichotomies as inherent in the nature of this-worldly life, however, Rosenzweig returned to the issue of time so prominent in the biblical depiction of revelation. He wants to determine if revelation is the starting point, or if it must always take place in a given context, and he gives different answers in different works.
In his magnum opus, The Star of Redemption, Rosenzweig identifies revelation with love. God reveals himself to the human in a great moment of encounter between lover and beloved. For the Jewish people, this revelation gives rise to the written word of God, the Torah, which shapes and guides the people throughout its history. This is same structure of love proposed by Torah commentaries that say the story of the Judges must come after Mount Sinai—law comes after intimate love. It is only once the Jews have directly encountered God that they can build a life and nation based on that encounter.
Years later, Franz Rosenzweig wrote an open letter to his friend and fellow thinker Martin Buber called “The Builders” on the topic of halakhah. In “The Builders,” Rosenzweig argues for the importance of keeping halakhah even in the absence of any previous experience of God. A Jew must keep halakhah not because they have experienced God telling them do so, but so that when they do experience God’s revelation, it will take place within the framework of halakhah. In order for revelation to be Jewish revelation, it must take place in a Jewish context, or, as Rosenzweig glosses on the midrash of Hazal, “in order to become builders, we must first become sons.” In essence, Rosenzweig claims that moments of intimacy always take place within broader lives which shape and define those moments. It is only if we first structure our lives in unison—with all the rule and norms that entails—that we can achieve moments of deep unity. If we build a life based on our shared values, ideals, and beliefs, then we can have moments true passion.
Over Shabbat I read Rav Nahum Rabinowitz’s (zt”l) article “The Way of Torah.” There’s a lot to say about it, but one bit struck me as important for thinking about our present moment. (This is my explanation; a key quote can be found below.)
The essay moves from discussing the importance of free choice in Judaism to the necessity of enforcement and compulsion civil society, and from there to thinking about religion and state. In the process, he argues that the government’s right to compel obedience and punish wrongdoing A. is based on the unanimous consent of the governed and B. is directed toward achieving justice.
Moreover, these two elements are inextricably linked. The justice of the governing must be apparent to the governed, or it quickly loses its legitimacy. It’s not enough for a government or authority to be elected by proper procedure, and simply being transparent about government actions is insufficient. Governing shouldn’t just be technically valid, it should also be good, and visibly so.
In this sense, it is already a failure of government (and associated institutions) if it gives the impression of discrimination and injustice. A government institution’s very validity depends not just on being written into law, but on its actions all being clearly directed toward what all those whose consent it assumes would consider just and good.
To speak directly, when we’ve reached the point when so many people see the police as a corrupt and discriminatory institution, it has already failed and lost its validity–not because it is necessarily evil, but because its validity derives from the people seeing it as a tool for justice.
“…the king selected by the nation, given its confidence, and placed on the throne of justice must act in a manner that makes his justice apparent to all and must not discriminate, in any of his decrees, between high and low. Otherwise, his rulings will lack all force.” –Rav Nahum Rabinowitz, “The Way of Torah,” The Edah Journal 3:1, 24
With the sound of the divine voice addressing man by his name, be it Abraham, Moses, or Samuel, God, whom man has sought along the endless trails of the universe, is discovered suddenly as being close to and intimate with man, standing just opposite or beside him. At this meeting—initiated by God—of God and man, the covenantal prophetic community is established. When man addresses himself to God, calling Him in the informal, friendly tones of “Thou,” the same miracle happens again: God joins man and at this meeting, initiated by man, a new covenantal community is born—the prayer community.
Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 52–53
I have termed both communities, the prophetic and the prayerful, covenantal because of a threefold reason. (i) In both communities, a confrontation of God and man takes place. It is quite obvious that the prophecy awareness, which is toto genere different from the mystical experience, can only be interpreted in the unique categories of the covenantal event. The whole idea of prophecy would be fraught with an inner contradiction if man’s approach to God remained indirect and impersonal, expecting nature to mediate between him and his Creator. Only within the covenantal community, which is formed by God descending upon the mount and man, upon the call of the Lord, ascending the mount, is a direct and personal relationship expressing itself in the prophetic “face-to-face” colloquy established. “And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face as man speaketh unto his friend.”
Prayer likewise is unimaginable without having man stand before and address himself to God in a manner reminiscent of the prophets dialogue with God. The cosmic drama, notwithstanding its grandeur and splendor, no matter how distinctly it reflects the image of the Creator and no matter how beautifully it tells His glory, cannot provoke man to prayer.
Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 55–56
Indeed, the prayer community was born the very instant the prophetic community expired and, when it did come into the spiritual world of the Jew of old, it did not supersede the prophetic community but rather perpetuated it. Prayer is the continuation of prophecy, and the fellowship of prayerful men is ipso facto the fellowship of prophets. The difference between prayer and prophecy is, as I have already mentioned, related not to the substance of the dialogue but rather to the order in which it is conducted. While within the prophetic community God takes the initiative—He speaks and man listens—in the prayer community the initiative belongs to man: he does the speaking and God, the listening. The word of prophecy is God’s and is accepted by man. The word of prayer is man’s and God accepts it. The two Halakhic traditions tracing the origin of prayer to Abraham and the other Patriarchs and attributing the authorship of statutory prayer to the men of the Great Assembly reveal the Judaic view of the sameness of the prophecy and prayer communities. Covenantal prophecy and prayer blossomed forth the very instant Abraham met God and became involved in a strange colloquy. At a later date, when the mysterious men of this wondrous assembly witnessed the bright summer day of the prophetic community, full of color and sound, turning to a bleak autumnal night of dreadful silence unillumined by the vision of God or made homely by His voice, they refused to acquiesce in this cruel historical reality and would not let the ancient dialogue between God and men come to an end. For the men of the Great Assembly knew that with the withdrawal of the colloquy from the field of consciousness of the Judaic community, the latter would lose the intimate companionship of God and consequently its covenantal status. In prayer they found the salvation of the colloquy, which, they insisted, must go on forever. If God had stopped calling man, they urged, let man call God. And so the covenantal colloquy was shifted from the level of prophecy to that of prayer.
Ethics – Third Parties to Prayer
Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 57–59
Both the prophetic and the prayerful communities are threefold structures, consisting of all three grammatical personae—I, thou, and He. The prophet in whom God confides and to whom He entrusts His eternal word must always remember that he is the representative of the many anonymous “they” for whom the message is earmarked. No man, however great and noble, is worthy of God’s word if he fancies that the word is his private property not to be shared by others.
The prayerful community must not, likewise, remain a twofold affair: a transient “I” addressing himself to the eternal “He.” The inclusion of others is indispensable. Man should avoid praying for himself alone. The plural form of prayer is of central Halakhic significance. When disaster strikes, one must not be immersed completely in his own passional destiny, thinking exclusively of himself, being concerned only with himself, and petitioning God merely for himself. The foundation of efficacious and noble prayer is human solidarity and sympathy or the covenantal awareness of existential togetherness, of sharing and experiencing the travail and suffering of those for whom majestic Adam the first has no concern. Only Adam the second knows the art of praying since he confronts God with the petition of the many. The fenced-in egocentric and ego-oriented Adam the first is ineligible to join the covenantal prayer community of which God is a fellow member.
Law and Democratization
Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 59
Both communities sprang into existence not only because of a singular experience of having met God, but also and perhaps mainly because of the discovery of the normative kerygma entailed in this very experience. Any encounter with God, if it is to redeem man, must be crystallized and objectified as a normative ethico-moral message. If, however, the encounter is reduced to its non-kerygmatic and non-imperative aspects, no matter how great and magnificent an experience it is, it cannot be classified as a covenantal encounter since the very semantics of the term “covenant” implies freely assumed obligations and commitments.
Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 61
The above-said, which is true of the universal faith community in general, has particular validity for the Halakhic community. The prime purpose of revelation in the opinion of the Halakhah is related to the giving of the Law. The God—man confrontation serves a didactic goal. God involves Himself in the covenantal community through the medium of teaching and instructing. The Halakhah has looked upon God since time immemorial as the teacher par excellence. This educational task was in turn entrusted to the prophet whose greatest ambition is to teach the covenantal community. In short, God’s word is ipso facto God’s law and norm.
Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 61–63
Let me add that for Judaism the reverse would be not only unthinkable but immoral as well. If we were to eliminate the norm from the prophetic God—man encounter, confining the latter to its apocalyptic aspects, then the whole prophetic drama would be acted out by a limited number of privileged individuals to the exclusion of the rest of the people. Such a prospect, turning the prophetic colloquy into an esoteric-egotistic affair, would be immoral from the viewpoint of Halakhic Judaism, which is exoterically-minded and democratic to its very core. The democratization of the God—man confrontation was made possible by the centrality of the normative element in prophecy. Only the norm engraved upon the two tablets of stone, visible and accessible to all, draws the people into this confrontation “Ye are placed this day, all of you, before the Eternal, your God; your heads of your tribes, your elders and your bailiffs, with all the men of Israel… from the hewer of thy wood unto the drawer of thy water.” And how can the woodchopper and the water drawer participate in this adventurous meeting of God and man, if not through helping in a humble way to realize the covenantal norm?
