Phenomenology of the Mitsvot: A Materialist Approach to the Commandments in Rav Soloveitchik’s “Halakhic Mind”

Phenomenology of the Mitsvot:

A Materialist Approach to the Commandments in Rav Soloveitchik’s “Halakhic Mind”

Continuing my series of posts (see here and here) on materialist approaches to taamei hamitsvot, reasons for the commandments, I want to take a look at a few passages from Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Mind. In these passages, Rav Soloveitchik constructs a theory of the commandments (based on the philosophy of religion developed throughout the work, and in use throughout Rav Soloveitchik’s other writings) which emphasizes the material rites of the commandments over any reason or cause given for them. That said, his theory differs from the approach of R. David Silverstein, which I discussed in my last post on the topic, and that of Rav Shagar, which I plan to discuss in a future post. I will discuss the nuances of Rav Soloveitchik’s theory below.


Not only does Rav Soloveitchik’s theory emphasize the physical aspect of the commandments, he actually uses it attack theories of the commandments that emphasize the reasons for the commandments over the physical actions. While his main targets seem to be non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, he also sees himself as siding with the Maimonides of the Mishneh Torah against the Maimonides of the Guide for the Perplexed (without getting into the validity of that distinction, I take issue with his reading of the GP, which I think fails to take into account GP III:34).

The reluctance on the part of the Jewish homo religiosus to accept Maimonidean rationalistic ideas is not ascribable to any agnostic tendencies, but to the incontrovertible fact that such explanations neither edify nor inspire the religious consciousness. They are essentially, if not entirely valueless for the religious interests we have most at heart. Maimonides’ failure to impress his rationalistic method upon the vivid religious consciousness is to be attributed mainly to the fact that the central theme of the Maimonidean exposition is the causalistic problem. The “how” question, the explanatory quest, and the genetic attitude determined Maimonides’ doctrine of the commandments. Instead of describing, Maimonides explained; instead of reconstructing, he constructed. (Halakhic Mind, 92)

The Jewish people, Rav Soloveitchik argues, are not interested in “genetic” questions about what led to the creation of the commandments. The commandments exist, as objects independent of any cause, and the “religious consciousness” is not interested in questions that might challenge their existence.

The “genetic” approach, according to Rav Soloveitchik, sees the commandments as serving goals unrelated to the commandments themselves.

As we have previous indicated, whenever the causal question is raised, the philosopher must transcend the boundary line of religion in order to find his answer which lies beyond the religious domain. Both mechanistic and teleological concepts of causality explain the effect through the existence of an alien factor, be it within or without the system. Thus religion cannot be interpreted under immanent aspects but must avail itself of foreign elements. The net result of Maimonides’ rationalization is that religion no longer operates with unique autonomous norms, but with technical rules, the employment of which would culminate in the attainment of some extraneous maximum bonum. In rationalizing the commandments genetically, Maimonides developed a religious “instrumentalism.” Causality reverted to teleology (the Aristotelian concept of causa finalis) and Jewish religion was converted into technical wisdom. (93)

Maimonides’ theory of the commandments in the Guide for the Perplexed describes the commandments as having goals outside what we call “religion.” Instead, they are meant to “rectify the body and the mind,” meaning that they are supposed to create a peaceful society of virtuous individuals with accurate knowledge reality (GP III:28-32). The goals of the commandments thus come not from the realm of Judaism, or even religion more generally, but from politics and philosophy.

Against this model of reasons for the commandments, which renders religion the handmaiden of the secular realm, Rav Soloveitchik proposes an alternative.

In contradistinction to the causal method of the philosophical Guide that reads to a religious techne, the halakhic Code (the Mishneh Torah) apprehends the religious act in an entirely different light. The Code does not pursue the objective causation of the commandment, but attempts to reconstruct its subjective correlative. It would seem that the Maimonides of the Halakhah was not intrigued by the “how” question. He freed himself from the genetic purview and employed a descriptive method of expounding the content and symbolic meaning of the religious norm. The “what” question was his guide in the Code. (93-94)

Here, as throughout his various writings, Rav Soloveitchik sees the commandments as the “objectification” of “subjective” religious ideas, experiences, and values.[1] This movement from subjective to objective is not strictly a move from internal to external, but from the individual, chaotic, and unrefined to the shared, orderly, and well defined. Hence Halakhah not only guides a person’s actions, but also her thoughts and feelings. Derived through the objectification of certain ideas, experiences, and values, halakhah’s goal is essentially to perpetuate them, recreating that subjective element in the individual fulfilling the commandment. However, all of this is essentially a reconstruction, our determination extrapolated from the already-existing halakhah. It does not enable us to really get “behind” the halakhah, such that we could challenge its nature or existence. In keeping with Rav Soloveitchik’s phenomenological method, he takes halakhah as a given and examines the way the individual living according to its laws experiences it, rather than asking about whether or not halakhah should exist at all.

Looking through the lens of “materialist” approaches to taamei hamitsvot, we can see that Rav Soloveitchik’s approach gives primacy to the physical acts of halakhic rituals over any reasons or goals that we might give the commandments. As with Rabbi David Silverstein’s approach, Rav Soloveitchik’s discussion does not once appeal to the reasons that the commands were given, or what God may have had in mind for them. The emphasis is on what the commandments do, the experiences they evoke or the values they convey, rather than what motivated them.

