Av 2019: Should You Believe in a Third Destruction?

Should We Believe in a Third Destruction?
Rav Shagar and Rav Froman on the Surprising Nature of Faith

  1. Yirmiyahu 7:1-15

The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand at the gate of the House of the Lord, and there proclaim this word: Hear the word of the Lord, all you of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord! Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place. Don’t put your trust in illusions and say, “The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are these buildings.”

[….]

As for Me, I have been watching—declares the Lord. Just go to My place at Shiloh, where I had established My name formerly, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel. And now, because you do all these things—declares the Lord—and though I spoke to you persistently, you would not listen; and though I called to you, you would not respond— therefore I will do to the House which bears My name, on which you rely, and to the place which I gave you and your fathers, just what I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of My presence as I cast out your brothers, the whole brood of Ephraim.

Rav Shagar

  1. Rav Shagar, Shiurim al Lekutei Moharan, vol. 1, 269-271

I was recently at a symposium on the relationship between certainty and faith. One of the speakers told of a certain forum where a person raised the possibility that there could be a third destruction, as opposed to Rav Herzog’s famous words, spoken in the earliest days of the state, about how we have God’s promise that there will not be a third destruction. In response, he was thrown out of the forum, because of the “heresy” involved in casting doubt on the continuing redemptive process of the modern state of Israel. The speaker told this story in praise of the certainty of faith, and looked positively on the total unreadiness to hear claims like his. He saw it as a revelation of true faith. I was shook. I saw this as making faith into an idol, expressing an arrogant religion that refuses to accept the other. It comes from the violence laid bare in religious discourse.

To my mind, rejecting the idea of a third destruction comes from patriotism in the negative sense, rather than from a position of deep faith. Absolute certainty is a handhold that lets the speaker feel confident about the righteousness of his path, but faith happens only in the moment when a person gives up on certainty and opens up to the possibilities that exceed the limits of his understanding. In this context, raising doubts is not only not opposed to faith, it itself is the thing that can lead us to real faith. Raising doubts is not an educational goal, and I do not mean that we must encourage doubts, mainly because some people remain in a chronic state of baselessness. The trap of ideological excess can lead to acting like an idolater, coating their opinions with words of faith.

It’s important to remember that an answer like “perhaps” is a real possibility in existence, which can be just as certain as certainty. The very existence of a positive option itself changes the feeling of your life. For example, things in my life don’t have to be good in a simplistic sense in order for me to have faith; it is enough that I have faith that things could be good, that the potential exists, in order to experience the presence of God. Faith is not necessarily certainty, and therefore it’s possible for a faithful answer to the question “Is there a creator of the world?” to be: Perhaps. From this perspective, the presence of faith in the world depends on people, on their readiness to accept the existence of God in the world despite the lack of uncertainty…

It is specifically doubt that can lead to faith, because language forces us to define every phenomenon, and thus instead of actually encountering the phenomenon we suffice with defining it externally. Doubt opens up a language anew, in order to prevent rigidity and to enable us to once again come into contact with reality. If we say, “Yes, God definitely exists,” this statement can lead us to block off the possibility of revelation. It is specifically the ability to answer “perhaps” in regard to religious life that creates a space where the sudden possibility of revelation could take place.

  1. Rav Shagar, “Education and Ideology,” Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, 184-188

Religious Zionist education… is inherently ideological, meaning that it inexorably aims at a specific understanding of the world, one which often differs greatly from the lived reality of young Religious Zionist men and women…

What is ideology? One definition comes from the critical approach to ideology in the last fifty years. Generally speaking, an ideology is an all-encompassing vision, like the great “isms” of modernity. This vision makes extreme demands on society, while ignoring the needs and ambitions of the “the little guy.” … ideology creates a gap between a person’s consciousness and his real existence. This is true of his individual existence, according to the more general explanation, and of his socioeconomic existence, which Marxism sees as a person’s true existence. The problem with ideology is therefore not that it serves the political and economic needs of the powerful. The problem lies in the very need for ideology, in grasping for a single supreme value and a lone source of truth, which has nothing to do with the truth of a person’s real existence… Ideology is a dead idea, an idol, and is therefore inhuman.

A similar critique applies to ideological education. Ideological education does not just convey ideas and concepts. In addition to the explicit messages, education also implicitly tells the student that they must obey these messages. Not only should they not be questioned, but any questioning of them is itself forbidden. It is a transgression, bringing on sanctions and punishment (primarily in the social realm), as well as feelings of guilt. In this context, the problem with ideology is that it creates people driven by abstract ideas and by alienation from reality. Another problem develops when ideology comes with a denial of the alienation it represents. Such an ideology does not recognize any other legitimate procedure for determining the true and the good. This leads a person to feel guilty and to violently make himself “toe the line.”

