Rav Shagar on Being Religious as Being Weird and Avant Garde, with a Note about Academic Bible Scholarship

So apparently men wearing skirts is getting more and more popular (hold onto your hats, because this essay is going to end up talking about academic Bible scholarship). Just a few years ago, however, it was considered avant garde, meaning that the men doing it were breaking cultural norms, but they were doing so with confidence. That confidence is the key factor in whether breaking cultural norms makes you a weirdo, a loser, or makes you avant garde. If you can pull it off, this confidence often wins the respect of the culture whose norms you are breaking; often, however, the avant garde remain something of a marginalized group.

Any person who defines herself as both modern and religious invariably finds herself in this position. The cultural norms of contemporary western cultures are, to a great degree, secular, and so being religious means breaking those cultural norms. Being religious can therefore require being “weird,” or having the confidence to be avant garde.

Writing in the religious Zionist community in Israel at the turn of the millennium, Rav Shagar strived to create Jews who saw themselves as avant garde. Concluding an essay on love and marriage in the postmodern era, he writes:

I would love to see marriage as the true avant garde of today’s society, marriage as a covenant, in the rite of Moshe and Israel. The true rebellion is the Orthodox rebellion to be a “loser” (freier) in a world where not a single person is willing to be a loser, to commit in a place where everybody runs from commitment. This is intimately bound-up with self-sacrifice, but self-sacrifice in this sense is the very essence of the covenantal relationship. (“Love, Romance, and Covenant,” Nehalekh Beragesh, p. 286)

Finding postmodern sensibilities about romance to be decidedly more “frum” than modern ones, Shagar argued that religious Zionists should take up this postmodern yet very traditional view of marriage, even if it means breaking with the non-committal values of mainstream Israeli society. Notably, Shagar invokes the idea of being a freier, a “loser,” something Israelis are constantly attempting to avoid, and asserts that religious Zionists should embrace that role, being willing to sacrifice for the betterment of others, which is the foundation of a covenantal relationship.

At the very end of an essay on the interplay of education and ideology, Shagar looks to the future of religious Zionist education in Israel and argues that we have to be educating for avant garde-hood.

For what, then, shall we educate? How will we want to see the next generation of religious Zionism? I would prefer to strive to make it an avant garde generation. What do I mean by this? – the stubbornness to hold on to ethics in a world without ethics; to faith in a nihilistic world; to be the “loser” of the world out of a sense that “This is how I am and this is how I want to be.” This is a holy rebellion: the rebellion against the rebellion, a postmodern rebellion against the modern rebellion. Education needs to create complex people, with many aspects and no need to construct ideological unity that will resolve them, by creating a deep and rooted Jewish identity that can connect with and absorb the different direction and oppositions. (“Education and Ideology,” Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, pp. 206-207)

Shagar is pushing for a broad embrace of values in the face of a culture that rejects them. Mainstream Israeli culture, he says, is unethical and nihilistic; we must therefore break with it in being ethical and full of faith. Religious values necessarily set us apart from the broader culture, and we must embrace that gap.

It is critical to note that Rav Shagar is not arguing for the approach taken by Haredi society, which in that same essay about education he calls a “heterotopia” (a term he adopts from Michel Foucault), a society that is so disconnected from all other societies that its boundaries are determined not by where it butts up against other societies but by its own nature. It’s so separate that it doesn’t really even know other societies exist. Shagar admits that this depiction is idealized, not necessarily fitting the reality of contemporary Haredi society, and he therefore calls it “rectified” or “authentic” Haredism (for the latter, see the essay “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” also published in English in the book “Faith Shattered and Restored”). However, real Haredi society is still very separate from mainstream Israeli society, particularly when contrasted with the religious Zionists who, as Shagar says, “live in multiple worlds” (Education and Ideology,” pp. 183-185). This means that Haredim cannot be avant garde; in a sense, you have to be part of the culture in order to be a counter-culture, while Haredim are simply a different culture altogether. Religious Zionists, as well as Modern Orthodox Jews in the US and anyone who finds herself in a similar situation, are fully a part of mainstream, modern, society. This is what makes it significant when we break away from it. Breaking with the norms of our own culture, or perhaps more accurately the norms of the larger culture, marks us as weird and often draws scorn. The trick, however, is to embrace that difference and wear it confidently, thus shifting from “weird” to “avant garde.” We must realize that we’re different, and not expect to fit in perfectly, which means accepting that we will not be embraced by our larger culture one hundred percent of the way.

