Suffering Without Meaning – Rav Shagar on the Unsayable Trauma of the Holocaust

Below is a translated excerpt from one of Rav Shagar’s derashot for Yom Hashoah, the day Israeli society collectively recalls and remembers the Holocaust. Specifically, it is the introductory section of the derashah, “Muteness and Faith,” which focuses on two ideas:

1. that which exceeds or cannot enter our speech (using Lyotard’s concept of “the differend” and the Zohar’s concept of סתימא דלא אתיידע, “the concealed and unknown”).

2. the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg’s steadfast attachment to his Judaism, beyond reach of any mitsvah–beyond both Hitler and God.

The excerpt below is from the introduction to the derashah, where Rav Shagar meditates on his own relationship to the Holocaust as a child of survivors, as someone for whom the Holocaust was both an “incurable genetic disease” and “a horror on display in the noonday sun.”

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When tragedy strikes, believers typically ask, “What does this mean?”[1] The Holocaust denies all possibility of asking such questions, because it represents a total shattering of the world and its cultural construction. It falls outside the constructive world, the world of discourse.

This is how I experienced the “meaning” of the Holocaust in regard to my parents (of blessed memory), if it even makes sense to say such a thing. The Holocaust tore apart their youth, and they carried it with them for the rest of their lives. They almost never spoke about that time. They went on with their daily lives based on a sort of stubborn muteness, concealing the irreparable. They were victims for their entire lives. They could never speak, for the Holocaust had forced them into an incurable muteness. They lived without feeling like they could trust reality or people, rendering them incapable of accepting the other or addressing them with an open heart. They were barred from experiencing the sense of well-being which Tanakh describes as “everyone under his own vine and under his own fig tree” (1 Kings 5:5). In a certain sense, I myself continue to carry this burden.

This idea reminds me of the Kabbalistic and Hasidic commentaries on Passover and the exodus from Egypt which see the word Pesah as breaking down into peh-sah, “the mouth that speaks”–speech itself leaving its exile.[2] Speech generally enables us to turn a harsh, traumatic event into processable human suffering, which is the first step toward redemption from it. The Holocaust, however, is not just suffering. It is suffering that lacks speech, that is mute. There is no conceptual framework that could render it as suffering. In this sense, my parents never left the Holocaust. The Holocaust wasn’t just murder, it was the murder of murder. It is not an injustice or suffering that took place within the normal circle of human existence–it somehow transcends and refutes it. The Holocaust cannot be rendered conceptually into any other thing, so it cannot achieve any sort of conciliation. That is how I explain my parents’ muteness: they lived their lives in the empty space split open by the Holocaust. This is the meaning of the Holocaust, “the differend”–“an unsayable debt”: “Auschwitz was the death of death. In this death, even the possibility of mourning over what was lost is itself dead. The process of mourning cannot take place, so it is impossible to continue forward and move on.”[3]

When I discuss the Holocaust, I do so not from the perspective of someone who experienced it first-hand, but from the perspective of someone who inherited it–this is the incurable genetic disease of the second generation. In a certain sense, members of the second generation are no less victims of the Holocaust than members of the first. They too experience the Holocaust via an absolute lack of security in existence, in reality’s fundamental need for some basis or foundation. They experience a persistent sense of threat in the background of their lives, due to the presence of a “black hole” just waiting to swallow up everything.

For me, the Holocaust is just such a black hole of non-existence that nevertheless exists. It is a horror on display in the noonday sun–a horror that should have reduced annihilated everything, taking place in a world that continues to turn exactly as before–non-existence that nevertheless exists. This is a reality that leads only to being stuck, without any ability to escape or even to disappear.

_________________________________

[1] See Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Bayom Hahu, 256–259.

[2] See, for example, R. Isaac Luria, Peri Ets Hayyim, Gate of the Holy Scriptures, ch. 4; Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav, Likkutei Moharan II 74. This is how I understanding a famous statement by the Hiddushei Harim of Ger: “’And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the sufferings of the Egyptians’ (Exodus 6:7) – ‘Sufferings,’ so that they no longer suffer from the practices of Egypt” (quoted in Sefat Emet, vol. 2, Va’era 1878). In Egypt, when speech was in exile, a person simply continued to suffer, unable to free himself from the sufferings imposed on him.

[3] Adi Ophir and Avraham Azulai, “Memale Makom: Be’ikvot Sihah Im Leyotar,” in Jean Paul Leyotard, Hamatsav Hapostmoderni (Jerusalem: Resling Books, 1999), 127–128. Indeed, I have often had trouble believing statements about the Holocaust, not because I thought they were insincere, but because I saw them as foolish attempts to conquer the unconquerable.

Shiur: Adar 2020 – Up is Down, Holy is Unholy: From Vayikra to Hasidut to Rav Kook and Rav Shagar

Up is Down, Holy is Unholy:
From Vayikra to Hasidut to Rav Kook to Rav Shagar

 

1. Talmud Bavli, Megillah 15b

 

“On that night the sleep of the king was disturbed” (Esther 6:1). Rabbi Tanḥum said: The sleep of the King of the universe was disturbed.

Kodesh vs. Hol

 

2. Vayikra 10:8–11

 

And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying: 9 Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages, 10 for you must distinguish (lehavdil) between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean; 11 and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.

 

3. Vayikra 11:44–47

 

For I the Lord am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not make yourselves unclean through any swarming thing that moves upon the earth. 45 For I the Lord am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy. 46 These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water, and all creatures that swarm on earth, 47 for distinguishing (lehavdil) between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten.

Hasidut and Its Opponents

 

4. Keter Shem Tov, Bereshit §189

 

“The whole earth is filled with his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). Nothing exists, large or small, that is separate from God. Thus, a perfect (shalem) person can perform divine unifications, even in physical activities like eating, drinking, and sexual relations, like business and mundane conversations between friends.