However, Rav Soloveitchik’s approach does seem to assume specific, singular meanings for each commandment. In contrast, Rav Silverstein’s discusses the different ways each commandment he examines has been understood throughout Jewish history. He gives the ritual acts of the commandments such independent weight that the same commandment can essentially mean different things to different people. Not so Rav Soloveitchik, who seems to see each commandment has having one true meaning in all historical contexts. The practical outcome of this distinction is that Rav Soloveitchik by definition thinks most of the attempts to explain the meaning of a given commandment missed their mark, as only one of them could be correct (notably, his discussion of reasons for the commandments in Halakhic Mind takes the form of an attack on Maimonides discussion thereof in the Guide for the Perplexed). Rav Soloveitchik’s approach therefore differs from what I have called a “materialist” approach to the commandments while still possessing its primary characteristic, an emphasis on the physical acts of the commandments over any meaning or explanation. In my next post on this topic, I will examine how Rav Shagar differs from Rav Soloveitchik on exactly this point.

[1] For a thorough discussion of this idea, see Reuven Ziegler, Majesty and Humility (Jerusalem, Israel, and Brooklyn, NY: Urim Publications and the Orthodox Union Press, 2012), 334-340.


Science-Fictional Messianism in the Writings of Rav Shagar and Rav Froman

A shiur I gave for Yom Yerushalayaim 2018 discussing how Rav Shagar connects science fiction and Messianism, as well as how this “Science-Fictional Messianism” shows up in other places in his writings and in the writings of Rav Menachem Froman. Sources below.


  1. Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 9:10
    The only difference between this world and the Messianic Era is subservience to the Nations.

  2. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 165-166

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

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

  1. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 241

To truly rebel against force, you must abandon it. The ability to abandon the game of force and violence is truly a messianic option. We do not dream of a time when the right power will win out, but for a time when power and might will not make right at all. We seek pleasure (oneg) and not reality (metsiyut) – this is true messianism.

  1. 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.

  1. Rav Menaem Froman, Ten Li Zeman, 140-141

The way each side sees it’s way of thinking as natural and obvious closes them in on themselves. Open dialogue, never mind mutual understanding, gets father and farther away. […] Perhaps the path to Jewish normalcy goes by way of abnormalcy. For example (to suggest a product of abnormal Jewish thinking), the idea that the Jewish world which sees this land as its ancient homeland and its modern destiny does not necessarily contradict the Palestinian world that see this land as the refreshing cradle of its birth. For example, perhaps peace will not come about through the mutual contraction of two cultural worlds, but through their expansion and sublimation.


  1. Rav Menaem Froman, Ten Li Zeman, 160

Once a year, when we approach the juxtaposition of Pesaḥ and Yom Ha’atsma’ut, a Jew like me is permitted to write a new proposal: all the birds that broke forth from their eggs are chirping that the time has past, but perhaps this movement of faith is a real movement of non-submission to the enslaving world and of building a free nation – from an intellectual perspective, adhering closely to reality, to the hope that creates reality.

  1. Rav Shagar, Panekha Avakesh (derashot from 1982), 163

What would happen if the state of Israel absorbed “the territories,” conquered the entire promised land of Israel and reigned over it? What if we really achieved political liberty and were politically and economically independent from other nations? Would this be redemption (ge’ulah)? Would all our sufferings really disappear? Certainly not. The basic suffering of the Jews is first and foremost a spiritual, mental, and religious suffering. It is the suffering of our distance from God. This is the suffering described by the terrifying curse, “I will surely hide my face” (Deuteronomy 31:18), when God hides his face. This is the suffering of a person who has no faith, a person drowning in despair, whose life is torn and imperfect, who does not “live in the light of the face of the king” (Proverbs 16:16), the king of kings, the king of life.

All the sages of Israel have agreed that the meaning of redemption, and not just the World to Come, which “eyes other than God’s have not seen” (Isaiah 64:3), which the human mind cannot comprehend, but also the lower redemption, the Messianic Era, cannot be summed up by physical or political redemption.

  1. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 363-367 (derashah-letter from 2007)

We yearn for more than just “natural” redemption, which some of the rishonim, such as Maimonides, thought would be realized in the Messianic Era, differing from this world only in terms of “subservience to the Nations.” Our messianic pathos also contains the melody of the open miracle, what Rebbe Naman called the melody of the land of Israel, which stands opposed to the melody of nature. This miraculous redemption means the shattering of nature’s lawfulness. Reality itself will metamorphose. The world will shine differently, as reality’s crude matter will be purified and receive the translucency and illumination of the day that is entirely Shabbat and rest. […] This is redemption as described by the Kabbalists, the Hasidim, and all varieties of mystics, as well as by modern, anarchistic, utopians. The indwelling of the Shekhinah which they are waiting for is real divine presence, which not hidden behind the lawfulness of nature, no matter how pure it is.

  1. Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, quoted in Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Bereshit 8

If a person knows that God is concealing himself, then there is no concealment, for “all evildoers are scattered” (Psalms 92:10). This is the meaning of the verse, “And I will conceal, yes, conceal, my face from them” (Deuteronomy 31:18). This means to say that God will conceal from them such that they will not know that God is hidden there.

10. The Greatest Showman, “Come Alive”
When the world becomes a fantasy / And you’re more than you could ever be / ‘Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open / And you know you can’t go back again / To the world that you were living in / ‘Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open / So, come alive!

Rabbi Josh Gerstein’s “A People, A Country, A Heritage”

While I normally try to give my book reviews pithy titles that sum up the main themes of the book in a single phrase, Rabbi Josh Gerstein’s “A People, A Country, A Heritage” is a little too broad for that. The book contains two short pieces on each of the weekly Torah portions from the biblical books of Bereshit and Shemot, each containing a relatively unique set of idea. So in lieu of attempting to sum up the book’s themes, I want to briefly discuss its format, which I think will give a better idea of the book overall.


