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of these excerpts comes from a formal, systematic discussion of the reasons for the commandments, something as of yet unpublished among Rav Shagar’s writings.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.

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Yom Iyun for Rav Shagar’s 9th Yartzheit – Encounters

The topic of the Yom Iyun is Rav Shagar’s encounters with various figures, with each lecture focusing on one. What follows is my notes on each presentation. They’ve been edited slightly for clarity, but they do remain notes. Any specific issues requiring clarification can be directed to me and I will be happy to oblige. I also took pictures of the source sheets and inserted sources in the relevant points in each presentation, to the best of my ability.

 

Dr. Eitan Abramovitch – The Rambam

Rav Shagar and the Rambam are very different so it’s not intuitive that their would be a connection between them.

Shagar: Postmodern Religious Zionist is an Unorthodox Orthodox person. (לוש״ל, הצד״פ)

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So too the Rambam was trying to connect between two different and opposing worlds.

However, Rav Shagar was changing things under the surface, in the realm of consciousness, without changing anything practically. It makes it a little difficult to interpret sometimes. Rambam was much clearer about what he was doing, much more explicitly changing how we relate to religious language, etc.

Rambam mostly showed up in R. Shagar’s teaching of gemara, rather than in his philosophy

 

Shagar: Rambam emphasized immanence of divine wisdom in history and nature. (הליכות עולם, נצחיות הסטוריה ואקטואליות).

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Rav Shagar shared this sense of willingness to encounter the world as it is, without losing the sense of the Divine in the world, without losing the Tradition and adherence to halakhah.

 

MN I:71: We have to take the world as is, as opposed to the Kalam who added things from their imaginations.

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Taking things as given is not something people do automatically. People always add things.

Meat/Milk is taken as an adaptation of a pagan rite in the MN.

Religious thought typically searches out the eternal, the absolute and inhuman.

Rav Shagar said that both the Rambam and the Kabbalists gave reasons to mitsvot, but the Kabbalists made ordinary things into manifestations or representations of the Divine.

Rav Shagar makes it so man always is on the outside, always beyond. There’s something you can’t understand, and therefore cannot identify with.

This unbreachable gap between man and God is also found in the Rambam.

“These law were made to fight avodah zarah.” – this has its own kind of powerfulness. It’s a very understandable idea.

Just like you have to accept the torah in its historical context, so too yourself.

 

Shagar: We can’t ignore the historical background behind halakhot. If we made the laws today, they wouldn’t be the same laws. The meaning of the laws is an immanent meaning. (שם)

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Rav Shagar didn’t see Rambam as just a rationalist. In Rambam’s thought understanding things leads to identifying with them. Rav Shagar saw Rambam not as simply intellectual, but also as existential. He saw Rambam as seeking out unification, mystical eros through intimate knowledge.

 

Shagar: Rambam is from the intellectual age, when Freedom was grasped as an intellectual property, a conception and age we are now past. (לוש״ל, חופש וקודש)

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Rav Shagar clearly differed from Rambam too, and was not afraid to say so.

 

Rav Elchanan Nir – Teachings of the East

(all quotations of Rav Shagar from לוש״ל pp.106-135)

“The east” is a really unclear phrase, because it includes all kinds of things. It’s not homogeneous.

Rav Shagar was really wary of dealing with this topic, because it requires serious consideration, and should be allowed to speak for itself. It shouldn’t just be used as something for rabbis to talk about when they want to make a point.

Shagar א:

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Eastern thought, “The East,” is very popular today. Rav Kook dealt with it by dividing between message and medium, something we don’t necessarily think you can do today. Not only does Postmodernism not divide between them, Eastern doesn’t do it, which means it’s a totally out of place dichotomy to attempt to force onto The East.

Shagar ב:

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Context affects ideas, so it’s impossible to really translate ideas from one context to another. In Western thought there is an emphasis on the difference between the subject and the objective world. Our whole world, even our political consciousness is built on this conception. Eastern ideas take on a new light in this context.

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Westerners rarely immerse themselves in and truly take up Eastern thought. More often any engagement is superficial and involves the Westerner taking the surface aspects of Eastern thought that appeal to them.

As opposed to the Western divide between Subject and Object, the East sees us as part of the world.

East is us before sin, West is us after. On a basic physical level we’ve gotten rid of the curses of Adam/Hava. But it hasn’t brought us to spiritual connection.

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The new age says there’s meaning in everything, as opposed to Postmodern Relativism which says there’s no meaning in anything.

The turn to the East is part of a messianic urge for Tikkun, a desire for utopia.

Shagar ג:

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Judaism is our home, so it’s ours, without having to be best.

This is the Berit, the covenant, which means we don’t have to prove anything about it.

Halakhah is not theology. Halakha creates our bayit, our home and identity (R’ Shagar on Likutei Moharan 8). You can find holiness in the East, but it’s not ours.

Judaism is material. It happens in the world, which means it isn’t always pretty. But it also means that Judaism is accessible to anyone, for anyone can live according to halakhah.

Judaism is the basis of our identity, and you can introduce the East into that, but it’s there as a guest. There’s a preexisting house that it is being welcomed into, and it can’t be permitted to change the nature of the house.

Shagar ד:

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Bringing the East in can be a phenomenal contribution to our religion. It’s just a question of how.

Rav shagar starts and finishes the essay from an educational perspective.

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First thing we have to do is educate our children from a Haredi perspective, initially. That’s how we create berit, identity, etc. Only later should we introduce critical thinking and foreign conceptions.

When Rav shagar was at ITRI and was thinking of moving to Merkaz HaRav, R. Shlomo Fischer, his teacher, told him not to because it’s a hassidic yeshiva. When R. Shagar protested the definition, R. Fischer said that any yeshiva with something besides gemara on the desks is a chassidishe yeshiva. So too, as soon as you add critical thinking, it’s not a haredi education.

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The ability to introduce into the Berit external ideas, without destroying the Berit, is the messianic Torah that R. Kook spoke of. Unfortunately, Rav Shagar didn’t clarify how to do this on a practical level.

 

Rav Uri Lipschitz  – The Sefat Emet

Rav Shagar had a lot of Hasidut in his thought, and in his teaching. It’s one of the things he contributed to the world writ large and the the RZ community in particular

Sefat Emet is not the normal kind of chasidut you find in Rav Shagar’s thought and teaching, however. Consequently, he didn’t write enough on the SE in order for a book to be put out on it, as opposed to Rebbe Nahman or Tanya/Habad.

 

Abbreviated Piece of SE from תרל״א:

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Yaakov lived in Egypt without really being present there.

The purpose of life in the world is to draw out the holy aspects, inner life, truth, etc.,  instead of clinging to worldliness.

