Internal and Absolute: A Close Reading of Rav Shagar

A lot is made of the fact that Rav Shagar consciously and vigorously embraces subjectivity within Judaism, even going so far as to champion the “postmodern” claim that, subjectively speaking, there is no objective truth. The problem with this is that “subjective” and “objective” are slippery words, used in a variety of different ways. If you consider how Westerners often use them, it doesn’t quite match the picture that emerges from Rav Shagar’s writings. Below, I want to demonstrate this with a careful reading of a passage from one of Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah sermons.

For context, the essay deals with the Baal HaTanya’s embrace of an alienated observance of mitsvot in contrast to Rav Kook’s focus on authentically observing the mitsvot. The paragraph on which we will focus is Rav Shagar’s summation of Rav Kook’s position, which he sees as ideal, as opposed to the more realistic approach of the Baal HaTanya, which he explicates throughout the rest of the essay.

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Setting Up the Binary

To get started, I just want to go through and note the adjectives which Rav Shagar uses to discuss truth, reality, command, etc. They are indicated in bold.

Ideally, an individual’s inner truth will match the objective truth. This would mean that his inner life burns strongly, while his sense of obligation to this inner life is unassailable. He understands his inner life as absolute, objective reality. Such a person’s inner life stops feeling relative, and gains the strength of an external command; it obligates him no less than external truth would. (Leha’ir Et Hapetahim, 55)

Rav Shagar’s use of the adjectives “inner,” “external,” “objective,” “unassailable,” “relative,” and “absolute” lays out a familiar dichotomy between “objective” and “subjective” (despite the fact that latter term does not appear). This dichotomy is represented by the table below (for reasons that will become clear, I have headed the columns with “Internal” and “External” rather than “Subjective” and “Objective”).

Internal

External

Subjective

Objective

Relative

?

?

Absolute, Unassailable

On the one side we have that which is subjective-internal-relative, while on the other we have what is objective-external-absolute. This fits how we generally think of these categories. “Objective truth” refers to truths about the world outside ourselves, which are “absolute” in that they exceed the whims of any individual. These are what people often call “facts,” and they do not care about the individual’s whims, desires, or personal situation. “Subjective truth,” on the other hand, refers to truths about the individual and her inner world. These truths are specific to a given individual, often to the point where they could not be explained to another person, and they are generally seen as much less absolute, more whims than facts. (While I take “unassailable” to be essentially synonymous with “absolute,” I am less certain that “relative” should be understood as their antonym. I have therefore left them in separate rows, without clear opposites).

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Crossing the Streams

While Rav Shagar is clearly using these same categories, he does not maintain the strict dichotomies we laid out above. In the first have of the paragraph the two columns are separate, but coinciding. “Ideally, an individual’s inner truth will match the objective truth.” Internal, subjective truth would correspond to external, objective truth, while still remaining distinct from it.

However, as Rav Shagar proceeds, things become more complicated. “He understands his inner life as absolute, objective reality. Such a person’s inner life stops feeling relative, and gains the strength of an external command; it obligates him no less than external truth would.” Here the differences between the two columns begin to collapse. The distinction between internal and external still remains, but suddenly the internal side gains the attributes of the external side, yielding the following table:

Internal

External

Objective

Objective

Relative

?

Absolute, Unassailable

Absolute, Unassailable

Suddenly the individual’s inner life is seen as something that far exceeds them. Truths about the individual, are also “objective” and “absolute.” In this case, then the definition of “objective truth” offered above, “truths about the world outside ourselves, which are “absolute” in that they exceed the whims of any individual,” becomes untenable. Therefore, without being so bold as to try and redefine “objective” in a broad sense, I want to try and trace its contours as they emerge from this discussion. This should give us a sense of what Rav Shagar means when he uses the term.

