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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Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey”: A Materialist Approach to the Commandments

Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey”:
A Materialist Approach to the Commandments

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Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey” is a masterful contemporary rendition of the traditional genre of taamei hamitsvot literature, books that give reasons for the commandments. Each chapter is dedicated to a different commandment or halakhah, stretching from saying modeh ani upon waking to saying shema before bedtime, and even touching on interpersonal mitsvot, loving God, and more in between. It also sports a helpful introduction that gives the reader background on taamei hamitsvot throughout Jewish history.

The introduction focuses on the question of whether or not Jews should speculate about the reasons for the commandments. The topic has been hotly debated throughout Jewish history. On the one hand, God’s commands are presumably rooted in the infinite divine wisdom. They should therefore “represent the physical actualization of a divine set of values and ideal” (p. xxiv), rather than simply being commands that a person must obey. On the other hand, emphasizing the reason for a command can come at the expense of obedience to the command itself. If keeping kosher is about eating healthy (the opinion of the Sefer HaHinukh, quoted in chapter 19), then shouldn’t eating healthy take precedence over keeping kosher? If the two were to contradict, shouldn’t we side with healthy eating over its handmaiden, kashrut?

Silverstein indicates that despite the critical importance of the “spiritual messages” of the mitsvot, we cannot give the reasons for the commandments priority over the commandments themselves. In addition to preserving obedience to the commandments, this has the added value of keeping a person humble. Just because I do not know the value of a commandment, that does not mean there is no value. Trying to understand the commandments is therefore an important, if not always achievable, goal.

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A Materialist Model of the Commandments

Silverstein’s approach to the commandments is what I have elsewhere called a “materialist” model of the commandments. Though he says the commandments are intended to convey spiritual messages, he ultimately gives priority to the physical acts of the commandments, their material presence in the world and history, over the ideas attached to them. This manifests in the call for obedience in the face of incomprehensible mitsvot. If you have to obey the commandments regardless of the reason, then clearly the actions take priority over the ideas.

The materialist model also shows up in the number of reasons Silverstein gives for each commandment. Classically, books of taamei hamitsvot give one reason for each commandment. They attempt to determine what goal God wanted to achieve by commanding each action, what specific idea or value God wanted to convey. In contrast, “Jewish Law as a Journey” doesn’t talk about what the purpose of each commandment is, or what God’s intent was in commanding it. Instead, Silverstein goes through the historical journey of each mitsvah, looking at what it has meant in different texts throughout history. He starts with Tanakh and the rabbis, for laws that go back that far, and continues all the way to rabbis so contemporary that their ideas are referenced from webpages rather than books. In a materialist model, the reasons for the commandments are not what God meant by them, but what they have meant to Jews throughout history.

One of the advantages of a materialist model of the commandments is the way it lets us look back at the history of reasons for the commandments. With a model like this, we do not need to say that everyone who disagreed with our understanding of a commandment was wrong, nor do we have to pretend that no one ever disagreed. We can recognize the full diversity of the Jewish tradition when it comes to taamei hamitsvot. Silverstein can therefore quote a variety of interpretation by thinkers who may have been consciously disagreeing with each other, as he explores the various things a commandment means. It does raise the question of what God’s intent actually was for each commandment, but this can be solved in a variety of ways, such as suggesting that God wanted each Jew to understand each mitsvah in a way that made sense to her in her historical situation, or that God omnipotently foresaw all the meanings that Jews would attribute to the commandments.

“Jewish Law as a Journey” therefore provides the reader with short collections of ideas that have been attached to each commandment, helpfully summarized in the book’s conclusion in the form of short meditations. However, it also asks the reader an implicit question: If these ideas are what the commandment has meant throughout its historical journey, then what does it mean today?

More Than Just “The Zionist Rabbi”: Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz’s “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook”

More than just “The Zionist Rabbi”:
Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz’s “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook”

If you ask most people about Rav Kook’s worldview, they likely won’t know anything about him. If they do, they will probably start talking to you about Zionism. They will tell you about how Herzl was a spark of Mashiach Ben Yosef, and about the critical roles that the nation, land, and state of Israel play in the ongoing process of redemption. For many of Rav Kook’s followers, and likely all of his detractors, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook can be adequately summed up as “the Zionist rabbi.”

