“Books of the People”: On Modern Orthodoxy’s Reading Habits

Is there a Modern Orthodox philosophical canon, a list of books that comprehensively represents Modern Orthodoxy’s philosophical outlook? This is presumably a question that occupied Dr. Stuart Halpern while organizing, assembling, and editing “Books of the People” (BP), a collection of essays discussing twelve important philosophical books or authors from the Jewish tradition. In the preface he writes: “While the list of books discussed in this work is not exhaustive, nor does it represent a formal canon in any way, it reflects the changing priorities and religious sensibilities of readers and students, whether in the academy or among the general population” (BP, x). If there is such a canon, Halpern says, this book is not it. It is, however, something not altogether different. If a canon determines which books are should or should not read (for whatever purposes), then BP does the opposite; it is a list of books based on what the community is already reading. As such, examining it can perhaps tell us a good deal about this community, namely, Modern Orthodoxy. Given the incredible degree of variation in the forms and styles of the various essays, I want to use this review to look at some recurring themes and what Modern Orthodoxy’s reading habits have to say about the community writ large, rather than focusing on individual essays.

Continue reading ““Books of the People”: On Modern Orthodoxy’s Reading Habits”

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Rav Tsadok and Why Jewish Continuity Discourse Re-enacts the Sin of the Spies

In recent years, and probably longer, there has been an ongoing discussion in the Jewish community about “continuity,” about which sects of Judaism will or will not produce people who are Jewish according to Jewish law (however you define that) and who actually care about living a Jewish life (once again, however you define that). A few years ago, Pew Forum released a poll showing that the only Jewish denominations gaining in size are the Orthodox ones, and they get bigger even faster the farther they are to the right. More recently, a study found that significant numbers of Religious Zionists in Israel leave religion behind as they move into adulthood. Both of these data points have given rise to panicked rethinking, on the one hand, and joyous triumphalism on the other. In this post, I want to go back over Rav Tsadok’s ideas from Dover Tsedek, Aharei Mot, #4 (If you haven’t read the last post with my annotated translation, I recommend doing so), and apply them to this Jewish continuity discourse, with the goal of pointing us in a different direction altogether.

 

Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 6.32.38 PM

Exhibit A. Source: http://www.aish.com/jw/s/48910307.html

 

Rav Tsadok starts his exegetical and creative work with the sin of the spies from Numbers 13-14. The spies came back from exploring the land of Canaan and said that it would be impossible to conquer because of the current residents, and what is more, even if they managed to conquer the land they would not last there, as it is a land that consumes its inhabitants. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, protest that God can bring the people into the land if they so choose, a claim that Rav Tsadok radically extends.

The spies saw the outer layer (levush), the skin of the snake, while Joshua and Caleb saw the inner truth that the land is good. The skin of the snake causes people to fail, regarding which the verse says, “If God desires us” (Numbers 14:8), meaning that if God wants to bring us to the land he will do so, even given that he knows about the skin of the snake.

The claim, according to Rav Tsadok, is not only that God can help them conquer the land if God so chooses, but that the functional practicality of conquering and living in the land is entirely irrelevant. God is aware of the practical issues and gave the command anyway. What should be of immediate concern to the people is what God wants them to do.

In terms of Jewish continuity discourse, I think we need to be asking ourselves: is continuity part of what God wants us to do, or is it a practical issue? I suspect it is the latter. Continuity is not a principle that should guide the direction of Jewish life, it is something you deal with as you go. But we cannot decide how to be Jewish, what it means to be Jewish, based on what that means for our kids. We have to ask ourselves, how does God want me to be Jewish right now? Continuity discourse keeps us focused on the practical issues without getting down to that question of principle, in a way that I think is really inexcusable. Continuity is certainly important, but it can’t tell us what we are supposed to be doing now.

 

 

Rav Tsadok next moves on to discussing a talmudic narrative where the prophet Isaiah rebukes King Hezekiah for refusing to have children simply because he foresaw that his son would be evil. Isaiah pushes back against this logic, arguing that Hezekiah should not be concerned about future results more than he is about the divine command.

It was said regarding this, “Why do you involve yourself with the secrets of the Holy One, Blessed be He?” And this even though he had seen through the holy spirit that his sons would not be good, as it says in Berakhot (10a).