 

By way of conclusion, and to keep my parenthetical promise from the beginning of this post, I want to apply this model to recent discussions about academic Bible scholarship. This most recent debate was inspired by R. Dr. Joshua Berman’s essay “The Corruption of Biblical Studies” on mosaicmagazine.com, which argued that “conservative” scholars and scholarship are consistently marginalized in the world of academic Bible scholarship. This inspired 4 responses on the site from other scholars, followed by Berman’s rejoinder, as well as other pieces around the internet such as a piece by Prof. Marc Brettler on thetorah.com and one on thelerhaus.com by Dr. Michah Gottlieb. This last piece concludes, based on R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, that “an Orthodox Jew engaged in biblical criticism is knotted in impossible self-contradiction.” This piece, as well as Berman’s first piece, fall prey to some of the problems I mentioned above. R. Hirsch, as portrayed by Gottlieb, seems to fit into the heterotopic-Haredi model, seemingly pushing for Orthodox or conservative scholars to withdraw from biblical scholarship entirely, not recognizing that there are models of Orthodoxy that can embrace some form of historicism (for some of Shagar’s approach to historicism, see “Religious Life in the Modern Age”). Berman, on the other hand, seems to not be accepting that Orthodox and “conservative” scholars are in some ways breaking from the mainstream culture of academic Bible scholarship (I make this point somewhat more tentatively than the previous one). Such scholars will therefore almost unavoidably be marginal figures, and that uncomfortable status ought to be proudly embraced. This doesn’t mean that it is a good thing or that it shouldn’t be pointed out, but it does mean that it’s probably here to stay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

On Themes of Tradition, Authenticity, and Chosen Identity in Moana, with Continual Reference to Rav Shagar

 

This short piece is in lieu of a much larger essay that I don’t have time to write exploring the topic of tradition, authenticity, and chosen identity in Disney’s “Moana,” by way of reference to ideas from the writings of Rav Shagar (even when I do not mention him explicitly). As such I will assume the reader’s basic familiarity with the film, and I will write briefly, without necessarily providing quotes or references.

The three terms I have mentioned are explored in two different arcs in the plot of the film, each fleshed out by three characters. Moana’s story is about the tension between authenticity and tradition, represented by her grandmother (Tala) and her father (Tui), respectively. The theme of chosen identity, on the other hand, is explored through the contrast between the giant crab, Tamatoa, on the one hand, and Maui and Tafiti/Te Ka, on the other. Notably, these two themes are roughly the two ways Rav Shagar understands the term “Accepting the Yoke of Heaven,” regarding which I have an essay forthcoming.
rabbi-shagar

 

Arc #1 – Tui, Tala and Moana: Tradition and Authenticity

Starting at the beginning, the first song in the movie, “Where you are,” sets up the basic tension between Moana’s father and grandmother. The majority of the song is Tui talking about their island society and how everyone has their place in it, in an attempt to convince Moana to accept her life and role there. The basic message is that the answer to “who am I?” can and should be answered like recognizing your place in your society and tradition. If you’re a fisherman then you’re a fisherman, and if you’re a chief then you’re a chief. The song’s title, “where you are,” shows up a few times denoting how a person’s location in the space of the tradition and society is what defines who they are. Near the end of the song, however, Tala cuts in, identifying herself as the village crazy person who drifts too far outside the traditional social framework (and, notably, we always see her by the shore, on the physical fringe of the society), and arguing that who you are is actually a function of a voice within you, not your positioning in relation to those outside you. For Moana, as Tala herself, this voice seems to call her toward the ocean, in contrast to the tradition’s aversion to straying into open waters. Moana is thus caught between being authentic to the voice within her and filling her role as chief for which she has been designated by tradition and society, and her personal arc in the movie is about her learning to resolve the tension.. This topic was already discussed by Sarah Rindner in a relatively excellent article on thelehrhaus.com, but I don’t think it quite reached all the details of this theme, particularly when it comes to how exactly Moana resolves the tension.