As I mentioned above, the book follows the traditional structure of the weekly Torah portion, containing two self-contained essays on each week’s portion. For the most part, the essays start by proposing a textual difficulty and a possible resolution, and then using that as a springboard to a larger philosophical discussion. For example, the first essay on Parashat Tetzaveh begins by asking why the description of the structure on the Mishkan mentions the daily Tamid offerings, which would be more at home in Vayikra or Bemidbar. While the essays often solve the textual difficulty by quoting a medieval biblical commentator, this essay goes straight to a text by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who says that the daily offering was in intrinsic to the purpose of the Mishkan, so it made sense for the Torah to mention it in a discussion of the structure itself. The textual difficulty thus resolved, Gerstein moves into a discussion of the place of repeated, daily, might I say even monotonous, ritual within Judaism, bringing more quotes from the Rav Aharon Lichtenstein text.

While perhaps most of the essays take this form, many take the form of self-contained explorations of a given topic. They always have some sort of connection to Torah portion, but they are essentially independent. For example, Parashat Terumah discusses the donations given for the construction of the Mishkan, and “A People, A Country, A Heritage” features a corresponding essay focusing on different medieval and modern authorities’ opinions regarding a Jew’s responsibility for building the 3rd Temple, and ending with practical steps, such as education, that are viable according to all opinions.

This essay is in keeping with the one major theme throughout the book, appearing in the lion’s share of the essays: the land of Israel. As evident from the book’s title, Gerstein is interested in discussing the relationship of the land with the Jewish people and their heritage. While the book is not attempting to argue for any given position, it takes the important role of the land within Judaism as a given. However, it does not focus on the contemporary state or the Zionist movement, but on the land itself. While the land comes up in obvious locations, such as in an essay on Avraham buying the Cave of Makhpelah for Parashat Hayye Sarah, it also appears in more surprising essays, such as an essay for Parashat Terumah discussing the symbolic meaning of the Mishkan’s structure and vessels.

The essays in the book are on the shorter side, making them convenient for reading on a busy Shabbat, though I sometimes wished they went a little more in-depth. That said, they provided me a window into some contemporary thinkers, such as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, whose works I have not had the chance to study myself, and for that I am grateful.

Shiur: Adar 2018 – Today, All Beginnings Start from Purim


Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a, Koren Translation

The Torah says, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: The Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah. The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai.

(שמות יט, יז) ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר א”ר אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא מלמד שכפה הקב”ה עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם א”ר אחא בר יעקב מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא אמר רבא אעפ”כ הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש דכתיב (אסתר ט, כז) קימו וקבלו היהודים קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר.

Rebbe Nahman, Lekutei Moharan II:74, Sefaria Translation

After Purim we read the portion called Parah, as a preparation for Pesach. For we read Parah in order to be careful with regards to purification from the impurity of a corpse, in order to be pure for Pesach. And in the beginning, it has the aspect of Pur (“lot”), and Purim is also named after the Pur. Afterwards, it is read as Parah, since Purim is certainly on the way to Pesach.

This is like the verse, (Song of Songs 5:13) “His lips are lilies, dripping with myrrh.” Lips are like Pesach, which is [a homonym of] Peh Sach, a speaking mouth; Shoshana, meaning lilies, is Esther (according to the Zohar, and they have equivalent numerical values); “Dripping with myrrh” refers to Mordechai, who is [hinted at in the translation of the verse (Exodus 30:23) Mor Dror, from the language of freedom, like the freedom of Pesach. Therefore, the letters of Purim are hinted at in [the issues of] Pesach, in the verse (Exodus 23:15), “Seven days shall you eat matzah, as I have commanded, in its time in the month of Aviv, in which you left Egypt, and you shall not encounter Me empty-handed.” The initial letters [of the last five words] spell Purim. For Purim is on the way to Pesach, so that they could be careful with regards to chametz. [Here Rabbi Nachman stopped in the middle of the issue, and did not reveal more.]

For in the beginning, all the beginnings began at Pesach, and therefore the mitzvot are all in memory of the exodus from Egypt. But now… [And he didn’t finish.]

אַחַר פּוּרִים קוֹרִין פָּרָשַׁת פָּרָה, שֶׁהִיא הֲכָנָה לְפֶסַח כִּי פָּרָשַׁת פָּרָה קוֹרִין, כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּהְיוּ נִזְהָרִין לִטָּהֵר מִטֻּמְאַת מֵת כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּהְיוּ טְהוֹרִין לַעֲשׂוֹת הַפֶּסַח. ובתחילה הוא בחינת פּוּר, כִּי פּוּרִים עַל שֵׁם הַפֻּר (אֶסְתֵּר ט וְעַיֵּן בְּכַוָּנוֹת הָאַרִיזַ”ל בְּסוֹד הִפִּיל פּוּר וּבְסוֹד פָּרָה אַדֻמָּה), וְאַחַר כָּך נַעֲשֶׂה פָּרָ”ה כִּי גַּם פּוּרִים הוּא בְּוַדַּאי הִלּוּך וְדֶרֶך לְפֶסַח.