This is what Rashi meant when he said Yaakov wanted to reveal the End, he wanted to reveal the the exile is just obscurity, if this was revealed it wouldn’t be an exile anymore.

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Zohar says Yaakov revealed in an obscure manner. He revealed that there is an end.

He died, and this revelation ended.

Without Emet, the midah of Yaakov, all we have is Emunah.

The SE is saying you can live in three different experiences: 1. Living thinking this world is the most important thing. This is to fail entirely 2. Shattering the Gap between God and man, subject/object, etc. by way of Emet. By Bittul. By being conscious of the Acosmic truth. This was Yaakov’s approach which ended and therefore failed. 3. Emunah, finding revelation from within obscurity.

 

Shagar, Existentialism and Hasidut:

Weiss: there is a mystical trend in Hasidut, that seeks out unio mystica. (Habad, and others) There is also a trend of Faith, which doesn’t try to overcome the gap between man/God, Subject/Object, etc. and simply accepts and believes that their is something beyond. The mystical approach is something basically only actionable for unique individuals. When teachings get directed to larger groups they fall, either intentionally or by default, into the second category.

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Sefat Emet is not mystical. He’s part of the ‘Faith’ trend.

Unclear if this has survived in Hasidut Ger today.

This approach undoubtedly has Kelipot, negative aspects.

Rav Shagar preferred to be alone in many ways. Felt his students bothered him, didn’t like davening with them because he felt they were staring at him, which they were.

 

 

Rav Noam Samet – Maharil Bloch

Not such a known figure in general. He was Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, and learned in Volozhin.

Rav Shagar strongly identified with him. Rosh yeshiva, lamdan, thinker, ethical figure, and mystic. Very methodologically aware and self-aware.

Maharil, quoted by his son:

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Everything in this world is from upper worlds.

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Therefore we can use this world, in all it’s materialistic manifestations, to understand the Torah.

Continuity of the worlds is a classic litvish approach, perhaps most clearly expressed in Nefesh HaHayyim.

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Therefore the understanding of the torah must fit to the nature of the world and the mind of man. It’s not even that you should force them, or that you should create a connection. The connection is logically unavoidable and therefore must be inherent.

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A person must find the understandings of Torah within himself.

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There’s no difference between Nigleh and Nistar, it’s all one. Therefore you can basically just learn Nigleh. This approach is clearly manifest in yeshivot today, where nistar is basically entirely neglected.

 

R. Shagar, BeTorato Yehegeh:

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Rav Shagar saw the telz method as more important for the RZ community than the Brisker one. The Brisker method is disconnected from the world, it’s mystical, etc. The RZ community is very disconnected from Mysticism, and attempts to be engaged in the world.

This is what makes the learning existential, applicable to reality. Rav Shagar took this from Maharil Bloch.

But Rav Shagar doesn’t use the same background for why you should study existentially. He doesn’t mention the mystical reasons. Rav Shagar himself was mystically oriented, but he didn’t speak that way.

Rav Shagar: “The realistic aspect of the Torah is found in its secularization, not in its mystification.”

Rav Shagar had a deep and intuitive identification with Maharil Bloch, but they spoke in very different languages.

The unification of Kodesh and Hol in the thought of Rav Kook moved Rav Shagar more than the mystical language of Maharil Bloch.

Rav Avishai Schreiber – Leah Goldberg

When learning Pesachim, Rav Shagar skipped right to sugyot about Leil HaSeder. Classes would have 5-6 pages of mekorot.

A person has to take charity, if they need it, to buy four cups of wine that are about freedom. We are forced to participate in a ritual commemorating liberty. When asked about this, Rav Shagar responded by quoting a song by Leah Goldberg about a kabtsan.

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The message he was trying to convey, you didn’t need to convey with a song by Leah Goldberg. There are mishnayot and gemarot that would have done just as well. He chose not to answer as a Lamdan and thus to break the lamdanic language of the shiur and introduce a different language and rhythm.

Rav Shagar was very central at Yeshivat Siach during the Yomim Noraim. He would give lots of speeches, including on the first night of selihot. In one such speech he quoted a song by Leah Goldberg, currently quoted and published in a derashah in Al Kapot HaManoul (Shuvi Nafshi?).

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Leah Goldberg and the piece of Rebbe Natan quoted both emphasize the parallel between the end of the year and the end of life. Quoting Leah Goldberg puts it in our language, making it much more powerful than when it’s said by a Baal Mussar, or a Hasid.

Rav Shagar quoted Goldberg, and plenty of other secular writers, to express התעוררות מלמטה, to speak in our language. Rav Shagar dealt in a lot of places with the issue of Mekor and Targum, Original and Translation.

Shagar On Likutei Moharan 18:

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Rav Shagar didn’t like using English idiom and the like, even when that was the original. He liked the hebrew versions (Example: he preferred קיומי to אקזיסטנציאליסטי). He never used external sources when he could find it in the Jewish source. It’s all about Translation.

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If we heard a hasid in Meah Shearim teaching Rebbe Nachman, it would have nothing to do with out lives. It might feel more authentic, but it would essentially be a tragedy and a failure.

Translation from one language to another, when done right, leaves you with something that transcends all language. The way Rambam switches between languages (historical, philosophical, talmudic, etc.) is more important than what he is saying. Rebbe Nahman spoke the language of Stories in order to convey ideas from his torah above the level of languages.

 

Rav David Bigman – Rav Shagar and the Empty Space

The point of this class is to look at how Rav Shagar presents Rebbe Nahman, see what is there, see what isn’t, etc.

LM I:64 is one of the strongest discussions of Kefira in Rebbe Nahman

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Where/when there’s letters there is Divinity.

The first type of Apikorsut is linguistic, intellectual.

The second type is questions that are beyond language, and seem compelling because there is no argument against them, but that’s really just because they’re beyond language. These are questions that invoke paradox and the like. They shatter binary thinking.

Rav Shagar focused on the binary of Subject/Object, but it’s not the only binary that Rebbe Nahman talks about. RN also talks about the binary of language that is broken by these questions.

Because Rebbe Nahman is speaking about religion and religious language, it’s unclear if he would also say this about other languages, but there are thinkers who would say it.

The normal understanding of the חלל הפנוי is “Empty Space: => No Divinity there => Religious Language does not apply.” Rebbe Nahman twists that; Language doesn’t apply at all.

Rebbe Nahman would often say to his hasidim, “Don’t ask that question, because only a tsadik could understand! And here’s what the tsadik would say…” This introduces a mindset of “we can’t think about this” while simultaneously thinking about it.

Rebbe Nahman goes from the problems of binary language to the leap of faith, and Rav Shagar discusses this extensively, bringing Existentialism into the discussion.