A first watershed moment for Moana is discovering that her ancestors had once been sea voyagers. This enables her to challenge her tradition and is part of her being able to eventually strike out on her own. A second is when, in the process of learning to pilot a ship, she learns that in order to know where you are you have to know where you’ve come from. Perhaps tradition is not to be rejected entirely. The two come together when Tala returns in ghostly form during the song “I am Moana (Song of the Ancestors).” In this song, Moana identifies herself with the island, her father, and her future role as chief, as well as with the sea and her voyaging ancestors. She is staying true to to her inner voice, while still identifying with her tradition.

It is worth taking a second to note the specific manner in which she has done that. The voyaging ancestors provide a nexus where the sea and the island meet, where the voice of tradition and the voice of authenticity say the same thing. Moana essentially explored her tradition and found a previously unknown aspect that matched her inner voice. She found a space for herself within the tradition, which is more expansive that she had previously suspected. In traditional Orthodox language, she found her portion in Torah. This is significant because of what the other options could have been. What if Moana had never found the boats? She might have identified with her role as chief and still struck out on the waters in order to save her people. In doing so she would have added something new to the tradition, taking something from outside and introducing it into the tradition by virtue of her identification with it. This is the road not taken in Moana,where the emphasis is on finding one’s own place within their tradition. Moana remains entirely faithful to the pre-existing tradition, but it is broader than previously thought.

For reference, see “The Name of the Father” (על שם האב), a derashah for Pesah and Shavuot , published in שארית האמונה, where Rav Shagar confronts and works with the thought of Alain Badiou, and identifies Pesah with approach to resolution that Moana takes and Shavuot with the other possibility that I outlined here.

Bonus reference: see the earlier published essay “The Hearts of Fathers with their Sons” (לב אבות על בנים) from the book זמן של חירות, many sections of which were republished in “The Name of the Father,” and which gives a slightly different angle on the topic.

 

Arc #2 – Tamatoa, Maui, and Tafiti/Te Ka: Chosen Identity

There is a second thematic arc in Moana that directly contrasts to, and to some degree, undermines the first arc. It thus makes sense that the theme is expressed by Tamatoa, who is a villain, and Te Ka, who is certainly something like a villain, but it is also expressed in the story of Maui, one of the heroes. This is the theme of choosing, or perhaps constructing, your identity, as opposed to accepting an identity that you find within yourself or that your society defines for you, were there to be such a thing.

Tamatoa, the giant crab who has Maui’s hook, sings a song called “Shiny” about how he used to be drab and boring but now is shiny and glamorous. In the process he specifically mentions that Moana’s grandmother said to listen to your heart, to who you are on the inside, and that in this her grandmother lied. But in place of an inner identity the crab suggests not conforming to societal expectations but shininess, making yourself into who you want to be on the outside. In a fantastic lyric, he says that he has made himself shiny like treasure from a sunken pirate ship, and then says that the deck of the ship, the visible outer surface, should be swabbed until it is shiny; there is no treasure, but the outside is made to look like treasure. Tamatoa is arguing for the importance of the identity that you can create for yourself, that any sort of pre-existing essence is a lie (rav Shagar associates this model both with Sartre and Postmodernism).

Te Ka/Tafiti and Maui both express this theme via basically the same movement in their personal story arcs, if the former somewhat more subtly. At a glance, both arcs would seem to affirm the existence of a pre-existing self, namely, Maui’s hook and Tafiti’s heart, but a more comprehensive reading of each indicates otherwise. Maui starts off as someone who assumes his self is synonymous with his hook, and his whole arc is about unlearning this idea. He has to be ok with not having his hook, not having a specific pre-existing self, before he can achieve a new self, represented by the new hook he receives in the end. Only by recognizing that his hook is not his self, and letting it be destroyed, is he able to get a new hook to build his life around.