I have thus received a tradition from a wise man… this is the meaning of the verse, “Know him in all your ways” (Proverbs 3:6), which is like “And the man knew Eve his wife” (Genesis 4:1), meaning unification and coupling.

If this is true about physical matters, all the more so with matters like prayer that stand in the heights of the world. There are many levels, and on each and every level a person can perform unifications, in the mystery of “Thus shall Aaron come to the holy” (Leviticus 16:3). Whatever level a person is on, from there he can include himself within the entirety of the world, which are on these levels. They are all the limbs of the Knesset Yisrael. At this point a person can pray, and it will be that “his God be with him and he ascends” (II Chronicles 36:23).

 

 

5. Rav Ḥayyim of Volozhin, Nefesh Haḥayyim III:5

 

Translation from Eliezer Lipa (Leonard) Moskowitz, The Soul of Life, 304–5

But even considering this, these are His heroic and awesome [works]: that even so, He hid–so to speak–His glory so that it would be possible to actualize the matter of the existence of the worlds, and the powers, and created beings, both newly created and renewed, having different qualities and diverse situations, and distributed in different locations—places that are holy and pure, and the opposite: impure and filthy. And this is our perspective, namely, that our capacity for sense perception is limited to the realities as they appear, and on this perspective is built the system that mandates our behavior, as we were commanded directly by Him (blessed be He), it being immutable law. And from this perspective our sages metaphorized Him (so to speak) per the matter of the soul-Neshama’s relationship to the body. And as is stated in the Zohar that He (blessed be He) is the soul-Neshama of all the worlds, being that in people the senses only perceive a person’s body, and: 

  • even though the soul-Neshama permeates the entire body, it is an aspect hidden to eyes of flesh but revealed to the mind’s eyes,
  • so too, based on our grasp of what can be perceived, so appears the reality of all the worlds and creations, and that He (blessed be His name) permeates and is hidden (so to speak) within them to enliven them and to sustain them,

as in the matter of the soul-Neshama that permeates and is hidden within all the various parts of the body’s limbs/ organs, to enliven it.

 

6. Rav Ḥayyim of Volozhin, Nefesh Haḥayyim III:6

 

Translation from Eliezer Lipa (Leonard) Moskowitz, The Soul of Life, 307

And so it is that all of the fundamental principles of the holy Torah, every one of the warnings and command­ments, positive and negative, all operate within this context, that from our perspective there absolutely exist differences and variations between places. In clean/pure places we are permitted and also obligated to discuss and to reflect on the Torah’s words. And in filthy places we are prohibited even to reflect on the Torah’s words. And so it is with all the matters and the system of behavioral obligations that we are directly commanded in the holy Torah, and lacking this context of our perspective there wouldn’t be any room for the Torah and commandments at all.

 

7. Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, Mei Hashiloaḥ, vol. 1, Ki Tisa, s.v. Elohei Masekhah Lo Ta’aseh Lekha

 

“Molten gods, you shall not make for yourselves” (Shemot 34:17). “Molten” refers to the general principles. This is the meaning of the verse: In a moment when you have explicit “understanding of the heart” (binat halev), then you should not look to the general principles to guide your actions. Understanding of the heart should be your sole guide as to how to act in each individual instance, as we find by Eliyahu on Har Carmel, and as we explained well in Parashat Ḥukkat.

 

8. Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, Mei Hashiloaḥ, vol. 1, Ḥukkat, s.v. Vayis’u Benei Yisrael Vayiḥanu Be’ovot

 

It is written in the Gemara (Berachot, 54a), it is a time for God to act, for they have made Your Torah void’ (Tehillim, 119). says, “It is a time to do for God, for they have made void your Torah.” This means, since they have made your Torah void, act only in the will of God. At a time when it is perfectly clear that it is a time to solely for Eliyahu on Mount Carmel, then it is necessary to put aside the principles of the holy Torah and act only in the understanding that the blessed God instills in you. Rebbe Natan is saying that at a time when this given under standing is not completely clear to you, you must act according to the principles of the Torah and mitzvot without stepping out of the bounds of the Halacha. Yet Rebbe Natan is also saying that if your heart is drawn after the will of the blessed God, and have removed from yourself any kind of impurity (anything that could bring you down), afterward God may provide you with an opportunity to act in a way that may seem as if, God forbid, you have removed yourself from the bounds of the principles of the Torah. Concerning this Rebbe Natan said that for the one whose heart is drawn after God and has cleansed himself from any affliction, certainly God will not let him fall into a transgression, God forbid. He will surely then know that it is “a time to do for God.”

Kodesh vs. Hol 2.0: Spiritual vs. Unspiritual

 

9. Rav Kook, Mussar Avikha 2:2

 

Translation from R. Ari Ze’ev Schwartz, The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook, 55-56)

“In all of your ways, know Him” (Mishlei 3:6). One must search for God in everything one does. When praying, one must search for God by trying to focus on the words of prayer with deep concentration and a dedicated heart. One must not search for God in other matters at that moment. Indeed, while involved in that specific action, it may be said that God can be found within that action and nothing else. When studying Torah, one must realize that God is found in the very act of analyzing and trying to understand each idea. At that moment, God reveals Himself in that specific action and not in anything else. And finally, when involved in gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness), one must search for God by trying to uncover the best possible way to help one’s friend.

