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.

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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.