Prayer likewise consists not only of an awareness of the presence of God, but of an act of committing oneself to God and accepting His ethico-moral authority. Who is qualified to engage God in the prayer colloquy? Clearly, the person who is ready to cleanse himself of imperfection and evil. Any kind of injustice, corruption, cruelty, or the like desecrates the very essence of the prayer adventure, since it encases man in an ugly little world into which God is unwilling to enter. If man craves to meet God in prayer, then he must purge himself of all that separates him from God. The Halakhah has never looked upon prayer as a separate magical gesture in which man may engage without integrating it into the total pattern of his life. God hearkens to prayer if it rises from a heart contrite over a muddled and faulty life and from a resolute mind ready to redeem this life. In short, only the committed person is qualified to pray and to meet God.
Prayer is always the harbinger of moral reformation. This is the reason why prayer per se does not occupy as prominent a place in the Halakhic community as it does in other faith communities, and why prayer is not the great religious activity claiming, if not exclusiveness, at least centrality. Prayer must always be related to a prayerful life which is consecrated to the realization of the divine imperative, and as such it is not a separate entity, but the sublime prologue to Halakhic action.
Masorah and Overcoming Finitude
Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 61–63
Let us not forget that the covenantal community includes the “He” who addresses Himself to man not only from the “now” dimension but also from the supposedly already vanished past, from the ashes of a dead “before” facticity as well as from the as yet unborn future, for all boundaries establishing “before,” “now,” and “after” disappear when God the Eternal speaks. Within the covenantal community not only contemporary individuals but generations are engaged in a colloquy, and each single experience of time is three-dimensional, manifesting itself in memory, actuality, and anticipatory tension. This experiential triad, translated into moral categories, results in an awesome awareness of responsibility to a great past which handed down the divine imperative to the present generation in trust and confidence and to a mute future expecting this generation to discharge its covenantal duty conscientiously and honorably. The best illustration of such a paradoxical time awareness, which involves the individual in the historic performances of the past and makes him also participate in the dramatic action of an unknown future, can be found in the Judaic masorah community. The latter represents not only a formal succession within the framework of calendaric time but the union of the three grammatical tenses in an all-embracing time experience. The masorah community cuts across the centuries, indeed millennia, of calendaric time and unites those who already played their part, delivered their message, acquired fame, and withdrew from the covenantal stage quietly and humbly with those who have not yet been given the opportunity to appear on the covenantal stage and who wait for their turn in the anonymity of the “about to be.”
Thus, the individual member of the covenantal faith community feels rooted in the past and related to the future. The “before” and the “after” are interwoven in his time experience. He is not a hitchhiker suddenly invited to get into a swiftly traveling vehicle which emerged from nowhere and from which he will be dropped into the abyss of timelessness while the vehicle will rush on into parts unknown, continually taking on new passengers and dropping the old ones. Covenantal man begins to find redemption from insecurity and to feel at home in the continuum of time and responsibility which is experienced by him in its endless totality. מעולם ועד עולם, from everlasting even to everlasting. He is no longer an evanescent being. He is rooted in everlasting time, in eternity itself. And so covenantal man confronts not only a transient contemporary “thou” but countless “thou” generations which advance toward him from all sides and engage him in the great colloquy in which God Himself participates with love and joy.
Perpetuation of Prophecy
Halakhah is “Democratic”
Make yourself into someone who could get prophecy
Halakhah’s obligations are equally fulfillable by each and every Jew
Participation in Halakhic discourse makes your part of trans-historic mesorah and thus overcomes death
And From There You Shall Seek
Identify with the chain of figures stretching back to the Prophets and Moshe, giving rise to Oral Torah
Halakhah’s obligations are equally fulfillable by each and every Jew
Identify deeply with and feel driven by the passing on of the tradition
The Lonely Man of Faith
Prayer as a covenantal dialogue
Halakhah’s obligations are equally fulfillable by each and every Jew
Identify with the covenantal dialogues with the eternal God of Jews both past and future, and feel the moral imperative of that “paradoxical time-awareness”