As we noted, Religious Zionism arose in the golden age of ideology, and it is ideological by nature. It demands an all-encompassing vision, without consideration for the individual or reality. Moreover, young Religious Zionist men and women live in multiple worlds, leading to an increased ideological excess. These Religious Zionist men and women have more than one identity. As just one example of their multiple identities, many religious youths struggle with the question, “Are you Jewish or Israeli?” The gaping chasm between the lived experience of Religious Zionist youth and the Torah, taken to be a totalizing entity, is unavoidable. In order to be accepted in this world, the Torah distances itself from the complexity of reality and becomes ideology.

I must emphasize that, as opposed to thinkers who deny any and all value that might be attributed to ideology, I think that there is no human existence without some degree of ideology. A person needs to explain himself and his life, to try and organize them in a meaningful way, and this requires ideas and concepts. In practice, the idea will never perfectly match lived existence, but it only becomes problematic when the difference becomes too great. At that point, the ideology ceases to be an interpretation of reality and becomes a false consciousness, as the Marxists claimed. I suspect that we often live in exactly this state. We rightly take pride in our idealistic youth, who are a refreshing holdout against the boring Israeli landscape. However, is idealism always a good thing? Does it not bear a heavy price? Is it not itself harmful? One of my friends described the harm like so: Religious Zionism combines an ideology about the land of Israel (as opposed to love of your homeland or faith) with its nature as a community of baalei teshuvah. It adds to this emphasized military service, making for a very dangerous combination.

  1. Rav Shagar, Shiurim al Lekutei Moharan, vol. 1, 159-160

Faith is an affirmation, a saying “yes” to reality as it is, with trust in it as it exists. I am not always able to give an accounting of how it will look, but the main point is not an accounting from a perspective external to life, but the fundamental approach, the readiness to say “Here I am” to what happens. Faith does not grant certainty that you will have money, rather it is faith in some personal, infinite good that constantly exists and is always present, and therefore the worry dissolves and gives its space to the possibility of living life itself. The very faith in life makes the way things are into good, into something independent of external circumstances, be they good or bad. Faith can be neither proven nor disproven; the value it contains is that it directs man to live his life. When a person has faith he is able to pay attention to his personal desires rather than constantly comparing himself to others and worrying about the future. In this sense, faith enables a state of renewal, as Rebbe Nahman writes in this teaching, “And then the soul shines in excess.”

  1. Rav Shagar, “My Faith,” Faith Shattered and Restored, 22-24

In effect, according to Rabbi Nahman, not only is faith not a public language, it is not a language at all. That is why it is so difficult to fully depict one’s faith. Something will always remain unspoken, a mystery and intimacy that cannot and should not be revealed, for baring it would violate the intimacy of faith. This is not to gloss over the communal aspect of faith, which is by nature a public language as well; however, the collectivity of faith is the second stage, not the first. […] Hence, what I am trying to describe here is not a philosophy or outlook regarding faith. Philosophies and outlooks are, in this context, nothing but rationalizations – apologetics, even – whose sole role is to justify what has already been arrived at, and which must thus be regarded with a certain wariness. They are not the substance of faith but explanations for it; thus, they are ancillary to it and always involve a degree of duality. To paraphrase the opponents of Maimonides and his school, who stated that a God whose existence must be proven is no God at all, I offer the absurd assertion that a believer who requires an intellectual proof for his faith is no believer at all.

There is no proof of faith, and no certainty of faith to be gained with a proof. In any event, proofs do not impact our existence like a gun pointed at one’s temple; they do not touch upon the believer’s inner life. That is why, when it comes to faith, I prefer to use terms such as “occurrence” and “experience.” God’s presence in my prayers is as tangible to me as the presence of a human interlocutor. That is not a proof but rather an immediate experience. Similarly, I do not assert that the sight of someone standing in front of me is proof of the person’s existence. That would be foolish: After all, I see you. But try as I might, I cannot refrain entirely from rationalization and apologetics. In fact, as soon as I put things into words, I am ensnared by the same fallacy. The price of language is duality, and, in the context of faith, unreality. Even what I am about to present here constitutes speech about faith; hence, it is a pale simulacrum. Faith does not reside in words, and certainly not in any exposition or essay. The language of faith is the first-person address of prayer. It is not speech about something, but rather activity and occurrence. That is why there will always be a gap between the words and what they aim to represent.

This is not to minimize rationalizations; to my mind, rationalism is a sacred task, without which “men would swallow each other alive.” Barring a shared rational platform, society cannot exist, because rationalism, despite being “speech about,” is a prerequisite of communication and understanding among people. Let us imagine a world where every individual “shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4), conducting himself solely according to his own inner convictions. Such a world would quickly degenerate into one where man would kill by his faith. Yet when we discuss faith in the personal context – the existential, not the social – rationalization is the source of the gap I am trying to bridge. Having clarified that, I will attempt to describe the difficulties faced by believers in the modern world, and how they can cope.