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The tsadik davka deals with these questions of the second type of heresy, approaching them from a place that’s neither Sekhel nor Otiot, neither thought nor language.

What does this mean? Multiple possibilities:

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  1. Making Peace with the Questions
    ‘Emunah Peshuta’ in Breslav is after you know about the ideas of Kefira, out of consciousness that you have chosen this path.
  2. Dealing with the edges of cognition from time to time brings a person to a sense of his limits and of religious humility, of a sense that their is something transcendent that you cannot grasp.
  3. The knowledge of our limitedness is something we share with God, and that knowledge is enough.
    Example: Dogs don’t understand language, but they do understand intonation. Therefore the dog does not really speak “human.” If a dog was aware of this, they would share with Humanity the knowledge and awareness that “dogs do not speak human.”
  4. Contemplation of the paradox leads to an experience of Unio Mystica.
    Trying to solve a non-binary problem via binary language cause the language to collapse on itself.
    The part of our brains responsible for binary thought are also responsible for spatial thought. This is Rav Shagar’s Subject/Object.

Rav Shagar does not really speak about Sod HaShetikah, primarily about the Leap, but he is mostly like #1, a little bit like #2. #3 & #4 don’t show up by Rav Shagar at all.

What Rebbe Nahman is really talking about is meditation that brings to this place, beyond the binary (#4). This is clear because he discusses how the tsadik can bring forth a song from here.

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Torah 52 is clearer about discussing mysticism, though it discusses a different type of mysticism.

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LM 52 is clearly talking about Unio Mystica, as opposed to LM 64 which is less clear, and Rav Shagar also ignores the unio mystica here too.

It’s possible that Rav Shagar was very bothered by the relationship between universal language and particularly Jewish language. In both torahs Rebbe Nahman emphasizes the mitsvot while also having some הסתייגות from them.

Abramovitch (first speaker): Rav Shagar once went to a seminar on the mind/body connection and didn’t like it, feeling that neuroscience requires reduces a person to an object and thus ignores the real person.

Midrash Purim 5776 – My Soul Acts Madly For The Lord

מדרש פורים תשע״ו – בא׳ תתהולל נפשי

 

לְדָוִד בְּשַׁנּוֹתוֹ אֶת טַעְמוֹ לִפְנֵי אֲבִימֶלֶךְ וַיְגָרְשֵׁהוּ וַיֵּלַךְ. אין מידת הקב״ה כמידת מלך בשר ודם. מלך בו״ד מגרש את המשנה טעמו ומתהולל ולא מביא אותו לביתו, כמו שכתוב, ״וַיְשַׁנּוֹ אֶת-טַעְמוֹ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּתְהֹלֵל״ (שמואל א כא:יד), וכתוב, ״לָמָּה תָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֵלָי? הֲזֶה יָבוֹא אֶל-בֵּיתִי?״ (שם טו-טז). לא כן הקב״ה, כמו שכתוב, ״טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ כִּי-טוֹב יְ׳הוָה״ (תהילים לד:ט), וכתוב, ״תָּמִיד תְּהִלָּתוֹ בְּפִי בַּי׳הוָה תִּתְהַלֵּל נַפְשִׁי״ (שם ב-ג), אל תקרי תתהלל אלא תתהולל, כי גם בהוללות מתהללים את א׳. ובטעם יין ושכר חוסים בו, כמו שכתוב, ״אשרי הגבר יחסו בו״ (שם ט). וכתוב, ״פֹּדֶה יְ׳הוָה נֶפֶשׁ עֲבָדָיו וְלֹא יֶאְשְׁמוּ כָּל-הַחֹסִים בּוֹ״ (שם כג), כי אין עון ואין אשמה לחוסים בו ולמאמינים בו באמת, ועיין בירמיהו לא. וכתוב, ״שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְ׳הוָה כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְ׳הוָה וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ״ (שם כז:ד). זה המתהולל, כמו שכתוב, ״טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ כִּי-טוֹב יְ׳הוָה,״ וכתוב, ״לוּלֵא הֶאֱמַנְתִּי לִרְאוֹת בְּטוּב-יְ׳הוָה״ (שם יג). רק מי שתהילתו היא הוללות והוללותו היא תהילה, רק הוא מאמין באמת ורק הוא יכול לבוא בבית א׳.

Of David, when he acted madly before Avimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away. א׳’s personality is not like of a human king. A human king expels a mindless person and does now welcome them into his home, as it is written, “ So he changed his behavior before them; he acted madly” (Shmuel Alef 21:14), and it is written, “why then have you brought him to me? Shall this fellow come into my house?” (ibid. 15-16). Not so is א׳, as it is written, “Taste and see that God is good” (Tehillim 34:9), and it is written, “His praise shall continually be in my mouth.  My soul praises for the Lord” (ibid. 2-3), but do not read “praises” (תתהלל), rather “acts madly” (תתהולל), for also through madness we praise א׳. And in the taste of wine and alcohol we take refuge in Him, as it is written, “Fortunate is the man who takes refuge in Him” (ibid. 9). And it is written, “The Lord redeems the soul of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (ibid 23), for there is no sin and no guilt for those who trust in Him and truly believe in Him, and see Yirmiyahu 31. And it is written, “I dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his hall” (ibid. 27:3). This is the one who acts madly, as it is written, “Taste and see that God is good,” and it is written, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord” (ibid. 13). Only he for whom praise is madness and madness is praise, only he truly believes, and only he can be welcomed into the House of א׳.

Rav Shagar’s Purim Derashot – English Summaries [and Notes]

 

Pur Hu HaGoral

[This is the small book of Rav Shagar’s derashot on Purim. It’s one of the earlier works that was published, and thus is unfortunately not nearly as well put together as some of the more recent works,]

 

Introduction

[There’s not a lot to the introduction but it’s worth noting because Rav Shagar himself wrote it, as opposed to many of his books that were published posthumously.]

In these drashot Amalek is seen as representative of the duality of human perception, and to some degree of human perception write large. Thus there are derashot that talk about the removal of all human categories.

Part of the goal of the book is to create a new religious language. In this Rav Shagar turned to kabbalistic texts because they provide a lot of room and material for interpretation. These texts around Purim deal with a lot of questions of human existence like providence, the contingency of existence, etc. Hence the midrashim that invoke Kohelet in context of Purim.

In the rest of the book, Amalek is seen as representing a Nietzschean Will to Power, there is a discussion of Hasidic join, and a lot of Rebbe Nahman.