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Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz’s new book of translations, collected from across the entire corpus of Rav Kook’s published writings, means to overturn this common misconception. While most translations of Rav Kook have focused on a specific book by him, “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook: The Writings of a Jewish Mystic” organizes hundreds of paragraphs from Rav Kook’s various writings into seventeen chapters, each dedicated to a specific topic. While there is a chapter on Zionism, and it is one of the longer chapters, it is still just one of seventeen. What is more, that chapter contains more pieces discussing the importance of universalism than the importance of the land! While Rav Kook was certainly a Zionist, he was also far more than that.

The other sixteen chapters are where “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook” really shines. Some of the chapters are dedicated to classical topics, like “Prayer” and “Torah.” In these, Schwartz has managed to find and present passages highlighting Rav Kook’s unique ideas. We are forbidden to think that prayer changes God’s mind, says Rav Kook, and we must learn the Torah that inspires us as individuals. Other chapters focus on more surprising topics, like “The Spiritual Importance of Creativity” and “Listening to the Inner Child.” Here it is not just what Rav Kook says that is unique, it is that he is talking about these topics at all. Most rabbis simply don’t talk about the necessity of creative writing, or how important it is to maintain the idealism of our inner child. Before reading “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook,” I didn’t know Rav Kook had anything to say about the inner child at all, let alone a consistent, fleshed-out approach to the topic. Schwartz’s novel categorization means that the book should have something new even for people already familiar with Rav Kook.

Moving from the level of the chapter to the individual text, we find one of the most helpful and unique aspects of Schwartz’s translation. He has given each passage a title summing up its main idea. For some texts the title-summary felt unnecessary, but for others it was a godsend. Schwartz did mighty work turning Rav Kook’s effervescent poetry into lucid prose, but some of his longer passages can still be very difficult to follow. In such cases Schwartz didn’t just give a title to the piece as a whole, he also broke the piece down into smaller paragraphs and gave each of those paragraphs a title as well. The longest passages of the book, spanning three to four pages, thus become much more understandable.

Perhaps most usefully, the book ends with a short biography of Rav Kook, and with a “Spiritual Letter to the Reader,” where Schwartz summarizes each chapter of the book. Importantly, while the letter sums up the book, it does not just do that. The letter aims at inspiring the reader to act based on Rav Kook. Schwartz doesn’t want “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook” to be just another interesting book on the shelf; he wants it to inspire a spiritual revolution for each and every reader. Each chapter offers the reader an opportunity to revolutionize a part of their life, and the letter frames the ideas in exactly that light.

The Practice and Possibility of Prayer: Rabbi Dov Singer’s “Tikon Tefilati”

In an article entitled “Towards an Understanding of Halakhah,” later incorporated into his book on prayer, Man’s Quest for God, R. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel sets up a dichotomy between prayer and philosophy.[1]

The duty to worship stood as a thought of ineffable meaning; doubt, the voice of disbelief, was ready to challenge it. But where should the engagement take place? In an act of reflection the duty to worship is a mere thought, timid, frail, a mere shadow of reality, while the voice of disbelief is a power, well-armed with the weight of inertia and the preference for abstention. In such an engagement prayer would be fought in abstentia, and the issue would be decided without actually joining the battle. It was fair, therefore, to give the weaker rival a chance: to pray first, to fight later.

I realized that just as you cannot study philosophy through praying, you cannot study prayer through philosophizing.[2]

Prayer, as Heschel argues extensively throughout the book, is not a primarily cognitive or reflective activity. The reflective stance of philosophy, he argues, actually obstructs prayer rather than aiding it. There is no degree of philosophizing, even about prayer, that will lead a person to prayer. You have to just start praying, and let that show you why you should pray.

Perhaps ironically, Heschel’s words are set within a broader work reflecting on the meaning and nature of prayer. Man’s Quest for God simultaneously tries to give the reader a broader understanding of prayer, and tells them to stop trying to understand prayer and just pray. To some degree, this calls into question the value not just of Heschel’s book on prayer, but of any book on prayer. Books would seem to be an inherently reflective medium, so how can a book be anything other than an obstacle to prayer?

