Objectless Repentance in the Religious Zionist Turn to Hasidic Texts

Introduction

When we talk about teshuvah, about repentance, what do we mean? Is it a process of reviewing our sins and determining how to make up for them? Is it about feeling bad about the things we’ve done wrong? While this is a fairly typical way of describing the process of repentance, thinkers from Religious Zionism’s turn toward Hasidic texts would have us think otherwise. Rav Shagar and Rav Froman critique this model of repentance, and each suggest their own alternative. Rav Shagar wants us to focus on the future, on living up to our ideals in a broad sense, in making the world the way it ought to be. Rav Froman wants us to open up ourselves rather than examine our actions, and express ourselves before God. This is in line with Rav Froman and Rav Shagar’s broader critiques of “religious materialism” and religion that is focused on checking boxes and acquiring religious achievements. Yishai Mevorach does not discuss repentance specifically, but he aims the same critique at faith in general, arguing that only giving up on an object-based faith can save religion from fundamentalism.

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Rav Shagar

In a small book of Rosh Hashanah derashot called Zikaron Leyom Rishon, Rav Shagar challenged the way people often talk about repentance. In a derashah called “Sin, Guilt, and Covenant” (1990), he says:

We review our personal history (ḥeshbon hanefesh); here is where we made mistakes, this is where we transgressed, etc. We accept upon ourselves to be better. Do we stop reviewing at that point? Is that the extent of sin and repentance? (36-37)

Is that really sufficient? Does the simple process of “I did X, I regret it, I commit to not doing it again” exhaust the process of repentance? Some of what is at stake here, as we shall see throughout this post, is the nature of religion. Is religion about more than just actions? If it is, then a word as fundamental as “repentance” has to be about more than just actions as well.

Without going as broad as that, however, Rav Shagar raises another issue with this form of repentance. In a derashah called “Repentance and the World to Come” (1989), he differentiates between “this world” and “the world to come.” “This world” is characterized by that at which we can point; if you can put your finger on it, it’s part of this world. “The world to come,” in contrast, “is not what exists, but what could exist” (29); “the world to come” (which Rav Shagar follows the Zohar in understanding as “the world that is always coming”) is about the potential of a better future. In this context, Rav Shagar raises the problem of the sincerity and finality of repentance.

Someone could claim: Do any of us really think that it’s possible to become different? That we might merit forgiveness (seliḥah) on the complicated personal level or the confused and conflicted national level? Perhaps this is all just self-deception. Will any of us really merit forgiveness (meḥilah)? “This” is “this,” hard and unchangeable! […] The world is indeed “this world.” However, it is possible to live it as “what is coming” rather than “this,” to gaze upon the possible rather than the already existing. This is actually no less real a reality. Even as something as of yet unrealized, as something that is not yet “this,” it is decisively important that we connect to it at least as “what is coming.” (30-31)

The anxiety of repentance, permeating the months of Elul and Tishrei, questions where we can ever really be sincere in our desire to be better. And even if we can be sincere, who is to say that it will last? What if we change ourselves only to rapidly fall back into our old ways. While he does want us to acknowledge that real, lasting change does happen (31), Rav Shagar thinks we should shift away from these questions. They are “this world” questions, they’re concerned only with the actions we have or have not performed. Instead, we should look to the future, to the world we want to create and how we want to live. Instead of a critical repentance wherein we scour and examine ourselves and our actions, Rav Shagar wants us to embrace a creative repentance, where we create ourselves anew.

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Rav Froman

Rav Froman’s small book, Ḥasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh, contains many short, aphoristic sayings on a number of topics. In one of them, he addresses the nature of repentance.

What is repentance according to Rebbe Naḥman?

It doesn’t mean sitting with a journal, writing out a personal accounting (ḥeshbon hanefesh) and repairing all your deeds. That’s repentance for Yekkes.

What is repentance for Rebbe Naḥman? You pour out your heart before Hashem. Your heart, like water. (§41, trans. Ben Greenfield.)

As typical of aphoristic works, Hasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh tends to be striking, but often cryptic, and this passage is no exception (what does it mean to pour out your heart before God? Why is the water bit important?). Despite this, we can derive some clear ideas from it. The first is that he shares Rav Shagar’s critique of repentance as reviewing your personal history and actions (ḥeshbon hanefesh). Repentance is not about deeds, about things you can write down in a book (corresponding to Rav Shagar’s image of things at you can point). Instead it’s about personal expression. Whatever exactly he means by pouring out your heart before God, the bigger idea is that who you are exceeds your actions, and you should express who you are within the context of religion. Repentance is thus perhaps a return to who you are, or perhaps a decision to have a more personal relationship with God going forward, more based on who you are rather than on what deeds you do or do not perform.

Yishai Mevorach

Finally, Yishai Mevorach applies the same critique to faith more broadly. Working in a Lacanian, psychoanalytic mode, he provides an interesting reading of Rebbe Naḥman’s popular teaching, Lekutei Moharan §282. The teaching talks about the importance, particularly for someone leading communal prayer, of finding something good in everyone, including yourself. Reading Rebbe Naḥman very close, Mevorach notes that the teaching instructs the reader to search for “another bit more” (od me’at) good in each person, while saying that if they search for “another thing” (od davar) that is good in each person, they will fail. You can always challenge the validity or sincerity of a good thing that you have done, so it can’t hold up to scrutiny. Instead, you have to search for the good in each person, and yourself, that is not a thing or deed, it’s just “another bit more.”

Building off this reading of Rebbe Naḥman, Mevorach discusses the nature of faith and religion more broadly.

The religious person’s castration anxiety comes from how he understands his religion-faith as an object that he holds. this is a possessive, phallic relationship, afraid of losing the additional object, which does not really belong to the individual. In Rebbe Naḥman’s language, the believer’s relationship to the faith object is a relationship of “another thing,” rather than “another bit more“: another thing, another object, and now I hold onto it really tightly so that it doesn’t scatter or disappear. I have to demonstrate ownership. At this point, the religion descends into harsh, violent fundamentalism. In contrast, Rav Shagar proposes a different possibility, wherein faith is present as “another bit more,” as an excess of my being rather than another object. He was talking about faith that does not trying to preserve the thing, because it will persist no matter what. (37-38)

Translating out of his psychoanalytic idiom, Mevorach argues that faith and religion too often become possessions, objects external to us. Religion that is too obsessed with specific actions leads to two problems, he says. First, it loses the self, it becomes about a person’s actions rather than about who they are. It is separate from them, and easily abandoned. Second, and connected to this, is it becomes violent. Because religion is external, in this model, even affirming religion yourself is just imposing it on yourself. At that point, imposing it on others is a difference of degree, rather than kind.

As I hope I have shown at this point, the school of thought embodied by Rav Shagar, Rav Froman, and those around them seems to have maintained an idea (at least by some of them) that repentance and religion not only are not about specific actions, but cannot be about specific actions. Focusing on specific actions is, for various reasons, very problematic. When we approach the high holidays, as we pass through the season of repentance, the focus should not be on our actions, but on our personal capacity for change and for a relationship with God.