וזהו בחינת (שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים ה) “שִׂפְתוֹתָיו שׁוֹשַׁנִּים נטְפוֹת מוֹר עבֵר”. שִׂפְתוֹתָיו זֶה בְּחִינַת הפֶּסַח – פֶּה סָח (כַּמּוּבָא). שׁוֹשַׁנָּה הִיא אֶסְתֵּר, (כַּמּוּבָא בַּזּהַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ וּבְכִתְבֵי הָאֲרִיזַ”ל) [שׁוֹשַׁנָּה גִּימַטְרִיָּא אֶסְתֵּר] נטְפוֹת מוֹר עבֵר זֶה בְּחִינַת מָרְדֳּכַי – מָר דְּרוֹר (חֻלִּין קלט:), לְשׁוֹן חֵרוּת, בְּחִינַת חֵרוּת שֶׁל פֶּסַח. וְעַל כֵּן צֵרוּף שֶׁל פּוּרִים מְרֻמָּז בְּפֶסַח, בַּפָּסוּק (שְׁמוֹת כ”ג): “שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תּאכַל מַצּוֹת כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִך לְמוֹעֵד חֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב, כִּי בוֹ יָצָאתָ מִמִּצְרָיִם וְלא יֵרָאוּ פָנַי רֵיקָם” מִמִּצְרָיִם וְלא יֵרָאוּ פָנַי רֵיקָם – רָאשֵׁי תֵבוֹת פּוּרִים, כִּי פּוּרִים הוּא דֶּרֶך לְפֶסַח, שֶׁיִּהְיוּ יְכוֹלִים לִהְיוֹת נִזְהָרִין מֵחָמֵץ. [וּפָסַק בְּאֶמְצַע הָעִנְיָן וְלא גִּלָּה יוֹתֵר]

כִּי בַּתְּחִלָּה הָיוּ כָּל הַהַתְחָלוֹת מִפֶּסַח וְעַל כֵּן כָּל הַמִּצְווֹת הֵם זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. ועכשו… [וְלא סִיֵּם]

Rav Menahem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh, pp. 33-34

Rebbe Nahman often stops in the middle of a topic. However, in one place, he actually stops right in the middle of a sentence. “For in the beginning, all the beginnings began at Pesach, and therefore the mitzvot are all in memory of the exodus from Egypt. But now” (Lekutei Moharan II:74). His intent was that, in classical Judaism, all of the commandments memorialize the exodus from Egypt, but now we have reached a new era, an era of laughter and freedom (ḥofesh). Until now, all the commandments were very serious. Pesaḥ is about pathos. The Torah has lots of pathos, its 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 memorialize the laughter of Purim, not the pathos of Pesaḥ.

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 live? 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 live. 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.

(see parallel passage in #82, p. 74)

יש כמה מקומות שר׳ נחמן הפסיק משהו באמצע. אבל במקום אחד הוא הפסיק ממש באמצע המשפט: ״כי בתחלה הלך כל ההתחלות מפסח, ועל כך כל המצוות הם זכר ליציאת מצרים. ועכשו” (לקוטי מוהר”ן תנינא ע”ד). הכוונה כאן היא שביהדות הקלאסית כל המצוות הן זכר ליציאת מצרים, ועכשיו הגיע עידן חדש – עידן הצחוק והחופש. עד עכשיו כל המצוות היו עניין רציני. פסח זה פאתוס. התורה היא פאתטית, מלאת רצינות. ועכשיו יש לנו עידן חדש, תורה חדשה, תורת ארץ ישראל, תורתו של משיח. כל המצוות הן זכר לצחוק של פורים ולא לפאתוס של פסח.

להיות או לא להיות זו שאלה רצינית וכבדת משקל, אך באותו מחזה שייקספיר כותב גם שכל העולם במה, הכול משחק. אתם שומעים אותי אומר שהשאלה הכי חשובה בחיים היא לחיות או לא לחיות? כל השאלה הזאת היא צחוק, היא משחק… היא משחק…

יש דבר שהוא מעל השאלה אם לחיות או לא לחיות, ואפילו מעל פיקוח נפש שדוחה שבת. מהו הדבר שמעל פיקוח נפש? לפני ה׳, לפני ה׳, להיות לפני ה׳ בעולם הזה ובעולם הבא, להיות לפני ה׳ ולדעת שכל מה שעשינו עד עכשיו זה צחוק. בחיים, במוות, זה צחוק לפני ה׳.

Rav Shagar, Zeman Shel Herut, p, 68

To understand this piece from Rebbe Naḥman, we have to distinguish between ḥofesh and ḥerut. Rebbe Naḥman teaches us that ḥofesh is an introductory step which creates the ḥerut of Pesaḥ, “Mor Dror, from the language of freedom (ḥerut), like the freedom (ḥerut) of Pesach.” Purim and Pesaḥ parallel ḥofesh and ḥerut. Purim, when we celebrate the lottery (pur) and man’s anarchic freedom (ḥofesh), is when we freely choose the freedom (ḥerut) of Pesaḥ, of personal essence and identity. This is an experience of Jewishness as a self-enclosed world, which finds its justification in itself. It is the experience of divine chosenness. For Rav Kook, the anarchic, “Purim-style” freedom (hofesh) lets us elevate our nature, our Pesach-style freedom (ḥerut). Rebbe Nahman here says otherwise. He says that anarchic freedom (ḥofesh) enables us to create ḥerut-freedom. We can create our very nature! This path of creation does not depend on the facts; it creates them. Freedom, as Sartre understood it, therefore exists even within holiness.

We are therefore faced with two paths. There is the path of “be who you are,” but there is also a more radical path: The ability to create your freedom (ḥerut), your “I.” Perhaps this was Rebbe Naḥman meant by the cryptic line that appears at the end of the teaching: “For in the beginning, all the beginnings began at Pesach, and therefore the mitsvot are all in memory of the exodus from Egypt. But now…” Today, all the beginnings start from Purim.

