Shiur: Nisan 2019 – HaḤodesh HaZeh Lakhem: Politics of the Calendar

 

I. Establishing the Calendar

1. The Economist, “Rulers of Time”

In the modern era, measurement of time provides a way to underline the clout of central government: both India and China, despite their size, have a single time zone, which keeps everyone marching in step with the capital. It also offers an opportunity for emphasising independence and non-conformity. Hugo Chávez turned the clocks back by half an hour in 2007 to move Venezuela into its own time zone—supposedly to allow a “fairer distribution of the sunrise” but also ensuring that the socialist republic did not have to share a time zone with the United States…

In theory, modern technology offers liberation from temporal tyranny, by allowing people to use whichever system they prefer. The internet runs on “universal” time, a global standard used by astronomers and other scientists, based on a network of atomic clocks. As modern as this sounds, it is really the latest incarnation of Greenwich Mean Time, with all its attendant imperialist cultural baggage. But smartphones and computers can seamlessly translate between time zones and calendar systems, allowing people to use whichever they like. There is no reason why e-mail clients or web calendars could not allow the use of the French Revolutionary clock and calendar systems, say, alongside Muslim and North Korean ones.

In practice, however, time zones and calendars are more than just arbitrary ways to rule lines on time. They do not merely specify how to refer to a particular instant or period; they also dictate and co-ordinate activities across entire societies, in particular by defining which days are working days and national holidays. These have to be consistent within countries and, in some cases, between them: just ask Saudi Arabia, which in 2013 moved its weekend from Thursday/Friday to Friday/Saturday, to bring it into line with other Arab states. The need for such coordination means there is no escape from centralised control of clocks and calendars—which explains why the tendency to politicise them is timeless.

2. Exodus 12:1-2

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first for you of the months of the year.

3. Mekhilta, Masekhta DePascha 1

“This month is to be for you…”as opposed to Adam HaRishon who did not count from it. Does “for you” mean as opposed to how Adam HaRishon counted, or perhaps “for you” means as opposed to how the non-Jews count? When it says “the first for you” that means “for you” and not for the non-Jews. Why does it [the second] “for you”? “For you,” as opposed to Adam HaRishon who did not count from it.

 

II. Changing/ Maintaining the Calendar

4. The Economist, “Rulers of Time”

North Korea is shifting its time zone this week to reverse the imposition of Tokyo time by “wicked Japanese imperialists” in 1912.

4. 1 Kings 12:26-33

Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.”

After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other.

Jeroboam built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites. He instituted a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the festival held in Judah, and offered sacrifices on the altar. This he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves he had made. And at Bethel he also installed priests at the high places he had made. On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a month of his own choosing (אשר בדא מלבו), he offered sacrifices on the altar he had built at Bethel. So he instituted the festival for the Israelites and went up to the altar to make offerings.

6. Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:8-9

It once happened that two [witnesses] came and testified: We saw it in the morning [of the twenty-ninth] in the east, and in the evening [of the thirtieth] in the west. Said Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri: [It’s impossible for them to have seen the new moon in the morning, since the new moon is only visible in the west at evening, thus] they are false witnesses. However, when they came to Yavneh, Rabban Gamliel [who knew through astronomical calculations that the new moon should have been visible on the evening of the thirtieth] accepted their testimony. On another occasion two witnesses came and testified: We saw it in its expected time [on the night preceding the thirtieth] but on the night of its intercalation [the thirty-first] it was not seen, and Rabban Gamliel accepted their testimony. Said Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas: They are false witnesses. How can they testify that a woman has given birth when on the next day her belly is still [swollen appearing to be] between her teeth? Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: I approve of your words. Rabban Gamliel sent him [Rabbi Yehoshua] a message: I decree upon you that you come to me with your staff and money on the day which according to you will be Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Akiva went [to Rabbi Yehoshua] and found him in great distress [that he was ordered to violate the day that was Yom Kippur according to his calculation], he said to him, I can bring you proof that whatever Rabban Gamliel has done is valid for it says: “The following are God’s appointed holy days that you will designate in their appointed times” (Leviticus 23:4), whether they are designated in their proper time, or not at their proper time, I have no holy days save these.

He [Rabbi Yehoshua] came to Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas who said to him: If we question the ruling of the Bet Din of Rabban Gamliel we must question the ruling of every Bet Din from the times of Moshe up to the present day as it says: “And Moshe ascended with Aharon Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders of Israel” (Exodus 24:9). Why weren’t the names of the elders specified? To show that every group of three [sages], that form a Bet Din, is considered as the Bet Din of Moshe and Aharon.

He [Rabbi Yehoshua] took his staff and his money and went to Yavneh to Rabban Gamliel on the day of Yom Kippur according to his calculation. Rabban Gamliel rose and kissed him on his head and said to him: Come in peace my master and my disciple, my master in wisdom and my disciple because you have accepted my words.

 

III. The Calendar Today

7. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 346

I don’t know how to depict this redemption, but Rebbe Naman’s words inspire me to think that, perhaps, if we stand vulnerable before God… this will enable a shift, something transcendent will reveal itself, something that is beyond difference. I am not talking about tolerance, nor about the removal of difference. The Other that I see before me will remain different and inaccessible and, despite this, the Divine Infinite will position me by the Other’s side. Again, how this will manifest in practical or political terms, I do not know. But Yom Yerushalayim will be able to turn from a nationalistic day, one which has turned with time into a tribalistic celebration of Religious Zionism alone, into an international day.