The future outcome of fulfilling the commandments are the “secrets” of God, argues Rav Tsadok, even when a person has divinely inspired knowledge of said outcome. The use of the term “secret” therefore seems to mean “something you are not supposed to be thinking about or factoring into your decision making process” rather than “thing you cannot know.” Thus, even when Hezekiah knows the outcome of fulfilling the divine command, he should act as if from behind a veil of ignorance and perform the command as if he did not know what would come of it.

Continuity discourse wants us to act based on our understanding of what will happen in the future, our understanding of the secrets of God. The most obvious problem is that, unlike King Hezekiah, we have no way of actually knowing what the future holds. Even if assimilation and birth rates have recently trended one way in our denominations, this trend may shift. God only knows what might happen in the future, so it’s not something we can, or should, factor into our decisions.

Perhaps more importantly, continuity discourse thinks about the future in a way that ignores our role in it. In the continuation of the talmudic narrative, Hezekiah agrees to have children (in fulfillment of the divine command), but refuses to accept that his son will be wicked. Despite the prophet insisting that this cannot be changed, Hezekiah insistently tries to ensure that his son will be righteous. This brings us back to the split between principle and practical issues. After Hezekiah has committed to acting based on principle, doing what he knows he is supposed to do, he then tackles the practical issue on its own, doing whatever he can to change the outcome he has foreseen. Continuity is a practical issue, and as such can and should be tackled head on, but only after we have decided on what the proper, principled, path is to take. We should decide what denomination, if any, we ought to associate with, and then afterward we should  dedicate ourselves to ensuring Jewish continuity.

 

 

The next step in Rav Tsadok’s thought-process suggests that what we see as practical issues may really be an important part of the process. He references a parable from the Zohar about a doe who cannot give birth until a snake bites it, violently opening its birth canal.

In reference to this, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoḥai said (Zohar, Beshalaḥ, 2:52b), “There is one doe there… do not ask and do not test God–so it is precisely!”

The implication of the story is that violence and suffering may actually be part of the divine plan. Rabbi Shimon’s concludes from this that you cannot question God; once suffering and violence can be legitimate parts of the divine plan, then they stop being reasons to question or challenge God. Practical issues like continuity may be part of the divine plan, and thus certainly should not be a decisive factor in choosing how to live. This is the point at which divine providence is so expansive and undefined that human decision-making becomes impossible, so I’m mostly going to ignore this point. However, the basic idea of humility before the potential vicissitudes of the divine plan is worth keeping in mind.

 

 

The final step of Rav Tsadok’s train of thought involves radical interpretations of a hasidic tradition about the biblical book of Esther and a famed talmudic narrative. The hasidic tradition suggests takes Vashti’s refusal to come before Aḥashverosh naked as indicative of the impossibility of an unmediated (“naked”) experience of God in this world, something Rav Tsadok extends even to the idealized world to come.

Outer layers and the skin of the snake exist even in the life of the world to come [as I heard regarding the verse (Esther 1:17) “bring Vashti” naked, but she did not come, for in this world there is always clothing (levush)] and there is room there [in the world to come -LM] to make mistakes.

Nothing is perfect, nothing goes according to plan. Problems arise even in the world to come. Hence an experience of the world to come, like that of the talmudic figure Aḥer, is perforce affected by the presence of negative elements.

As they said, Aḥer tasted from the trip through the orchard (Ḥagigah 14b), a taste like that of the world to come, and he strayed.

Even the world to come, the theoretical ideal of human reality and its relationship to the divine, is not perfect. Extrapolating theology from this ideal reality can therefore lead to mistakes and even heresy.

While at this point Rav Tsadok has wandered rather far afield, I think this final step is still very important for our discussion of continuity. The basic idea that Rav Tsadok is exploring here is that nothing is perfect; try as hard as you might, there will always be problems. It is therefore a waste of time to try and decide on a way of life that won’t have any problems. You have to just decide based on principle and then do your best to alleviate the problems that inevitably arise. If a certain form of Jewish life leads to less Jewish babies or less religious adults, that does not bear on whether or not that is the right way to live Jewishly. Even if you could find a way of life with no continuity problems, there would inevitably be other problems. Ensuring that people are Jewish or religious does not mean that they will be Jewish or religious in the way that you would hope. Or there could be one of any number of other problems. Continuity is an important issue, but it is one (and not the only one) that needs to be tackled after we decide on the right way to be Jewish, rather than being a part of that decision.