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Rav Kook

In this light, it’s worth noting a very similar idea from Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook’s Orot Hateshuvah, albeit with an important difference. The third chapter of Orot Hateshuvah lays out a dichotomy between “detail repentance” (teshuvah peratit) and “unspecified and general repentance” (teshuvah stamit kelalit).

There is a form of penitence that addresses itself to a particular sin or to many particular sins. The person confronts his sin face to face, and feels remorseful that he fell into the trap of sin. Slowly he struggles to come out of it, until he is liberated from his sinful enslavement and he begins to experience a holy freedom that is most delightful to his weary self…

There is another kind of feeling of penitence, unspecified and general. A person does not conjure up the memory of a past sin or sins, but in a general way he feels terribly depressed. He feels himself pervaded by sin; that the divine light does not shine on him…

Day by day, inspired by this higher level of general penitence, his feeling becomes more firm, clearer, more illumined by reason and more authenticated by the principles of the Torah. His manner becomes increasingly brightened, his anger recedes, a kindly light shines on him, he is filled with vigor, his eyes sparkle with a holy fire, his heart is bathed in rivers of delight, holiness and purity hover over him. His spirit is filled with endless love, his soul thirsts for God, and this very thirst nourishes him like the choicest of foods. (trans. Bentzion Botsker, 46-48)

The former is focused on repenting and making up for specific acts a person may have performed. The latter, is an attempt to fix a general feeling of distance from God. It’s part of the person, and really all of existence, moving towards God, rather than away from specific actions. While Rav Kook does not critique action-focused repentance the way that Rav Shagar and Rav Froman do, in fact he maintains its validity throughout Orot Hateshuvah, it’s notable that he both distinguishes between them and seem to put the broader form of repentance on a higher level. While the later thinkers may not be basing themselves on Rav Kook, at least not explicitly, the resonance with their ideas is striking.

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Embodiment and the No-Thing Beyond Language: Rav Yair Dreifuss’s “Marriage of the Lost”

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Rav Yair Dreifuss’s 2011 book Marriage of the Lost (atunah Shel Avudim in Hebrew) is a fascinating and compelling book. Clocking in at just under 180 pages, it manages to cover a broad range of topics, from history and social hierarchies to marriage, happiness, and song. Perhaps most interesting is the book’s multifaceted exploration of what it means to live an embodied life.

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The book is structured around Rebbe Naman of Bratslav’s “Story of Seven Beggars,” though the chapters often drift far afield from their corresponding beggars. The narrative (through an intricate frame-story) presents seven beggars each possessing a different physical disability.

If we think a little about the order in which Rebbe Naman presents the beggars, we can see a simple structure: There’s a blind beggar, a deaf beggar, a mute beggar, a bent-necked beggar, a hunchbacked beggar, a beggar with no hands, and a beggar with no legs. The order of the physical defects follows the structure of the body, from top to bottom. Eyes, ears, mouth, neck, shoulders, hands, legs. Rebbe Nahman essentially gives us a survey of the limbs of the body, but from the perspective of the physical defects. He investigates the structure of the body through its damaged side, through the deformed body.

I see this as challenging the image of the perfect, aesthetic, normal body to which we are accustomed. The move to the abnormal, the unusual, is not intended to leave it as such, but to change our conception of the body… The perfect, symmetrical body is what keeps us from seeing the true reality.

This is a parody of how we relate to and imagine the body. This depiction calls us to open up to a different way of thinking about the body, to think anew the way we apprehend our own bodies.

Rebbe Naman’s intensity can help us break down the classic ideas about the body that hold us so very captive, and help us see things from a different perspective. Through the images of the beggars… This is an attempt to see the world by way of the margins, to restore the experience of existing in an unusual body and see it as a higher option than the normal body. (68-69)

Rav Dreifuss frames the physical disabilities of the beggars not as distortions of a normal body, but as the true “normal.” Our culturally conditioned image of the perfect body is a phantasm that has little to do with the actual reality of embodied life. Instead of being alienated from our bodies by their “imperfections,” Rebbe Naman can teach us to accept our bodies as they are, which is the way they’re supposed to be.

Unfortunately, Rav Dreifuss does not pursue this line of inquiry much farther, through no fault of his own. Rebbe Naman’s story quickly shifts the focus from the beggars’ bodies to their unique abilities. In fact, it turns out that their disabilities are only apparent, and are actually manifestations of the beggar’s superior abilities. For example, the blind beggar is not really blind, and can in fact see better than anyone else in the entire world. The reason he seems to be blind is that he constantly directs his sight beyond this world into the messianic future, and thus does not see anything in the world in which we live (though Rav Dreifuss doesn’t mention him, the similarity to Rosenzweig’s explanation of the blind “Synagoga” is striking). The end result is that Rebbe Naman ends up giving a very unembodied depiction of the beggars.

Rav Dreifuss often caps his explanations of Rebbe Naman by saying that Rebbe Naman was teaching the Torah of the diaspora, and that in the land of Israel the Torah can be more connected to nature and life. However, he only once fleshes out how the Torah of the land of Israel would differ from Rebbe Naman: Instead of a blind utopianism, waiting for a sudden and apocalyptic messiah, the Torah of the Land of Israel embraces Rav Kook’s idea of progress and human-driven improvement (hishtalmut). Rather than waiting for the messiah, we can all be messianic.

If this was the extent of Rav Dreifuss’s discussion of embodiment, I would be somewhat disappointed; while interesting, it fails to really explore what it is like being an embodied being. However, there is another facet to the book, one that runs from the very first chapter through to the end, that captures an important aspect of this embodiment: the failure of words and rationality to capture every aspect of our existence.

The first chapter is entirely dedicated to this topic, giving a brief survey of different figures (Rebbe Naman, Rav Kook, etc.) and how they related to words, before explaining that Marriage of the Lost is going to attempt to use words to talk about aspects of life that surpass words. While this might seem like a fool’s errand, we have no other choice – words are all we have. This task highlights the nuance of Rav Dreifuss’s approach: he does not reject language or rationality wholesale, but he knows that they are not sufficient. To borrow a phrase from Judith Butler’s “Bodies that Matter,” Rav Dreifuss is “theorizing from the ruins of logos”; from within the ruins, without leaving them behind.

Another really good example of this comes from Rav Dreifuss discussion of happiness and optimism.

This inexplicable optimism is the covenantal moment, the hard point that is not an essence (atsmiut) because you cannot say anything about it. This is the position wherein you recognize the no-thing in the world, the experience of real existence wherein a person is no-thing (lo-klum) even while he still lives. As opposed to the new idolatry, the modern attempts to construct various forms of positive existence onto which we could grasp, this position sheds all handholds in favor of direct contact with the infinitude that underlies existence, with all the emptiness and no-thing contained therein. (43)

Optimism is not a function of logic, it’s about making a covenant with embodied existence, with the existence that precedes and outlasts any logic explanation thereof. It’s not an essence, because essence is a metaphysical idea always understood through words. We’re not optimistic, nor should we be, because of what we can logically determine about the world and our lives. We’re optimistic because our existence precedes any false hopes about how our lives should look. While the book could perhaps have explored embodiment more fully, to me this is a truly valuable contribution.