The epilogue and the derashah on the canonization of the Megillah contradict the usage of “Aught” and “Naught” [translations of “יש” and “אין” following M. Fishbane’s “Sacred Attunement] in the rest of the derashot, where Amalek is connected with “Aught,” while in those two places Amalek is the disconnect between “Aught” and “Naught” and there is an “Absolute Aught” [“יש המוחלט”] beyond the “Naught.” These are essentially starting a new discussion.

[Practically, the contradiction is mainly whether the goal is to get to the “Naught” or the “Absolute Aught.”]

 

Between Remembrance and Remembrance – Shabbat and Amalek

1.

Kohelet is bothered by the arbitrary nature of Chance, which the midrash sees as being due to the equivalence of Shabbat and Amalek: Bnei Yisrael are commanded to remember both. The midrash explains that one is a remembrance of emptiness and one of fullness, of meaning. This doesn’t solve Kohelet’s ultimate problem, however, which is that everything is eventually forgotten in eternity. Kohelet would just ignore this but for the reflectivity of Amalek, derived from the primordial sin. He cannot forget his finitude. Through drinking on Purim we get out of this reflective state, similar to the one found in the state of remembering to forget Amalek.

2.

Kohelet was bothered by who would sit on his throne after him, by the possibility of a fool on the throne of God, which represents Divine providence. This is Amalek which keeps us from seeing the Divinity of providence, the reflective duality that divides between the Creator and the creation.

3.

Shabbat is also connected to the throne of God in the liturgy. Shabbat is the symbol of God as Creation and Ruler of the world, reminding us that God controls everything. הכל בידי שמים. Shabbat reminds us not to get stuck in a causal mindset. When Bnei Yisrael didn’t keep shabbat by the manna, Amalek came and attacked them, due to how Bnei Yisrael didn’t see that everything is in the hands of Heaven.

Amalek is overcome by drunkenness, by getting beyond the divide between the “Rest” (מנוחה) of Shabbat and the “Work” (מלאכה) of the week. Thus there is no prohibition of work on Purim. On Shabbat, wine is drunk according to the measurement of Kiddush; On Purim there is no measure.

4.

The midrash sees no difference between the remembrance of Amalek and Shabbat other than fullness, meaningfulness, as opposed to emptiness. These flow from a lack of knowledge, from that which cannot be known. But this itself can bring a person to self-acceptance (קבלת העצמי). [Self-acceptance is an important theme in Rav Shagar’s writings, one which will come up in a later derashah in these summaries.]

The difference is essentially about memory. Memory is the Divine eternity; things pass out of this world but exist there forever. There, Amalek exists as a conspicuous absence, while Shabbat is a Divine fullness.

This difference exists beyond the world, beyond thought and reason, accessible by the drinking of Purim.

 

The Knowing That Doesn’t Know

Chance, Fate, Providence, and Divine Chance are four ways of reading the Megillah, with different parts lending themselves to the different hermeneutics. This is the essential war of Amalek and Bnei Yisrael, over the question of God’s control of the world. Chance is about possibility. It could be any which way. Fate is about necessity. It could not be any other way. Fate receives its sense of arbitrariness by virtue of having no reason. Thus is the Divine Will. Providence is well reasoned, coming not from the Divine Will but from the Divine Wisdom. Divine Chance comes from the Divine Infinitude, beyond all possible reason, where the possible becomes essential. Fate is God’s Will, Providence from God’s Wisdom; Beyond and combining both is the knowing that doesn’t know. This is Divine Chance as a form of providence, the ultimate defeat of Amalek, who strive to create Chance the possible. In the Divine Infinite, the monistic reality, the possible becomes the essential, Will and Wisdom are united, there is no separation between chance and providence.

There is thus no meaning to the question of why something is the way it is. Everything exists as it is, without any external, transcendent, justification or cause, simply out of the Divine Freedom. A person can reach this level in drunkenness, beyond the human realm of reason and justification. Accepting the chance of the Divine Source, the unknown which is not an absence.

[To some degree, when working with a Kabbalistic concept of the Divine Infinite, any and all ideas like “wisdom”, “providence,” “good,” are limiting factors, attempts to work within a very specific, very human, framework. The Divine Infinite includes this framework, perhaps, but it is so much more than this framework, and thus it must, by definition, manifest as “chance,” as that which cannot be fit into the normal framework.]

 

Amalek as the Will to Power

Haman attempted a Nietzschean reach into the infinitude that precedes the Good/Evil binary by way of the casting lots. Thus there is a parallel “Haman of Holiness” (המן דקדושה), reaching beyond current structures and values of Judaism into the infinitude for the sake of innovation/renewal (חידוש). [All this so far is based on various writings of the Baal HaTanya.]

Eradicating Amalek is the ultimate realization of the subject-self of Israel [Rav Hutner]. This is very similar to the making ultimate of the self that Haman was negatively attempting. The difference is the subject’s position in regards to God. For Haman, the self essentially replaces God as Ultimate; With the eradication of Amalek, Israel remains humble before God, though the Haman of Holiness goes further than that.

[I’m not convinced the combination of Rav Hutner and the Baal HaTanya works as Rav Shagar clearly thought it did.]

 

The Mystery of Disguise

1.

Yaakov had to deceive Yitzchak because the only way to succeed in this world, the World of Falsehood (עלמא דשקרא), is through deception [Rav Tsadok]. Thus Yaakov disguised himself as Esav. However, Esav disguised himself as the Yaakov, the man of the bet midrash, by asking his father about halakhic minutia [Midrash Tanhuma]. Esav’s disguise is not a conscious one, however. He is not intentionally deceiving his father so much as being inauthentic to himself. When Yaakov disguises himself as Esav, he is knowingly embracing inauthentic religiosity, as participating in a shared religious discourse, in a shared set of rituals, in the only way to function and be understood in this world.

[This represents a turn from many of Rav Shagar’s other writings which have a strong emphasis on personal truth and authenticity. It suggests that this derashah may be from his later, more postmodern, thought. He seems to have become more caught up in and embraced the way we can never really succeed in becoming unreflective, always living in alienation from ourselves. But as these derashot are not dated, it’s hard to know definitively.]

2.

Drinking on Purim conveys the Divine abundance to the negative aspects of reality (סטרא אחרא), in an intentionally minor and unconscious way [Arizal]. It does this by connecting us to the a-logical Divine infinitude where Good/Bad is meaningless.

3.

Whereas Yom Kippur (יום הכיפורים) is an attempt to escape this world into the Infinite, Purim (פורים) is an attempt to live with the Infinite in this world. That’s why Purim is the holier day and Yom Kippur is only “like Purim” (כפורים).

4.