8. Rav Menaḥem Froman, Ten Li Zeman, 119

The event of the new moon (ḥidush) was, for the Sages, the most intense instance where we encounter the creator and renewer of the world. Revolutionary Marxism went to war against religion, primarily because it saw it as an anti-revolutionary force. Religious faith can lead us to conservative conclusions. Religion can sanctify the status quo as the handiwork of the Creator. However, we might also come to the exact opposite conclusion. If a person believes that the world is created (“meḥudash,” “made anew,” in medieval terminology), then he believes that the world could be radically remade anew.

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Pipeline – Levi Morrow

The Abandoned Kippah הכיפה הנזנחת

כיפה תקוע בצינור
אי שם באמצע
בין שמיים וארץ

האם הוא השפע היורד
בתוך הצינור
או המחסום החוסם?
כיפת השמיים או כיפת האדם?

סוף דבר
הכיפה נמצא
את סימניו תראה
ואליך תשוב
.כי זה כיפת האדם

Kippah Stuck in a pipe
Somewhere between
Heaven and Earth

Is it the abundance descending
From within the pipe
Or the dam blocking?
The Kippah of Heaven
or the Kippah of man?

In the end
The Kippah is here
Show its signs
And to you it shall return
For it is the Kippah of man.

– Levi Morrow

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Shiur: The Funny Thing About Mitsvot – Adar Bet 2019

The Funny Thing About Mitsvot: Humanity, Divinity, and Irony

I. Take life lightly!

2. Rav Menachem Froman, They Make Hasidim Laugh, §27-28

27. Take life lightly! Clap your hands, run, dance! […] Stop being a Jew like me, who recites the Shema and takes the Mishneh Berurah and Shulan Arukh so seriously. Because truth be told, it’s also written that the Shema has to be recited with an intentional heart. And what exactly is an intentional heart? Lightness; it’s when your heart carries you through your Shema!

Let’s stop being like those who bear the cross of the Torah with such gravity! Let’s stop being like those who can’t take the Torah lightly. That’s what leads to heresy. That’s why the majority of the Jewish people no longer keeps the Torah. What is it I need? To dance the Torah, to jump the Torah! What’s missing is Purim. That’s what’s holding back my service of God.

Years ago, I suggested to my wife that we change our last name from Froman to Purim. Instead of saying, “Rabbi Froman will today meet with Arafat, representatives from Hamas, etc.”, they’d say it was Rabbi Purim! It would sound completely different! Then no one would take what I do too seriously…

28. […] In classical Judaism, all of the commandments commemorate the exodus from Egypt, but now we have reached a new era, an era of laughter and freedom. Until now, all the commandments were very serious. Passover is about pathos. The Torah has lots of pathos, it’s very serious. Now, we have a new era, a new Torah, the Torah of the land of Israel, the Torah of the Messiah. All the commandments commemorate the laughter of Purim, not the pathos of Passover.

To be or not to be is a serious, weighty question. However, Shakespeare wrote in the very same play that the whole world is a stage, that everything is a game. Do you hear me asking the most important question there is in life, whether or not to be? This question is just a joke, it’s a game… it’s just a game…

There is something that takes priority over the question of whether or not to be. It even takes priority over saving a life, which is so important that it overrides Shabbat. What is this thing that takes priority over saving a life? Being before God. Before God. Being before God in this world and the world to come, being before God and knowing that everything we have done in our lives is a joke. Life, death, it’s all a joke before God.

II. Do the Mitsvot, But with a Wink

2. Rav Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored, “Living with Nothingness,” 103 n.35
Translated by Elie Leshem, with minor changes.

This spirit of lightness is expressed through the injection of faith with a humorous dimension. As Rabbi Nahman wrote, the power of humor lies in its capacity to illuminate the limitations of our world in relation to the divine infinitude.

 

3. Rav Shagar, Shiurim Al Lekutei Moharan, on Lekutei Moharan I:6

Rebbe Naḥman claims that the very concepts in which we live, concepts of sin and reward and punishment, in a certain sense corporealize God. They lack spirituality in comparison to the infinite, necessitating a “World to Come” teshuvah to make up for the lower, earthly, teshuvah. Rebbe Naḥman essentially demands that we do teshuvah for the forms of religiosity in which we perform the commandment of teshuvah, which he claims is plagued by corporealization of God. A person must act, but he must not turn this action into an ideology, a something, an object. He knows that his teshuvah necessarily fails, and this recognition elevates his repentance.

This means that every significant decision, like the mental (nafshit) act of repentance, must come from an inner silence. This lets a person drawn on his inner life, which cannot be put into words. Despite this, when the spiritual (ruḥanit) act emerges in the world it loses its innerness, requiring “repentance” to turn it into a true spiritual act. What does this mean? Imagine a person who decides to repent. He is forbidden from thinking that this decision expresses the absolute divine truth. If he thinks this, he has corporealized the divine. He must make the decision, but by nature of being an act in the world, it belongs to the category of “kingly honor” (kevod melakhim). It is by definition corporeal, so he must simultaneously repent for his repentance. He thus elevates and spiritualizes the repentance, returning it to its lofty source.