None of this is to say that the value of the book entirely depends on its explorations of embodiment. Quite the contrary, there’s much else to like about the book besides. The repeated discussion of marriage in the modern era, when marriage is between two individuals rather than between two members of hierarchical families and traditions, is particularly interesting.

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Additionally, readers who are interested in Rav Shagar will be interested to find many of the same ideas in Rav Dreifuss’s words. He explores the meaning of freedom, the necessity of realism as opposed to ideology, a constructivist view of language, and the idea that life is always lived within language (how this fits with the non-linguistic existence is a question worth exploring). He also rejects the idea of a personal, pre-existential essence, explores the problem of reflectivity, and encourages self-acceptance and personal oneness. Strikingly, all of these shared themes appear without the philosophical and psychoanalytic trappings with which Rav Shagar addresses them. For people who find these trappings uninteresting, problematic, or simply outdated, Rav Dreifuss’s words may be a breath of fresh air. For people who do appreciate Rav Shagar’s formulation, Rav Dreifuss’s version raises the question of why Rav Shagar needs those trappings at all. Is it just personal interest? Is there an affective dimension involved? Or does he think it’s necessary on a conceptual or communicative level?

All in all, Marriage of the Lost is a thoughtful and engaging little book, one to which I look forward to returning in the future.

Rav Kook’s Project, in His Day and Ours (According to Rav Shagar)

I wasn’t able to publish it on time, but here’s a short piece on Rav Kook’s project, as understood by Rav Shagar, in honor of Rav Kook’s yartzheit.

Rav Kook’s Project, in His Day and Ours
(According to Rav Shagar)

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (“Rav Kook”) lived, taught and wrote in an incredibly tumultuous time. Over the course of his life, he encountered pious yeshiva students and rabbis, fervent atheists and liberal Jews, and passionate Zionists. He met all of these different groups with a unique understanding of Judaism, and existence more generally, that was at once both radically traditional and deeply modern. Weaving together modern philosophy with a mystical Judaism that drew on the entire Jewish canon, Rav Kook was able to see the divine purpose of the ostensibly secular (as well as the more narrowly religious) movements of his day.

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Having just passed the third of Elul, 83 years to the day since Rav Kook died, we should take some time to think about what his project means for us. When we remember Rav Kook, one of religious Zionism’s guiding lights, what should be our focus? One possibility can be found in the writings of Rav Shagar. Rav Shagar argued that the only way to truly be a student of Rav Kook was to separate his process from his ideas. Rav Kook discovered the divinity of the ideas and events occurring all around him, and we have to do the same with the ideas and events in our day and age. If we dogmatically adhere to the ideas and events sanctified by Rav Kook, we actually abandon his legacy. Instead, we must take up his project of finding the divinity in the trends and philosophies of our time.


Secular Zionism

Confronted with the impending horror of the disengagement from Gaza and Northern Samaria, Rav Shagar gave an impassioned Yom Ha’atsma’ut sermon on the topic of seeing the state of Israel as redemptive in light of its violence. As part of this sermon, he invoked Rav Kook’s response to the secular Zionism of his day.

Rav Kook saw great purpose in the land and the Zionist institutions in his lifetime. In the continuing development of the state and its institutions he saw the lofty goal of a shining utopia, a time when force will disappear, replaced by love, solidarity, and brotherhood. This was how he experienced the beginning of redemption. He identified the Zionist settlement of the land of Israel as part of a process leading to utopia…

Rav Kook’s time demanded of him, to construct new lenses, to formulate new concepts, in order to be able to properly grasp and understand them… Rav Kook stood before secular Zionism, knowing how to elevate its holy sparks by formulating new religious concepts through deeply and innovatively interpreting old concepts. (Bayom Hahu, 238-239)

Rav Kook was able to see the apparently secular Zionism of his time as a manifestation of the future messianic era in the present. By imagining how the the messianic era might look as it gradually arrived, Rav Kook created a new vision that lent sanctity to secular Zionists attempting to settle the land and prepare for an eventual sovereign Jewish state in Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine. Helping build the state itself became a messianic act.

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If settling the land and building the state are messianic, then what happens when the state begins to unsettle the land, violently uprooting Jews from their homes and renouncing its sovereignty over territory promised by God to the Jewish people? Can we still maintain Rav Kook’s utopian understanding of the state?

Can we also relate like this to the State of Israel as it is today, without a fundamental change in how we think of utopia? In my opinion, we cannot, and this is the hopeless situation that we are confronted with today and that we cannot deny. The State of Israel does not scintillate light and love but force and law, so how should we relate to it? Should we shrink away from understanding it to be the beginning of redemption? This understanding as the beginning [of redemption] is what gives the state its meaning, explaining that what is happening is part of a utopian process, and the utopia is already partially realized with the process being well underway.

We have to consider the present reality. We cannot decide in advance our interpretation of events and be caught up in dogmas regarding redemption. It is possible that the events of our time demand of us, as the events of Rav Kook’s time demanded of him, to construct new lenses, to formulate new concepts, in order to be able to properly grasp and understand them. The possibility of taking up Rav Kook’s project, of identifying holiness in historical processes, is in our hands. Rav Kook stood before secular Zionism, knowing how to elevate its holy sparks by formulating new religious concepts through deeply and innovatively interpreting old concepts. (Ibid.)

Rav Shagar argued that we cannot ignore the evidence of our own eyes. The state of Israel is not a utopia, and its actions do not reflect the redemption as described by Rav Kook. What then are we to do? How are we supposed to understand the state of Israel and contemporary Zionism?

The process of redemption may be different from how Rav Kook foresaw it, and we may not yet understand this process as it should be understood. Perhaps everything happening now can, and should, be understood in light of Rav Kook’s famous words regarding the nullification of nationalism…

In light of these words, the process of redemption may not be held up at all, in fact just the reverse, it is happening even faster than Rav Kook could have foreseen or than we normally think. The feeling of not being at home welling up within us even more forcefully due to the Disengagement Plan flows from the rapid pace of the changes. Perhaps the crude destruction is actually progress, and perhaps Post-Zionism is actually the killing of Mashiaḥ Ben Yosef to make way for Mashiaḥ Ben David. (ibid., 240)

Rav Shagar argued that being faithful to Rav Kook’s project actually requires being willing to give up on the messianic nature of the state. He finds a seed of this idea in Rav Kook’s thought itself, where Rav Kook understands the Talmudic image of the messiah descended from Joseph’s death as the death of particularistic nationalism (Rav Kook, Orot, Orot Yisrael, 6:6). This enables Rav Shagar to sanctify the “Post-Zionism” of his day, just as Rav Kook sanctified the secular Zionism of his. The state of Israel doesn’t have to be a utopia because it could just be one step in a larger, more universal messianic process. If Post-Zionism wants an end to the state of Israel, it is only so that a more universal messianic era can take its place.