Rav Froman

  1. Rav Menachem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh §84

I was the last rabbi of the town of Talmei Yosef in Yamit before the withdrawal. On Friday, the army set up a siege, and on Shabbat I spoke in the synagogue. I said, based on something my wife had said, that even though in just a few days they would carry us out of here, our struggle still has great value. We are protesting against injustice. I thought it was a nice speech. After the end of the prayers, when we went home, people approached me and very respectfully said to me, “What was the rabbi talking about? Why would he depress us like that?” I had thought my words would encourage people… In the town of Atsmonah, they planted trees during the withdrawal. I could have planted trees as a form of protest, but they planted the trees because even in the midst of the evacuation they believed it would not happen.

The same thing happened before the withdrawal from Gush Katif. I was in the town of Bedolaḥ the night before they came to empty it. I spoke there and I said that even if the town was evacuated, our struggle had not been in vain. One of the residents burst out at me and said, “You came here from Tekoa just to tell us that they’re going to evacuate us?”

Perhaps if I had been at the level of faith of that Jew from Bedolaḥ, a miracle would have occurred, and the evacuation would not have taken place. On the other hand, this could be the very peak of heresy, because ignoring reality means ignoring the word of God. […] Faith can be freedom from subjugation to facts, without being blind to reality, and the voice of God contained therein. This distinction is as slim as a strand of hair.

  1. Rav Menachem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh §131

Rav Shagar used to critique the religious community, saying that their faith was not realistic, it was illusory. In my eyes, the problem with religious people’s faith is that instead of faith in God it has become faith in ourselves, in the rightness of our path, our worldview, in who we are. It therefore closes our hearts off to the divine.

  1. Rav Menachem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh §82

What is faith? Non-believers believe in a longstanding and orderly universe. Reason is all about discovering this universe’s underlying laws and logic, which together allow one to predict future results. But believers, as you know, don’t have reason… The life of faith is a life of dynamic innovation, where you can’t know what will be… It means casting reason aside, living in a world connected directly to God.

  1. Rav Menachem Froman, “This Too Is a Religious Position,” Ten Li Zeman, 217

The spiritual posture which the Gemara recommends in the face of historical upheavals is humility: there’s no way of knowing in advance where things will lead. Everything is apparently possible… According to this, we could explain the conclusion of the story, “Rabbi Zechariah’s humility destroyed our home…,” as ironi. Certainly the gemara wants us to be humble, but this humility isn’t a “mitsvah” that decides the fate of the entire world (Bavli, Kiddushin 40b). Even the greatest virtue (as the Rabbis say, “humility is greater than all other virtues”) cannot guarantee the future. History is the domain of the unforeseen, and case-in-point: It was the very righteousness of the spiritual leader of the generation that led to the destruction.

For someone uncomfortable with attributing an approach like this to the rabbis, I would emphasize that the gemara certainly connected this sort of posture toward history with a spiritual posture of fear of heaven: “Happy is the man who is fearful always.” Someone who stands astonished before the ups and downs of history, with neither certainty nor confidence (bitahon), maybe be expressing a more religious astonishment than someone who has an absolute criterion (ethical, religious, etc.) for evaluating the way history operates. The peak of knowledge is knowing that we do not know–this is perhaps the most central idea in medieval religious thought, and perhaps this peak is all a believer can enact when faced with the facts of life and their unforeseen consequences.

 

Shiur: Tammuz 2019 – Do You Lie About God? The Meaning of Faith and Torah in a Time of Destruction

 

Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 69b:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Why are the Sages of those generations called the members of the Great Assembly? It is because they returned the crown of the Holy One, Blessed be He, to its former glory. How so? Moses came and said in his prayer: “The great, the mighty, and the awesome God” (Deuteronomy 10:17). Jeremiah the prophet came and said: Gentiles, i.e., the minions of Nebuchadnezzar, are carousing in His sanctuary; where is His awesomeness? Therefore, he did not say awesome in his prayer: “The great God, the mighty Lord of Hosts, is His name” (Jeremiah 32:18). Daniel came and said: Gentiles are enslaving His children; where is His might? Therefore he did not say mighty in his prayer: “The great and awesome God” (Daniel 9:4).

The members of the Great Assembly came and said: On the contrary, this is the might of His might, i.e., this is the fullest expression of it, that He conquers His inclination in that He exercises patience toward the wicked. And these acts also express His awesomeness: Were it not for the awesomeness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, how could one people, i.e., the Jewish people, who are alone and hated by the gentile nations, survive among the nations?

The Gemara asks: And the Rabbis, i.e., Jeremiah and Daniel, how could they do this and uproot an ordinance instituted by Moses, the greatest teacher, who instituted the mention of these attributes in prayer? Rabbi Elazar said: They did so because they knew of the Holy One Blessed be He, that He is truthful. Consequently, they did not speak falsely about Him.

