The Divine Unconscious and Individual Meaning: A Materialist Approach to the Commandments from Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah Derashot

The Divine Unconscious and Individual Meaning:
A Materialist Approach to the Commandments
from Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah Derashot

As I have shown in my post on the materialist theory of the commandments in Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Mind, materialist theories have two components, one primary and one secondary. The primary component is that the physical acts of the commandments are logically and causally independent of any reasons that might be given for them. The commandments aren’t meant for any purpose, no matter what purposes they might serve. Secondarily, and as a corollary to the first component, different people in different historical situations can quite validly give different explanations of the commandments. However, this second component does not have to follow from the first. This is why it appears in Rabbi David Silverstein’s approach but not in Rav Soloveitchik’s.

In this post, I want to look at two short excerpts from Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah sermons, published in the book Leha’ir et Hapetahim. Neither of these excerpts comes from a formal, systematic discussion of the reasons for the commandments, something as of yet unpublished among Rav Shagar’s writings. However, each independently deals with one of the two components of a materials approach to the mitsvot, giving us a comprehensive materialist understanding when we read them together.[1]


The first piece comes from a great derashah entitled, “Screen for the Spirit, Garment for the Soul,” which explores the meaning of the commandments in the teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Baal Hatanya, based on the biblical images of the human soul as the candle of God, and the commandment as a candle that shines with the Torah’s light. Rav Shagar finds that, as opposed to other Hasidic thinkers such as the Izhbitzer Rebbe, the Baal Hatanya sets up an opposition between the candle of the person’s soul and the candle of the commandment. Mitsvot are therefore not about authenticity, and can even be a source of alienation.

Moreover, Rav Shagar then moves into a discussion of the relative importance of will as compared to wisdom in understanding God and the commandments, based on the Baal Hatanya’s discussion of and departure from Maimonides. As opposed to Maimonides, for whom wisdom is the primary aspect we must understand about God and the underlying principle behind the commandments, the Baal Hatanya emphasizes the divine will, which precedes the divine wisdom.

If we return to characterizing the commandments, the Baal Hatanya says that even the physicality of action precedes thought and spirituality. “The root of the commandments is incredibly lofty, for they are rooted in the aspect of the highest crown (Keter Elyon) […] which ultimately devolves down into physical action […] specifically there we find the divine will. The final act is first in thought.” By its very nature, the essence of the will of the infinite can’t be revealed in a garment, in sense, in the finite. It therefore does not appear as the inner light of reality, as meaning, as clarity, as the delight of holiness. Though these things cannot be defined, they are comprehended and contained in the categories (kelim) of existence, just as meaning is comprehended through sense. The essence of will appears only as light that surrounds reality, overlapping the opaque act by virtue of it lacking sense. This opaque act defies human existence which relies on reason, knowledge, comprehensibility, and meaning, wherein every effect has a cause and everything that happens is determined by a thought or experience.

Based on the Baal Hatanya, we might say that people fail to understand will because it is performative (performativi). Its only justification is its being. It has no value as a logical assertion, as a statement or claim, and it cannot serve as an argument for anything. The will wants a specific act because it wants it, and this is what makes “the highest will” absolute. It is will, and it does not need to rely on any external justifications. (52-53)

Rav Shagar describes the will, and the divine will specifically, as “performative” in the sense that philosopher J. L. Austin used the term, describing words that do things instead of describing them, creating or shaping reality rather than referring to or depicting reality. This creative will precedes any intellectual ideas, any words or meanings, which always explain a pre-existing reality. The Baal Hatanya roots the physical forms of the commandments in this pre-intellectual will, in the simple meaningless insistence that precedes conscious thought. These physical act therefore are not, and could not be, preceded by an idea or goal for which God commanded them. You can’t get “behind” the commanding of the specific acts, because there’s no “before” that precedes them. They are primordial. God didn’t command them because they make sense, and this as Rav Shagar continues there, you can’t choose to keep them because they make sense. It requires an act of passionate commitment (mesirut nefesh), a decision to take upon yourself the framework of the mitsvot, only after which can you find meaning in them.

Our second excerpt comes from a derashah called “Candlelight: Genealogy of a Metaphor.” In this text, Rav Shagar traces the way different thinkers have understood the metaphor of candles and light within Judaism. Simultaneously, he traces the way the different thinkers have understood the metaphors to function; do they reveal the inherent connection between light and intellect, for example, or do they somehow create this connection?

After tracing this genealogy, Rav Shagar turns to propose his own way of understanding metaphors, based on a Lacanian understanding of psychoanalysis and the unconscious. For our purposes, there are two Lacanian ideas necessary for understanding what Rav Shagar is trying to get at. The first is that a symptom does not have a preexisting meaning. The meaning is created in the process of its verbalization. Second, nothing exists in the abstract, separate from its linguistic context. To be conscious means to exist within and be constituted by language. Rav Shagar weaves these two ideas together, such that the mitsvot are a “language” from which the Jew who “speaks” (fulfills) then is not separate, and the meaning of which emerges in the moment when the Jew fulfills them. For the sake of context and clarity, I will quote Rav Shagar’s words at length:

I want to depict another way to understand the metaphor of light and candle, one in which the meanings themselves of the different depictions happen in the present of “this time” (hazman hazeh). As opposed to Rav Kook and the Kabbalists, for whom metaphors reveal psychological and idealistic truth and meaning that already exist in reality, we could see metaphors as functioning as a chain of connections and contexts functioning in the psychoanalytic realm. This realm is the realm of the creation and construction of the unconscious which those contexts represent. The psychological connections are created at the moment of the interpretation of the dream, or in the associative games of therapy. Similarly, the creation of a metaphor (“candle-light = Torah-light”) is an illumination that creates a language in real time. We should therefore understand the metaphor as a work of art that uses language as its “vocabulary,” a use that creates the network of connections and the truth and meaning that it bears within it, rather than a gesture toward some truth that existed “there” in the past. Of course, in order to be present to this sort of creative process, we must, as Richard Rorty said, abandon metaphors of “revelation” and “discovery” of truth, which perpetuate the idea of truth and meaning as things of the past to which we must return, which we must signify, and which we must track into its present traces. Instead, we must discuss truth and meaning using metaphors of creation and construction.