This principle is true in all actions that a person does. Do not all matters in the world uncover the Divine? Therefore, everything a person does should be understood as a mitzvah, because one must search for God in every action. We may accurately say that one who dedicates his or her entire mind and strength to performing every action with the greatest level of perfection knows God in all of his ways…

 

10. Rav Shagar, Nahalekh Baragesh, 170

 

Paradoxically, the logic of self-nullification (bitul) leads to a parabolic movement culminating in a return to the world. The righteous person nullifies himself, but in this the lack of nullification–the non-spiritual, worldly life–itself becomes nullification, a vessel for infinite light, an instance of “existing but not in existence.” The divide between creator and creature, between a righteous person and his creator, blurs. 

 

11. Rav Shagar, Shiurim Al Lekutei Moharan I:29, vol. 1, 368

 

Similarly, Rebbe Naḥman’s understanding of tikkun habrit does not depict the berit as identification. Identifying with something still expresses a dualistic consciousness, because a person could identify with something outside of himself. Berit means getting rid of duality, so being overly aware of what we are doing ruins it. For example, we say “Thank God,” and that immediately traps us, as if we are doing something good by saying “Thank you.” We can free ourselves from this trap by saying “Thank you” from a place of linguistic oneness, of simplicity (peshitut). If I pray, and I must identify with the prayer, then this is still a matter of innerness and duality. The highest prayer is simply saying, speaking. This act can create the most delightful prayer.

Shiur: Tevet 2019 – The Thing About Miracles: From Hanukkah to Everyday Life

The Thing About Miracles:
From Hanukkah to Everyday Life

 

What is a Miracle?

 

1. Melakhim Alef 16:1-8

 

Elijah the Tishbite, an inhabitant of Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord lives, the God of Israel whom I serve, there will be no dew or rain except at my bidding.” 2 The word of the Lord came to him: 3 “Leave this place; turn eastward and go into hiding by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 4 You will drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” 5 He proceeded to do as the Lord had bidden: he went, and he stayed by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 6 The ravens brought him bread and meat every morning and every evening, and he drank from the wadi. 7 After some time the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land. 8 And the word of the Lord came to him: 9 “Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon, and stay there; I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”

 

What Does It Matter?

 

2. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah 8:1-3

 

The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed. Whenever anyone’s belief is based on wonders, [the commitment of] his heart has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery.

All the wonders performed by Moses in the desert were not intended to serve as proof [of the legitimacy] of his prophecy, but rather were performed for a purpose. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and sank them in it. We needed food, so he provided us with manna. We were thirsty, so he split the rock [providing us with water]. Korach’s band mutinied against him, so the earth swallowed them up. The same applies to the other wonders…

What is the source of our belief in him? The [revelation] at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard, and not another’s. There was fire, thunder, and lightning. He entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard, “Moses, Moses, go tell them the following…”

 

3. Rav Shagar, Leha’ir Et Hapetahim, 114

 

Rambam thought that faith that is based on miracles is faith that has flaws. A miracle that is presented as a proof for faith is forced on a believer artificially, from the outside, such that there will always remain a gap between the believer and their faith through which doubt can slip.

Seeing miracles as a proof for faith is a manifestation of a desire to hold onto the absolute. But the absolute cannot be seized, it only reveals itself as an intangible and unmediated presence. The very logic of proofs defeat them, for they introduce a duality into faith that blocks the path to the absolute. When miracles function as proofs, they become a hard fact that externally indicate the existence of God, and in doing so they dissolve the realness of this existence and sustain the persistence of doubt.

 

The King of India

 

4. The Kuzari I:19-22, 25

 

  1. The Rabbi: If thou wert told that the King of India was an excellent man, commanding admiration, and deserving his high reputation, one whose actions were reflected in the justice which rules his country and the virtuous ways of his subjects, would this bind thee to revere him?

 

  1. Al Khazari: How could this bind me, whilst I am not sure if the justice of the Indian people is natural, and not dependent on their king, or due to the king or both?

 

  1. The Rabbi: But if his messenger came to thee bringing presents which thou knowest to be only procurable in India, and in the royal palace, accompanied by a letter in which it is distinctly stated from whom it comes, and to which are added drugs to cure thy diseases, to preserve thy health, poisons for thy enemies, and other means to fight and kill them without battle, would this make thee beholden to him?

 

  1. Al Khazari: Certainly. For this would remove my former doubt that the Indians have a king. I should also acknowledge that a proof of his power and dominion has reached me…

 

  1. The Rabbi: … In the same strain spoke Moses to Pharaoh, when he told him: ‘The God of the Hebrews sent me to thee,’ viz. the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For Abraham was well known to the nations, who also knew that the divine spirit was in contact with the patriarchs, cared for them, and performed miracles for them. He did not say: ‘The God of heaven and earth,’ nor ‘my Creator and thine sent me.’ In the same way God commenced His speech to the assembled people of Israel: ‘I am the God whom you worship, who has led you out of the land of Egypt,’ but He did not say: ‘I am the Creator of the world and your Creator.’ Now in the same style I spoke to thee, a Prince of the Khazars, when thou didst ask me about my creed. I answered thee as was fitting, and is fitting for the whole of Israel who knew these things, first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition, which is equal to the former.

 

5. Rav Shagar, Zeman Shel Herut, “This is For You, A Sign,” 78–79

 

The Haver of The Kuzari also gives miracles a central role in the context of faith. However, rather than framing miracles as proof for faith, he says that they create a connection to faith. The Haver chooses to present himself to the Khazar king as “believ[ing] in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles… who sent Moses with His law.”  The king is confused by this confession and asks, “Now shouldst thou, O Jew, not have said that thou believest in the Creator of the world, its Governor and Guide, and in Him who created and keeps thee?” In response to the king’s shock, the Haver emphasizes the miracle of the exodus from Egypt as the basis of faith. The Exodus from Egypt demonstrates God’s direct, personal relation to the Jew that transcends nature. This personal relation creates the Jew’s connection to his God and his Torah.  This great, revealed miracle demonstrates real, divine closeness, and this closeness is itself the primary revelation of faith. As far as The Kuzari is concerned, miracles are not some momentary “hocus pocus,” they are events that carry within them the sensation of direct encounter with the wondrous, the mystical. This is the religious significance of miracles, without which they have no meaning.