Rebbe Naḥman’s approach recalls how Soren Kierkegaard described the concept of irony. The spiritual character is different, but there is a degree of similarity between the idea of repenting for your repentance and Kierkegaard’s image of the ironic individual, who speaks seriously, but with a wink. This wink does not mean that he is lying, but expresses a dual perspective on reality. He sees with both his eyes at once: one perspective recognizes the seriousness of holiness, while the second, aware of the seriousness of holiness, feels uncomfortable with the inflexibility hidden in this seriousness; spirituality is not a “thing,” it is free and light by definition. This second perspective, the gaze, frees a person from his first perspective on holiness, thereby initiating it anew. The role of irony is to spiritualize human comprehensions of reality. The ironic individual wants to maintain his world while nullifying it (bitulo). He is the believer who takes his life seriously, but understands that sometimes you need a sideways wink in order to look at life seriously.

4. Rav Shagar, Shuvi Nafshi, 27-28

The religious act is inherently flawed by virtue of being an earthly act. Any religious statement must be nullified as it is being said, simply in order to make it sayable.

In order to give teshuvah the elevation it deserves, we have to do teshuvah while simultaneously doing teshuvah for that act of teshuvah itself. The act of teshuvah is in and of itself a sin in relation to the divine infinitude. It is therefore forbidden to get caught up in the motivation for the teshuvah, seeing it as an absolute motivation. It’s earthliness makes it necessary to do teshuvah for the teshuvah.

This is how Rebbe Naḥman elevates the teshuvah itself to the supernal teshuvah, the teshuvah of the world to come, which not our real world, but the teshuvah of the ideal world that does not yet exist. The doubled gaze enables a person to do teshuvah even if this teshuvah is earthly and insufficient.

 

5. Rav Shagar, Tsel Ha’Emunah, 57-58

The test of religiosity is not keeping the mitsvot, nor even suspending them or not keeping them, but how you relate to their suspension. A person can trust (bitaḥon) in the mitsvot and cast his lot upon them, but he must ask himself what happens when God rejects his performance of the mitsvot. Is the mitsvah itself the goal? What about when it doesn’t receive its light from the will of God? […] God’s laughter reveals the unusual combination of the person who trusts (bitahon) and the God who knocks his trust out from under him. […] This is a comical event, which reveals the total nothingness, the joke, of the person who thinks its so serious and important when he does a mitsvah. It’s as if God “pranked” the person; someone with a sense of humor will laugh along and even enjoy it, but someone who doesn’t will see it as a painful rejection. This necessary humor comes from recognizing the precariousness of human existence, the nothingness of humanity in contrast with the divine infinitude. […] Performing the act as a mitsvah is what makes it divine and absolute, for the mitsvah is what reveals God speaking to a person. […] Doing them any other way, no matter how lofty and important the motivations, remains within the human confines of “reasoned decision,” without connecting to the divine. […] The Jewish person celebrates doing mitsvot because that is where he finds God addressing him.

 

III. Freeing God from the Mitsvot

6. Yishai Mevorach, Teologiah Shel Heser, 102

It’s as if God is bound in the bonds of a person’s religious language and religious way of life. A person’s faith language carries with it a meaning that limits the words of faith – words like “God,” “divinity,” “holiness,” “commandment” – to the narrow sense of their religious form of life. The rabbis expressed this “framing” in homilies (midrashim) that depict God observing the commandments.[1] This congruence between religious life and God’s life creates an intimacy in the relationship of the believer and his god. Additionally, it testifies to the narrowness of the god’s world, constricted within the believer’s way of life.

Only a “secular believer,” sensitive to the enigmatic nature of his language, can encounter the infinite force of the divine, while he is forced to constantly turn his gaze up and down, backward and forward, because the word he speaks lacks any meaning or sense when he says “God.”[2] This understanding opens up a path to secular faith, to faith that encounters religious language and feels how it is full of force exactly by virtue of its lack of meaning.

[1] “Rabbi Avin bar Rav Adda said that Rabbi Yitzḥak said: From where is it derived that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wears phylacteries? As it is stated: “The Lord has sworn by His right hand, and by the arm of His strength” (Isaiah 62:8). Since it is customary to swear upon holy objects, it is understood that His right hand and the arm of His strength are the holy objects upon which God swore.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6a, Koren translation and commentary)

[2] “One may not expound the laws of forbidden sexual relations before three people, nor the account of Creation before two, nor the Divine Chariot before one, unless he is wise and understanding from his own knowledge. Anyone who looks into four things is worthy of not having come into the world: what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after. And anyone who has no consideration for the honor of his Maker would be better off if he had not come into the world.” (Mishnah Hagigah 2:2)

Rav Shagar Goes Beyond the State: Rosenzweig’s Non-Statist “Jewishness” and the Primordial Torah

Rav Shagar Goes Beyond the State:
Rosenzweig’s Non-Statist “Jewishness” and the Primordial Torah

More thesis notes.

In the last post, I focused on a passage from Rav Shagar entitled “Not Yet,” wherein Rav Shagar said that Religious Zionism has to shift its focus from the state to the community. While not rejecting statist Zionism in toto, Shagar withdraws all Religious value from the state and relocates it within the classical body politic of the Jewish Diaspora, the community.