 

There’s obviously a lot in this piece from Rav Tsadok that is challenging theologically, particularly the section on the Zohar. However, I think the basic idea that shows up throughout is compelling, and very important for contemporary Jewish discourse about denominations. Continuity is important, but it’s a practical issue, not a principle. The question of how to be Jewish has to be answered by looking for what is right, what God wants from us, etc., not by pointing to practical issues like continuity. This will still allow for hearty inter-denominational debate, but at least the discussion will center around actual points of debate. Moreover, when we ask ourselves why we live Judaism the way that we do, the answer will be because be actually believe in it.

I do expect some pushback on this. Some of this may need some nuancing; perhaps the distinction I drew between principle and practical is not as sharp as I made it out to be, or perhaps there is some other issue I haven’t imagined yet.

 

 

[This post was based on and inspired by lectures by Yishai Mevorach, a student of Rav Shagar’s 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.]

Rav Tsadok Hakohen, Dover Tsedek, Aharei Mot, #4: An Annotated Translation

Below is the original Hebrew of a piece from Rav Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin’s “Dover Tsedek,” followed by an annotated translation. In a future post I will apply the piece to some of the ongoing discourse surrounding the different Jewish sects, particularly the issue of continuity.

 

רבי צדוק, דובר צדק, אחרי מות, אות ד, עמ’ 187:
ומרגלים ראו הלבוש דמשכא דחויא, ויהושע וכלב ראו הפנימיות דטובה הארץ. ומה שהלבוש דמשכא דחויא מכשיל מאוד על זה נאמר ״אם חפץ בנו ה׳״ וגו’ פירוש אם ה׳ יתברך חפץ להביאנו והוא יודע גם כן מהמשכא דחויא. על זה נאמר בהדי כבשי דרחמנא למה לך. ואף על גב דחזי ברוח הקודש דהוה ליה בנין דלא מעלי כדאיתא בברכות. ועל זה אמר ר’ שמעון בן יוחאי אהא דחד איילתא דתמן… לא תשאל ולא תנסה את ה’, והכי דייקא. וגם בחיי עולם הבא יש משכא דחויא ולבוש [כמו ששמעתי על פסוק להביא את ושתי ערומה ולא באה כי בעולם הזה אי אפשר בלא לבוש] שיש בו מקום לטעות. וכמו שאמרו באחר דטעם הטיול בפרדס הוא טעימה מעין עולם הבא, ואחר טעה.

 

 

Rav Tsadok Hakohen, Dover Tsedek, Aharei Mot, #4:

The spies saw the outer layer (levush),[1] the skin of the snake,[2] while Joshua and Caleb saw the inner truth that the land is good. The skin of the snake causes people to fail, regarding which the verse says, “If God desires us” (Numbers 14:8), meaning that if God wants to bring us to the land he will do so, even given that he knows about the skin of the snake.[3]

It was said regarding this, “Why do you involve yourself with the secrets of the Holy One, Blessed be He?” And this even though he had seen through the holy spirit that his sons would not be good, as it says in Berakhot (10a).[4]

In reference to this, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoḥai said (Zohar, Beshalaḥ, 2:52b), “There is one doe there… do not ask and do not test God–so it is precisely!”[5]

Outer layers and the skin of the snake exist even in the life of the world to come [as I heard regarding the verse (Esther 1:17) “bring Vashti” naked, but she did not come, for in this world there is always clothing (levush)][6] and there is room there [in the world to come -LM] to make mistakes.

As they said, Aḥer tasted from the trip through the orchard (Ḥagigah 14b), a taste like that of the world to come, and he strayed.[7]

Notes:

1.  The “levush” (literally “garment”) is a common idea in hasidic thought with its roots in the Zohar, referring to aspects of a thing that obscure and prevent access to the inner truth of a thing, just as clothing obscures and prevents access to the body. See, for example, Zohar 3:152a where the Torah is divided up into outer layer, body, and soul, parallel to narratives, laws, and mystical secrets respectively.

2. “The skin of the snake” is a common kabbalistic trope going back to the Zohar, referring to the mystical evil that has attached to holiness since the primordial sin, drawing power from it and corrupting it.