The same basic story holds true for Te Ka/Tafiti. The nature goddess Tafiti loses her heart and, as we discover at the end of the film, thus becomes the fire demon Te Ka. It would seem to be hard to have a clearer metaphor for a pre-existing self than a small rock called your heart, and thus it makes some sense that Te Ka is continuously upset about not being able to get her heart back, being landlocked on a tiny island. Te Ka’s violent frustration at being separated from her self is what causes the toxic seepage that Moana’s journey is meant to rectify. When she gets her heart back, she returns to her natural state as Tafiti, which would seem to argue for the “self as pre-existing” model. However, in the scene immediately before the restoration of Tafiti, Moana realizes who Te Ka really is and walks toward her singing the short song “Know Who You Are.” In this song, Moana recounts how Tafiti/Te Ka’s heart was stolen, but then says that this does not define Te Ka; Te Ka is not “Tafiti minus her heart.” Upon hearing this, Te Ka immediately calms down, and she and Moana rest their foreheads against each other. This moment is the resolution of the peak tension in the movie, the drama of the violent demon Te Ka, rather than the moment when she turns back into Tafiti. Then Te Ka takes up the identity of Tafiti out of calm choice, and the motion of face-to-face reconciliation is repeated. The story arcs of both Maui and Te Ka/Tafiti thus express the idea that you choose who you are and what your identity is, and that a key step in this process is accepting that whatever you thought your identity is, it is not inherent to you. Only once you accept this fact, the fact that Tamatoa was essentially correct, can you consciously choose to take up a new identity.

For reference, see Rav Shagar’s discussion of Rebbe Nahman’s story about the poor man and the diamond in “Self (?): A Study of One of Rebbe Nahman’s Stories” (עצמיות (?): עיון באחת מסיפורי רבי נחמן), published in נהלך ברג״ש.

Bonus reference: See the essay “Redemption and Accepting the Yoke of Heaven” (גאולה וקבלת עול מלכות שמים) in זמן של חירות and “Freedom and Holiness” (חופש וקודש) in לוחות ושברי לוחות.

God, Otherness, and the End of Utility: Rav Shagar on Korbanot

Rav Shagar combines George Bataille and Rudolf Otto with Biblical texts and Hasidic commentators for a challenging theology of sacrifices.

In honor of this week’s parashah, Vayikra, I have translated some excerpts from “Candle and Sacrifice” (see original Hebrew here), a sermon given by Rav Shagar for Shabbat Hanukkah and published in “LeHa’ir Et HaPetahim.” The sermon focuses on two parallel dichotomies, the first between the services of the Menorah and the sacrifices in the Temple, and the second between the Shabbat candles and the Hanukkah candles in the home (I have discussed this dichotomy here). The candles of the Menorah and Shabbat represent light and warmth, comfort and familiarity, while the fires of the sacrifices and the Hanukkah candles represent death, destruction, and otherness.

In the excerpts below, focusing on the sacrifices, Shagar quotes from George Bataille, a French thinker who theorized about religion in context of production and human nature. Bataille argued that the world exists in an “immanent” state, like “water in water,” with no differentiation between any of the different aspects. Each aspect of the world of itself and for itself, at a given moment.. An animal that kills another animal is not qualitatively different from it. Differentiation, according to Bataille, develops out of human consciousness. Humans specify previously undifferentiated aspects of the world and objectify them. This is because humans look at things as tools which have specific purposes; they don’t exist for themselves at a given moment but for the sake of accomplishing a goal in the future. This leads to “the world of things,” the “profane” human world, in contrast to the “divine” realm, the world as it is outside human perception. The transition from the natural state of the world to the world of things happens automatically, while transitioning back requires the rededication of a tool towards unproductive ends. Bataille’s examples range from the unproductive consumption of alcohol to human sacrifice. In the middle is animal sacrifice, where animals that could be used for a range of productive purposes, in their life and in death, are dedicated to the divine on the altar, and thus will fulfill none of their potential purposes. In this moment, the tool reverts to being an animal, a part of the world, and the human who made it a tool becomes, to a degree, a part of that world as well.