ראשית, יש להבדיל בין החירות והחופש. ר׳ נחמן מלמדנו כי החופש הוא ההקדמה, כינון החירות של פסח ״מר דרור לשון חרות בחינת חרות של פסח״. פורים ופסח מקבילים כאן לחופש ולחירות. פורים, שהוא חג הפור והחופש האנרכי שבידי האדם, הוא הבחירה החופשית בחירות הפסח של העצמיות והזהות. זהו בעצם ציר של הקיום הישראלי כמעגל עולם, שמוצא את טעמו בעצמו – ה״אתה בחרתנו״. אצל הראי”ה ראינו כי החופש האנרכי, ה״פורימי״, מאפשר לרומם את החירות של הטבע, חירות הפסח: אך מדבריו של ר’ נחמן עולה גם כי החופש האנרכי הנו היכולת לכונן את החירות – ניתן לכונן את הטבע עצמו! זהו מסלול של יצירה שאיננה נשענת על העובדות, אלא מכוננת אותן. בכך מופנם אל תוך הקדושה גם החופש הסארטרי.

אם כן, ישנה הדרך של ׳להיות מה שאתה׳; וישנה דרך רדיקלית יותר: היכולת ליצור מחדש את החירות שלך, את ה״אני״ שלך. ואולי זו כוונתו של ר’ נחמן במשפט הסתום המופיע בסוף תורה זו: ״כי בתחילה היו כל ההתחלות מפסח, ועל כן כל המצוות הם זכר ליציאת מצרים. ועכשיו…״. היום ההתחלות הן מפורים.

Smashing the Aravot to Bits as a Reenactment of Jewish History

Sukkot is, to modern eyes, perhaps the strangest Jewish holiday, and its seventh day is by far the strangest. For the whole week of Sukkot, Orthodox Jews take a four-part floral arrangement and shake it in all directions. On the seventh day, known as “Hoshanah Rabbah,” they take one of the four parts, willow branches, and smash a bundle of them into the ground repeatedly. The original reason behind the ritual is unknown, but it’s energetic alienness demands explanation. While attempts to divine it’s reason abound, none can ever definitively claim to be the original reason. In what follows, I want to do something different, similar to what John Caputo has called a “short-circuit” (See the first few chapters of “The Weakness of God”) – I want to wire together this ritual with several texts that never had each other in mind, because they resonate deeply with each other, and because this short-circuit produces something true and worth saying. By the end of this process, I hope to have arrived not at the meaning of the ritual, but a meaning the ritual may bear today.

Jumping right in, there is a famous rabbinic text comparing the four species of flora use on Sukkot to four different types of Jews, based on their possessing or lacking A. Torah and B. good deeds (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12, which I have previously written about here). The last of the four that the text discusses is the willow: “‘And brook willows’ – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds.” The willow branches, as opposed to the other plants, represent Jews who have nothing specifically Jewish about them. They are characterized neither by Jewish cognitive content, Torah, nor by Jewish actions. In short, they are Jewish in name only.

Being Jewish in name only is a topic that Rav Tsadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin explores in Tsidkat Hatsadik #54 (English translation to come when the time allows):

עיקר היהדות – בקריאת שם ישראל. כמו שנאמר זה יאמר לה’ אני וגו’ ובשם ישראל יכנה. שלא יהיה לו רק מעלה זו שמכונה בשם ישראל די. ומצינו בריש פרק כלל גדול (שבת סח:) גר שנתגייר בין האומות ומביא חטאת על החלב והדם והשבת ועבודה זרה, עיין שם דלא ידע כלל שזה אסורה ואפילו על עבודה זרה ושבת. ונמצא שלא ידע כלל מכל התורה, ובמה הוא גר להתחייב חטאת, רק בקריאת שם ישראל די.

In this first paragraph, Rav Tsadok discusses the Babylonian Talmud’s statement (Shabbat 68b) that a convert who converted among non-Jews has to bring a sacrifice when they join the Jewish community, to atone for sins they may have committed unknowingly. The convert has no knowledge of even Shabbat or idolatry so in what sense have they converted, ask Rav Tsadok. His answer: they are called by the name “Israel” – they are Jewish in name, if only that. This, in fact, is the essence of conversion, for “the essence of Judaism is being called by the name ‘Israel.”

What does it mean to be Jewish in name, and even only in name, that it is so much more significant than having Jewish thoughts or actions? What is the advantage of the willow branches over the other Sukkot plants?

When you have Jewish thoughts or actions, then you have specific Jewish parts of who you are. You do Jewish acts and you think Jewish thoughts, and you may participate in non-Jewish thoughts and actions alongside these. When you are Jewish in name, then all of your thoughts and actions are Jewish by definition, regardless of their content. To be Jewish in name is to be all-pervasively Jewish; every part of you is Jewish simply by definition. It is this Jewish name that characterizes willow branch-Jews, as opposed to all others.


What does all of this mean for the Hoshanah Rabbah ritual, wherein the willow branches are smashed against the ground, coming apart with every blow? I would like to explain that in light of a passage from Frank Rosenzweig’s “The Star of Redemption.” In context of a discussion of Jewish chosenness, Rosenzweig states:

Judaism, and it alone in all the world, maintains itself by subtraction, by contraction, by the forma­tion of ever new remnants. This happens quite extensively in the face of the constant external secession. But it is equally true also within Judaism itself. It constantly divests itself of un-Jewish elements in order to produce out of itself ever new remnants of archetypal Jewish elements. Outwardly it constantly assimilates only to be able again and again to set itself apart on the inside. (trans. William Hallo, p. 404)

Whereas other nations and religions maintain themselves by expanding, Rosenzweig says, Judaism maintains itself by contracting. Like other groups, Judaism constantly develops new forms, absorbs new ideas, and generally finds new ways to grow. Unlike other groups, however, Judaism quickly sheds all of these new manifestations, in a constant process of elimination, ever condensing toward a core Jewishness, a Jewishness that has no content, that is Jewish in name only. This core, which Rosenzweig identifies with the prophetic “remnant of Israel” (שארית ישראל), is what persisted throughout Jewish history, as all kinds of specific types of Judaism have  disappeared or broken away. That isn’t to say that Rosenzweig identifies the remnant of Israel with traditional Rabbinic Judaism. Rather, he identifies it with Jews who are Jewish in name, whose whole existence is bound up in being Jewish, so that everything they do and say is Jewish, by definition.