Bnei Yisrael are inherently finite, as are all things including the Torah, but the God will sustain Bnei Yisrael infinitely. That is why the lot fell on Adar,  which as the last month of the year signifies transience and finitude, which is why Haman thought he could destroy the Jews. Hence the only Purim and Yom Kippur, which point to finitude, will remain in the messianic era [Based on the Maharal]. All senses of Good/Evil, all rites and ritual structures are just constructs of a certain historical period. On Purim we live outside of history via carnivalesque drinking and behavior.

[The shared concept in all of these sections is that the world of our experience and cognition is a very limited construct, especially when held up against the Divine Infinite. Within that framework, everything necessarily functions according to rules and languages, systems of signifiers that do not apply beyond the realm of our experience and cognition. Living with an awareness of this is the experience of Yaakov Avinu as described in the first piece. The next two focus on Purim as time of somehow experiencing this unlimitedness within the bounds of our world. The last piece applies this idea to the realm of history, and says that the world of our experience, guided by the laws and languages of the Torah, only exists within certain historical bounds, beyond which it simply does not apply.]

 

They Accepted it Anew in the Days of Aḥashverosh

The Torah was forced on the Jews at Har Sinai, creating an internal, oedipal, process where a person is bound to the Torah even as, or even by virtue of the fact that, they rebel against it [Based on the Maharal]. The Torah could not have been given otherwise, due to the alienation and reflective duality that have characterized humanity since the primordial sin, where rebellious transgression shattered the unselfconscious unity humanity lived in. This state will only be overcome in the Messianic Era, not by a return to the unselfconscious state but to a state that maintains both the reflective duality and the unselfconscious unity [based on Rav Simha Bunim of Peshischa]. The Torah will be revealed as the very nature and will of humanity. We can experience this state here and now through the drunkenness of Purim.

 

The Composition of the Megillah and the Redemption of Purim

The megillah is something between Written and Oral Torah. Its inclusion in the written canon was dreaminess and justified via a derashah, the classic mechanism of the Oral Torah. Meanwhile, the megillah text becomes a source for derashot and has halakhic rules regarding שירטוט and תפירה, similar to a Torah scroll. It, of all post-Mosaic prophecy, will outlast this historical period into the Messianic Era. [Each of these points is based on a different midrash or halakhic source.]

“Esther is the end of all miracles.” Specifically, those miracles that have the absoluteness and objectivity that requires being written down. Writing is confined to the realm of the signifier, the absolute and concrete. Speech gives the audience access to the speaker, the subjective signified.

Olam HaZeh, the period when Amalek reigns, is characterized by a dissonance between the concrete world and the hidden Divine. Thus the defeat of Amalek in Megillat Esther is the revelation that what seems like Chance is actually Divine decree, or, on a higher level, Divine Chance. This is the absolute redemption. This is the manifestation of the Absolute Aught, beyond the Naught that bounds the Aught.

This is achieve when faith, normally subjective, becomes objectified in the faith of the other. When you believe in the freedom of the other, qua subject, you can have a conversation. This conversation allows for the presence of the Absolute Aught, the true subject, from beyond the Naught of the transcendence of the subject. This becomes objectified by the other as alienated, concrete, signification.

[I would connect this to Michael Wyschogrod’s critique of Martin Buber in The Body of Faith. Buber sees God as the Eternal Thou, always a subject and never an object. Wyschogrod argues that being real and present requires have a personality, a describable aspect. It requires being at times not a subject, but an object.

On a practical level, this would seemingly look like accepting the fact that you are, in whatever way, an object, not just a subject. “Accepting the self” in this sense is actually a broad and important theme throughout Rav Shagar’s writings.

However, all of this makes sense as an explanation of the idea as it shows up here. In a separata derashah, “Epilogue – Faith: Aught or Naught?”, the idea is more clearly laid out as being about intersubjectivity. See the note there for more.]

So too the Megillah becomes an object via the attention of the Sages, turning from speech to text due to the gaze of the other.

[In an intersubjective sense, the Sages took it to be objectively true that the Megillah was a part of the canon and should be written down, and thus it was so for them.]

Openness to the other is beyond thought and reason, and is achieved in the drunkenness of Purim.

 

Sparks of Fire – The Joy of Purim

The essence of Purim is reversal. “ונהפוך הוא.” “סופן נפוץ בתחילתן.” The joy of Purim is not the absence of sadness but occurs in the presence of it specifically. Whereas the joy of the Holidays is based on transcendent meaning and life-fulfillment, the joy of Purim is based on the Divine Infinite, which is beyond the created order, and this is often manifest in pessimism and in hard time. In fact, the highest infinite Divine is beyond such categories, and specifically is revealed in that which ignores and violates normal religious expectations. Hence the Megillah represents the highest level of the Divine, even though it ends with the Jews as subject of Aḥashverosh and it does not contain Divine names because Divine names are part of the normal symbolic order of Divine manifestation and Jewish victory is the normal Divine manifestation in History. The ecstasy of Purim flows from the recognition of the conditional nature of all our normal conceptions, nullifies before the Divine. This ecstasy is beyond both order and chaos, both “הדר קבלוה” and “עד דלא ידע.”

 

Breslav-Style Derashot

[These next three derashot are in various ways based on Rav Shagar’s deep relationship with the texts of Rebbe Nahman of Breslav. The first is an explication of “The Story of the Palace,” Rebbe Nahman’s version of a parable that, as Rav Shagar points out, is found in Arabian Nights. The second is a “purim-torah” that is written in the style of Lekutei Moharan, and is clearly humorous while simultaneous teaching ideas similar to those found throughout the other derashot. The third is a story in the style of Rabbe Nahman’s stories, but composed by Rav Shagar himself.]

 

The Story of the Palace – The Joke as Nullification of the Aught

[This is just Rav Shagar’s explanation of the story, not the story itself.]

“Eros and Thanatos walk hand in hand.”In “The Story of The Palace” (סיפור הפלטין) the hero mimics what he is supposed to do, in place of actually doing it, and yet is rewarded as if he had done it properly. This is in contrast to the original ending of the story where the hero was rewarded with imitation money, a fitting recompense. Rebbe Nahman saw himself as a failed tsadik, a clown and a fake. The task recognizes the falsity in his existence, and in being conscious of this expresses the Divine. Never is this more true than in the fictitious tsadik. Recognizing the fake, false, nature of institutional religion is the nullification of the Aught (ביטול היש) that is inherent in humor and jokes. This עבודה is not simple or easy, however, which is why the joker gets paid as much as the hard worker, as his work is at least as hard. [Rav Shagar makes a similar point about the difficulty of truly accepting the fictitious nature of your self/reality in an essay on Rav Tsadok’s approach to Teshuva in his book “שובי נפשי.”]