Secular Philosophy

When it comes to secular philosophy, one of the themes from Rav Kook’s thought to which Rav Shagar returns time and time again is freedom. While freedom was also a characteristic ideal of social movements like secular Zionism, Rav Kook understood it as a philosophical Torah ideal.

Rav Kook wanted to “rewrite” the values of secular Zionism, and the world more generally, in order to be able to integrate them into the Torah and Judaism. He was well aware of how revolutionary his approach was: rewriting like this doesn’t just change those values, it also changes the values of the Torah itself. Of course, he saw this as returning to the Torah’s origin, to the Torah of the land of Israel, etc.…

Rav Kook called for the internalization of freedom as a value into the Torah. Freedom is a classically secular value, but Rav Kook, dramatically, identified it with the image of God in man and with the Jewish soul. (Luḥot U’Shivrei Luḥot, 191)

In the modern ideal of freedom, Rav Kook discovered, or rediscovered, the meaning of “the image of God.” Rav Kook believed that freedom meant choosing to act in accordance with your inner essence, which for a Jew would mean following the Torah and the commandments (Ibid., 182). Given the opportunity, Rav Kook said, a Jew would naturally fulfill his halakhic obligations.

As with the utopian state of Israel, Rav Shagar challenges Rav Kook’s idea on essentially empirical grounds.

Understanding freedom like this and identifying a person’s soul and essence with the Torah were things that Rav Kook, whose personal history was nothing but Judaism and holiness, could do. However, what about the Religious Zionist youth teenager of today who is confronted with these slogans about freedom? There is a clear difference between the “holy freedom” of Rav Kook and the plain freedom of the teenager.

I once took part in a symposium with a student of Rav Kook’s students, currently serving as a rosh yeshivah. I was shocked by the radical things he said about freedom. I was certain that, having heard what he said, the audience would pack their bags and head to India. As became clear, the situation was like the joke about the yeshivah student who walked into a kitchen and cried out in shock, “Could this really be the holy gizzard I read about in the Talmud?!” Just as the student didn’t really think of the gizzard as a real organ, so too with “holy freedom.” It has nothing to do with the freedom that the rosh yeshivah’s students desire.

Rav Kook’s freedom has thus become an ideology… when Rav Kook’s followers in our day talk about freedom, they are talking about a false, imaginary, and ideological freedom. There’s no real freedom or liberty… Importantly, what we have said about freedom can be analogized to Rav Kook’s whole spiritual-educational approach. (Ibid., 191-192)

Rav Shagar says that if you speak with religious Zionist teenagers today, it quickly becomes clear that Rav Kook’s words do not apply to them. Given the chance, they don’t fulfill their halakhic obligations, they go traveling in India and Thailand. Maintaining Rav Kook’s equation of freedom and the image of God requires denying the reality before our eyes.

In this critique (and elsewhere), Rav Shagar is careful to distinguish between Rav Kook and his students’ students. He says that “understanding freedom like this and identifying a person’s soul and essence with the Torah were things that Rav Kook, whose personal history was nothing but Judaism and holiness, could do.” Rav Shagar claims that Rav Kook’s lived experience really did indicate that freedom would lead Jews to holiness and halakhic observance. In contrast, “when Rav Kook’s followers in our day talk about freedom, they are talking about a false, imaginary, and ideological freedom.” Rav Kook’s honest attempt to understand his reality through the prism of God and Judaism has become an ideology that obscures reality rather than explaining it. This suggests that following Rav Kook wouldn’t mean believing in the Jewish value of freedom, but in that of contemporary social and philosophical ideals. Talking about freedom as the image of God, without asking about how contemporary philosophy understands freedom, is betraying Rav Kook’s project rather than upholding it.

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Rav Shagar’s Project

It is clear from the above discussion how much Rav Shagar identified with Rav Kook’s project. A key theme in the the two depictions above is that Rav Kook was responding to the reality that confronted him in his day. Similarly, Rav Shagar consistently describes his own literary and pedagogical project as being a response to lived reality (see his introductions to his Pur hu Hagoral, Betorato Yehegeh, Ahavukha Ad Mavet, and Re’im Ahuvim). Rav Shagar raises this similarity explicitly in an essay on the Jewish value of Postmodernism. Describing his own depiction of the religious potential of Postmodernism, Rav Shagar said: “This description echoes the way Rabbi Kook conceived of atheism: a historical process that sublimates faith, a repentance of sorts for religiosity” (Faith Shattered and Restored, 127 n. 34). Rav Shagar’s approach to Postmodernism, as far as he is concerned, echoes Rav Kook’s approach to Modern atheism from two generations before. The same way Rav Kook was able to find the good and the holiness within secular Zionism and modern freedom, Rav Shagar finds it within existentialism and Postmodernism.

On the third of Elul we should not ask ourselves which classic Rav Kook texts or ideas are most important, but where his methods and process might lead us today. In order to be faithful to Rav Kook, we have to be willing to step out from under his shadow. “Bitulo hu kiyyumo” (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 29) – upholding Rav Kook’s project requires a willingness to let go of his ideas. Only thus can we find the divine within the ideas and events of our time, just as Rav Kook and Rav Shagar did in theirs.

The Divine Unconscious and Individual Meaning: A Materialist Approach to the Commandments from Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah Derashot

The Divine Unconscious and Individual Meaning:
A Materialist Approach to the Commandments
from Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah Derashot

As I have shown in my post on the materialist theory of the commandments in Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Mind, materialist theories have two components, one primary and one secondary. The primary component is that the physical acts of the commandments are logically and causally independent of any reasons that might be given for them. The commandments aren’t meant for any purpose, no matter what purposes they might serve. Secondarily, and as a corollary to the first component, different people in different historical situations can quite validly give different explanations of the commandments. However, this second component does not have to follow from the first. This is why it appears in Rabbi David Silverstein’s approach but not in Rav Soloveitchik’s.

In this post, I want to look at two short excerpts from Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah sermons, published in the book Leha’ir et Hapetahim. Neither of these excerpts comes from a formal, systematic discussion of the reasons for the commandments, something as of yet unpublished among Rav Shagar’s writings. However, each independently deals with one of the two components of a materials approach to the mitsvot, giving us a comprehensive materialist understanding when we read them together.[1]

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The first piece comes from a great derashah entitled, “Screen for the Spirit, Garment for the Soul,” which explores the meaning of the commandments in the teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Baal Hatanya, based on the biblical images of the human soul as the candle of God, and the commandment as a candle that shines with the Torah’s light. Rav Shagar finds that, as opposed to other Hasidic thinkers such as the Izhbitzer Rebbe, the Baal Hatanya sets up an opposition between the candle of the person’s soul and the candle of the commandment. Mitsvot are therefore not about authenticity, and can even be a source of alienation.