 

What is Faith?

 

6. Rav Shagar, “My Faith,” Faith Shattered and Restored, 22-24

 

Philosophies and outlooks are, in this context, nothing but rationalizations – apologetics, even – whose sole role is to justify what has already been arrived at, and which must thus be regarded with a certain wariness. They are not the substance of faith but explanations for it; thus, they are ancillary to it and always involve a degree of duality. To paraphrase the opponents of Maimonides and his school, who stated that a God whose existence must be proven is no God at all, I offer the absurd assertion that a believer who requires an intellectual proof for his faith is no believer at all.

There is no proof of faith, and no certainty of faith to be gained with a proof. In any event, proofs do not impact our existence like a gun pointed at one’s temple; they do not touch upon the believer’s inner life. That is why, when it comes to faith, I prefer to use terms such as “event” and “experience.” God’s presence in my prayers is as tangible to me as the presence of a human interlocutor. That is not a proof but rather an immediate experience. Similarly, I do not assert that the sight of someone standing in front of me is proof of the person’s existence. That would be foolish: After all, I see you.

 

You Did Miracles For Our Forefathers

 

7. Yishai Mevorach, A Theology of Absence, 57

 

“With those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Devarim 29:14).” These words correctly present the deep meaning of the biblical idea of a covenant (berit), which means being a sign-representation of the past encounter, of the moment of responsibility and obligation towards the other who confronts me. Similarly for the father of the nation, Avraham: “I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring who come after you, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring who come after you. […] As for you, you and your offspring who come after you throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. […] every male among you shall be circumcised. […] and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. […] Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact” (Bereshit 17:7-13). If so, maintaining the covenant means being a body that expresses the past, as a past that was, in a present that has nothing of its own. Maintaining the covenant means living without revelation or redemption that happen to me. Instead, I see myself as “offspring who come after,” as a symbol of the event and encounter that was.

 

8. Yishai Mevorach, A Theology of Absence, 63

 

A covenantal life is when two people willingly exist as representations of a moment of revelation, the engagement, that happened in the past. In their past there was a “face to face” moment of revelation-responsibility, and now the couple are a symbol of that time. A life of covenant is not about the Other who reveals himself to me, but the Other who revealed himself to me, and the I, the face, who was the address of that revelation.
Here too, as with prayer and the commandments, secularized Western culture boldly tries to fill a couple with tension and expectations of revelation. This is why couples are always told about workshops, classes, magical getaways with youthful atmospheres, bungalows, taking time away from parenting, analyzing their tension, and so on and so on, ideas without end, all just so that the couple will resume discovering each other and revealing themselves to one another. However, “this is all Christian,” as Rosenzweig would say. Someone who wants to hold onto an Other who is currently revealing himself, without any disruption, is asking to live without a covenant. In a covenant, there is no revelation, only a faithful representation thereof. This forces or coerces a person to carry the covenant onward, toward the children who bear its sign.

Rav Shagar on Shabbat Hanukkah- The Candle and the Sacrifice

My latest Rav Shagar translation, a derashah for Shabbat Hanukkah, with an explanatory introduction by Prof. Alan Brill.

Rav Shagar on Shabbat Hanukkah- The Candle and the Sacrifice

https://kavvanah.wordpress.com/2019/12/22/rav-shagar-on-shabbat-hanukkah-the-candle-and-the-sacrifice/
— Read on kavvanah.wordpress.com/2019/12/22/rav-shagar-on-shabbat-hanukkah-the-candle-and-the-sacrifice/

Elul 2019: Is This The Real Life? Rosh Hashanah and the Purpose of Life

 

Sources:

  1. Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b

Our Rabbis taught: For two and a half years were Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel in dispute. The former said, “It would have been more pleasant for man not to have been created than to have been created,” and the latter said, “It would have been more pleasant for man to have been created than not to have been created.”

They finally voted and decided that it would have been more pleasant for man not to have been created than to have been created, but now that he has been created, let him investigate his past deeds or, as others say, let him examine his future actions.

 

Birth

 

  1. Tefillah of Yom Kippur


My God, until I was created, I was not worthy. Now that I was created, it’s as if I was not created. Dust am I in my life, all the more so in my death. I am before you as a vessel filled with embarrassment and shame.

 

  1. Rav Kook, Olat Hare’iyah, vol. 2, 356

Before I was created, the whole infinite time from eternity until I was created, there was certainly nothing in the world that needed me. Had I been lacking for some purpose or completion, I would have been created. Thus, the fact that I was not created is a sign that I was not worthy to be created then, and there was no need for me except at the time when I was created, because the time had arrived when I needed to fulfill some purpose for the completion of reality. If I dedicate my actions to the purpose of my creation, then I am now worthy, but since my actions are not intended for the good of this purpose, then I have not achieved the purpose of my creation and I am still unworthy, as before.