The metaphor of the light of candlelight as the light of Torah is a creation that structures all the levels, both light and vessel, of the real world. Lighting a candle is not a symbol or a behavioral-psychological effect. It is a real place wherein a person acts as fulfiller of the commandment. In this sense, the individual grants meaning to the existence of the commandment. However, we must emphasize that this meaning is not subjective. We’re not talking about a dualistic split between the person and the commandment, consciousness and action, light and vessel, but about a person fulfilling the commandment in the fullest sense of the term, and they cannot be separated. The two together construct the meaning-creating event. […]

Just as words are not external to the speaker, so too the commandments are not external to the person fulfilling them. As such, the meaning that he grants them, the metaphors they inspire within him, […] enter into the action of fulfilling the commandment itself. Just as […] the idea does not precede the action, so too the intent (kavvanah) does not precede the commandment, and there’s no set, foreseen, meaning to which the action must point. The light of the candle which we are going to light in the evening thus becomes a real opening to all kinds of worlds which a person can create, rather than discover. […]

The metaphor of candlelight does not belong to language’s sense. Rather, it is part of a network that constructs the world. In fulfilling the commandments, a person has the freedom to create an event. Of course, the process of creation is not ex nihilo, something from nothing, but something from something. The person who lights the candle uses the teachings that he learned, the different intentions to which he was exposed, the words and sentences of the language which he and those around him speak. All these elements come together in a new way in order to create something new, a creative construct. The Hanukkah candle can create an event, but this depends on man’s capacity to break himself loose from already-known nature. Only then will something happen, a connection will be made, a metaphor and similarity between images. (78-80)

According to Rav Shagar, when a Jew fulfills a commandment, she and the commandment are not two separate things. In that moment, the person is a fulfiller and the mitsvah a fulfilled, neither of which can exist or be understood without the other. Not only does the commandment not have any pre-existing meaning, but it doesn’t make any sense to talk about the meaning of a commandment separate from the person fulfilling it. Meaning is always “meaning to,” the meaning a thing bears for a specific individual or group, rather than being inherent in the thing itself. This is true of the metaphors surrounding candlelight, and it is also true of the commandments. Moreover, like the metaphors about candlelight, commandments are always going to be understood differently by different people, with this new meaning or understanding emerging when individual and commandment become fulfiller and fulfilled.

Combining these two excerpts gives the following picture: The commandments are inherently meaningless, originating as they do in the divine will that precedes any conscious, verbalizable thought or meaning. Their meaning emerges in the moment when an individual Jew fulfills them. This meaning is not the meaning of the mitsvah, but of the fulfillment of the commandment by this specific person in their specific historical situation. This reason cannot serve as the reason for the commandment, as it is always subjective, and is created after the commandment already exists. For the same reason, there is no need or possibility of saying that certain reasons are wrong while one reason is right. In my last post we saw that Rav Soloveitchik frames the commandments as objectifications of subjective religious experiences, with one such subjective experience being the correct one that we ought to reconstruct. In contrast, Rav Shagar sees the commandments as originating in the essential divine will, in a sense beginning as objects, which then generate subjective experiences as they are fulfilled by individuals.

In my next, and likely last, post on this subject, I want to look at Brennan Breed’s theory of biblical reception history research, which inspired this whole project.

[1] As to the legitimacy of reading them together, a few technical notes are in order. First, I’m on the whole in favor of reading Rav Shagar’s corpus as a comprehensive whole, unless there’s good reason to take exception in a given instance. There are many such exceptions, but coherence is the rule that enables to understand both the whole and the exceptions. Second, the two excerpts were not only published in the same book, but they are from adjacent sermons within that book (“Masakh Lanefesh Levush Laneshamah” and “Or Haner: Gilgulah Shel Metaforah”). Reading them together is almost unavoidable given that publishing choice. Third, a good starting point for questions like this is when the material was originally written. Differences in Rav Shagar’s writings can often be traced to the difference between pieces written in the 1980’s-90’s and pieces written in the 2000’s, though that’s not a firm rule. This lens can be applied with the help of the editorial notes that appear in most of the more recent volumes of Rav Shagar’s writings noting the dates of original material used in composing the texts. In our case, “Or Vener” is from 2007, near the very end of Rav Shagar’s life. “Masakh Lanefesh Levush Laneshamah” is more complicated. According to the editor, the sermon is based on transcripts of oral teachings stretching from 1986 until 2004, as well as two written texts from 2004 and 2006. It is therefore difficult to know how to decipher that sermon for era indicators, but the predominance of material from the 2000’s (“Shenot HaSamekh” as I have heard his students say), when he was more involved in “postmodern” and psychoanalytic materials. This bears out in both of the sermons, which have distinct psychoanalytic underpinnings, as we shall see.