Moreover, Rav Shagar then moves into a discussion of the relative importance of will as compared to wisdom in understanding God and the commandments, based on the Baal Hatanya’s discussion of and departure from Maimonides. As opposed to Maimonides, for whom wisdom is the primary aspect we must understand about God and the underlying principle behind the commandments, the Baal Hatanya emphasizes the divine will, which precedes the divine wisdom.

If we return to characterizing the commandments, the Baal Hatanya says that even the physicality of action precedes thought and spirituality. “The root of the commandments is incredibly lofty, for they are rooted in the aspect of the highest crown (Keter Elyon) […] which ultimately devolves down into physical action […] specifically there we find the divine will. The final act is first in thought.” By its very nature, the essence of the will of the infinite can’t be revealed in a garment, in sense, in the finite. It therefore does not appear as the inner light of reality, as meaning, as clarity, as the delight of holiness. Though these things cannot be defined, they are comprehended and contained in the categories (kelim) of existence, just as meaning is comprehended through sense. The essence of will appears only as light that surrounds reality, overlapping the opaque act by virtue of it lacking sense. This opaque act defies human existence which relies on reason, knowledge, comprehensibility, and meaning, wherein every effect has a cause and everything that happens is determined by a thought or experience.

Based on the Baal Hatanya, we might say that people fail to understand will because it is performative (performativi). Its only justification is its being. It has no value as a logical assertion, as a statement or claim, and it cannot serve as an argument for anything. The will wants a specific act because it wants it, and this is what makes “the highest will” absolute. It is will, and it does not need to rely on any external justifications. (52-53)

Rav Shagar describes the will, and the divine will specifically, as “performative” in the sense that philosopher J. L. Austin used the term, describing words that do things instead of describing them, creating or shaping reality rather than referring to or depicting reality. This creative will precedes any intellectual ideas, any words or meanings, which always explain a pre-existing reality. The Baal Hatanya roots the physical forms of the commandments in this pre-intellectual will, in the simple meaningless insistence that precedes conscious thought. These physical act therefore are not, and could not be, preceded by an idea or goal for which God commanded them. You can’t get “behind” the commanding of the specific acts, because there’s no “before” that precedes them. They are primordial. God didn’t command them because they make sense, and this as Rav Shagar continues there, you can’t choose to keep them because they make sense. It requires an act of passionate commitment (mesirut nefesh), a decision to take upon yourself the framework of the mitsvot, only after which can you find meaning in them.

Our second excerpt comes from a derashah called “Candlelight: Genealogy of a Metaphor.” In this text, Rav Shagar traces the way different thinkers have understood the metaphor of candles and light within Judaism. Simultaneously, he traces the way the different thinkers have understood the metaphors to function; do they reveal the inherent connection between light and intellect, for example, or do they somehow create this connection?

After tracing this genealogy, Rav Shagar turns to propose his own way of understanding metaphors, based on a Lacanian understanding of psychoanalysis and the unconscious. For our purposes, there are two Lacanian ideas necessary for understanding what Rav Shagar is trying to get at. The first is that a symptom does not have a preexisting meaning. The meaning is created in the process of its verbalization. Second, nothing exists in the abstract, separate from its linguistic context. To be conscious means to exist within and be constituted by language. Rav Shagar weaves these two ideas together, such that the mitsvot are a “language” from which the Jew who “speaks” (fulfills) then is not separate, and the meaning of which emerges in the moment when the Jew fulfills them. For the sake of context and clarity, I will quote Rav Shagar’s words at length:

I want to depict another way to understand the metaphor of light and candle, one in which the meanings themselves of the different depictions happen in the present of “this time” (hazman hazeh). As opposed to Rav Kook and the Kabbalists, for whom metaphors reveal psychological and idealistic truth and meaning that already exist in reality, we could see metaphors as functioning as a chain of connections and contexts functioning in the psychoanalytic realm. This realm is the realm of the creation and construction of the unconscious which those contexts represent. The psychological connections are created at the moment of the interpretation of the dream, or in the associative games of therapy. Similarly, the creation of a metaphor (“candle-light = Torah-light”) is an illumination that creates a language in real time. We should therefore understand the metaphor as a work of art that uses language as its “vocabulary,” a use that creates the network of connections and the truth and meaning that it bears within it, rather than a gesture toward some truth that existed “there” in the past. Of course, in order to be present to this sort of creative process, we must, as Richard Rorty said, abandon metaphors of “revelation” and “discovery” of truth, which perpetuate the idea of truth and meaning as things of the past to which we must return, which we must signify, and which we must track into its present traces. Instead, we must discuss truth and meaning using metaphors of creation and construction.

The metaphor of the light of candlelight as the light of Torah is a creation that structures all the levels, both light and vessel, of the real world. Lighting a candle is not a symbol or a behavioral-psychological effect. It is a real place wherein a person acts as fulfiller of the commandment. In this sense, the individual grants meaning to the existence of the commandment. However, we must emphasize that this meaning is not subjective. We’re not talking about a dualistic split between the person and the commandment, consciousness and action, light and vessel, but about a person fulfilling the commandment in the fullest sense of the term, and they cannot be separated. The two together construct the meaning-creating event. […]

Just as words are not external to the speaker, so too the commandments are not external to the person fulfilling them. As such, the meaning that he grants them, the metaphors they inspire within him, […] enter into the action of fulfilling the commandment itself. Just as […] the idea does not precede the action, so too the intent (kavvanah) does not precede the commandment, and there’s no set, foreseen, meaning to which the action must point. The light of the candle which we are going to light in the evening thus becomes a real opening to all kinds of worlds which a person can create, rather than discover. […]

The metaphor of candlelight does not belong to language’s sense. Rather, it is part of a network that constructs the world. In fulfilling the commandments, a person has the freedom to create an event. Of course, the process of creation is not ex nihilo, something from nothing, but something from something. The person who lights the candle uses the teachings that he learned, the different intentions to which he was exposed, the words and sentences of the language which he and those around him speak. All these elements come together in a new way in order to create something new, a creative construct. The Hanukkah candle can create an event, but this depends on man’s capacity to break himself loose from already-known nature. Only then will something happen, a connection will be made, a metaphor and similarity between images. (78-80)

According to Rav Shagar, when a Jew fulfills a commandment, she and the commandment are not two separate things. In that moment, the person is a fulfiller and the mitsvah a fulfilled, neither of which can exist or be understood without the other. Not only does the commandment not have any pre-existing meaning, but it doesn’t make any sense to talk about the meaning of a commandment separate from the person fulfilling it. Meaning is always “meaning to,” the meaning a thing bears for a specific individual or group, rather than being inherent in the thing itself. This is true of the metaphors surrounding candlelight, and it is also true of the commandments. Moreover, like the metaphors about candlelight, commandments are always going to be understood differently by different people, with this new meaning or understanding emerging when individual and commandment become fulfiller and fulfilled.