 

Death

 

  1. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah, Selection

Since free choice is granted to all men as explained, a person should always strive to do Teshuvah and to confess verbally for his sins, striving to cleanse his hands from sin in order that he may die as a Baal-Teshuvah and merit the life of the world to come. (7:1)

A person should always view himself as leaning towards death, with the possibility that he might die at any time. Thus, he may be found as a sinner. (7:2)

Even if he transgressed throughout his entire life and repented on the day of his death and died in repentance, all his sins are forgiven. (2:1)

If a person’s sins exceed his merits, he will immediately die because of his wickedness (3:2)

Just as a person’s merits and sins are weighed at the time of his death, so, too, the sins of every inhabitant of the world together with his merits are weighed on the festival of Rosh HaShanah. If one is found righteous, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If one is found wicked, his [verdict] is sealed for death. A Beinoni’s verdict remains tentative until Yom Kippur. If he repents, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If not, his [verdict] is sealed for death. (3:3)

When does the statement that these individuals do not have a portion in the world to come apply? When they die without having repented. However, if such a person repents from his wicked deeds and dies as a Baal-Teshuvah, he will merit the world to come, for nothing can stand in the way of Teshuvah. (3:14)

 

  1. Rav Shagar, Shuvi Nafshi, 77

The day a person dies is not a predetermined date set for a person’s judgment day, it is simply an immanent result of their situation. The judgment is nothing other than the person’s state at the moment he dies, and this is his eternal fate. This fact heightens the tension surrounding repentance and judgment, a tension that expresses the combination of the incidental–man’s fleeting existence–and the fact that this incidental thing has an absolute, total, and infinite character. The anxiety of judgment, its fateful and decisive character, comes from exactly this combination. The fleeting receives eternal force. The fact that a person dies at a specific moment, something typically entirely incidental, and that this is what determines a person’s eternity, causes the fleetingness itself to gain the urgency and fatefulness of eternity.

 

  1. Rav Shagar, Shuvi Nafshi, 81

It seems that a single day judgment–Rosh Hashanah–was established in order to emphasize in actual practice the acuteness and intensity of existence, the ethical consciousness according to which we should live every day of the year. This is why Rambam constructs Rosh Hashanah on the model of the day of death. Rosh Hashanah is the judgment and the life in the shadow of death that is eternity.

Rambam puts in effort to solve the problem of why a specific day of judgment was established, because a person’s judgment is a function of his inner condition, something that is true each and every day.

According to Rambam, the selection of Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgments to a large degree arbitrary and incidental. He compares this happenstance to the happenstance of the day a person dies, and thus sets up the fatefulness of the judgment on Rosh Hashanah. Just was the day a person dies is incidental, so too is Rosh Hashanah.  That’s when a person’s fate in this world is decided. There’s something specifically both incidental and arbitrary about this judgment, but that is its nature. The concept of judgement as absolute happenstance is the basis of this day.

 

Apocalypse

 

  1. Blessing of Kedushah, Tefillah for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, etc.

You are holy and Your Name is holy and holy beings praise You every day, forever.

And so, grant that Your awe, Adonoy, our God, be upon all Your works, and Your dread upon all You have created; and [then] all [Your] works will fear You, and prostrate before You will be all [Your] created beings.

And may they all form a single band to do Your will with a perfect heart. For we know Adonoy, our God that rulership is Yours, strength is in Your hand, might is in Your right hand and Your Name is awesome over all You have created.

And so, grant honor, Adonoy, to Your people, praise to those who fear You, good hope to those who seek You confident speech to those who yearn for You, joy to Your land, gladness to Your city, flourishing of pride to Dovid, Your servant and an array of light to the son of Yishai, Your anointed, speedily in our days.

And then the righteous will see [this] and rejoice, and the upright will be jubilant, and the pious will exult with joyous song; injustice will close its mouth, and all the wickedness will vanish like smoke, when You remove the rule of evil from the earth.

And You Adonoy will reign alone over all Your works on Mount Tziyon, dwelling place of Your glory, and in Yerushalayim, city of Your Sanctuary, as it is written in Your holy words, “Adonoy will reign forever; Your God, Tziyon, throughout all generations. Praise God.”

Holy are You, and awesome is Your Name, and there is no God beside You, as it is written, “And Adonoy Tzevaos is exalted through justice and the Almighty, the Holy One, is sanctified through righteousness.”

Blessed are You, Adonoy, the King, the Holy One.

 

  1. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 165-166

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

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

Av 2019: Should You Believe in a Third Destruction?

Should We Believe in a Third Destruction?
Rav Shagar and Rav Froman on the Surprising Nature of Faith

  1. Yirmiyahu 7:1-15

The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand at the gate of the House of the Lord, and there proclaim this word: Hear the word of the Lord, all you of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord! Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place. Don’t put your trust in illusions and say, “The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are these buildings.”

[….]

As for Me, I have been watching—declares the Lord. Just go to My place at Shiloh, where I had established My name formerly, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel. And now, because you do all these things—declares the Lord—and though I spoke to you persistently, you would not listen; and though I called to you, you would not respond— therefore I will do to the House which bears My name, on which you rely, and to the place which I gave you and your fathers, just what I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of My presence as I cast out your brothers, the whole brood of Ephraim.

Rav Shagar

  1. Rav Shagar, Shiurim al Lekutei Moharan, vol. 1, 269-271

I was recently at a symposium on the relationship between certainty and faith. One of the speakers told of a certain forum where a person raised the possibility that there could be a third destruction, as opposed to Rav Herzog’s famous words, spoken in the earliest days of the state, about how we have God’s promise that there will not be a third destruction. In response, he was thrown out of the forum, because of the “heresy” involved in casting doubt on the continuing redemptive process of the modern state of Israel. The speaker told this story in praise of the certainty of faith, and looked positively on the total unreadiness to hear claims like his. He saw it as a revelation of true faith. I was shook. I saw this as making faith into an idol, expressing an arrogant religion that refuses to accept the other. It comes from the violence laid bare in religious discourse.

To my mind, rejecting the idea of a third destruction comes from patriotism in the negative sense, rather than from a position of deep faith. Absolute certainty is a handhold that lets the speaker feel confident about the righteousness of his path, but faith happens only in the moment when a person gives up on certainty and opens up to the possibilities that exceed the limits of his understanding. In this context, raising doubts is not only not opposed to faith, it itself is the thing that can lead us to real faith. Raising doubts is not an educational goal, and I do not mean that we must encourage doubts, mainly because some people remain in a chronic state of baselessness. The trap of ideological excess can lead to acting like an idolater, coating their opinions with words of faith.