Shagar does not give us a full depiction of what this non-statist religious community would look like. However, Shagar often argued that the Religious Zionist community should adopt the Haredi community’s minority posture, wherein they do not define themselves based on the space in which they live or the other groups with whom they interact. In several of these passages, he appeals to Rosenzweig for a philosophical formulation of this mode of existence, and in the derashah “Love and Law,” he describes this as how Judaism looked before the emergence of Rav Kook’s religious Zionism:

What was the spiritual situation before Rav Kook’s teachings? What was that “religious Jewishness” that we mentioned? […]

Rosenzweig taught that Jewishness manifests as commitment and being rooted in the covenant, which are the fundamental acts of Judaism. According to this definition, the Jewish exile is when you create of a sheltered, a-historical, family space, without being concerned for surroundings or engaged in the rules of history. The Jews “lack the passionate attachment to the things that constitute the primary… ‘objects’ of other historical peoples and nations, attachments that ultimately constitute their vitality and endurance as peoples and nations: land, territory, and architecture; regional and national languages; laws [=state laws], customs, and institutions.” Their land exists only as a holy land for which they yearn, and their holy language is not their first language, not the language that they speak in their daily lives. Jewishness is bound up and connected only and entirely in itself. “Our life is no longer meshed with anything outside ourselves. We have struck root in ourselves.” “And so, in the final analysis, [the Jewish nation] is not alive in the sense the nations are alive: in a national life manifest on this earth, in a national territory, solidly based and staked out on the soil. It is alive only in that which guarantees it will endure beyond time, in that which pledges it ever lastingness, in drawing its own eternity from the sources of the blood.”

The Jew being connected only in himself, of the nation in its very existence, creates a two-fold relationship with the “outside.” Other nations and cultures, either do not exist from the Jew’s perspective, the “outside” does not enter his horizon at all…”

The Jews are always at home, because they are never in a home; their home is their blood. As Rosenzweig lays it out, the critical distinction between the Jewish people and other peoples is that the Jewish people don’t have a state, or all the laws, customs, and institutions that come with it. Rav Shagar argues that the Religious Zionist community should adopt this sort of posture within the state of Israel. The state should be a geo-political space in which they live but with which they do not identify.

This is the same sort of existence Rav Shagar attributes to Haredism (if not to contemporary Haredi communities, which fail to live up to his idealized “authentic” or “rectified” Haredism). They live in the state but do not attribute religious value to it. Their religious lives are entirely separate from the state, and they follow its laws, speak its language, and participate in its institutions only incidentally. (Notably, Rav Shagar also attributes to them an understanding of holiness as bound up in the past, which he finds philosophically formulated in  [Stephane Moses’s] Walter Benjamin).

Similarly, Religious Zionism needs to reorient itself around the community as the locus of religious life, following the laws of the Torah community, bound up in “the infinite Torah” (seemingly the primordial Torah of the Kabbalah). They need to become, and embrace being, a minority within the state of Israel, defined more by their Jewishness than by their Israeliness. To the degree that they do identify with the state of Israel, this will be in contrast with and perhaps even in contradiction to their religious identities. As Rav Shagar says, being a Religious Zionist means living in multiple worlds, having a split, “schizophrenic” identity, and affirming contradictory values.

Shiur: “Good” is a Human Word: Rav Shagar’s Approach to Bitahon

Why do we suffer? Can there be a reason for suffering? Is the divine perhaps most manifest in suffering and meaninglessness? Perhaps most importantly, how should we respond to suffering?

We explore all this and more in this shiur, based on the writings of Rav Shagar.

 

1. Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5a-b

Rava, and some say Rav Ḥisda, said: If a person sees that suffering has befallen him, he should examine his actions. […] If he examined his ways and found no transgression, […] he may be confident that these are afflictions of love, as it is stated: “For whom the Lord loves, He rebukes” (Proverbs 3:12). […]

Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Ḥiyya said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health.

Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan fell ill. Rabbi Ḥanina entered to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina stood him up and restored him to health.

 

I. Good is a Human Word

2. Bayom Hahu, 62

The great difference between the two mindsets of faith, “there is no death without sin” and “he may be confident that these are sufferings of love” has implications for many fundamental topics in religious life. For example, the differing views of the Hazon Ish, on the one hand, and Rabbeinu Baḥya, on the other, regarding the topic of bitaḥon. The Hazon Ish, in his book, “Emunah and Bitaḥon,” says that trust in God comes from faith in divine justice and providence; not from faith that everything will be good, but from faith that everything will be done through divine justice and providence.

In contrast, Rabbeinu Baḥya said, “I have never found myself in a situation and wished that it were otherwise.” From his perspective, trust in God is rooted in equanimity; the individual is happy in instances, whatever they may be, due to his faith that they express God’s will, and that God’s will is the good. This is a circular thought process, because someone who believes that everything is God’s will and that God’s will is the good, and is willing to accept is as good, will experience good.

 

3. Faith Shattered and Restored, 93-95

Translated by Elie Leshem (with edits)

The pious man’s (ḥasid) […] believes that everything befalling him expresses God’s mercy and absolute goodness. […] To portray the pious man (ḥasid) as someone who has gained a prize is to overlook the deeper meaning of his faith and trust (bitaḥon) in God. The source of his trust is not the divine promise of happiness or redemption. It comes from surrendering his very need for security, and from a willingness to accept the divine will, whatever it may be, and identify it as good. The pious man’s trust is paradoxical, an insecure security, and it entails an excruciating, inhuman concession. His security does not include a material dimension – only thus can it lead to redemption. His world is the best of all worlds, because the meaning of best (tov) has been fundamentally altered – it is a meaning-less meaning. His world is full of nothingness, so his nothingness is full.