 

Additional sources:

Devarim 8:7-10

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you.

 

Franz Rosenzweig, “The New Thinking,” 131 – What makes The Star Jewish?

I have received the new thinking in these old words so, in them, have I given it back and passed it on. For a Christian, as I know, words of the New Testament would have come to his lips in­stead of my words, [while] for a pagan, I think, not words from his sa­cred books [would have come to his lips]—for their ascent leads away from the original language of mankind, not to it, like the earthly path of revelation—but perhaps [words] wholly his own. But to me, these [came]. And yet this is, to be sure, a Jewish book: not one that deals with “Jewish things,” for then the books of the Protestant Old Testament scholar would be Jewish books; but rather one for which, to say what it has to say, especially the new thing it has to say, the old Jewish words come. Like things in general, Jewish things have always passed away; yet Jewish words, even when old, share the eternal youth of the word, and if the world is opened up to them, they will renew the world.

 

Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metsia 59b

And this is known as the oven of akhnai. The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of akhnai, a snake, in this context? Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: It is characterized in that manner due to the fact that the Rabbis surrounded it with their statements like this snake, which often forms a coil when at rest, and deemed it impure. The Sages taught: On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him.

After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion?

Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.

 

Exodus 23:2

You shall neither side with the majority to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the majority.

לֹֽא־תִהְיֶ֥ה אַחֲרֵֽי־רַבִּ֖ים לְרָעֹ֑ת וְלֹא־תַעֲנֶ֣ה עַל־רִ֗ב לִנְטֹ֛ת אַחֲרֵ֥י רַבִּ֖ים לְהַטֹּֽת.

 

Avot 4:1

Who is mighty? He who subdues his [evil] inclination, as it is said: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that rules his spirit than he that takes a city” (Proverbs 16:3).

 

 

Destruction and Centralization – Monopolizing the Worship Market

 

I want to take a moment to explore Deuteronomy 12:1-7. In doing so, however, I want to make an analogy to the economics of contemporary technology. This is part of a larger goal of “hitting refresh” on the metaphors and analogies we use to talk about God and Judaism. Most of our analogies stretch back aeons and now lack the everyday sensibility that makes metaphors and analogies helpful. The best example of this is traditional comparison of God to a king, when few, if any, people living today have experienced living under a real king. Finding new ways of talking about God and Judaism enables us to better understand God and Judaism, as well as integrating them more into our everyday lived experience. However, analogies and metaphors don’t just convey information, they also shape it. Changing the way we speak about God and Judaism also changes how we think about them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact it offers up exciting possibilities, but it is something we should do with our eyes open. I want to explore some of these possibilities in this post on Deuteronomy 12:1-7, and at least one more on a different topic.

Deuteronomy 12 discusses the laws of centralization and sacrifice that the Israelites must observe after they enter the land of Canaan. These laws open not with Israelite cultic worship, however, but with how they should destroy the physical sites of worship that they find in the land, only thereafter going on to the topic of centralization

These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land that the Lord, God of your fathers, is giving you to possess, as long as you live on earth. You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.

Do not worship the Lord your God in like manner, but look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there. There you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices, your tithes and contributions, your votive and freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks. Together with your households, you shall feast there before the Lord your God, happy in all the undertakings in which the Lord your God has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:1-7)

These two paragraphs are generally understood as two contrasting ideas; “here’s how you treat bad worship, here’s how you treat good worship.” The religions of the natives are bad and must be destroyed, while the good religion of the Israelites is meant to be performed at a single location. In what follows I would like to propose that these two paragraphs are not meant to be contrasting ideas but complementary ones, both part of securing the Israelites involvement in the proper form of religious activity.

To get to that idea, I want to look at a two instances from the recent history of the technology market. The first is the role the iPhone played in the competition between Verizon and AT&T in the United States cell phone market.

Back in 2006 Apple sought to release the original iPhone on Verizon; the leading carrier in the U.S., though, was wary of Apple’s demands that there be no Verizon branding, no Verizon control of the user experience, and no Verizon relationship with iPhone users beyond managing their data plan. Therefore, Apple launched the iPhone on the second-place carrier (AT&T née Cingular); AT&T accepted Apple’s demands in full with the hope that Apple’s famously loyal customers would see the iPhone as a reason to switch.

That, of course, is exactly what happened: in the five years following the iPhone launch, AT&T went from trailing Verizon by $400 million in wireless revenue to leading by $700 million; that’s a $1.1 billion switch thanks in large part to Apple loyalists’ willingness to switch carriers to get an iPhone. The effect was even greater on smaller carriers, which had no choice but to accede to Apple’s increasingly demanding terms: not only would Apple own the customers, but carriers had to agree to significant marketing outlays and guaranteed sales to carry the iPhone(Ben Thompson, “Apple Should Buy Netflix”)

Before the iPhone was released, Verizon was the unquestioned leader in the United States, seemingly because of their better service and plans, and they felt very secure in that position. What they did not count on was the power and influence of the physical devices that customers used to access their services. It turned out that the physical devices had the power to be a determining factor. Once the iPhone was introduced, people flocked to it, and that meant flocking to the only cell phone service to which iPhones gave access.