 

“Give Liquor to the Perishing, and Wine to the Bitter-hearted.” – Purim “Torah”

[This jumble of sources and verses who’s off not just Rav Shagar’s breadth of knowledge and familiarity with Rav Nahman’s style, but also his creativity in the linguistic play of connecting the various sources and ideas.

What follows is my own understanding of what is going on behind the various connections and ideas, many of which are far from explicit.]

The absence of God in suffering (ייסורים), Naught, is found in pulling away from Torah (ביטול תורה), which paradoxically is keeping it (ביטולה היא קיומה). This is the incredibly high level where you merit freedom (חירות/חופש). This level of Naught is when the Torah is hidden (מוסתר), creating the situation for the revelation of the mysteries of Torah (סתרי תורה). When Yaakov dressed as Esav, this was the hiddenness of the mysteries of Torah. This disguising (התחפשות) lays Esav bare (נחשף) while freeing (חופש)Yaakov. This was the sin of Bnei Yisrael at the Golden Calf, with which they covered (מסכה) themselves, “hiding” from God. The correction (תיקון) for this was the Keruvim whose wings cover, hide, the Torah, just as Amalek is a wing covering God’s presence. All this is the עבודה of the אובד ה׳, who serves God without intellect, via ביטול תורה.

 

A Story of Aught and Naught that were Reversed

[This is another piece that shows off Rav Shagar’s averseness in the style of Rebbe Nahman and the sources of the Jewish tradition. Here it is in the style of Rebbe Nahman’s stories, and thus my interpretation, which follows, is somewhat tentative.]

A unified consciousness exists until it is suggested that things could be different. This creates alienation and estrangement. A person attempts to overcome this by empty praxis, by wholeheartedly devoting themselves to a totally external, heteronomous, identity, hoping that it turns out to be who they are. As a rule, this does not work. But sometimes, in a moment of unselfconsciousness, the praxis becomes a revelation of the inner self. “אור דאבא שמאיר לנוקבא.”

 

Epilogue – Faith: Aught or Naught?

The Hasidic reading of “היש ה׳ בקרבנו אם אין?” is that the Israelites were asking if there faith was on the level of Aught or Naught. Naught means totally subjective faith, which maintains the subject/object divide that is represented by Amalek. It is conscious of the conditioned nature of existence, bounded by Naught. In the Naught, everything is possible, including faith.

Above the Naught is the Absolute Aught. This is formed by dialogue,by “intersubjectivity.” Faith in the Faith of the Other provides both subjects with objective status. Only thus is Amalek overcome.

[Rav Shagar here essentially goes over the concluding idea of the essay “The Composition of the Megillah and the Redemption of Purim,” but he adds a twist that was unmentioned in that essay (unfortunately, this collection of derashot does not include the original dates of the individual derashot, so it’s impossible to tell if the change is due to an actual change in Rav Shagar’s thought or if the two derashot should be understood in light of each other). Here, Rav Shagar chalks the newly-acquired objective status to “intersubjectivity.” This is a term from Phenomenology that essentially refers to when two or more individuals take something to be objective within a certain framework. “We take these truths to be self evident..” So starts the US constitution. In those words, the authors laid down the rules for US civil discourse, wherein the ideas that follow that opening are taken to be objectively true, regardless of their status outside that discourse. So too in a conversation between two individuals, the fact of each of the individuals existing as a free subject capable of thought and belief is taken, at least implicitly, to be objectively true, otherwise the conversation isn’t really happening.]

 

She’arit Emunah

[This is one of the most recent collections of Rav Shagar’s derashot to be published, with derashot for all of the holidays of the year. Below is a summary of the derashah for Purim.]

 

The Jest of the Megillah

[This derashah was given in the wake of the decision to unilaterally disengage from the Gaza Strip, and Rav Shagar references current events not just throughout the footnotes, but also in the body of the derashah itself, in the conclusion of the appendix.]

The Megillah is a book of satire and parody, aimed at Aḥashverosh more than at Haman, and most especially at Law. Aḥashverosh gets legal advisors to resolve a marital spat, and enacts a totally pointless law in the process. The dark absurdity of the parody is present in the way everyone follows along with the law, no matter how evil.  The parody comes from despair. The ability to laugh at all this flows not from the salvation but from the way God is seen to be in control. This does not erase the very real human experience of fear and suffering, however; it ultimately only heightens its absurdity. This is the בטחון that doesn’t assume that everything will go well, in fact often the opposite, God’s Will is not logical and human expectations are meaningless in relation to it. The reason-less Divine Will is met by a similarly reason-less human response. “ככה”.

Appendix: The Law and the Jew

Aḥashverosh’s servants are bothered by the fact that Mordechai is a Jew, because Jews are beholden to a different law and authority, and thus undermine the law. This is the root of anti-Semitism. Mordechai participates in the law and saves the life of the sovereign, but he also refuses to bow to Haman, directly violating the law of the King. This is disloyal loyalty. he’s not simply a lawbreaker. So too Esther, who is generally obedient, but comes before the king in violation of the Law. Vashti, in contrast, is simply a lawbreaker. This is why Haman made a law to kill all of the Jews instead of just executing Mordechai. The law fights via legislation. the Megillah thus reveals the violence inherent in the absolute nature of legislation. It is self-justifying. It must be followed by virtue of its existence, simply because it is the law. Legislation is a more egregious act of violence than breaking the law.

[The raw pathos exposed here is quite telling regarding the Religious Zionist community writ large. Rav Shagar was probably towards the left end of the RZ political spectrum in his lifetime, and yet the last few sentences could have been written by the “hilltop youth” of our own day. This is a community (who feel) ravaged and betrayed by their government. Despite this, Rav Shagar’s responses to the disengagement, found throughout his writings from the period, display a vastly different response than many parts of the RZ community today. This contrast is damning, as it highlights that the more morally questionable responses are in no way unavoidable for the responsible individuals.]

 

A Time of Freedom

[This is the book of Rav Shagar’s derashot and essays for Pesaḥ, but the below essay discusses Purim as well.]

 

“Engraved on the Tablets” – Between Purim and Pesaḥ

Pesaḥ celebrates the time when we were freed from egypt, and as such raises all kinds of important questions about freedom.

Sartre presents the problem of freedom as twofold: 1. There is no essential nature. A person most often is mindless. 2. “Man is sentenced to liberty.” Man must choose, but has no way to do that, given the constructed or conditional nature of all values. All man can do is flip a coin.

Rav Kook saw Freedom as returning to one’s essential self. Freedom as the ability to live according to internal, existential truth. It’s a function of identity, of who you are.