Shagar also references “The Idea of the Holy,” by Rudolf Otto, which is a book length exposition of the idea that a significant aspect of religious experience cannot be captured by language. Otto explores this “numinous” aspect, which he calls “the holy,” and shows how it is always experienced as entirely other and foreign to human existence. Because of this, a significant aspect of the holy is its destructiveness and its amoral character; the rigid framework of human life and morality is entirely foreign to it. The idea of the morality of God results from the aspects of religious experience that can be put into rational, human, language. The moral and rational aspects of God become more dominant in more developed religions, but the destructive otherness of the holy can never be removed from religion entirely, not should it (for more on this, see this quote from Paul Tillich’s “The Dynamics of Faith”).

It is against the background of these two thinkers that Shagar explores the meaning of korbanot, and through the lens of Jewish texts, from Tanakh through to Hasidic thinkers, with Levinas and Derrida briefly mentioned for good measure. Melding these disparate elements together in the crucible of the derashah, the classic form of the rabbinic sermon, Shagar looks at what meaning the Temple sacrifices present for the religious life of a contemporary individual, as I will briefly explore after the excerpts.

 

Life and Death

[…]

Lighting the candles of the Menorah is one of the priestly services in the temple – “Speak to Aaron and say, “In lighting the candles toward the face of the menorah, light seven candles” (Bemidbar 8:2). The nature of this service emerges more clearly in contrast to a different procedure, that of bringing a sacrifice: the sacrifice returns the “thing,” the object-animal, to nothingness via its destruction and ending. This is most clearly expressed by the Olah sacrifice that is burnt up entirely on the altar: “the priest shall offer up and turn the whole into smoke on the altar. It is an olah, an offering by fire, a pleasing aroma for God” (Vayikra 1:13). However, we need to be precise: “The principle of sacrifice is destruction, but though it sometimes goes so far as to destroy completely (as in a holocaust [a burnt offering ~LM]), the destruction that sacrifice is intended to bring about is not annihilation. The thing – only the thing – is what sacrifice means to destroy in the victim.” In other words, the sacrificial act is the returning of the objectness (the thing-object) to the intimacy of existence, to a state where everything is enveloped in everything else, like “water in water.” The sacrifice is therefore not elimination and absence but “returning to nothingness,” a return from existence, from a world characterized by functional and instrumental distinctions that tear things from the deep intimacy of the divine world, which there is no accounting. On the one hand, the death of the sacrifice is the concept of limitation; it is death from the perspective of life; it is an approach to the end and to the differentiation of the world of things. The idea of limitation grants a thing itself, its existence, because limitation is necessary for existence. On the other hand, death grants existence its unity with itself; the disintegration of distinguished things. Existence is liberated from thingness and ascends to nothingness, and envelopes itself.

From the perspective of the living thing, the sacrifice ends in frustration, as it leads to deadness and elimination. It’s impossible to “destroy the animal as a thing without denying the animal’s objective reality… one cannot at the same time destroy the values that found reality and accept their limits.” At the moment that death manifests, the animal no longer exists from the perspective of life – “the world of things” –   and the sacrifice therefore turns into an existence of emptiness.

 

The absolution annihilation of the sacrifice manifests one of the primordial religious experiences: rejection and nullification of the value of the world. Religiosity inherently bears within it an experience of destruction – “it destroys or nullifies any existence other than the existence of the creator, and and denies any possibility of understanding the creator and encountering him.” Hasidic conceptions of nullifying existence, such as the Habad contemplation of “everything before God is as nothing,” ultimately take part in the nullification of the world. You can see a “record” of the experience of destruction in Hasidut by examining the broad attention given to yearning and the consumption of the soul in hasidic teachings, where they are compared to a sacrifice that burns the pleasures and enjoyments of this world. In Hasidut, the sacrifice represents “the elevation of feminine waters,” a process of love at the center of which is liberation from the “things” and a return to a pantheistic state of simplicity and oneness with existence. Reality receives its spiritualization from death – or from aspects of it, such as commitment to martyrdom upon going to sleep, or when lowering one’s head in prayer, – which deconstructs the differences in existence. This leads to liberation from the ordered laws of existence, but it is bound up in frustration and inner pain, for existence does not experience death and the destruction of existence as liberation. That experience belongs to the intimate nothingness, what a person “sees only at the moment of his death.”