 

4. Nahalekh Baragesh, 172

The highest divine revelation appears in the world as shadow. “‘Like the apple tree amidst the trees of the forest, so my beloved among the men,’ which the midrash explains: Just as the apple tree provide no shade and therefore everyone flees from it, so too my beloved… everyone flees from him, but I sit in his shade and enjoy.” This shade does not provide security (bitaḥon) to the one who shelters in it, and despite this the Jewish people desire to sit in this minimal shade. […] The highest divine reality, that of “The Concealed World” (alma de’atkasiya), casts shadows of suffering, but these shadows provide the possibility of a closeness to God greater than all the life of this world.

 

II. Human is a God Word

5. 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. “A person like this is an instance of ‘the righteous person is the foundation (yesod) of the world,’ and he is modeled after the supernal Yesod, ‘for God is in heaven and you are on earth […] you on the earth are modeled after God in Heaven” (!).

 

6. Nahalekh Baragesh, 171

This bitaḥon is the bitaḥon of the messiah, of the righteous person who […] can draw down abundance that is divine and not simply spiritual, and can even guarantee success in the realm of external reality. […] For Rav Paritsch, this messianic bitaḥon is not just certainty about success, but even the ability to create that success! Here too there is a paradox: The righteous person accepts the yoke of the kingship of heaven, which means absolute obedience, even in the realm of action. However, this leads to the unity of the inner and outer world, and to the inverse capacity for control in the  external world. […] The righteous person becomes a god on earth, like the model of God in heaven. The non-spiritual renunciation that is accepting the yoke of the kingship of heaven leads to a spiritualization of reality, without making it any less substantive; reality becomes “a dwelling in the lower realms,” a medium for the divine presence. The righteous person also becomes a chariot for the Shekhinah, a unity that gives him the power of a creator. Bitaḥon, which until now had led to passively responding, becomes the ability to actively create.

Objectless Repentance in the Religious Zionist Turn to Hasidic Texts

Introduction

When we talk about teshuvah, about repentance, what do we mean? Is it a process of reviewing our sins and determining how to make up for them? Is it about feeling bad about the things we’ve done wrong? While this is a fairly typical way of describing the process of repentance, thinkers from Religious Zionism’s turn toward Hasidic texts would have us think otherwise. Rav Shagar and Rav Froman critique this model of repentance, and each suggest their own alternative. Rav Shagar wants us to focus on the future, on living up to our ideals in a broad sense, in making the world the way it ought to be. Rav Froman wants us to open up ourselves rather than examine our actions, and express ourselves before God. This is in line with Rav Froman and Rav Shagar’s broader critiques of “religious materialism” and religion that is focused on checking boxes and acquiring religious achievements. Yishai Mevorach does not discuss repentance specifically, but he aims the same critique at faith in general, arguing that only giving up on an object-based faith can save religion from fundamentalism.

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Rav Shagar

In a small book of Rosh Hashanah derashot called Zikaron Leyom Rishon, Rav Shagar challenged the way people often talk about repentance. In a derashah called “Sin, Guilt, and Covenant” (1990), he says:

We review our personal history (ḥeshbon hanefesh); here is where we made mistakes, this is where we transgressed, etc. We accept upon ourselves to be better. Do we stop reviewing at that point? Is that the extent of sin and repentance? (36-37)

Is that really sufficient? Does the simple process of “I did X, I regret it, I commit to not doing it again” exhaust the process of repentance? Some of what is at stake here, as we shall see throughout this post, is the nature of religion. Is religion about more than just actions? If it is, then a word as fundamental as “repentance” has to be about more than just actions as well.

Without going as broad as that, however, Rav Shagar raises another issue with this form of repentance. In a derashah called “Repentance and the World to Come” (1989), he differentiates between “this world” and “the world to come.” “This world” is characterized by that at which we can point; if you can put your finger on it, it’s part of this world. “The world to come,” in contrast, “is not what exists, but what could exist” (29); “the world to come” (which Rav Shagar follows the Zohar in understanding as “the world that is always coming”) is about the potential of a better future. In this context, Rav Shagar raises the problem of the sincerity and finality of repentance.

Someone could claim: Do any of us really think that it’s possible to become different? That we might merit forgiveness (seliḥah) on the complicated personal level or the confused and conflicted national level? Perhaps this is all just self-deception. Will any of us really merit forgiveness (meḥilah)? “This” is “this,” hard and unchangeable! […] The world is indeed “this world.” However, it is possible to live it as “what is coming” rather than “this,” to gaze upon the possible rather than the already existing. This is actually no less real a reality. Even as something as of yet unrealized, as something that is not yet “this,” it is decisively important that we connect to it at least as “what is coming.” (30-31)

The anxiety of repentance, permeating the months of Elul and Tishrei, questions where we can ever really be sincere in our desire to be better. And even if we can be sincere, who is to say that it will last? What if we change ourselves only to rapidly fall back into our old ways. While he does want us to acknowledge that real, lasting change does happen (31), Rav Shagar thinks we should shift away from these questions. They are “this world” questions, they’re concerned only with the actions we have or have not performed. Instead, we should look to the future, to the world we want to create and how we want to live. Instead of a critical repentance wherein we scour and examine ourselves and our actions, Rav Shagar wants us to embrace a creative repentance, where we create ourselves anew.

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Rav Froman

Rav Froman’s small book, Ḥasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh, contains many short, aphoristic sayings on a number of topics. In one of them, he addresses the nature of repentance.