3. Rav Tsadok is working here with the narrative of the spies from Numbers 13-14. When most of the spies claim that the land will consume them, two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb respond with the referenced verse: “If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us” (Numbers 14:8). Rav Tsadok is pointing out that Joshua and Caleb at no point suggest that the spies were lying and incorrect, instead claiming that God wants them to enter the land despite the spies being correct about the land “consuming its inhabitants” (13:32). God knows about this, and commanded it anyway; it’s the people’s job to listen to the command.

4. Rav Tsadok is referring to an aggadah that depicts a back-and-forth between King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah, and it’s worth quoting in full:

What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do to effect compromise between Hezekiah and Isaiah? He brought the suffering of illness upon Hezekiah and told Isaiah: Go and visit the sick. Isaiah did as God instructed, as it is stated: “In those days Hezekiah became deathly ill, and Isaiah ben Amoz the prophet came and said to him: Thus says the Lord of Hosts: Set your house in order, for you will die and you will not live” (Isaiah 38:1). This seems redundant; what is the meaning of you will die and you will not live? This repetition means: You will die in this world, and you will not live, you will have no share, in the World-to-Come.

Hezekiah said to him: What is all of this? For what transgression am I being punished?

Isaiah said to him: Because you did not marry and engage in procreation.

Hezekiah apologized and said: I had no children because I envisaged through divine inspiration that the children that emerge from me will not be virtuous. Hezekiah meant that he had seen that his children were destined to be evil. In fact, his son Menashe sinned extensively, and he thought it preferable to have no children at all.

Isaiah said to him: Why do you involve yourself with the secrets of the Holy One, Blessed be He? That which you have been commanded, the mitzva of procreation, you are required to perform, and that which is acceptable in the eyes of the Holy One, Blessed be He, let Him perform, as He has so decided.

Hezekiah said to Isaiah: Now give me your daughter as my wife; perhaps my merit and your merit will cause virtuous children to emerge from me.

Isaiah said to him: The decree has already been decreed against you and this judgment cannot be changed.

Hezekiah said to him: Son of Amoz, cease your prophecy and leave. As long as the prophet spoke as God’s emissary, Hezekiah was obligated to listen to him. He was not, however, obligated to accept Isaiah’s personal opinion that there was no possibility for mercy and healing. (Koren-Davidson Translation)

This aggadah plays with the same tension Rav Tsadok highlighted in the narrative of the spies between the divine command and negative future consequences of following that command. Hezekiah doesn’t want to have children because he knows that his son Menashe will be the worst king of Judah, marrying a foreign princess and bringing her nation’s idolatry into the heart of the temple itself . Isaiah rebukes him for getting involved with the “secrets of God,” meaning the potential future consequences of obeying the divine command.

5. Rav Tsadok is referencing a passage from the Zohar:

Rabbi Shim’on said, “There is one doe on earth, and the blessed Holy One does so much for her. When she cries out, the blessed Holy One hearkens to her anguish. And when the world is in need of mercy, for water, she cries aloud and the blessed Holy One listens and then feels compassion for the world, as is written: As a hind longs for streams of water… (Psalms 42:2).

“When she needs to give birth, she is totally constricted; then she puts her head between her legs, crying out and screaming, and the blessed Holy One feels compassion for her and provides her with a serpent who bites her genitalia, opening and tearing that place, and immediately she gives birth.”

Rabbi Shim’on said, “Concerning this matter, do not ask and do not test את י׳הוה (et YHVH)–so it is precisely!” (Pritzker edition, trans. Daniel Matt, Vol.4, pp.265-266)

Continuing the theme of childbirth from the narrative about Hezekiah, the Zohar speaks of God enabling childbirth by way of violence. While there are more esoteric interpretations (see the commentary in the Pritzker edition, ibid.), Rav Tsadok seems to be working with just the surface level of the parable, focusing on the idea that the divine plan might include, or even hinge upon, violence and suffering. It is concerning this that it was said, “do not ask and do not test God;” it’s not there are no problems and therefore you shouldn’t unreasonably ask/test God, rather even though there are problems that might encourage asking/testing God, you still should not do so, as this is simply how the divine works. There is always the skin of the snake, as Rav Tsadok said before.