Smashing the willow branches against the ground reenacts Rosenzweig’s vision of Jewish history. The willow branches, representing the in-name-only Jews, the Jews who are Jewish whether or not they know Torah or do mitsvot, are smashed against the ground of history. They slowly come apart, losing bits of leaf with every strike, but the core of the branch remains. So too the core of Judaism, the Jews whose Judaism has defined them inherently, regardless of their thoughts or deeds, has survived the travails of history. When we smash the willow branches into the ground, we may remind ourselves of the necessity of this in-name-only Jewishness. The ritual could challenge us, calling us to be “called by the name ‘Israel.’”


[as with many of my recent posts, much of my thinking and interpreting here is owed to influence from Yishai Mevorach, a student of Rav Shagar and an editor of his writings, and an interesting thinker in his own right. An English interview with Prof. Alan Brill about Mevorach’s new book, “A Theology of Absence” can be found here, and Mevorach’s Hebrew lectures on a variety of topics can be found on his youtube channel here.]

Audio Class Recording: Rav Shagar on Teshuvah and the Disengagement

This is the audio of a class I gave, on 14/09/17, on excerpts from Rav Shagar’s essay “תשובה והתנתקות” in the lead-up to the High Holidays. Just a warning to any listeners, it was a very discussion-based class, so it stretched circuitously for most of two hours (~01:40:00, I think). The audio is in m4a format. (It’s also on YouTube).

This is the source sheet upon which the class was based. I translated the selections myself, without any proper proofreader, so they are not perfect.

This is the original Hebrew essay from which the English excerpts were translated.

If you have any questions, comments, or feedback they are always appreciated.

The God of Broken Things: Thoughts on Maimonides and Rav Tsadok


As a general rule, we like it when things work the way they’re supposed to work, when things go according to plan. And yet, across the range of human experiences, this is not what actually occurs. In contemporary society, this perhaps most commonly takes the form of technology failing to live up to the expectations of its owners. Beyond the functioning of tools, this is a basic problem of human will, where we want to do one thing and yet end up doing another. In ancient Greek philosophy this was thought of as the problem of akrasia, and Freudian psychology has generated a massive theoretical discourse exploring this facet of human existence. In theology and religion this problem arises in terms of evil in the world and attempts at theodicy. If a good god made the world then why does it fail to be good? While the technological problems tend to be minor annoyances in our day to day lives, the anthropological and theological problems concern fundamental issues in how we think about God, reality, and what it means to be a person.

In this essay I want to explore three texts, one from Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” and two from Rabbi Tsadok Rabinowitz Hakohen’s (Rav Tsadok) “Tsidkat Hatsadik,” which touch on these issues. In doing so, these texts place God in the uncommon, and perhaps uncomfortable, position of the source of failure. These texts suggest that, in one form or another, God is the reasons that things don’t “work.”

Before launching into the texts, I want to make a methodological note. I am not going to attempt here to present a thorough and broad understanding of the theologies of either Maimonides or Rav Tsadok (with the former, at least, I’m not even sure that is possible); I am simply going to look at these texts in and of themselves. My goal is to examine the theological intuitions and ideas contained within the texts, rather than explain what Maimonides and Rav Tsadok think more broadly.

Guide II 32 – The Failure of Prophecy

Maimonides discussions of prophecy in the Guide for the Perplexed cover all of the traditional issues bound up in the concept: what it is, what type of information it conveys, who can get it, how they get it, are there different levels, etc. In one of his discussions of it, in Guide II:32, he suggests that there are three primary opinions about the nature of prophecy. Only the third is of relevance to us, but it must be understood agains the background of the first two.

The first is that of the people, including Jews, whom Maimonides calls “ignorant people”:

Among those who believe in Prophecy, and even among our coreligionists, there are some ignorant people who think as follows: God selects any person He pleases, inspires him with the spirit of Prophecy, and entrusts him with a mission. It makes no difference whether that person be wise or stupid, old or young; provided he be, to some extent, morally good. For these people have not yet gone so far as to maintain that God might also inspire a wicked person with His spirit. They admit that this is impossible, unless God has previously caused him to improve his ways. (Guide, II 32, Friedlander translation)

According to the first group, the ignorant people, prophecy is a totally miraculous event (notably, this group seems to include Rav Sa’adiah Gaon. See “The Book of Beliefs and Opinions” chapter 3). It occurs when God decides to impart it to a person, regardless of any other conditions. Moreover, it is entirely driven by God’s initiative, rather than man’s; it is entirely “top-down” as it were. Prophecy is, in this sense, entirely chaotic and arbitrary. There can be no question of prophecy “working” or going according to some plan, because there can be no plan.