Combining these two excerpts gives the following picture: The commandments are inherently meaningless, originating as they do in the divine will that precedes any conscious, verbalizable thought or meaning. Their meaning emerges in the moment when an individual Jew fulfills them. This meaning is not the meaning of the mitsvah, but of the fulfillment of the commandment by this specific person in their specific historical situation. This reason cannot serve as the reason for the commandment, as it is always subjective, and is created after the commandment already exists. For the same reason, there is no need or possibility of saying that certain reasons are wrong while one reason is right. In my last post we saw that Rav Soloveitchik frames the commandments as objectifications of subjective religious experiences, with one such subjective experience being the correct one that we ought to reconstruct. In contrast, Rav Shagar sees the commandments as originating in the essential divine will, in a sense beginning as objects, which then generate subjective experiences as they are fulfilled by individuals.

In my next, and likely last, post on this subject, I want to look at Brennan Breed’s theory of biblical reception history research, which inspired this whole project.

[1] As to the legitimacy of reading them together, a few technical notes are in order. First, I’m on the whole in favor of reading Rav Shagar’s corpus as a comprehensive whole, unless there’s good reason to take exception in a given instance. There are many such exceptions, but coherence is the rule that enables to understand both the whole and the exceptions. Second, the two excerpts were not only published in the same book, but they are from adjacent sermons within that book (“Masakh Lanefesh Levush Laneshamah” and “Or Haner: Gilgulah Shel Metaforah”). Reading them together is almost unavoidable given that publishing choice. Third, a good starting point for questions like this is when the material was originally written. Differences in Rav Shagar’s writings can often be traced to the difference between pieces written in the 1980’s-90’s and pieces written in the 2000’s, though that’s not a firm rule. This lens can be applied with the help of the editorial notes that appear in most of the more recent volumes of Rav Shagar’s writings noting the dates of original material used in composing the texts. In our case, “Or Vener” is from 2007, near the very end of Rav Shagar’s life. “Masakh Lanefesh Levush Laneshamah” is more complicated. According to the editor, the sermon is based on transcripts of oral teachings stretching from 1986 until 2004, as well as two written texts from 2004 and 2006. It is therefore difficult to know how to decipher that sermon for era indicators, but the predominance of material from the 2000’s (“Shenot HaSamekh” as I have heard his students say), when he was more involved in “postmodern” and psychoanalytic materials. This bears out in both of the sermons, which have distinct psychoanalytic underpinnings, as we shall see.

Phenomenology of the Mitsvot: A Materialist Approach to the Commandments in Rav Soloveitchik’s “Halakhic Mind”

Phenomenology of the Mitsvot:

A Materialist Approach to the Commandments in Rav Soloveitchik’s “Halakhic Mind”

Continuing my series of posts (see here and here) on materialist approaches to taamei hamitsvot, reasons for the commandments, I want to take a look at a few passages from Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Mind. In these passages, Rav Soloveitchik constructs a theory of the commandments (based on the philosophy of religion developed throughout the work, and in use throughout Rav Soloveitchik’s other writings) which emphasizes the material rites of the commandments over any reason or cause given for them. That said, his theory differs from the approach of R. David Silverstein, which I discussed in my last post on the topic, and that of Rav Shagar, which I plan to discuss in a future post. I will discuss the nuances of Rav Soloveitchik’s theory below.

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Not only does Rav Soloveitchik’s theory emphasize the physical aspect of the commandments, he actually uses it attack theories of the commandments that emphasize the reasons for the commandments over the physical actions. While his main targets seem to be non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, he also sees himself as siding with the Maimonides of the Mishneh Torah against the Maimonides of the Guide for the Perplexed (without getting into the validity of that distinction, I take issue with his reading of the GP, which I think fails to take into account GP III:34).

The reluctance on the part of the Jewish homo religiosus to accept Maimonidean rationalistic ideas is not ascribable to any agnostic tendencies, but to the incontrovertible fact that such explanations neither edify nor inspire the religious consciousness. They are essentially, if not entirely valueless for the religious interests we have most at heart. Maimonides’ failure to impress his rationalistic method upon the vivid religious consciousness is to be attributed mainly to the fact that the central theme of the Maimonidean exposition is the causalistic problem. The “how” question, the explanatory quest, and the genetic attitude determined Maimonides’ doctrine of the commandments. Instead of describing, Maimonides explained; instead of reconstructing, he constructed. (Halakhic Mind, 92)

The Jewish people, Rav Soloveitchik argues, are not interested in “genetic” questions about what led to the creation of the commandments. The commandments exist, as objects independent of any cause, and the “religious consciousness” is not interested in questions that might challenge their existence.

The “genetic” approach, according to Rav Soloveitchik, sees the commandments as serving goals unrelated to the commandments themselves.

As we have previous indicated, whenever the causal question is raised, the philosopher must transcend the boundary line of religion in order to find his answer which lies beyond the religious domain. Both mechanistic and teleological concepts of causality explain the effect through the existence of an alien factor, be it within or without the system. Thus religion cannot be interpreted under immanent aspects but must avail itself of foreign elements. The net result of Maimonides’ rationalization is that religion no longer operates with unique autonomous norms, but with technical rules, the employment of which would culminate in the attainment of some extraneous maximum bonum. In rationalizing the commandments genetically, Maimonides developed a religious “instrumentalism.” Causality reverted to teleology (the Aristotelian concept of causa finalis) and Jewish religion was converted into technical wisdom. (93)

Maimonides’ theory of the commandments in the Guide for the Perplexed describes the commandments as having goals outside what we call “religion.” Instead, they are meant to “rectify the body and the mind,” meaning that they are supposed to create a peaceful society of virtuous individuals with accurate knowledge reality (GP III:28-32). The goals of the commandments thus come not from the realm of Judaism, or even religion more generally, but from politics and philosophy.

Against this model of reasons for the commandments, which renders religion the handmaiden of the secular realm, Rav Soloveitchik proposes an alternative.

In contradistinction to the causal method of the philosophical Guide that reads to a religious techne, the halakhic Code (the Mishneh Torah) apprehends the religious act in an entirely different light. The Code does not pursue the objective causation of the commandment, but attempts to reconstruct its subjective correlative. It would seem that the Maimonides of the Halakhah was not intrigued by the “how” question. He freed himself from the genetic purview and employed a descriptive method of expounding the content and symbolic meaning of the religious norm. The “what” question was his guide in the Code. (93-94)

Here, as throughout his various writings, Rav Soloveitchik sees the commandments as the “objectification” of “subjective” religious ideas, experiences, and values.[1] This movement from subjective to objective is not strictly a move from internal to external, but from the individual, chaotic, and unrefined to the shared, orderly, and well defined. Hence Halakhah not only guides a person’s actions, but also her thoughts and feelings. Derived through the objectification of certain ideas, experiences, and values, halakhah’s goal is essentially to perpetuate them, recreating that subjective element in the individual fulfilling the commandment. However, all of this is essentially a reconstruction, our determination extrapolated from the already-existing halakhah. It does not enable us to really get “behind” the halakhah, such that we could challenge its nature or existence. In keeping with Rav Soloveitchik’s phenomenological method, he takes halakhah as a given and examines the way the individual living according to its laws experiences it, rather than asking about whether or not halakhah should exist at all.