Enter Rabbi Dov Singer’s Tikon Tefilati: Matkonei Tefilah (Maggid Books, Jerusalem, 2014. English title, May My Prayer Be Pleasing: Recipes for Prayer).

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Singer begins the book with a short introduction where he lays out the same problem that Heschel describes. Thinking about prayer, he says, is an obstacle to actually praying. Moreover, he adds, prayer is more essential to humanity than thinking is. Homo Sapiens (“thinking person”) would be better described as Homo Mitpalelos (“praying person”). We pray by our very natures, so all we need to do is get out of our own way and pray. Why, then, did he write a book on prayer? For the same reason that people write cookbooks. Cookbooks don’t explain to people why they should cook, or how cooking functions. They give practical instructions on how to cook for people who already want to cook, and so too with Tikon Tefilati and prayer.

Notably, the twin themes of non-reflective prayer and prayer as part of human nature can be found in two Singer’s three teachers that he mentions in his introduction, Rabbis Shagar, Froman, and Steinzaltz. While I am not familiar with the works of Rav Steinzaltz, Rav Shagar compares praying to the ability to enter into a story while reading it, rather than standing outside the story and reflecting upon it.[3] Rav Froman boldly suggests that all of religion, God included, may be humanity’s attempt to “explain that basic, instinctive, human thing called ‘prayer.’”[4] These two themes come together in Singer’s brief introduction, which then explains that, because of these two themes, the rest of the book will be very different.

After that short introduction, the form of the book changes drastically. Each section starts with powerful snippets on prayer from traditional Jewish texts (from the Mishnah to Rambam to Rebbe Naḥman) and from contemporary Israeli poetry. Then it briefly depicts forms of prayer, such as supplication, praise, dialogic encounter, or connecting with nature, and provides practical instructions, “recipes,” for practicing these forms. Some of the “recipes” are meant for individuals, some for pairs, and some for groups. The common thread is that they show the reader how to pray, without trying to explain why to pray or what that even means.

And that, perhaps, is the weakness of the book, and why Heschel’s encouragement of non-reflective prayer is somewhat ironically located in a very reflective book. Tikon Tefilati can tell you how to pray, but it can’t tell you why to pray, or what prayer is. While it serves as an excellent guide for someone who is already praying, it cannot explain to someone who does not pray why they should start. For someone who finds prayer impossible, practical advice on how to pray is useless at best. The book thus carves out a niche audience for itself – those who want to pray, but do not know how – much as as a cookbook serves only those who want to cook, but don’t know what to make.

I would end by noting that the book succeeds in being emotionally impactful on all levels. The quoted texts are powerful, and the graphic design is striking on each and every page. It will be pleasing to those who would pray.

[1] The original article was published in Conservative Judaism and Jewish Law, ed. Seymour Siegel, (New York, 1977).

[2] R. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God (Santa Fe: Aurora Press, 1998), 99-100. Emphasis in original.

[3] Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Shiurim Al Lekutei Moharan (Alon Shevut: Mekhon Kitvei Harav Shagar, 2012), vol. 1, 77-8. An English translation of this text will appear in Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Essential Essays of Rav Shagar (Jerusalem: Urim Press, forthcoming), trans. Levi Morrow, ed. Alan Brill.

Dr. Smadar Cherlow has an excellent treatment of this source in the second chapter of her book on Postmodern Judaism in contemporary Israel. See Smadar Cherlow, Mi Haziz Et Hayahadut Sheli (Tel Aviv: Resling Books, 2016), 71-88.

[4] Rav Menaḥem Froman, Hasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh (Jerusalem: Tsur Ot, 2016), §179, p. 160.

Covenant and Creativity: Zvi Grumet’s ‘Genesis’

Over four hundred pages long, Genesis: From Creation to Covenant, Rabbi Zvi Grumet’s new book on Sefer Bereshit, is an intimidating book. But as I made my way through those four hundred pages, I found each one to be engaging, accessible, and brimming with meaningful interpretations of the Torah.