This is in stark contrast to the opinion of the second group, the philosophers:

The philosophers hold that prophecy is a certain faculty of man in a state of perfection, which can only be obtained by study. Although the faculty is common to the whole race, yet it is not fully developed in each individual, either on account of the individual’s defective constitution, or on account of some other external cause. This is the case with every faculty common to a class. It is only brought to a state of perfection in some individuals, and not in all; but it is impossible that it should not be perfect in some individual of the class; and if the perfection is of such a nature that it can only be produced by an agent, such an agent must exist. Accordingly, it is impossible that an ignorant person should be a prophet; or that a person being no prophet in the evening, should, unexpectedly on the following morning, find himself a prophet, as if prophecy were a thing that could be found unintentionally. But if a person, perfect in his intellectual and moral faculties, and also perfect, as far as possible, in his imaginative faculty, prepares himself in the manner which will be described, he must become a prophet; for prophecy is a natural faculty of man. It is impossible that a man who has the capacity for prophecy should prepare himself for it without attaining it, just as it is impossible that a person with a healthy constitution should be fed well, and yet not properly assimilate his food; and the like. (Ibid.)

According to the philosophers, prophecy is not miraculous but natural. It is a capacity with which all people are born, though they have to develop it properly. If someone does develop their moral and intellectual faculties properly, and they have the necessary imaginative capacity, then they inevitably attain prophecy. This might be characterized as a “bottom-up” approach. Prophecy “works” in the sense that I have been discussing; it goes according to plan. If you attempt to achieve prophecy, and you meet every condition, you will necessarily receive prophecy. In contrast to the divine chaos of the first opinion, there is an entirely natural order.

The third opinion, which Maimonides attributes to Tanakh and to the fundamental principle of Judaism, is a significant variation on the opinion of the philosophers:

The third view is that which is taught in Scripture, and which forms one of the principles of our religion. It coincides with the opinion of the philosophers in all points except one. For we believe that, even if one has the capacity for prophecy, and has duly prepared himself, it may yet happen that he does not actually prophesy. It is in that case the will of God [that withholds from him the use of the faculty]. (Ibid.)

Prophecy, according to this opinion, is achieved by way of a natural process wherein a person develops their moral and intellectual capacities to the point of perfection. As opposed to the opinion of the philosophers, however, achieving prophecy is not inevitable for the person who reaches the end of this process. A person could reach this peak of moral and intellectual perfection and still not attain prophecy, because God can prevent her from doing so. God intervenes in and disrupts the natural prophetic process.

To sharpen this a little bit, I want to correct a common misunderstanding about this text. I have often heard or read this third opinion explained as a combination of or midpoint between the first two. If the first is top-down and the second is bottom-up, then the third, it is said, is when the two sides meet in the middle; a person develops herself to a certain point and then God decides whether or not to bestow prophecy upon her. However, it is pretty clear from Maimonides’ words that this is not the case. The third opinion is not a midpoint or combination of the previous two, it is simply a variation on the second. Prophecy remains an entirely natural process; God only comes into the picture when the process fails.

This point is driven home in the continuation of the passage, where Maimonides expands this concept from prophecy to miracles.

According to my opinion, this fact is as exceptional as any other miracle, and acts in the same way. For the laws of Nature demand that every one should be a prophet, who has a proper physical constitution, and has been duly prepared as regards education and training. If such a person is not a prophet, he is in the same position as a person who, like Jeroboam (1 Kings xiii.), is deprived of the use of his hand, or of his eyes, as was the case with the army of Syria, in the history of Elisha (2 Kings vi. 18). (Ibid.)

According to the natural order, someone fitting to receive prophecy will necessarily do so. It is only through miraculous intervention that such people on in some instances do not receive prophecy. Moreover, this miraculous intervention is the same in form to all other miracles; they all consist of God interfering with and disrupting the natural order. Maimonides brings two proofs from Tanakh to show that this is how miracles work. Regardless of the existence of counter-examples, Maimonides could not have found better proofs if he wrote them himself. The first is from 1 Kings 13, when God saved an unnamed prophet from the Israelite king Jeroboam by causing the king’s hand to wither, and the second is from 2 Kings 5, when God blinded the Assyrian army. Maimonides argues that the withered hand and the blindness, rather than being direct acts of God, result from God disrupting the regular functioning of the natural order. Prophecy is a natural human capacity just like seeing and use of the hand, and God’s role in prophecy is solely causing it to fail.


Tsidkat Hatsadik 102 – “God sets up problems and obstacles for a person”

Rav Tsadok dedicates a good deal of his notebook, Tsidkat Hatsadik, to meditations on sin and repentance and their interplay with the divine will. In one piece on the topic, #102, he presents a creative reading of the rabbinic statement that people who have sinned and repented are on a higher level, in whatever sense, than people who have never sinned.

This is the meaning of the saying that in the place where repentant individuals stand, even the completely righteous cannot reach. God sets up problems and obstacles for a person, and the person must then repent and atone for his “sin.” Through this process he extracts treasure from garbage. (Excerpt from Tsidkat Hatsadik 102; translation is mine. [The linked version is missing a section that was censored out beginning with the second edition and only restored in more recent printings.])

Rav Tsadok is working with an intuition very similar to that of Maimonides, but he is talking about human sin instead of prophecy. The way most people think of sin is that there is a theoretical list of things that people should not do, and sometimes people attempting to adhere to this list fail to do so. Rav Tsadok argues, in contrast, that sin is not simply a function of human failure to adhere to this list, but is in fact, or can be, God making a person sin (cf. Tsidkat Hatsadik, 40, 43). Much like Maimonides’ natural order, human willpower works. A person can decide to do or not do something, and follow through on that decision. Sometimes, however, a person will fail to follow through. While note ruling out other potential reasons for this failure, Rav Tsadok says that, at least sometimes, it is because God wanted the person to sin. In this passage, Rav Tsadok suggests that God wanted the person to sin because the process of repenting for this sin is itself valuable. In some of the passages that appear after this one, Rav Tsadok meditates on other possible reasons. He maintains throughout this basic idea that God directly causes a person to sin. Notably, this is a distinct step beyond Maimonides assertion that God merely keeps people from getting prophecy, though the basic idea is the same.