The sacrifice in the temple resonates with the requirement of martyrdom “with all your heart, with all your life, and with all your might” (Devarim 6:5). “With all your life – even if he takes your life.” “With all your might (מאודך)” – “In Rabbi Meir’s torah scroll they found it written: “And behold it was very (מאד) good” (Bereshit 1), And behold death (מות) was good.” A person must commit his whole world to death in order to open up to the divine absolute, as only in the ending of life does there exist the possibility of encounter with the infinite.

[…]

The job of a sacrifice is to bring a person to commitment and a personal ending; to give up on the finite nature of his existence by overcoming himself. This is a different manner of eros [from that of the candle], wherein “strong as death is love, hard as hell is jealousy, and its darts are darts of fire, a blazing flame” (Shir HaShirim 8:6).

 

Two Holies

Generally speaking, bringing a sacrifice and lighting the candles present us with two different types of consciousness regarding the holy: the numinous and the pleasant. This echoes a split found in Tanakh, where the holy sometimes appears as the tremendous, the awe-ful and terrifying, and even the destructive that demands sacrifice, and sometimes – the illuminating good, the replete and the pleasurable.

The holy arouses fear and brings with it the destructive. In the language of Levinas and Derrida the holy represents the “other” and manifests the “gap” and “difference” that cannot be bridged. “Anyone who touches the mountain shall die. no hand shall touch him, but he shall be either stoned or shot; beast or man, he shall not live” (Shemot 19:12-13); “They shall not enter to see the dismantling of the holy, lest they die” (Bemidbar 4:20).

 

In these excerpts, Rav Shagar plays up the destructive aspect of sacrifices, something that is most intensely on display in the olah, the offering that is burnt whole on the altar. This destructive aspect, Shagar argues, is connected to larger religious themes of martyrdom and acosmism, the common thread between these ideas being the negation of the world in favor of the divine other. God is so totally different from human existence that God can only manifest at the expense of human existence. However, this human existence is created by a focus on utility, on the practical ends served by things, and so turning away from practical ends, by sacrifice or by committing your life to God even to the point of martyrdom.

There is something almost terrifying about this sort of theology, as there should be. Moreover, anyone familiar with the religious violence of the 21st century, let alone the rest of human history, should be wary of any theology at all valuing the “ending” or “destruction” of earthly, human, existence (Notably, the above excerpts leave out the more affirmative theological aspects of the sermon). That caveat aside, this theology has great significance in modern discussions of religion.

The key, I think, lies in the citation of Bataille. The citation of Bataille focuses the whole discussion on the issue of utility. Our existence is marked by things being useful. If things don’t have obvious uses, we usually figure one out in short order. This focus on usefulness has us constantly justifying things in terms of other things. Even when an object does not have practical value, we want to know what value it serves to promote. The peak manifestation of this is when God, the ultimate other, that which is theoretically foreign to all aspects of our existence, is justified in terms of our values and the values of our lives. What is the role of religion in our lives? What does it add? What are the reasons for the commandments? These questions all ask us to explain the divine in terms of the human, and there can be great value in that. But there can also be great danger. Explaining religion and the divine in terms of their value in our lives makes our lives the ultimate arbiters of purpose and value. In such a situation, there’s no room for asking what makes our lives valuable? What do we add to the world? What are we for? The world of things demands participation in production, without ever asking what that production is for. Religion challenges that endless process of production, presenting values and commands that cannot, or should not, be justified by their value in our lives. Rav Shagar’s theology of sacrifices sees them as provoking an experience of divine otherness, an otherness which challenges us to ask basic questions about the very value of our lives. Have we been explaining things by the value they add to our lives? If so, by what do we explain the value of our lives?