It’s important to remember that an answer like “perhaps” is a real possibility in existence, which can be just as certain as certainty. The very existence of a positive option itself changes the feeling of your life. For example, things in my life don’t have to be good in a simplistic sense in order for me to have faith; it is enough that I have faith that things could be good, that the potential exists, in order to experience the presence of God. Faith is not necessarily certainty, and therefore it’s possible for a faithful answer to the question “Is there a creator of the world?” to be: Perhaps. From this perspective, the presence of faith in the world depends on people, on their readiness to accept the existence of God in the world despite the lack of uncertainty…

It is specifically doubt that can lead to faith, because language forces us to define every phenomenon, and thus instead of actually encountering the phenomenon we suffice with defining it externally. Doubt opens up a language anew, in order to prevent rigidity and to enable us to once again come into contact with reality. If we say, “Yes, God definitely exists,” this statement can lead us to block off the possibility of revelation. It is specifically the ability to answer “perhaps” in regard to religious life that creates a space where the sudden possibility of revelation could take place.

  1. Rav Shagar, “Education and Ideology,” Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, 184-188

Religious Zionist education… is inherently ideological, meaning that it inexorably aims at a specific understanding of the world, one which often differs greatly from the lived reality of young Religious Zionist men and women…

What is ideology? One definition comes from the critical approach to ideology in the last fifty years. Generally speaking, an ideology is an all-encompassing vision, like the great “isms” of modernity. This vision makes extreme demands on society, while ignoring the needs and ambitions of the “the little guy.” … ideology creates a gap between a person’s consciousness and his real existence. This is true of his individual existence, according to the more general explanation, and of his socioeconomic existence, which Marxism sees as a person’s true existence. The problem with ideology is therefore not that it serves the political and economic needs of the powerful. The problem lies in the very need for ideology, in grasping for a single supreme value and a lone source of truth, which has nothing to do with the truth of a person’s real existence… Ideology is a dead idea, an idol, and is therefore inhuman.

A similar critique applies to ideological education. Ideological education does not just convey ideas and concepts. In addition to the explicit messages, education also implicitly tells the student that they must obey these messages. Not only should they not be questioned, but any questioning of them is itself forbidden. It is a transgression, bringing on sanctions and punishment (primarily in the social realm), as well as feelings of guilt. In this context, the problem with ideology is that it creates people driven by abstract ideas and by alienation from reality. Another problem develops when ideology comes with a denial of the alienation it represents. Such an ideology does not recognize any other legitimate procedure for determining the true and the good. This leads a person to feel guilty and to violently make himself “toe the line.”

As we noted, Religious Zionism arose in the golden age of ideology, and it is ideological by nature. It demands an all-encompassing vision, without consideration for the individual or reality. Moreover, young Religious Zionist men and women live in multiple worlds, leading to an increased ideological excess. These Religious Zionist men and women have more than one identity. As just one example of their multiple identities, many religious youths struggle with the question, “Are you Jewish or Israeli?” The gaping chasm between the lived experience of Religious Zionist youth and the Torah, taken to be a totalizing entity, is unavoidable. In order to be accepted in this world, the Torah distances itself from the complexity of reality and becomes ideology.

I must emphasize that, as opposed to thinkers who deny any and all value that might be attributed to ideology, I think that there is no human existence without some degree of ideology. A person needs to explain himself and his life, to try and organize them in a meaningful way, and this requires ideas and concepts. In practice, the idea will never perfectly match lived existence, but it only becomes problematic when the difference becomes too great. At that point, the ideology ceases to be an interpretation of reality and becomes a false consciousness, as the Marxists claimed. I suspect that we often live in exactly this state. We rightly take pride in our idealistic youth, who are a refreshing holdout against the boring Israeli landscape. However, is idealism always a good thing? Does it not bear a heavy price? Is it not itself harmful? One of my friends described the harm like so: Religious Zionism combines an ideology about the land of Israel (as opposed to love of your homeland or faith) with its nature as a community of baalei teshuvah. It adds to this emphasized military service, making for a very dangerous combination.

  1. Rav Shagar, Shiurim al Lekutei Moharan, vol. 1, 159-160

Faith is an affirmation, a saying “yes” to reality as it is, with trust in it as it exists. I am not always able to give an accounting of how it will look, but the main point is not an accounting from a perspective external to life, but the fundamental approach, the readiness to say “Here I am” to what happens. Faith does not grant certainty that you will have money, rather it is faith in some personal, infinite good that constantly exists and is always present, and therefore the worry dissolves and gives its space to the possibility of living life itself. The very faith in life makes the way things are into good, into something independent of external circumstances, be they good or bad. Faith can be neither proven nor disproven; the value it contains is that it directs man to live his life. When a person has faith he is able to pay attention to his personal desires rather than constantly comparing himself to others and worrying about the future. In this sense, faith enables a state of renewal, as Rebbe Nahman writes in this teaching, “And then the soul shines in excess.”

  1. Rav Shagar, “My Faith,” Faith Shattered and Restored, 22-24

In effect, according to Rabbi Nahman, not only is faith not a public language, it is not a language at all. That is why it is so difficult to fully depict one’s faith. Something will always remain unspoken, a mystery and intimacy that cannot and should not be revealed, for baring it would violate the intimacy of faith. This is not to gloss over the communal aspect of faith, which is by nature a public language as well; however, the collectivity of faith is the second stage, not the first. […] Hence, what I am trying to describe here is not a philosophy or outlook regarding faith. Philosophies and outlooks are, in this context, nothing but rationalizations – apologetics, even – whose sole role is to justify what has already been arrived at, and which must thus be regarded with a certain wariness. They are not the substance of faith but explanations for it; thus, they are ancillary to it and always involve a degree of duality. To paraphrase the opponents of Maimonides and his school, who stated that a God whose existence must be proven is no God at all, I offer the absurd assertion that a believer who requires an intellectual proof for his faith is no believer at all.