Rav Kook can actually be read as supporting a Sartrean freedom to create your own identity. You have an identity but you have the freedom to choose it or not. This is the real meaning of Brit and Devotion. This makes the Brit less the traumatic thing you’re born into and instead something you choose wholeheartedly, by choosing to identify with that which is already your identity. This ability creates true happiness and meaning.

[The footnotes point out that Rav Shagar explains Rav Kook differently in his essay on conceptions of Freedom that appears in Kelim Shevurim and then in an updated form in Luḥot U’Shivrei HaLuḥot. I think the reading here is a little forced. Rav Kook had a very strong concept of the inner essence of a person.]

It’s possible this is what Rebbe Nahman alludes to in a clipped and cryptic passage: Pesaḥ represents freedom as the ability to express our essential selves. Purim represents the freedom to choose our selves. Thus Purim is a necessary step on the road to Pesaḥ.

[Rav Shagar does not clarify the connection to Purim, but presumably this is related to one or both of two things: 1. The wearing of costumes on Purim may be taken to symbolize the ability of choose/craft and embrace a new identity. 2. Many of Rav Shagar’s derashot on Purim have a focus on the ability to get beyond the current construct, the framework we are currently working from within, into the Divine Infinite, and from there to see the possibilities of, and perhaps even to create, a new framework.

Meanwhile, Pesah occupies a very clear spot in Rav Shagar’s thought as a moment of the transferring and engendering of tradition. It’s a time when families gather together to participate in tradition, to discuss and create their link to the past and the future. It is serving in this derashah to symbolize the ability to accept one’s inner essence, which one has inherited from their surroundings and family, and to express freedom from within that framework.]

Parashat Behar 5775 – Shemitah and Yovel: Tension or Continuum?

Parashat Behar 5775 – Shemitah and Yovel: Tension or Continuum?

 

Parashat Behar focuses largely, though not entirely, on the laws of Shemitah and Yovel, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years respectively[1]. These laws are often seen as a continuum, with one the former flowing naturally into the latter. Shemitah occurs every 7th year, when all of the Jews of the land of Israel must declare their land ownerless and let it lie fallow for a whole year; they may neither sow nor reap in the land. Yovel occurs every 50th year, just after every 7th Shemitah year. In Yovel, all sales of land are nullified and the lands are returned to their owner, and all slaves are set free. Thus Shemitah entails a nullification of dominance over the land, and Yovel entails a revoking of sales and ownership. However, this depiction runs across a critical flaw when it comes to the textual depiction of the return of lands and slaves in Vayikra 25:13, “In this year of Yovel you shall return every man to his portion [of land].” The text does not depict the return of lands as something separate from the freeing of slaves. In fact, it does not describe the return of lands at all. Rather it talks about the return of slaves as free individuals to their ancestral homelands. Thus Shemitah and Yovel are in fact conflicting, not continuous. Shemitah involves people stepping back from the land and their ownership of it, while Yovel requires people coming close to the land of their families. The former creates a sense of distance and otherness from the land, while the latter conditions a sense of familiarity and identity with it.

The tension can be resolved by reformulating the concept of the Yovel in a way that focuses on ownership after all. However, it is in the reverse way of it was formulated before. Instead of Yovel being about whether or not the land belongs to us, it’s about whether or not we belong to the land. Thus the whole of the Yovel/Shemitah passage can be summed up conceptually as, “The land doesn’t belong to us so much as we belong to the land.” Thus Shemitah and Yovel do in fact form a continuum, as we first recognize every 7 years that we do not really own the land, and then in the 50th year we take yet one step further away from ownership and recognize that we, in fact, are creatures of the land we are born on and are in a sense owned by it.

At this point it is worth bringing up a conceptual dichotomy discussed by Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar)[2] regarding the difference between what he calls “earth” (אדמה) and “land” (ארץ). Rav Shagar says that “earth” refers to the elemental reality that all humans are born out of, to what it means to exist as a human being. In contrast, “land” refers to the society people construct, the power-oriented political structures we create. All human have a connection to the earth, and groups of people create their own various lands. In Shemitah we step back from the “land”, renouncing any sense of ultimacy that we attribute to our constructed societies, we recognize that our ownership is anything but absolute. In Yovel, we are still getting back beyond our conditional societies, but the emphasis is not on shattering these false idols, but on getting back to the source, getting back to the basics of what it means to be human. While Yovel is not applicable in our day, Shemitah is made all but negligible by the innovation of the Heter Mekhirah[3], and the number of Jews who live the sort of agrarian lifestyle where these rules are really felt is negligible, it’s important to recognize that these laws still have something to teach us. In our societies, we often become too caught up in the hierarchies and stratifications that we use to categorize and understand the people around us. While these structures are important, we need to step back every now and then and realize that they’re only constructs, and that at the root of it we’re all people. Further, living in these structures causes us to get locked into very particular ways of understanding ourselves, and every now and then we need to get back to our very human essence, and realize that we can choose how we want to define ourselves and our world in the future.

[1] The ideas in this composition are based to some degree on “Father Sky and Mother Earth” by Rav Shagar, found in “On That Day: Sermons and Essays for the holidays of Iyar”, pg. 207-216.

[2] “On That Day”, pg. 37. Note that he also includes a third category, “State” (מדינה), that is absolutely worth reading about but was beyond the scope of this composition.

[3] Literally “Permission of Sale”, wherein land in Israel is sold to a non-jew in order to exempt it from the laws of Shemitah.

Pesah 5775 – The Narrative of Narratives

Pesah 5775 – The Narrative of Narratives

The Mishnah (Pesahim 116a) states that the discussion of the Exodus from Egypt at the seder must “begin with disgrace(גנות) and end with glory(שבח).” The exact understanding of this “disgrace” is the subject of a debate between Rav and Shmuel, with Rav saying that the requirement to start with disgrace is fulfilled by reciting a verses from Sefer Yehoshua (24:2-4) detailing how Bnei Yisrael are descended from idolaters like Terah before they ever went down to Egypt, and Shmuel saying that it is fulfilled by reciting a verse from Sefer Devarim (6:21, 5:15) discussing how Bnei Yisrael were slaves to Paroah in Egypt before ‘א redeemed them.

In the liturgy of our Haggadah we include both passages, making sure we have all of the disgrace covered[1]. This “disgrace to glory” structure dictates the nature of the story of the Exodus from Egypt that is discussed at the seder, ensuring that we cover the full story of ‘א rescuing Bnei Yisrael. This narrative makes it clear just what depths he pulled them out of, whether the spiritual depths of the post-Bavel depths of Bereishit 11 or the physical degradation of the slavery in Egypt. Against the background of this “disgrace” it becomes clear just how great the redemption from Egypt was.