Rav Shagar – Shaping Our Religious Language

Any reader of Rav Shagar’s sermons and essays will immediately notice that his language is a veritable pastiche of two things not found in many contemporary Jewish thinkers: Kabbalah/Hasidut and secular philosophy, Postmodernism in particular. Given how unique this feature of Shagar’s writings is, it is worth considering why he spoke and wrote that way. There seem to be a few reasons, some of which Shagar addresses in his introduction to the book of his sermons for Purim that was published in his lifetime:

It is necessary to translate the hasidic sermons to “the language of our times.” One of my goals is to attempt to shape substantial and relevant material for times and holidays that are supposed to be meaningful times of renewal and exploration, as well as to characterize each holiday in it’s own unique light. This is why I have integrated modern ideas into hasidic trains of thought, in order to translate these hasidic ideas for us and our world. […]

Further, I find in “kabbalistic language” great interpretive power and the ability to illuminate many cultural events in our time. Moreover, in many of the cultural events of our time I see the realization of the “kabbalistic vision” that speaks of the shattering of the vessels and their purification as necessary conditions for redemption, a redemption that is not simply national, but is an ontological shift in the “universal existence” (יש העולמי). (Pur Hu HaGoral, p.8)

Rav Shagar was trying to shape a new religious language, a language for talking about God and religion, for the Dati Le’umi community, with two primary components: 1) Contemporary philosophy. The Dati Le’umi (or Modern Orthodox) individual lives in the modern world, and contemporary philosophy and the social issues of postmodern society are a part of her life. They therefore ought to be a part of her religious language as well. 2) Hasidut and Kabbalah. Shagar was part of a movement that successfully introduced the study of Hasidut and Kabbalah into Dati Le’umi society, and he here gives two reasons for its importance: A) Interpretive power. The language of Hasidut and Kabbalah enabled, for Shagar, a particularly expansive and creative approach to Judaism, fitting with the creative and unbounded way these movements interpreted traditional texts. B) “Illumination of cultural events.” In addition to providing language, Kabbalah provides Shagar with a specific cosmic and historical vision that is ripe for identification with contemporary cultural events – The breakdown of all overarching narratives in postmodernity is the kabbalistic shattering of the vessels. Judaism can thus speak directly to the events of our times.

While that explains why Shagar has opted for the hasidic approach over other forms of Jewish language, it does not explain why he doesn’t simply look outside Judaism for suitable language. He’s already using secular philosophy, so why not use secular language as well? In answer to that, it is important to note that Shagar never tries speak as if he was not Jewish. He is Jewish, and that’s the starting point of his thought. He never questions this or tries to get outside it, and much of his thought philosophically argues for this kind of approach. This fits well with his interest in the thought of Franz Rosenzweig, who had an experience that concretized for him the fact that he was Jewish and that this was his starting point. He consequently became fascinated with Hebrew, in all its eras, and with the language of the traditional liturgy and the Bible. Traditional Jewish language was important to him simply because it is Jewish, and the same is true of Shagar.

 

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)

Shagar and Rambam 1

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).

Shagar and Rambam 2

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.

Shagar and Rambam 3

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)

Shagar and Rambam 4

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)

Shagar and Rambam 5

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:

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.23.48 AM

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:

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.24.24 AMScreen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.25.06 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.26.48 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.32.31 AM

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:

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.34.23 AMScreen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.34.30 AM

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:

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.35.12 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.35.18 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.35.24 AM.png

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:

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.44.19 AM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.44.32 AM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.45.17 AM.png

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:

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.53.20 AM.png

Everything in this world is from upper worlds.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.53.56 AM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.55.23 AM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.55.48 AM.png

A person must find the understandings of Torah within himself.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.58.31 AM.png

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:

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.59.08 AM.png

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 11.59.32 AM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 12.03.41 PM.png

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?).

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 12.03.53 PM.png

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:

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 12.06.55 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 12.07.10 PM.png

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

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 12.07.23 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 12.11.42 PM.png

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:

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 12.12.45 PM.png

  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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 12.13.24 PM.png

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

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 12.15.00 PM.png

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.

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.]