There is no proof of faith, and no certainty of faith to be gained with a proof. In any event, proofs do not impact our existence like a gun pointed at one’s temple; they do not touch upon the believer’s inner life. That is why, when it comes to faith, I prefer to use terms such as “occurrence” and “experience.” God’s presence in my prayers is as tangible to me as the presence of a human interlocutor. That is not a proof but rather an immediate experience. Similarly, I do not assert that the sight of someone standing in front of me is proof of the person’s existence. That would be foolish: After all, I see you. But try as I might, I cannot refrain entirely from rationalization and apologetics. In fact, as soon as I put things into words, I am ensnared by the same fallacy. The price of language is duality, and, in the context of faith, unreality. Even what I am about to present here constitutes speech about faith; hence, it is a pale simulacrum. Faith does not reside in words, and certainly not in any exposition or essay. The language of faith is the first-person address of prayer. It is not speech about something, but rather activity and occurrence. That is why there will always be a gap between the words and what they aim to represent.

This is not to minimize rationalizations; to my mind, rationalism is a sacred task, without which “men would swallow each other alive.” Barring a shared rational platform, society cannot exist, because rationalism, despite being “speech about,” is a prerequisite of communication and understanding among people. Let us imagine a world where every individual “shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4), conducting himself solely according to his own inner convictions. Such a world would quickly degenerate into one where man would kill by his faith. Yet when we discuss faith in the personal context – the existential, not the social – rationalization is the source of the gap I am trying to bridge. Having clarified that, I will attempt to describe the difficulties faced by believers in the modern world, and how they can cope.

Rav Froman

  1. Rav Menachem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh §84

I was the last rabbi of the town of Talmei Yosef in Yamit before the withdrawal. On Friday, the army set up a siege, and on Shabbat I spoke in the synagogue. I said, based on something my wife had said, that even though in just a few days they would carry us out of here, our struggle still has great value. We are protesting against injustice. I thought it was a nice speech. After the end of the prayers, when we went home, people approached me and very respectfully said to me, “What was the rabbi talking about? Why would he depress us like that?” I had thought my words would encourage people… In the town of Atsmonah, they planted trees during the withdrawal. I could have planted trees as a form of protest, but they planted the trees because even in the midst of the evacuation they believed it would not happen.

The same thing happened before the withdrawal from Gush Katif. I was in the town of Bedolaḥ the night before they came to empty it. I spoke there and I said that even if the town was evacuated, our struggle had not been in vain. One of the residents burst out at me and said, “You came here from Tekoa just to tell us that they’re going to evacuate us?”

Perhaps if I had been at the level of faith of that Jew from Bedolaḥ, a miracle would have occurred, and the evacuation would not have taken place. On the other hand, this could be the very peak of heresy, because ignoring reality means ignoring the word of God. […] Faith can be freedom from subjugation to facts, without being blind to reality, and the voice of God contained therein. This distinction is as slim as a strand of hair.

  1. Rav Menachem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh §131

Rav Shagar used to critique the religious community, saying that their faith was not realistic, it was illusory. In my eyes, the problem with religious people’s faith is that instead of faith in God it has become faith in ourselves, in the rightness of our path, our worldview, in who we are. It therefore closes our hearts off to the divine.

  1. Rav Menachem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh §82

What is faith? Non-believers believe in a longstanding and orderly universe. Reason is all about discovering this universe’s underlying laws and logic, which together allow one to predict future results. But believers, as you know, don’t have reason… The life of faith is a life of dynamic innovation, where you can’t know what will be… It means casting reason aside, living in a world connected directly to God.

  1. Rav Menachem Froman, “This Too Is a Religious Position,” Ten Li Zeman, 217

The spiritual posture which the Gemara recommends in the face of historical upheavals is humility: there’s no way of knowing in advance where things will lead. Everything is apparently possible… According to this, we could explain the conclusion of the story, “Rabbi Zechariah’s humility destroyed our home…,” as ironi. Certainly the gemara wants us to be humble, but this humility isn’t a “mitsvah” that decides the fate of the entire world (Bavli, Kiddushin 40b). Even the greatest virtue (as the Rabbis say, “humility is greater than all other virtues”) cannot guarantee the future. History is the domain of the unforeseen, and case-in-point: It was the very righteousness of the spiritual leader of the generation that led to the destruction.

For someone uncomfortable with attributing an approach like this to the rabbis, I would emphasize that the gemara certainly connected this sort of posture toward history with a spiritual posture of fear of heaven: “Happy is the man who is fearful always.” Someone who stands astonished before the ups and downs of history, with neither certainty nor confidence (bitahon), maybe be expressing a more religious astonishment than someone who has an absolute criterion (ethical, religious, etc.) for evaluating the way history operates. The peak of knowledge is knowing that we do not know–this is perhaps the most central idea in medieval religious thought, and perhaps this peak is all a believer can enact when faced with the facts of life and their unforeseen consequences.