What is repentance according to Rebbe Naḥman?

It doesn’t mean sitting with a journal, writing out a personal accounting (ḥeshbon hanefesh) and repairing all your deeds. That’s repentance for Yekkes.

What is repentance for Rebbe Naḥman? You pour out your heart before Hashem. Your heart, like water. (§41, trans. Ben Greenfield.)

As typical of aphoristic works, Hasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh tends to be striking, but often cryptic, and this passage is no exception (what does it mean to pour out your heart before God? Why is the water bit important?). Despite this, we can derive some clear ideas from it. The first is that he shares Rav Shagar’s critique of repentance as reviewing your personal history and actions (ḥeshbon hanefesh). Repentance is not about deeds, about things you can write down in a book (corresponding to Rav Shagar’s image of things at you can point). Instead it’s about personal expression. Whatever exactly he means by pouring out your heart before God, the bigger idea is that who you are exceeds your actions, and you should express who you are within the context of religion. Repentance is thus perhaps a return to who you are, or perhaps a decision to have a more personal relationship with God going forward, more based on who you are rather than on what deeds you do or do not perform.

Yishai Mevorach

Finally, Yishai Mevorach applies the same critique to faith more broadly. Working in a Lacanian, psychoanalytic mode, he provides an interesting reading of Rebbe Naḥman’s popular teaching, Lekutei Moharan §282. The teaching talks about the importance, particularly for someone leading communal prayer, of finding something good in everyone, including yourself. Reading Rebbe Naḥman very close, Mevorach notes that the teaching instructs the reader to search for “another bit more” (od me’at) good in each person, while saying that if they search for “another thing” (od davar) that is good in each person, they will fail. You can always challenge the validity or sincerity of a good thing that you have done, so it can’t hold up to scrutiny. Instead, you have to search for the good in each person, and yourself, that is not a thing or deed, it’s just “another bit more.”

Building off this reading of Rebbe Naḥman, Mevorach discusses the nature of faith and religion more broadly.

The religious person’s castration anxiety comes from how he understands his religion-faith as an object that he holds. this is a possessive, phallic relationship, afraid of losing the additional object, which does not really belong to the individual. In Rebbe Naḥman’s language, the believer’s relationship to the faith object is a relationship of “another thing,” rather than “another bit more“: another thing, another object, and now I hold onto it really tightly so that it doesn’t scatter or disappear. I have to demonstrate ownership. At this point, the religion descends into harsh, violent fundamentalism. In contrast, Rav Shagar proposes a different possibility, wherein faith is present as “another bit more,” as an excess of my being rather than another object. He was talking about faith that does not trying to preserve the thing, because it will persist no matter what. (37-38)

Translating out of his psychoanalytic idiom, Mevorach argues that faith and religion too often become possessions, objects external to us. Religion that is too obsessed with specific actions leads to two problems, he says. First, it loses the self, it becomes about a person’s actions rather than about who they are. It is separate from them, and easily abandoned. Second, and connected to this, is it becomes violent. Because religion is external, in this model, even affirming religion yourself is just imposing it on yourself. At that point, imposing it on others is a difference of degree, rather than kind.

As I hope I have shown at this point, the school of thought embodied by Rav Shagar, Rav Froman, and those around them seems to have maintained an idea (at least by some of them) that repentance and religion not only are not about specific actions, but cannot be about specific actions. Focusing on specific actions is, for various reasons, very problematic. When we approach the high holidays, as we pass through the season of repentance, the focus should not be on our actions, but on our personal capacity for change and for a relationship with God.

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Rav Kook

In this light, it’s worth noting a very similar idea from Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook’s Orot Hateshuvah, albeit with an important difference. The third chapter of Orot Hateshuvah lays out a dichotomy between “detail repentance” (teshuvah peratit) and “unspecified and general repentance” (teshuvah stamit kelalit).

There is a form of penitence that addresses itself to a particular sin or to many particular sins. The person confronts his sin face to face, and feels remorseful that he fell into the trap of sin. Slowly he struggles to come out of it, until he is liberated from his sinful enslavement and he begins to experience a holy freedom that is most delightful to his weary self…

There is another kind of feeling of penitence, unspecified and general. A person does not conjure up the memory of a past sin or sins, but in a general way he feels terribly depressed. He feels himself pervaded by sin; that the divine light does not shine on him…

Day by day, inspired by this higher level of general penitence, his feeling becomes more firm, clearer, more illumined by reason and more authenticated by the principles of the Torah. His manner becomes increasingly brightened, his anger recedes, a kindly light shines on him, he is filled with vigor, his eyes sparkle with a holy fire, his heart is bathed in rivers of delight, holiness and purity hover over him. His spirit is filled with endless love, his soul thirsts for God, and this very thirst nourishes him like the choicest of foods. (trans. Bentzion Botsker, 46-48)

The former is focused on repenting and making up for specific acts a person may have performed. The latter, is an attempt to fix a general feeling of distance from God. It’s part of the person, and really all of existence, moving towards God, rather than away from specific actions. While Rav Kook does not critique action-focused repentance the way that Rav Shagar and Rav Froman do, in fact he maintains its validity throughout Orot Hateshuvah, it’s notable that he both distinguishes between them and seem to put the broader form of repentance on a higher level. While the later thinkers may not be basing themselves on Rav Kook, at least not explicitly, the resonance with their ideas is striking.