Tsidkat Hatsadik 101 – Nothing Works

Both passages that I have looked at so far, from Maimonides and Rav Tsadok, asserted that God causes systems or processes to fail, for whatever reason. This idea is built up on the assumption that there are systems or processes that, barring external intervention, work the way they are supposed to work. I want to turn now to a passage from Tsidkat Hatsadik, the one directly preceding the last one we looked at, and see how Rav Tsadok reads a famous rabbinic statement about the creation of the world in a way that direct challenges that assumption (there are ways of resolving the tension between these two pieces, but I’m not concerned about that in this essay). As it is somewhat shorter than the other pieces we looked at, I will quote it in full:

In practice it is impossible for a person to stay within the boundaries of the law (shurat hadin), as the verse says, “there is no righteous person on earth who does good and does not sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). A righteous person (tsadik) is careful not to stray outside the boundaries of the law [it is common knowledge that in the realm of practice (Olam Ha’Asiah) there are many kelipot, at all levels, but that is beyond the scope of this piece]. This only possible in thought, not practice, and in a person’s inner conscious will, where he decides in his mind that he will act in a specific way and not sin, only there is it possible for him to desire and think like this.

In truth, in the thought and will that transcend the worlds, that sinful act is also part of the plan and does not go outside the boundaries of the law, for everything is within the law (hadin).

This is what the rabbis meant when they said that initially God thought to create through his attribute of law [but God saw that the world could not exist like this, so he created it with compassion (rahamim) as well -LM]. Action therefore necessarily means going outside the boundaries of the law, while thought is the attribute of law, and does not exceed the boundaries of the law. In the verse, “God is righteous in all his ways, and pious in all his deeds” (Psalms 145:17), “his ways” means words of Torah, as the beginning of Tractate Kiddushin says and in line with the verse, “He made his ways known to Moses” (Psalms 103:7). God, too, behaves according to the Torah, but when it comes the deed he is pious, meaning not according to the strict boundaries of the law, as discussed in Tractate Shabbat (120a, and see Rashi there).

This is in line with the verse, “I will be gracious to anyone I want” (Exodus 33:19). This too is a verse in the Torah and is known to be one of God’s ways, just as “it is a time to act for God and reject the Torah” is an established halakhah, just as, when we get back to the level of thought, this too is part of the plan and the proper boundaries. (Tsidkat Hatsadik 101; translation is mine, as is the emphasis)

In this piece, Rav Tsadok argues that failure is built into the system. People and the world are not supposed to perfectly live up to their ideals. As a support for this, he references a rabbinic narrative describing how God intended to create the world such that it would function according to strict laws. However, God saw that such a world could not be sustained, and so he created the world with compassion instead. Compassion, Rav Tsadok claims, is just one form of exceeding the boundaries of the law, and now it is an inherent part of the world. People fail to live up to their ideals because that’s part of how people work. As opposed to the assumption underlying the passages we saw from the Guide for the Perplexed II 32 and Tsidkat Hatsadik 102, systems don’t work. Thinking that things work out the way they are supposed to work out is a mistake, verging on self-delusion. God does not directly cause failure, but God built a world that is broken, along with everything in it; none of it works as it ideally should, and that’s how it is supposed to be.


In this piece we have seen two different ideas positing God as the source of failure, built around two different intuitions about how whether people and the world “work.” The first says that things basically work, and God interferes with their functioning, causing things to fail. The second says that things don’t work, that failure is built into people and the world, and that God made it that way. These two ideas bear some significant implications for our religious lives.

Religion is in many ways about living up to certain ideals of action, belief, or both, something in which we are not always successful. We need to consider the degree to which we are really meant to succeed in this goal all of the time (Rav Tsadok says in piece 101, quoted above, that the system of halakhah includes its own violation). If we really are meant to succeed, if the system works, then failure might just mean that we didn’t do our part properly, and we have to work harder on our end. The real possibility exists, however, that we will find no fault of our own, and the fault for our failure must fall to God (cf. Bavli Berakhot 5a, “יסורים של אהבה”). In such an instance, we must reconsider how we understand failure. It shifts from being sin to “sin,” as Rav Tsadok put it, from failure to the first step of success.

If, however, failure is built into the system and success is never assumed, then it may be impossible to know why we failed in any given instance. However, failure also becomes less dramatic. It might not even be “failure” in the way we normally mean it. Failure is a part of what it means to be created by God, and humbly accepting our creatureliness means accepting the fact that we fail all of the time.

Finally, I would note that this is an issue of obvious significance for the days of Elul, when Jews have repentance on the mind. Both of these ideas take the edge off of sin, meaning that perhaps it should not be the focus of repentance. Instead, repentance should either focus on how the sin can be the first step in something better (the first approach), or in accepting the fact that we are not divine, and thus sin is to some degree an unfortunate inevitability. Either way, the primary emotion of repentance is not guilt but determination or humility.



[This post was influenced by lectures by Yishai Mevorach, a student of Rav Shagar and an editor of his writings, and an interesting thinker in his own right. An English interview with Prof. Alan Brill about Mevorach’s new book, “A Theology of Absence” can be found here, and Mevorach’s Hebrew lectures on a variety of topics can be found on his youtube channel here.]