 

What’s the Divine Part of Revelation? How Do We Find God in the Torah? Rav Shagar’s “Face to Face”

What’s the Divine Part of Revelation? How Do We Find God in the Torah?
Rav Shagar’s “Face to Face”

In a derashah for Shavuot from the year he died, Rav Shagar explores the complex relationship between the human and divine aspects of the Revelation at Sinai, as well as of the Torah. He points out the contradiction between verse that describes the giving of the Torah as speaking to God “face to face” and God’s own statement that, “no person may see my face and live.” Seemingly, revelation means encountering the divine, while encountering the divine is impossible for a human. Rav Shagar also quotes the Baal HaTanya, who points out that the Ten Commandments are a particularly human set of commandments. They’re all “banal matters that are necessitated by human intellect itself.” If the Revelation at Sinai was some sort of transcendent experience of the divine, then why are the commandments so very human? Simply on a practical level, what did revelation add? If these are intuitively obvious rules, then we didn’t even need revelation to know them. Why did God have to reveal simple, human rules?

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Moreover, what about this revelation is divine? Where do the human words and ideas end and the divine suddenly begin? In Rav Shagar’s own striking formulation, “What significance can revelation have if it must always be processed through human concepts and ideas? What connection could revelation create, when the very idea of a connection is a human idea?” If any way we try and formulate or conceptualize revelation will be unavoidably human, how can it be an encounter with, or revelation of, the divine? And what does that mean for the Torah, written entirely using human words?

As I will briefly explain below, Rav Shagar tackles each of these topics, revelation and the Torah, in turn (I’m not going to touch on every idea in the derashah, just trace out the main ideas regarding to these two issues). He explains revelation through the ideas of dialogic philosophy, which asks about how we encounter other people as unique individuals. Given that any words we could use to describe another person, or even speak to them, could just as easily describe or be spoken to a different person, how do we encounter that unique individual. Rav Shagar will conclude that the words of revelation provide a platform for the actual, wordless encounter with the divine. This will in turn lead to his understanding of the divinity of the Torah. He will argue that what makes Torah divine is not its words or ideas, themselves unavoidably human, but the way they provide a sort of linguistic space wherein we can encounter God. Moreover, this encounter “ensouls” us (Rosenzweig’s term), bringing our normally stagnant and unnoticed inner selves to the fore, as we study and create Torah from a most intimate space within us.

shagar4

Wordless Encounter in the Words of Revelation

Rav Shagar distinguishes between “indirect, theoretical knowledge” and “unmediated knowledge derived from direct recognition.” The former refers to any knowledge you could learn from a book, or hear about from another person. The latter refers to the sort of knowledge you can only get through personal experience. Revelation thus “lets you distinguish between the layer of what is common to others and the revelation of what cannot be conceptualized.”

To borrow an example from R. Jason Rubinstein, there are two ways to learn about a rainbow. You can read about the technical details of its appearance and the scientific and atmospheric phenomena that give rise to it. However, none of that can tell you what it is like to actually look at a rainbow. In order to learn that, you have to experience it yourself. Experiential knowledge, like colors and flavors, can never be learned from another person, whether in writing or in person.

It is in this category of wordless, inexplicable, deeply personal experience that Rav Shagar locates the divine within revelation, in the “divine intimacy that is bared before the believer.” This bared intimacy evokes, demands, a parallel response from the individual (or nation, as it were) who receives revelation. For Rosenzweig, whom Shagar invokes, it is responding to divine revelation that the individual is “ensouled.” We only really become ourselves in responding to someone else, and to God above all. This is the intimate relationship of love, of עשיית מצווה לשמה as described by Rambam.

When we speak with someone we love (romantically or otherwise), the words we speak are often not what matters. Sometimes what we are talking about is much less important than the simple fact that we are talking. Spending time together with someone can be more important that what you do with that time together. Those topics you speak about or actions you do together are things anyone could do with anyone else. What makes the encounter a unique encounter between two unique individuals is the presence of those two individuals. What makes revelation divine is not it’s words, but their source in God.

Torah as a Linguistic Space for Encountering God

So if that’s revelation, where does that leave Torah? If the words and ideas of revelation are not what makes it divine, then what about the words and ideas of the Torah? And what does that mean for learning Torah?

“This idea requires us to change how we think about the truth of revelation. As the creation of a space wherein reality is revealed, the revelation of the Torah, like the creation of the world, cannot be evaluated based on external facts. The Torah is speech that creates, rather than depicting or representing. The words construct their meaning, which is not evaluated based on how close they adhere to reality, but rather based on internal coherence, on being substantive and not artificial.”

If revelation involves the manifestation of the divine within the human, then the divine can be encountered just as well within the human words and ideas of the Torah. What the Torah provides is not divine ideas or texts but a linguistic “space” within which to encounter the divine. It gives us a language and a set of topics to make our own, to obsess over the way a love-struck lover obsesses over a note from their significant other. The Torah becomes God’s love note, as it were, and we explore every jot and tittle for the sake of find God in it all the more.

Like the love borne within a note, the divinity of the Torah is not a function of the way the words depict some external reality. The words of the note create a sense of love independent of external reality, and the words of the Torah do something similar for divinity. The revelation of the Torah should therefore not be seen as God informing the Jewish people about reality, about objective right and wrong, but as the creation of a covenantal relationship within with God and the people encounter each other.

This has an important implication for how we study Torah. Studying Torah is not a search for objective, external truth. It requires “substance” and “internal coherence,” but beyond that it’s about the students deep, personal engagement with the text and the attempt to fing God within it. Moreover, these students can and should learn creatively, excitedly innovating new Torah ideas. The ideas have to make sense within the broader picture of Torah, but beyond that they should be very creative. The student should enjoy the process of innovation within Torah study. In revelation created this linguistic space, talmud torah helps expand and maintain it.

In conclusion, appreciating the Torah, and revelation more broadly, is not about being able to point to specific aspects of the Torah and claim they’re divine. It’s about seeing God behind those aspects, and seeing those aspects as a pathway to encountering God. When we learn Torah on Shavuot, it’s not a scientific study about the nature of reality; it’s a deep yet playful engagement with God within the platform of Torah, a platform we can help build.