Something similar happened with the introduction of the Windows operation system on IBM computers, before the OS market was really even getting off the ground.

IBM spun up a separate team in Florida to put together something they could sell IT departments. Pressed for time, the Florida team put together a minicomputer using mostly off-the shelf components; IBM’s RISC processors and the OS they had under development were technically superior, but Intel had a CISC processor for sale immediately, and a new company called Microsoft said their OS – DOS – could be ready in six months. For the sake of expediency, IBM decided to go with Intel and Microsoft.

The rest, as they say, is history. The demand from corporations for IBM PCs was overwhelming, and DOS – and applications written for it – became entrenched. By the time the Mac appeared in 1984, the die had long since been cast. Ultimately, it would take Microsoft a decade to approach the Mac’s ease-of-use, but Windows’ DOS underpinnings and associated application library meant the Microsoft position was secure regardless. (Ben Thompson, “The Truth about Windows versus the Mac”)

Demand for the IBM personal computer was high, and it came preloaded with Windows. By virtue of that connection between the physical device and the operating system, Microsoft dominated the market for years, without Apple ever really having a chance. This is exactly the same as what happened with the iPhone, except that the iPhone was being introduced into  preexisting market while the IBM personal computer was basically creating a new one. In this new market, one physical device dominated, and therefore the operating system connected to this device also dominated.

The common idea in both of these examples is that physical objects, like iPhones or personal computers, determine the market, and that when these physical devices are connected to other things, like cell phone plans or operating systems, they give the market to those things. Returning to Deuteronomy 12:1-7, I would like to propose that we should see the laws recorded there as working off this idea in an attempt to shape the Israelites’ religious practice. Instead of iPhones and personal computers, the physical objects here are the places and paraphernalia of worship. When the Israelites destroy any place where the Canaanites worshipped, when they destroy the altars and pillars and trees that the Canaanites used in their worship, they are limiting the physical objects available to them in their worship. If the Canaanite objects are available, the Israelites may flock to them, and thus to the deities connected to those objects. Getting rid of those objects means that the Israelites have no choice but to worship with objects connected to God. Similarly, when God says they have to worship only at one central location, this means that the nature of worship in this one, easily controlled, environment, shapes the Israelites’ religious experience. These are not contrasting laws about how to treat good and bad religion but complementary laws ensuring God’s monopoly in the worship market.

As I said above, however, this new analogy requires some new understandings. This is all based on the idea that there is such a thing as a worship market, that the Israelites will necessarily participate in worship and religion, with the only question being with what physical objects and to which god(s). This assumptions is, I think, fairly well born out by the existence of religion throughout human societies across history. Moreover, it seems fairly evident from Tanakh. The book of Judges is full of the Israelites straying after foreign gods, seemingly for no other reason than the fact that they were there. Once we take that reality as a given, it makes sense that God would attempt to limit the available objects and sites of foreign worship, so as to manage and direct that basic religious impulse.

Perhaps more dramatically, this analogy allows us to move away from seeing Deuteronomy 12:1-7 as being about “bad” religion versus “good” religion. The reason that the Canaanite sites of worship must be destroyed is not because they are “bad” but simply because they are competition. This isn’t to say that they’re “good,” but simply to reevaluate the way we think about issues of idolatry and foreign worship. It is possible that the problem with worshipping gods other than God is less that they don’t exist and that the worship is false and more that we are supposed to be dedicated to God specifically. What other nations do is their own business (which, again, doesn’t make them “right” or “good,” just not our concern). In fact, something like this seems to be expressed in the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, where it is said that the heavenly bodies were given to the nations to worship (4:19) (see my piece on this understanding of idolatry here).

In conclusion, reimagining the laws of destruction and centralization in Deuteronomy 12 as attempts to shape and control a worship market highlights the idea that there is a “demand” for religion and the importance of “customer loyalty.” More importantly, I hope that it makes this passage more understandable to the average reader, and that it makes the ideas therein make more sense and more familiar to them. In another post, I want to look at another new analogy, exploring the connection between the commandments and the reasons for the commandments in light of the connection between hardware and software.

God, Otherness, and the End of Utility: Rav Shagar on Korbanot

Rav Shagar combines George Bataille and Rudolf Otto with Biblical texts and Hasidic commentators for a challenging theology of sacrifices.