The book is aptly named – Grumet consistently emphasizes the personal creativity and values that God expects from his covenantal partners, from Adam to Yosef. In a broader sense, Grumet’s interpretations are incredibly creative, and are clearly guided by a deep sense of covenant and values.

A good example of Grumet’s creativity makes itself known right at the beginning of the book, when he discusses the creation of the world in six days in the first chapter of Bereshit. It’s commonplace for people talking about this chapter to point out that the “days” cannot be days in the way we think of them, because we measure days by the rotation of the earth relative to the sun, something that would have been impossible to do before the fourth “day” of creation. What is less commonplace is people attempting to explain what the Torah actually means by the words  “day” and “night,” if they can’t be meant literally. Grumet takes up this challenge with gusto. Thinking deeply about the text, he argues that a “day” designates a productive period, a time when God is creating, while “night” designates an unproductive period. This has the added advantage of sharpening the contrast between the first six “days,” defined by their productivity, and the seventh day, Shabbat, when God refrains from productive labor even during the “day time.” God completes the world on the seventh day by introducing the idea of unproductive time, time when you could create, but don’t.

Grumet provides thoughtful and innovative treatments of chapters 2-11 of Bereshit, but the majority of the book is dedicated to chapters 12-50, which focus on the lives of the Avot. Right away, Grumet breaks new ground, with a novel argument about why God chose Avraham. Famously, God speaks to Avraham (then Avram) without warning at the beginning of Bereshit 12; the text gives no explanation for why God chose Avraham as opposed to anyone else. The Maharal suggests that this arbitrary divine grace is the whole point of the story, while Bereshit Rabbah says that Avraham discovered God on his own. Grumet jumps to a later passage, arguing that it can and should be read as the answer to why God chose Avraham (Bereshit 18:17-19):

Now the Lord had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.”

Avraham is a person who will educate his children, and their children after them, “to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right.” He knows that the family unit is the best structure for inculcating values and teaching people how to live a covenantal life. This focus on family defines Avraham’s narratives, from his desperate need for a son, to his fighting a war to save his nephew, to his ensuring that his son marries a suitable bride. God chose Avraham, Grumet argues, because of how Avraham values family.

Grumet’s most interesting suggestion, in my opinion, is his understanding of why God criticized Sarah’s laughter, but not Avraham’s. In Bereshit 17, God tells Avraham that Yishmael will not inherit the covenant from Avraham; Sarah, not Hagar, is the covenantal wife, and his heir will be born through her. Caught off guard by the idea of a couple so advanced in age having a child, Avraham laughs at God’s statement, though he does not question it, and God lets this pass without incident. Just a chapter later, Sarah laughs similarly when hearing that she will bear a child, and God interrogates Avraham, asking why Sarah laughed. While traditional commentators have given many explanations for these different reactions, Grumet gives the first answer that I have felt really fits the text. He points out that if they are laughing out of shock and surprise, then it is fine for Avraham to laugh because God is announcing a seemingly impossible piece of information for the first time. When Sarah laughs, however, God is making this announcement for the second time and Sarah should not be surprised. Unless, of course, Avraham didn’t tell Sarah this bit of life-changing news. This is why God interrogates Avraham about Sarah’s laughter, rather than turning to Sarah directly. God is asking Avraham, “Why didn’t you tell her that she is going to bear a son, the heir to the covenant?!” For all his appreciation of family, Avraham doesn’t understand that God has a vested interest not just in his children but also in his spouse—that Sarah has a part in God’s covenant just like Avraham. Getting this message through to Avraham is a process stretching from Bereshit 17 through Bereshit 21, when Avraham sends Hagar and Yishmael away for good.

The idea that Avraham has to learn this idea over the course of several smaller stories is part of a larger approach in From Creation to Covenant. Grumet argues that each of the Avot had some flaw or challenge that they learn to overcome throughout their stories. Avraham grows to appreciate the full scope of the covenantal family, but also learns that sometimes family is not the most important part of the covenant (hence Akedat Yitzchak). Yitzchak learns both to be independent from his father and, paradoxically, that he is not meant to innovate anything significant beyond what his father left him. Yaakov has to learn to confront people honestly, rather than deceiving and evading them. Yehudah needs to learn about family and responsibility while Yosef struggles with arrogance and attributing his successes to God.