6. This bracketed comment is a later insertion by Rav Tsadok himself. He is referring to a teaching from his teacher, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica. This is the relevant passage from a larger piece in the book of Mordechai Yosef’s teachings, Mei ha-Shiloa:

The Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory, said about “naked and she did not come” that this matter of naked has not yet come, end quote. The idea is that God gave Israel the Torah and the commandments, which are outer layers (levushim), and it is through them that Israel can grasp God’s essence. In this world, humans are incapable of grasping God’s essence except through crude [literally, “corporealizing” -LM] outer layers, so that ultimately everything that we receive comes via outer layers. […] Therefore when the men of the Great Assembly say that Aashverosh commanded that Vashti come before him naked, they understood that God wanted to give Israel true revelation, without any outer layer, such as there will be in the future when God will reveal his light without any outer layer… (Mei ha-Shiloa, Vol.1, Bavli Megillah 12b, s.v. vehakarov, p.259)

Rav Mordechai Yosef is getting at the same idea as his student, Rav Tsadok, regarding the presence of outer layers that mediate between people and the divine. However, Rav Mordechai Yosef is arguing that the mediated relationship with God characterizes our ordinary, banal, existence, there can potentially be an unmediated relationship with God, in an eschatological future period, or even in the here and now if God decided to reveal himself in that way. Rav Tsadok, on the other hand, is arguing that even the eschaton, “the world to come” is characterized by a mediated relationship with God. There is no escaping the skin of the snake or the outer layers. (This is not the only time we find Rav Tsadok arguing with the text of the Mei ha-Shiloa. The Mei ha-Shiloa suggests that Zimri, and not Pinhas, was the hero of Numbers 25 (Vol.1, Pinhas, s.v. vayera, p.164), whereas Rav Tsadok claims that Zimri really did sin (Tsidkat ha-Tsadik, #43). Interestingly, Rav Tsadok attributes this opinion to his teacher, seemingly contradicting the opinion attested to in the text of the Mei ha-Shiloa).

Rav Tsadok, at this point in the homily, is moving past the simple argument that the divine command or plan may involve some sort of problem, on to saying that even the most ideal situation imaginable is still going to have problems. There is no ideal, perfect, experience of God, clean of all imperfections, and we need to stop thinking that there is.

7. Here Rav Tsadok is referencing the aggadah about four individuals who “entered the orchard.” The exact nature of this experience is debated, with one major line of interpretation being that it was a mystical experience of the divine, which is why Rav Tsadok likens it to the world to come. Of the four, one left unscathed, while one died, one went crazy, and the last, Aḥer, “cut saplings,” traditionally understood as a metaphor for some form of heresy. Rav Tsadok claims that Aḥer did not stray upon experiencing the orchard so much as he strayed because he experienced the orchard. Even mystical experiences of the divine, as close to unmediated as possible, contain some elements of crude superficiality and mythical evil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Shavuot – Rav Shagar- Face to Face

My most recent translation of Rav Shagar, on the nature of revelation.

The Book of Doctrines and Opinions:

We return with yet another Rav Shagar translation, this one for Shavuot (Hebrew here). We have once again to thank Levi Morrow for his translation. For those who want prior posts on Rav Shagar, see herehere. here, here, and here.  (There are at least 16 in total at this point, I know this is becoming a single focus, but please wait for the return of other topics.)  I put this one up quickly, a little less edited, so that everyone can print it out to study on Shavuot, or even to give classes on it. Please let me know of any errors.

This essay on Shavuot is one of the best places to start with Rav Shagar in that it deals with the basic Existential & post-modern issues in a non-technical way along with an immediate application to one’s religious life.  This is the one to…

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Love and Law- Rav Shagar on Religious Zionism 2005

My latest Rav Shagar translation, where he deals with issues of law and violence in the state of Israel, in the months leading up to the disengagement from Gaza.

The Book of Doctrines and Opinions:

One hundred years ago, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the metaphysical seer of Religious Zionism wrote that the land of Israel is the very soul of the Jewish people. Judaism’s diaspora orientation  was displaced by Rav Kook for a messianic vision of the ingathering of all Jews to the land, where they will find a renewal of their souls and a sense of completeness lacking in prior centuries. In his vision, the land will radiate all that is good, and holy. Through the land Jews will attain “unity, collectivity, idealism, holiness in nature, freedom, universalism, and harmony” and from their attainment these ideas would spread to the world with Israel serving as a spiritual beacon. For Rav Kook, Religious Zionism was to be all love and mystic light. But now, how should one relate to the current 21st century State of Israel based on authority, secularity, violence, and rejection of this…

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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