In honor of this week’s parashah, Vayikra, I have translated some excerpts from “Candle and Sacrifice” (see original Hebrew here), a sermon given by Rav Shagar for Shabbat Hanukkah and published in “LeHa’ir Et HaPetahim.” The sermon focuses on two parallel dichotomies, the first between the services of the Menorah and the sacrifices in the Temple, and the second between the Shabbat candles and the Hanukkah candles in the home (I have discussed this dichotomy here). The candles of the Menorah and Shabbat represent light and warmth, comfort and familiarity, while the fires of the sacrifices and the Hanukkah candles represent death, destruction, and otherness.

In the excerpts below, focusing on the sacrifices, Shagar quotes from George Bataille, a French thinker who theorized about religion in context of production and human nature. Bataille argued that the world exists in an “immanent” state, like “water in water,” with no differentiation between any of the different aspects. Each aspect of the world of itself and for itself, at a given moment.. An animal that kills another animal is not qualitatively different from it. Differentiation, according to Bataille, develops out of human consciousness. Humans specify previously undifferentiated aspects of the world and objectify them. This is because humans look at things as tools which have specific purposes; they don’t exist for themselves at a given moment but for the sake of accomplishing a goal in the future. This leads to “the world of things,” the “profane” human world, in contrast to the “divine” realm, the world as it is outside human perception. The transition from the natural state of the world to the world of things happens automatically, while transitioning back requires the rededication of a tool towards unproductive ends. Bataille’s examples range from the unproductive consumption of alcohol to human sacrifice. In the middle is animal sacrifice, where animals that could be used for a range of productive purposes, in their life and in death, are dedicated to the divine on the altar, and thus will fulfill none of their potential purposes. In this moment, the tool reverts to being an animal, a part of the world, and the human who made it a tool becomes, to a degree, a part of that world as well.

Shagar also references “The Idea of the Holy,” by Rudolf Otto, which is a book length exposition of the idea that a significant aspect of religious experience cannot be captured by language. Otto explores this “numinous” aspect, which he calls “the holy,” and shows how it is always experienced as entirely other and foreign to human existence. Because of this, a significant aspect of the holy is its destructiveness and its amoral character; the rigid framework of human life and morality is entirely foreign to it. The idea of the morality of God results from the aspects of religious experience that can be put into rational, human, language. The moral and rational aspects of God become more dominant in more developed religions, but the destructive otherness of the holy can never be removed from religion entirely, not should it (for more on this, see this quote from Paul Tillich’s “The Dynamics of Faith”).

It is against the background of these two thinkers that Shagar explores the meaning of korbanot, and through the lens of Jewish texts, from Tanakh through to Hasidic thinkers, with Levinas and Derrida briefly mentioned for good measure. Melding these disparate elements together in the crucible of the derashah, the classic form of the rabbinic sermon, Shagar looks at what meaning the Temple sacrifices present for the religious life of a contemporary individual, as I will briefly explore after the excerpts.

 

Life and Death

[…]

Lighting the candles of the Menorah is one of the priestly services in the temple – “Speak to Aaron and say, “In lighting the candles toward the face of the menorah, light seven candles” (Bemidbar 8:2). The nature of this service emerges more clearly in contrast to a different procedure, that of bringing a sacrifice: the sacrifice returns the “thing,” the object-animal, to nothingness via its destruction and ending. This is most clearly expressed by the Olah sacrifice that is burnt up entirely on the altar: “the priest shall offer up and turn the whole into smoke on the altar. It is an olah, an offering by fire, a pleasing aroma for God” (Vayikra 1:13). However, we need to be precise: “The principle of sacrifice is destruction, but though it sometimes goes so far as to destroy completely (as in a holocaust [a burnt offering ~LM]), the destruction that sacrifice is intended to bring about is not annihilation. The thing – only the thing – is what sacrifice means to destroy in the victim.” In other words, the sacrificial act is the returning of the objectness (the thing-object) to the intimacy of existence, to a state where everything is enveloped in everything else, like “water in water.” The sacrifice is therefore not elimination and absence but “returning to nothingness,” a return from existence, from a world characterized by functional and instrumental distinctions that tear things from the deep intimacy of the divine world, which there is no accounting. On the one hand, the death of the sacrifice is the concept of limitation; it is death from the perspective of life; it is an approach to the end and to the differentiation of the world of things. The idea of limitation grants a thing itself, its existence, because limitation is necessary for existence. On the other hand, death grants existence its unity with itself; the disintegration of distinguished things. Existence is liberated from thingness and ascends to nothingness, and envelopes itself.

From the perspective of the living thing, the sacrifice ends in frustration, as it leads to deadness and elimination. It’s impossible to “destroy the animal as a thing without denying the animal’s objective reality… one cannot at the same time destroy the values that found reality and accept their limits.” At the moment that death manifests, the animal no longer exists from the perspective of life – “the world of things” –   and the sacrifice therefore turns into an existence of emptiness.