The enthusiasm with which Grumet explores the flaws and development of the Avot is a double-edged sword. It makes the Avot much more relatable to the reader—these rich characters struggle with the same things that we do. It also highlights the specific covenantal values that God works to inculcate in each figure, making it clear exactly what the reader should take away with them. However, depicting the Avot as flawed characters may be a step too far for some readers. Grumet is careful to point out where he has support from traditional commentators, but he definitely goes beyond them in some cases. Each reader will have to decide for himself if humanizing the Avot profanes them, or allows us to really see the holiness of God’s covenantal, educational, process.

Taken as a whole, Genesis: From Creation to Covenant is a brilliant and accessible work. Its reader will gain a cohesive understanding of Sefer Bereshit, from “In the beginning” to Yosef’s parting words. Weaving such a comprehensive tapestry clearly required immense dedication and creativity (at times perhaps risking a bit too much of the latter), and Grumet is to be commended for this impressive work.

“Books of the People”: On Modern Orthodoxy’s Reading Habits

Is there a Modern Orthodox philosophical canon, a list of books that comprehensively represents Modern Orthodoxy’s philosophical outlook? This is presumably a question that occupied Dr. Stuart Halpern while organizing, assembling, and editing “Books of the People” (BP), a collection of essays discussing twelve important philosophical books or authors from the Jewish tradition. In the preface he writes: “While the list of books discussed in this work is not exhaustive, nor does it represent a formal canon in any way, it reflects the changing priorities and religious sensibilities of readers and students, whether in the academy or among the general population” (BP, x). If there is such a canon, Halpern says, this book is not it. It is, however, something not altogether different. If a canon determines which books are should or should not read (for whatever purposes), then BP does the opposite; it is a list of books based on what the community is already reading. As such, examining it can perhaps tell us a good deal about this community, namely, Modern Orthodoxy. Given the incredible degree of variation in the forms and styles of the various essays, I want to use this review to look at some recurring themes and what Modern Orthodoxy’s reading habits have to say about the community writ large, rather than focusing on individual essays.

Continue reading ““Books of the People”: On Modern Orthodoxy’s Reading Habits”

Rav Shagar Comes to America: “Faith Shattered and Restored”

Faith Shattered and Restored” is the first major English publication of writings of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known more colloquially as “Rav Shagar.” Rav Shagar (1950-2007) was a Religious Zionist thinker, teacher, and rosh yeshivah who was known for incorporation Hasidut and Postmodernism into his understanding of Judaism. This was part of his effort to shape a religious language for the Jews of our time, one that would resonate with our tradition and our daily lives (for more on that linguistic project, see my post on it and the conclusion to my longer essay on his understanding of “accepting the yoke of Heaven”). Such a language would feel like home to contemporary Jews, or at least the ones Shagar had in mind. Significantly, this suggests that if Rav Shagar’s unique combinations of tradition and philosophy do not speak to you, in translation or otherwise, then you are simply not his intended audience. That said, there is still much to be gained from how Rav Shagar tackles each individual topic (such as pluralism, providence, romance, or doubt), even if his overall project does not speak to you.

Getting to the heart of the matter, the most important thing to understand about this volume is that it was intended for an American Modern Orthodox audience, something that I think helps explain a few issues with the book. First is the selection/inclusion of the first essay in the book, “Uncertainty as the Trial of the Akedah.” Based on my own experience, and backed up by numerous conversations with other readers, the essay is hard to follow, and at the end it’s not entirely clear what Rav Shagar wanted to convey to his audience. This is not a problem with the translation, however, as the reading experience of the original Hebrew is just the same, begging the question why it was selected for inclusion in the translation. While the essay deals with important ideas, the real answer, I think, lies in the fact that in this essay Rav Shagar explicitly puts himself in dialogue the thought of Rav Soloveitchik, exemplar of American Modern Orthodoxy. The essay thus enables readers to begin to locate Rav Shagar in relation to Rav Soloveitchik’s thought, with which they are likely more familiar.