However, the “disgrace to glory(שבח)” structure does more than just give the necessary limits of the recounting of the Exodus. Thanks to the multiplicity of meanings of the word “שבח,” it also creates the basic structure of Magid, the “retelling” portion of the seder. Maggie starts with calls for anyone who even now is in a state of “disgrace” to come and join our table. Then through the retelling of the redemption we pass through the glory of ‘א’s deeds to the point where we burst forth with joyous praise(שבח) of  ‘א with the beginning of Hallel (which we return to after the meal). Thus the experience of fulfilling the seder takes a person from one end to the other of the mishnaic dictum to “begin with disgrace and end with praise(שבח).”

The continuation of the Mishna tells us that out to expound upon the verse, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Devarim 26:5), and in fact a large portion of Magid is dedicated to midrashic exegeses of that whole passage from Devarim (26:5-11). What makes this passage an interesting choice is that it is not itself a passage from the Exodus story. If the goal of the seder, and Magid in particular, is to recount the story of the Exodus, the it would seem more logical to choose a passage from the first half of Sefer Shemot where the Exodus is actually narrated by the Torah. Certainly there is no lack of passages from the Exodus that simply cry out for exposition. Instead, the Mishna says we just delve into the passage recited by a farmer upon bringing the Bikkurim, the first fruits, to the temple. Upon bringing the fruits, the farmer recites a length retelling of the history of Bnei Yisrael from Avraham through the Exodus to their arrival from Egypt into the fruitful land of Canaan. By picking this passage the Haggadah directs our attention not to the Exodus but to the recounting of it.

While this at first glance seems strange, it finds a strong resonance within the other passages of Magid. The passages that Rav and Shmuel each chose are not from Bereishit 11 or from the slavery of Sefer Shemot, but from Yeshoshua’s discussion of Terah and Sefer Devarim’s  to tell your son that we were slaves to Paroah. Thus Rav and Shmuel are also focusing not on retelling the Exodus but on retelling the Retelling of the Exodus. Many of the other passages of Magid are even more explicit in this focus on “retelling the retelling.” In Magid we recount the story of the sages who stayed up all night talking about the Exodus, we discuss the debate between R’ Zoma and the Sages about when you have an obligation to talk about the Exodus, and we talk about the exegesis of the sages regarding how the plagues add up. The passages in which we retell the retelling of the Exodus story are a huge portion of the liturgy of Magid, almost outweighing the passages where we simply retell the story of the Exodus. In speaking these passages we affirm our place in a chain of speakers, in the line of “retellers” going all the way back to first generation out of Egypt.

This chain of speakers itself participates in the narrative of Yetsiat Metsrayim, in the journey from disgrace to glory and praise. In speaking the words of the seder we place ourselves in a chain that stretches back to the Exodus itself, a line of people who have experienced and told of ‘א glorious redemption, from generation to generation, heading to a time when the whole world will sing out in praise of ‘א.

[1] It is possible that the halakhah was decided like Rav and we just have both passages anyway. For more on that, see here.

Purim 5775 – Purim of Days to Come: A Derashah

This was an attempt to write more in the style of a Hasidic Derashah, and as part of the more associative style of the genre, the ideas and sources sort of flow one into the next. Getting caught up in that, I think the piece got away from me a little bit and is a little more postmodern than I had in mind, but I still think it’s worth sharing. An English translation follows the original Hebrew.

״וְלֹא יְלַמְּדוּ עוֹד אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו לֵאמֹר דְּעוּ אֶת יְ-הוָה כִּי כוּלָּם יֵדְעוּ אוֹתִי לְמִקְטַנָּם וְעַד גְּדוֹלָם נְאֻם יְהוָה כִּי אֶסְלַח לַעֲוֹנָם וּלְחַטָּאתָם לֹא אֶזְכָּר עוֹד״ (ירמיהו לא:לג). זה פורים, שנאמר ״וּמִשְׁלֹחַ מָנוֹת, אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ״ (אסתר ט:יט). פורים הוא חג של אחרית הימים, כמו שכתוב, ״שכל המועדים עתידים בטלים, וימי הפורים אינם בטלים לעולם, שנאמר (אסתר ט כח): “וימי הפורים האלה לא יעברו מתוך היהודים״ (מדרש משלי ט:א), שנאמר, ״לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה״ (אסתר ח:טז) זאת אורה שנגנז לצדיקים לעתיד לבוא (בר״ר יא:ב, חגיגה יב.), שלעתיד לבוא כלנו יראו בו. שלעתיד לבוא כלנו יראו שאין לומר דעו את י-הוה, כי כולם יודעים את י-הוה. אין ללמד, כי בלימוד יש מורה ותלמיד, יודע ואינו-יודע, וכולנו ידעו לכן לא שייך הכפייתיות של לימוד. אבל יש שליחת מנות, שבו אין מורה ותלמיד אלא איש ורעהו, ואין חטאתם הקודמים אלא ידיעת י-הוה. בפורים אנו בדרגה של האדם לפני חטא עץ הדעת, כמו שכתוב, ״עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי״ (מגילה ז:), ואין מקולל או מבורך אלא יודעי י-הוה. בפורים רואים באור ששת ימי בראשית, לפני שהנחש לימד את האדם לחטוא, לפני שבחרנו לדעת טוב ורע במקום לדעת את י-הוה.

“And no more shall every man teach his friend, and every man his brother, saying: ‘Know ‘א’; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says ‘א; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more ” (Yirmiyahu 31:33). This is a reference to Purim, as it is said, “And sending portions, each man to his friend” (Esther 9:19). Purim is the festival of the End of Days, as it is written, “For all of the holidays with be nullified in the future, but the days of Purim will not be nullified, as it is said, ‘and these days of Purim will not pass from among the Jews’ (Esther 9:28).” (Midrash Mishlei 9:1), as it is said, “The Jew had light” (Esther 8:16), this is the light that was hidden for the Righteous of the future (Bereishit Rabbah 11:2, Bavli Hagiga 12a), that in the future everyone will see with. In the future, everyone will see that we shouldn’t say, “Know ‘א,” for everyone will know ‘א. We should not teach, because teaching requires a teacher and a student, now who knows and one who does not, and everyone will know. Therefore the imposition of teaching is irrelevant. However, one should send portions, for in this there is no “teacher” and “student,” just each man and his friend, and there is no previous sin, only the Knowledge of ‘א.  On Purim we are on the level of Man before the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, as it is written, “until you do not know [how to differentiate] between ‘Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” (Bavli Megillah 7b), so there is no “cursed” or “blessed”, only knowers of ‘א. On Purim we see with the light of the six days of Creation, before the snake taught Man to sin, before we chose knowing good and evil over knowing ‘א.