 

The absolution annihilation of the sacrifice manifests one of the primordial religious experiences: rejection and nullification of the value of the world. Religiosity inherently bears within it an experience of destruction – “it destroys or nullifies any existence other than the existence of the creator, and and denies any possibility of understanding the creator and encountering him.” Hasidic conceptions of nullifying existence, such as the Habad contemplation of “everything before God is as nothing,” ultimately take part in the nullification of the world. You can see a “record” of the experience of destruction in Hasidut by examining the broad attention given to yearning and the consumption of the soul in hasidic teachings, where they are compared to a sacrifice that burns the pleasures and enjoyments of this world. In Hasidut, the sacrifice represents “the elevation of feminine waters,” a process of love at the center of which is liberation from the “things” and a return to a pantheistic state of simplicity and oneness with existence. Reality receives its spiritualization from death – or from aspects of it, such as commitment to martyrdom upon going to sleep, or when lowering one’s head in prayer, – which deconstructs the differences in existence. This leads to liberation from the ordered laws of existence, but it is bound up in frustration and inner pain, for existence does not experience death and the destruction of existence as liberation. That experience belongs to the intimate nothingness, what a person “sees only at the moment of his death.”

The sacrifice in the temple resonates with the requirement of martyrdom “with all your heart, with all your life, and with all your might” (Devarim 6:5). “With all your life – even if he takes your life.” “With all your might (מאודך)” – “In Rabbi Meir’s torah scroll they found it written: “And behold it was very (מאד) good” (Bereshit 1), And behold death (מות) was good.” A person must commit his whole world to death in order to open up to the divine absolute, as only in the ending of life does there exist the possibility of encounter with the infinite.

[…]

The job of a sacrifice is to bring a person to commitment and a personal ending; to give up on the finite nature of his existence by overcoming himself. This is a different manner of eros [from that of the candle], wherein “strong as death is love, hard as hell is jealousy, and its darts are darts of fire, a blazing flame” (Shir HaShirim 8:6).

 

Two Holies

Generally speaking, bringing a sacrifice and lighting the candles present us with two different types of consciousness regarding the holy: the numinous and the pleasant. This echoes a split found in Tanakh, where the holy sometimes appears as the tremendous, the awe-ful and terrifying, and even the destructive that demands sacrifice, and sometimes – the illuminating good, the replete and the pleasurable.

The holy arouses fear and brings with it the destructive. In the language of Levinas and Derrida the holy represents the “other” and manifests the “gap” and “difference” that cannot be bridged. “Anyone who touches the mountain shall die. no hand shall touch him, but he shall be either stoned or shot; beast or man, he shall not live” (Shemot 19:12-13); “They shall not enter to see the dismantling of the holy, lest they die” (Bemidbar 4:20).

 

In these excerpts, Rav Shagar plays up the destructive aspect of sacrifices, something that is most intensely on display in the olah, the offering that is burnt whole on the altar. This destructive aspect, Shagar argues, is connected to larger religious themes of martyrdom and acosmism, the common thread between these ideas being the negation of the world in favor of the divine other. God is so totally different from human existence that God can only manifest at the expense of human existence. However, this human existence is created by a focus on utility, on the practical ends served by things, and so turning away from practical ends, by sacrifice or by committing your life to God even to the point of martyrdom.

There is something almost terrifying about this sort of theology, as there should be. Moreover, anyone familiar with the religious violence of the 21st century, let alone the rest of human history, should be wary of any theology at all valuing the “ending” or “destruction” of earthly, human, existence (Notably, the above excerpts leave out the more affirmative theological aspects of the sermon). That caveat aside, this theology has great significance in modern discussions of religion.

The key, I think, lies in the citation of Bataille. The citation of Bataille focuses the whole discussion on the issue of utility. Our existence is marked by things being useful. If things don’t have obvious uses, we usually figure one out in short order. This focus on usefulness has us constantly justifying things in terms of other things. Even when an object does not have practical value, we want to know what value it serves to promote. The peak manifestation of this is when God, the ultimate other, that which is theoretically foreign to all aspects of our existence, is justified in terms of our values and the values of our lives. What is the role of religion in our lives? What does it add? What are the reasons for the commandments? These questions all ask us to explain the divine in terms of the human, and there can be great value in that. But there can also be great danger. Explaining religion and the divine in terms of their value in our lives makes our lives the ultimate arbiters of purpose and value. In such a situation, there’s no room for asking what makes our lives valuable? What do we add to the world? What are we for? The world of things demands participation in production, without ever asking what that production is for. Religion challenges that endless process of production, presenting values and commands that cannot, or should not, be justified by their value in our lives. Rav Shagar’s theology of sacrifices sees them as provoking an experience of divine otherness, an otherness which challenges us to ask basic questions about the very value of our lives. Have we been explaining things by the value they add to our lives? If so, by what do we explain the value of our lives?