A second issue this helps explain is Rav Shalom Carmy’s afterword. The afterword is striking in that it is clear that Rav Carmy bears no particular love for Rav Shagar, and is perhaps more interested in how Rav Shagar can be used to critique the progressive end of Orthodoxy. While neither of these aspects is necessarily problematic, one might have expected a more sympathetic afterword from the first major publication of Rav Shagar’s writings in English. What explains this afterword (the reader will have to decide for herself if this justifies it) is that Rav Carmy is one of the people best acquainted with both Rav Shagar’s writings and the state of American Modern Orthodoxy. Most of the afterword is dedicated to showing how Rav Shagar’s thought fits in (or doesn’t) with more familiar works and thinkers, an effort that the average reader will no doubt appreciate.

A final issue that needs to be understood in this light is a paragraph from the essay “Religious Life in the Modern Age” which is troubling due to its absence from the original Hebrew version of the essay:

I should add that in discussing Modern Orthodoxy I refer not only to the American scene. For decades, Modern Orthodoxy in the United States and national religious Judaism in Israel constituted two distinct movements. However, with the rise in the standard of living in Israel, and as the country is swept by Western cultural influences, I predict that the differences between the two groups will erode, along with the differences between the challenges they both face. (Faith Shattered and Restored, p.43-44)

When I asked the translator about the appearance of this paragraph in the English essay, he said that it was a footnote the editors decided needed to be in the body of the essay itself, and it’s easy to see why. Rav Shagar did not speak, or even read, English, and he did not ever travel to America. Absent a specific statement to the contrary, it would be perfectly sensible to assume that his sociological statements were specific to Israeli Jewry, and that no extrapolations to American Jewry could or should be made. Since this book is intended for an American audience, it was worth the slight change to emphasize that Rav Shagar’s statements apply to both communities, and Rav Shagar’s citations of Rav Soloveitchik in this context would seem to bear this out. Notably, I have not yet been able to locate this footnote in the original Hebrew text (published as “Halakhah, Halikhah, ve-Emunah” in the collection of Hanukkah Sermons, “Le-Ha’ir Et ha-Petahim”), and if anyone locates it I would greatly appreciate the reference.

The fact that the book is aimed at an American Modern Orthodox audience does not just solve issues, it also raised a few of its own. By way of example, there were two translations that struck me as being very problematic (against the background of an otherwise excellent and readable translation throughout). The first essay translates the word “רציונליות,” in context of the practice of putting non-verbal experience into words, as “rationalism” when it should be “rationality.” What makes this worth pointing out is that “rationalism” has specific connotations in the American Modern Orthodox community where “rationalism” immediately recalls “rationalist judaism” and specific positions on issues of Torah and science. Whether “רציונליות” should be translated as “rationalism” or “rationality” might be debatable in the abstract, but for this audience it becomes obvious and important to translate it as “rationality.”

A second translation issue is the translation of the word freier (פראייר) as “gull.” The word freier, roughly referring to a person who lets themselves get taken advantage of, is so central in Israeli culture that it has its own Hebrew wikipedia page. The word “gull” (the noun form of “gullible”), on the other hand, peaked in popularity in 1922 and has been in steady decline since 1963, to the point where I had to look it up when I read it. While the best translation of the word could be debated (I like “loser”), translating a culturally important term with one that is culturally non-existent is incredibly problematic (it’s worth noting that this seems to have been a change made by a later editor rather than the original translator).

 

This handful of critiques should not overshadow how grateful I am that Maggid decided to publish this translation. I’ve spent the last few years deeply immersed in the writings of Rav Shagar, and I think they have a lot to offer the English speaking world of American Jewry. The selection of essays in Faith Shattered and Restored is broad, and touches on many of Rav Shagar’s most unique ideas, including his head-on tackling of relativism and his embrace of science-fiction literature as a new mythology that provides a mystical, almost messianic, reading experience. It includes his unique understanding of bitahon as a sense of security that in reality secures nothing (for more on this, see my translation of one of his Purim derashot), and a fascinating proposal regarding the role of the Jews in the global order of nations. It does not include his extensive discussions and critiques of Zionism and the modern state of Israel, but that is understandable for a book aimed at an American audience. Taken as a whole, the book is not perfect, but it is a good start, and I hope to see more translated volumes of Rav Shagar’s writings in the future.