Rav Kook’s Project, in His Day and Ours (According to Rav Shagar)

I wasn’t able to publish it on time, but here’s a short piece on Rav Kook’s project, as understood by Rav Shagar, in honor of Rav Kook’s yartzheit.

Rav Kook’s Project, in His Day and Ours
(According to Rav Shagar)

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (“Rav Kook”) lived, taught and wrote in an incredibly tumultuous time. Over the course of his life, he encountered pious yeshiva students and rabbis, fervent atheists and liberal Jews, and passionate Zionists. He met all of these different groups with a unique understanding of Judaism, and existence more generally, that was at once both radically traditional and deeply modern. Weaving together modern philosophy with a mystical Judaism that drew on the entire Jewish canon, Rav Kook was able to see the divine purpose of the ostensibly secular (as well as the more narrowly religious) movements of his day.

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Having just passed the third of Elul, 83 years to the day since Rav Kook died, we should take some time to think about what his project means for us. When we remember Rav Kook, one of religious Zionism’s guiding lights, what should be our focus? One possibility can be found in the writings of Rav Shagar. Rav Shagar argued that the only way to truly be a student of Rav Kook was to separate his process from his ideas. Rav Kook discovered the divinity of the ideas and events occurring all around him, and we have to do the same with the ideas and events in our day and age. If we dogmatically adhere to the ideas and events sanctified by Rav Kook, we actually abandon his legacy. Instead, we must take up his project of finding the divinity in the trends and philosophies of our time.


Secular Zionism

Confronted with the impending horror of the disengagement from Gaza and Northern Samaria, Rav Shagar gave an impassioned Yom Ha’atsma’ut sermon on the topic of seeing the state of Israel as redemptive in light of its violence. As part of this sermon, he invoked Rav Kook’s response to the secular Zionism of his day.

Rav Kook saw great purpose in the land and the Zionist institutions in his lifetime. In the continuing development of the state and its institutions he saw the lofty goal of a shining utopia, a time when force will disappear, replaced by love, solidarity, and brotherhood. This was how he experienced the beginning of redemption. He identified the Zionist settlement of the land of Israel as part of a process leading to utopia…

Rav Kook’s time demanded of him, to construct new lenses, to formulate new concepts, in order to be able to properly grasp and understand them… Rav Kook stood before secular Zionism, knowing how to elevate its holy sparks by formulating new religious concepts through deeply and innovatively interpreting old concepts. (Bayom Hahu, 238-239)

Rav Kook was able to see the apparently secular Zionism of his time as a manifestation of the future messianic era in the present. By imagining how the the messianic era might look as it gradually arrived, Rav Kook created a new vision that lent sanctity to secular Zionists attempting to settle the land and prepare for an eventual sovereign Jewish state in Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine. Helping build the state itself became a messianic act.

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source: http://www.insightonthenews.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/gush-katif-640×360.jpg

If settling the land and building the state are messianic, then what happens when the state begins to unsettle the land, violently uprooting Jews from their homes and renouncing its sovereignty over territory promised by God to the Jewish people? Can we still maintain Rav Kook’s utopian understanding of the state?

Can we also relate like this to the State of Israel as it is today, without a fundamental change in how we think of utopia? In my opinion, we cannot, and this is the hopeless situation that we are confronted with today and that we cannot deny. The State of Israel does not scintillate light and love but force and law, so how should we relate to it? Should we shrink away from understanding it to be the beginning of redemption? This understanding as the beginning [of redemption] is what gives the state its meaning, explaining that what is happening is part of a utopian process, and the utopia is already partially realized with the process being well underway.

We have to consider the present reality. We cannot decide in advance our interpretation of events and be caught up in dogmas regarding redemption. It is possible that the events of our time demand of us, as the events of Rav Kook’s time demanded of him, to construct new lenses, to formulate new concepts, in order to be able to properly grasp and understand them. The possibility of taking up Rav Kook’s project, of identifying holiness in historical processes, is in our hands. Rav Kook stood before secular Zionism, knowing how to elevate its holy sparks by formulating new religious concepts through deeply and innovatively interpreting old concepts. (Ibid.)

Rav Shagar argued that we cannot ignore the evidence of our own eyes. The state of Israel is not a utopia, and its actions do not reflect the redemption as described by Rav Kook. What then are we to do? How are we supposed to understand the state of Israel and contemporary Zionism?

The process of redemption may be different from how Rav Kook foresaw it, and we may not yet understand this process as it should be understood. Perhaps everything happening now can, and should, be understood in light of Rav Kook’s famous words regarding the nullification of nationalism…

In light of these words, the process of redemption may not be held up at all, in fact just the reverse, it is happening even faster than Rav Kook could have foreseen or than we normally think. The feeling of not being at home welling up within us even more forcefully due to the Disengagement Plan flows from the rapid pace of the changes. Perhaps the crude destruction is actually progress, and perhaps Post-Zionism is actually the killing of Mashiaḥ Ben Yosef to make way for Mashiaḥ Ben David. (ibid., 240)

Rav Shagar argued that being faithful to Rav Kook’s project actually requires being willing to give up on the messianic nature of the state. He finds a seed of this idea in Rav Kook’s thought itself, where Rav Kook understands the Talmudic image of the messiah descended from Joseph’s death as the death of particularistic nationalism (Rav Kook, Orot, Orot Yisrael, 6:6). This enables Rav Shagar to sanctify the “Post-Zionism” of his day, just as Rav Kook sanctified the secular Zionism of his. The state of Israel doesn’t have to be a utopia because it could just be one step in a larger, more universal messianic process. If Post-Zionism wants an end to the state of Israel, it is only so that a more universal messianic era can take its place.