Looking through the lens of “materialist” approaches to taamei hamitsvot, we can see that Rav Soloveitchik’s approach gives primacy to the physical acts of halakhic rituals over any reasons or goals that we might give the commandments. As with Rabbi David Silverstein’s approach, Rav Soloveitchik’s discussion does not once appeal to the reasons that the commands were given, or what God may have had in mind for them. The emphasis is on what the commandments do, the experiences they evoke or the values they convey, rather than what motivated them.

However, Rav Soloveitchik’s approach does seem to assume specific, singular meanings for each commandment. In contrast, Rav Silverstein’s discusses the different ways each commandment he examines has been understood throughout Jewish history. He gives the ritual acts of the commandments such independent weight that the same commandment can essentially mean different things to different people. Not so Rav Soloveitchik, who seems to see each commandment has having one true meaning in all historical contexts. The practical outcome of this distinction is that Rav Soloveitchik by definition thinks most of the attempts to explain the meaning of a given commandment missed their mark, as only one of them could be correct (notably, his discussion of reasons for the commandments in Halakhic Mind takes the form of an attack on Maimonides discussion thereof in the Guide for the Perplexed). Rav Soloveitchik’s approach therefore differs from what I have called a “materialist” approach to the commandments while still possessing its primary characteristic, an emphasis on the physical acts of the commandments over any meaning or explanation. In my next post on this topic, I will examine how Rav Shagar differs from Rav Soloveitchik on exactly this point.

[1] For a thorough discussion of this idea, see Reuven Ziegler, Majesty and Humility (Jerusalem, Israel, and Brooklyn, NY: Urim Publications and the Orthodox Union Press, 2012), 334-340.

Science-Fictional Messianism in the Writings of Rav Shagar and Rav Froman

A shiur I gave for Yom Yerushalayaim 2018 discussing how Rav Shagar connects science fiction and Messianism, as well as how this “Science-Fictional Messianism” shows up in other places in his writings and in the writings of Rav Menachem Froman. Sources below.

 

  1. Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 9:10
    The only difference between this world and the Messianic Era is subservience to the Nations.

  2. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 165-166

In order to understand these wondrous, magical depictions, which are not of this world, we can look to a somewhat parallel literary phenomenon, science fiction. Both science fiction and the rabbis’ homilies (midrashim) about the future redemption describe an alternative world. This world’s primary purpose, if we can speak of such a thing, is to lay bare the mystery (mistorin) of our lives, aiding the collapse and destruction of our banal, boring everyday life.

In the rabbis’ days there were no rockets; the eschatological homilies don’t talk about distant galaxies or about worlds full of robots and beyond-human creatures. However, they contain just as much magic and wonders just as great [as science fiction contains]. They provide the realistic possibility of a substantive alternative to this world, an alternative that many of the rabbis certainly thought would arrive one day. […] In this way, the miraculous and the wondrous bursts into the world and disrupts its factual, scientific stability.

  1. Rav Shagar, 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.

  1. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 346

I don’t know how to depict this redemption, but Rebbe Naman’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.

  1. Rav Menaem Froman, Ten Li Zeman, 140-141

The way each side sees it’s way of thinking as natural and obvious closes them in on themselves. Open dialogue, never mind mutual understanding, gets father and farther away. […] Perhaps the path to Jewish normalcy goes by way of abnormalcy. For example (to suggest a product of abnormal Jewish thinking), the idea that the Jewish world which sees this land as its ancient homeland and its modern destiny does not necessarily contradict the Palestinian world that see this land as the refreshing cradle of its birth. For example, perhaps peace will not come about through the mutual contraction of two cultural worlds, but through their expansion and sublimation.

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  1. Rav Menaem Froman, Ten Li Zeman, 160

Once a year, when we approach the juxtaposition of Pesaḥ and Yom Ha’atsma’ut, a Jew like me is permitted to write a new proposal: all the birds that broke forth from their eggs are chirping that the time has past, but perhaps this movement of faith is a real movement of non-submission to the enslaving world and of building a free nation – from an intellectual perspective, adhering closely to reality, to the hope that creates reality.

  1. Rav Shagar, Panekha Avakesh (derashot from 1982), 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.

  1. Rav Shagar, 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 Naman 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.

  1. Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, quoted in Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Bereshit 8

If a person knows that God is concealing himself, then there is no concealment, for “all evildoers are scattered” (Psalms 92:10). This is the meaning of the verse, “And I will conceal, yes, conceal, my face from them” (Deuteronomy 31:18). This means to say that God will conceal from them such that they will not know that God is hidden there.

10. The Greatest Showman, “Come Alive”
When the world becomes a fantasy / And you’re more than you could ever be / ‘Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open / And you know you can’t go back again / To the world that you were living in / ‘Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open / So, come alive!

Lag Ba’Omer and Authenticity – My Introduction to Studying Lekutei Moharan

Lag Ba’Omer and Authenticity – My Introduction to Studying Lekutei Moharan

For Lag Ba’Omer, I want to look quickly at a piece from Rebbe Naḥman’s Lekutei Moharan which served as my entrance into studying, and actually finding meaning in, Rebbe Naḥman. This piece (LM I:66) is the longest piece in the first half of Lekutei Moharan, and covers a huge variety of topics. However, there are clear threads that emerge throughout, and this actually helped me learn a key skill in studying Rebbe Naḥman, which is the ability to pick up on recurring themes or ideas, and make note of specific lines or paragraphs where the idea is expressed particularly clearly. (Another important step in my introduction to Lekutei Moharan was reading this essay by Shaul Magid.)

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Turning to the teaching itself, Rebbe Naḥman begins the teaching as a meditation on the scene of Elijah’s ascent to Heaven in 2 Kings, focusing on one specific aspect of the scene.

As they were crossing, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” Elisha answered, “Let a double portion of your spirit pass on to me.”
“You have asked a difficult thing,” he said. “If you see me as I am being taken from you, this will be granted to you; if not, it will not.” (2 Kings 2:9-10)

What grabs Rebbe Naḥman here, and what is glossed over but certainly not intuitive in the the biblical text itself, is the possibility of someone giving twice what they have. Thinking perhaps overly literally about Elisha’s request, Rebbe Naḥman sets out to solve how it is that Elijah could have only a certain amount of spirit (ruaḥ), and yet potentially give twice that amount.

In the process of grappling with this issue, Rebbe Naḥman expands the range of his discussion from the scene of Elijah’s death in the bible to include all deaths of all tzaddikim everywhere.

At the time of a tzaddik’s passing, he attains far more than he attained during his lifetime; each one according to his spiritual level. We find this in connection with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the Idra, Rabbeinu HaKadosh, and other tzaddikim.