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Toward Definitions

Given the above, I will begin by laying out new definitions of internal an external truth. External truth refers to truths about the world outside ourselves, which are “objective” “absolute” in that they exceed the whims of any individual. However, internal truth is not entirely dissimilar, referring as it does to truths that are relative to the individual, but which can be “objective” and “absolute” in that they exceed the whims of any individual. However, internal truths can also be “subjective” and “non-absolute,” as Rav Shagar notes in the immediately following paragraph.

Unfortunately, we live in a situation where our inner lives lack strength and force. Our inner lives, and our relation to them, are prone to ups and downs. The dullness of our inner lives makes them susceptible to all kinds of outside influences, and they therefore feel inauthentic. This is the reason that the Shulhan Arukh, rather than our inner lives, is the basis of our religious obligations. It anchors our lives absolutely. (Ibid.)

The fact is, our inner lives are highly fluid, rising and falling constantly, rarely if ever stable. They thus cannot always be a source of absolute, objective truth. Navigating this experience is one of the most common themes of Rav Shagar’s writings (his most thorough treatment of the topic is the entirety of the book Shuvi Nafshi, but particularly the chapter on Rav Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin; the best English treatment available is the chapter “Freedom and Holiness” in Faith Shattered and Restored).

To return to our initial text, we should note that it seems to essentially identify the two terms we have been using in unison: “objective” and “absolute.” If “subjective” and “objective” are opposite, then what would make something “subjective” as opposed to “objective” is that we take it to be non-absolute, and vice versa. For the sake of consistency, here’s a table:

Subjective

Objective

Non-Absolute

Absolute

Notably, this whole table could describe inner truths, some of which may be objective/absolute and some of which may be subjective/non-absolute. External truth is always objective/absolute, rather than subjective/non-absolute, while internal truth can be either. The distinction between subjective and objective is not something that separates the individual from the world, as the dividing line actually falls within the individual herself

Broader Context

It’s worth noting that the idea of truth that is absolute but also appears only to the individual not only exists within Judaism, it is actually critical to any revealed religion. With the exception of some sort of public revelation, all prophecy is an absolute truth revealed within the prophet’s inner self. This truth is generally taken to be universal, rather than individual, but prophecy is certainly a step toward what Rav Shagar is talking about.

Of course, not everyone agrees about the nature of prophecy. For Maimonides, prophecy is something more like perfect knowledge of the world and God, so the above description would not apply. For Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, however, prophecy is indeed a singular revelation. In his Kuzari, the king rejects philosophical religion because, while it is a universal, demonstrable truth, it does not fit with the singular revelation that he experienced.

A second, more radical step can be found in the teachings of the Hasidic thinkers Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica and Rabbi Tsadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin. These thinkers see the human impulse as the site of divine revelation. There are steps necessary for ascertaining that any given impulse is in fact divine, but they are minimally open to the possibility of absolute, divine truth being totally individual and internal. Moreover, (and here the two disagree somewhat), Rav Mordechai Yosef, sees this divine revelation as inherently opposed to any sort of universalizable truth or principle. The moment of divine revelation within the human self is a moment when external, universal truth ceases to be relevant. Rav Shagar is not quite so radical as that, but he does share the understanding of singular revelation within the self (see the essay in Shuvi Nafshi referenced above).

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Conclusion

To put this all in the context of Rav Shagar’s broader writings and embrace of “subjective” truth within religion: Rav Shagar absolutely embraces “subjective” truth in sense it was described at the beginning of this essay, as internal truth. However, this is only insofar as this internal truth possesses a sense of absoluteness, and thus “objective,” as we have defined it here at the end of the essay. Rav Shagar wants us to be authentic, which requires having a strong sense of self and inner truth. It requires feeling like there’s some parts of our inner lives that exceed us, that we can and should simply accept as facts, as divine grace. In the absence of this divine grace, Rav Shagar wants us to grapple with out alienation, and with the possibility of creating ourselves anew (see my essay on accepting the yoke of heaven in Rav Shagar’s writings).