Secular Philosophy

When it comes to secular philosophy, one of the themes from Rav Kook’s thought to which Rav Shagar returns time and time again is freedom. While freedom was also a characteristic ideal of social movements like secular Zionism, Rav Kook understood it as a philosophical Torah ideal.

Rav Kook wanted to “rewrite” the values of secular Zionism, and the world more generally, in order to be able to integrate them into the Torah and Judaism. He was well aware of how revolutionary his approach was: rewriting like this doesn’t just change those values, it also changes the values of the Torah itself. Of course, he saw this as returning to the Torah’s origin, to the Torah of the land of Israel, etc.…

Rav Kook called for the internalization of freedom as a value into the Torah. Freedom is a classically secular value, but Rav Kook, dramatically, identified it with the image of God in man and with the Jewish soul. (Luḥot U’Shivrei Luḥot, 191)

In the modern ideal of freedom, Rav Kook discovered, or rediscovered, the meaning of “the image of God.” Rav Kook believed that freedom meant choosing to act in accordance with your inner essence, which for a Jew would mean following the Torah and the commandments (Ibid., 182). Given the opportunity, Rav Kook said, a Jew would naturally fulfill his halakhic obligations.

As with the utopian state of Israel, Rav Shagar challenges Rav Kook’s idea on essentially empirical grounds.

Understanding freedom like this and identifying a person’s soul and essence with the Torah were things that Rav Kook, whose personal history was nothing but Judaism and holiness, could do. However, what about the Religious Zionist youth teenager of today who is confronted with these slogans about freedom? There is a clear difference between the “holy freedom” of Rav Kook and the plain freedom of the teenager.

I once took part in a symposium with a student of Rav Kook’s students, currently serving as a rosh yeshivah. I was shocked by the radical things he said about freedom. I was certain that, having heard what he said, the audience would pack their bags and head to India. As became clear, the situation was like the joke about the yeshivah student who walked into a kitchen and cried out in shock, “Could this really be the holy gizzard I read about in the Talmud?!” Just as the student didn’t really think of the gizzard as a real organ, so too with “holy freedom.” It has nothing to do with the freedom that the rosh yeshivah’s students desire.

Rav Kook’s freedom has thus become an ideology… when Rav Kook’s followers in our day talk about freedom, they are talking about a false, imaginary, and ideological freedom. There’s no real freedom or liberty… Importantly, what we have said about freedom can be analogized to Rav Kook’s whole spiritual-educational approach. (Ibid., 191-192)

Rav Shagar says that if you speak with religious Zionist teenagers today, it quickly becomes clear that Rav Kook’s words do not apply to them. Given the chance, they don’t fulfill their halakhic obligations, they go traveling in India and Thailand. Maintaining Rav Kook’s equation of freedom and the image of God requires denying the reality before our eyes.

In this critique (and elsewhere), Rav Shagar is careful to distinguish between Rav Kook and his students’ students. He says that “understanding freedom like this and identifying a person’s soul and essence with the Torah were things that Rav Kook, whose personal history was nothing but Judaism and holiness, could do.” Rav Shagar claims that Rav Kook’s lived experience really did indicate that freedom would lead Jews to holiness and halakhic observance. In contrast, “when Rav Kook’s followers in our day talk about freedom, they are talking about a false, imaginary, and ideological freedom.” Rav Kook’s honest attempt to understand his reality through the prism of God and Judaism has become an ideology that obscures reality rather than explaining it. This suggests that following Rav Kook wouldn’t mean believing in the Jewish value of freedom, but in that of contemporary social and philosophical ideals. Talking about freedom as the image of God, without asking about how contemporary philosophy understands freedom, is betraying Rav Kook’s project rather than upholding it.

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Rav Shagar’s Project

It is clear from the above discussion how much Rav Shagar identified with Rav Kook’s project. A key theme in the the two depictions above is that Rav Kook was responding to the reality that confronted him in his day. Similarly, Rav Shagar consistently describes his own literary and pedagogical project as being a response to lived reality (see his introductions to his Pur hu Hagoral, Betorato Yehegeh, Ahavukha Ad Mavet, and Re’im Ahuvim). Rav Shagar raises this similarity explicitly in an essay on the Jewish value of Postmodernism. Describing his own depiction of the religious potential of Postmodernism, Rav Shagar said: “This description echoes the way Rabbi Kook conceived of atheism: a historical process that sublimates faith, a repentance of sorts for religiosity” (Faith Shattered and Restored, 127 n. 34). Rav Shagar’s approach to Postmodernism, as far as he is concerned, echoes Rav Kook’s approach to Modern atheism from two generations before. The same way Rav Kook was able to find the good and the holiness within secular Zionism and modern freedom, Rav Shagar finds it within existentialism and Postmodernism.

On the third of Elul we should not ask ourselves which classic Rav Kook texts or ideas are most important, but where his methods and process might lead us today. In order to be faithful to Rav Kook, we have to be willing to step out from under his shadow. “Bitulo hu kiyyumo” (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 29) – upholding Rav Kook’s project requires a willingness to let go of his ideas. Only thus can we find the divine within the ideas and events of our time, just as Rav Kook and Rav Shagar did in theirs.