While the significance and power of the tzaddik is an important theme in writings form a large variety of Hasidic authors, Rebbe Naḥman emphasizes it to a strong degree. In this piece, it serves to connect disparate characters. Elijah is one of the biblical characters who manages to bridge heaven and earth, and is considered the prophet who will bring the messiah and new messianic revelations. Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai is the hero of the Zohar, who brings down and reveals heavenly secrets that were never before revealed, and would never be revealed again until the Messianic Era, with his most intense revelations taking place on the day of his death. Rebbe Naḥman also mentions Rebbe Yehuda Hanasi, who compiled the Mishna, presumably because this could be seen as a form of revelation.

Though left unsaid, the fact that Rebbe Naḥman considered himself a tzaddik (in fact, not just a tzaddik, but the tzaddik of his generation) probably hovers in the background here. That will be important later.

Rebbe Naḥman then returns to the particular issue of the double-spirit that Elisha requests, explaining that the tzaddik has two spirits, a higher spirit and a lower spirit, and that they always fail to bring down the higher spirit and only ever access the lower spirit. The only exception to this, Rebbe Naḥman says, is when the tzaddik dies (“passes on/away” in this translation), when they can access both spirits. As he explains it, this timing is not incidental.

Know, too, that the reason for this is that at the time of [the tzaddik’s] passing, the spirit and vitality from on high descend. The lower and higher spirits then embrace and unite. In truth, they are one, so that as soon as they reveal themselves to each other, they bond in a most exceptional oneness. Yet the spirit from on high cannot stay in this world, since by nature it cannot bear this world at all. It therefore departs for on high, and consequently the tzaddik passes on. For when the aforementioned spirit departs, the spirit from below departs with it, on account of the most exceptional oneness in which they were united.

Rebbe Naḥman essentially argues that when the higher spirit ascends, when the tzaddik achieves this peak state, then he must necessarily die, the lower spirit departing with the higher one. While that is all well and good as an abstract statement, it’s a little hard to evaluate, and certainly hard to translate into the language in which I live my life. What does it mean to have a higher and lower spirit? Why can’t the tzaddik ever attain the upper spirit? And why does attaining it result in the tzaddik’s death?

Rebbe Naḥman himself will do some of the work of answering these question. He takes a first step in this direction by explaining that when he talks about the death of the tzaddik, that doesn’t have to be understood literally.

There are many expressions of ascents and descents, since there are many different aspects of passing away. There is the soul’s passing, and there is the loss of one’s name, which is also an aspect of passing away.

So whatever the higher and lower spirits are, and whatever it means to attain the higher one, it doesn’t have to lead to the tzaddik literally dying.

Rebbe Naḥman then clarifies what he means when he refers to higher and lower spirits, shifting from mystical to philosophical/existential terminology.

This also corresponds to the two spirits mentioned above: the spirit from on high and the spirit from below, which are the aspects of potential and actual.

This is a significant moment in Rebbe Naḥman’s teaching, when he translates the abstract language into more concrete ideas. This is something he actually does fairly often, usually tying his complex theory and exegesis into concrete rituals. In this teaching, Rebbe Naḥman translations “higher and lower spirits” into the still somewhat abstract “potential and actual,” but he also ties this directly into issues of intention (kavvanah) in prayer, as we will touch on below.

To flesh this out a bit, Rebbe Naḥman is saying that a person always has two aspects, potential and actual, and they can never really attain the potential. As he explains at length through various Kabbalistic interpretations (such as the shape of the aleph and the interweaving of the divine names “Adonai” and “YHWH”), a person can never realize her vision perfectly. The “potential,” the idea she hold in her head, never survives the process of bringing it into the real world. There’s an unbridgeable gap between “potential” and “actual.” It is this gap that the tzaddik overcomes at the time of her death, a process that, in fact, causes her death (literal or otherwise). The question that Rebbe Naḥman therefore needs to tackle is how you overcome this gap.

He does this when he shifts to a more concrete topic, prayer. He wants to talk about how you pray with “truth,” essentially meaning with proper intent (kavvanah). In terms of the discussion of “potential” and “actual,” it is a question of how you actually pray the ideal prayer that you would like to pray. Rebbe Naḥman first and foremost sets up the problem.

Now, truth is greatest when a person is not dependent on other human beings since “When someone is dependent on other human beings, his face changes color like a kroom to many different shades.” This is the reason someone who is dependent on other people finds it very difficult to pray with the community. It would be more beneficial and easier for him to pray in private, since in public he is plagued by powerful ulterior motives and appearances. On account of his being dependent on other people, he prays with affectation and pretense in order to impress them. Even someone who earns his own living, and so does not have to rely on others for livelihood, may nevertheless be dependent on others for respect or some other thing. In other words, if he craves respect, prominence and the like, he is dependent on other people since he needs their respect and esteem. When he is dependent on other human beings for any of the above he is in jeopardy of perpetrating a grave lie while praying i.e., of gesticulating unnecessarily in order to impress people.

This is the passage that most struck me when I first read this teaching. Rebbe Naḥman here essentially recreates the problem of authenticity. How can we act truly, actually express ourselves, when we are dependent on other people? And are we not always dependent on other people, for recognition at the very least? Since we are always dependent on other people, we can never truly pray around them. In contrast, Rebbe Naḥman says,

someone not dependent on other humans, who is not reliant on them for anything, can stand in the midst of thousands of people and pray honestly, to God alone. This is because he does not depend on any human being for livelihood, honor or anything else. Rather, “his hope is in God his Lord.”

People who are independent, are capable of being true, and of actualizing their potential. How is this connected to death? As Rebbe Naḥman said, “death” here includes “the loss of one’s name, which is also an aspect of passing away.” The willingness to lose your name, your reputation, is very logically connected to social independence (Rebbe Naḥman makes this explicit in Lekutei Moharan I:260, but it’s clear enough from the piece we’re looking at). Someone willing to break free of the need for recognition, someone who can recognize that their own self-approval is enough, can realize their potential and attain the double-spirit that Elisha requested from Elijah on the day of his death.

In these few excerpts, RebbeNaḥman has reframed the death of tsaddik as the capacity to escape the social bonds holding you back and actualize your potential. This also shifts the way we should understand the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai. Rebbe Naḥman is explaining that Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai managed to reveal such important teachings on the day of his death because he was finally free of his social constraints and able to make his vision a reality. (For people interested in differences between the rest of the Zohar and the Idrot attributed to the day of Rabbi Shimon’s death, and the corresponding differences between the teachings of the Ramak and Arizal, this is a fascinating analytical lens).

 

There’s a lot more in this piece that I didn’t even get to touch on, such as a connection between words, meaning and desire that practically cries out to be read through a Lacanian lens (such as Yishai Mevorach provides in chapter 3 of Yehudi Shel Haketse, though he focuses on the parallel in Lekutei Moharan I:31). However, as I hope I’ve demonstrated here, part of reading long teachings from Lekutei Moharan is the ability to break them down into smaller passages and connect different ideas. The understanding of death and authenticity that I have drawn out here is a valuable idea in and of itself, even without the larger train of thought to which it contributes.