Preoccupation With Glory and the Deferral of Hope: Hayyim Angel’s ‘Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi’

What is the relationship between Prophecy and History? This is question that underlies Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s “Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi” (HZM), a newly-released commentary on the three biblical books by the same names. These books are traditionally considered to be the latest of the of the Bible’s prophetic writings, attributed to prophets living in Israel toward the beginning of the Second Temple Era. Angel’s basic approach to understanding the often obscure oracles in these books is to understand them against the background of their historical context. To this end, HZM includes several sections dedicated to explicating passages from Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as a chapter-length analysis of the book of Esther. These books are more historical in style than the prophetic oratories of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, and Angel analyzes them to create a historical context for interpreting the other books. Then, in the sections dedicated to understanding the prophetic oracles, Angel both analyzes the details of each prophet’s visions and explains the historical situation to which each prophet was speaking.

Throughout the book, Angel paints a vivid picture of the spirit of the nation in the period of the Second Temple discussed in the biblical texts, a picture he divides into two distinct eras. The first era is based on the book of Haggai and the first parts of the books of Ezra and Zechariah. In this era, the prophets are dealing with a people who are entirely obedient, but are preoccupied with “glory” (Angel uses this word throughout, presumably thinking of the common English translation of Yeshayahu 6:3, such as it appears in the King James Bible: “And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”). The prophets are therefore consistently occupied with attempts to convince the people that, despite the destruction of the first temple and the ultimately lackluster second temple, God reigns supreme throughout the world. This job is made particularly difficult in the face of Persia reigning supreme throughout the world in a more empirically verifiable manner. In the face of this empirical reality, the prophets agree that Persia currently reigns, but they attribute Persia’s dominance over the Jewish people to the sinfulness of the Jews themselves. From this follows the prophets’ promise/prediction that if the people can maintain proper behavior, a messianic king will rise in the near future to restore the Jews sovereignty and to make God’s glory obvious for all to see.

These prophecies become the locus of an important discussion throughout the book, namely, the meaning of prophecies that did not come true. Angel sets up two approaches to this topic, both of which have support in classical sources. The first approach, which is probably the more widespread in Orthodoxy today, understands that when a prophecy fails to manifest itself (or a positive prophecy, at the very least), it means that we simply misunderstood the prophecy, which was really referring to the future.When Haggai talked about “the Branch” that will be the messianic king, we would be mistaken to think that he meant his contemporary Zerubavel. According to this approach, a prophecy cannot fail to come true; if one does seem to have failed to manifest, that just means that we, the readers, misunderstood the prophecy.

The second approach, which Angel attributes to the Malbim and other traditional figures, as well as texts in Tanakh, understands that prophecies are directed to a specific moment in time, and they have a meaning that is obvious at that time. When Haggai talked about “the Branch,” he really was talking about his contemporary, Zerubavel. However, prophecies are not definite promises or divine fiat. Instead, this approach argues that prophecies are meant to inform the people of the potential nestled within their historical moment. Haggai isn’t promising that Zerubavel will be the Messiah, he’s saying that Zerubavel could be the Messiah. If the potential fails to manifest, that is because the people failed to do what was necessary in order to bring the prophets’ visions to fruition. The vision is recorded in Tanakh not because it tells us, Tanakh’s readers, about specific historical events yet to come, but because of what it tells about the potential that has inhered in past historical moments, and is destined to emerge again in our future. It is this second approach that Angel takes throughout HZM, and it turns his interpretive focus from the nature of the predicted events to the actions of the people that caused those potential events to wither on the vine.

Whether because of religious/ethical sins (such as intermarriage) or more concrete political sins (like the majority of Jews who stayed in Babylonia instead of returning to Judea), the promised return of widespread Divine glory simply never appeared (Angel brings these two suggestions from a variety of commentators). This initiated the second era that Angel depicts, based on the books of Esther and Nehemiah, as well as later parts of the book of Ezra. In this period, the people have the same problem of the absence of God’s glory, which is much worse now that the second temple has been a disappointment and Zerubavel has failed to amount to anything significant. This gloomy atmosphere is matched in the prophecies of Zechariah and Malachi from the time, which do not promise immanent political redemption like Haggai and Zechariah once did. Instead these prophecies reject the people’s basic assumptions about the nature of Divine dominance.

Whereas the earlier prophecies had accepted the people’s basic problem that God’s dominance was not evident and reassured the people that the evidence would be arriving shortly, these prophecies challenge the people’s evaluation of reality. Who says that God’s dominance of history has be obvious the way human political dominance is? Maybe Persian political success does not impinge upon Divine supremacy. Maybe the covenant between God and the people of Israel transcends such limited understandings of “success.” This is the basic idea that the prophecies of the second era are trying to get across, according to Angel. More concretely, the prophets tell the people that the situation on the ground, Israel’s subjugation to Persia, is not going away, but that this doesn’t mean anything about their relationship with God. God is just as much with them and just as all-powerful as God was before the destruction of the first temple. Their political situation is a purely political problem, and the prophets do promise/predict an eventual political savior, but the political problem has no theological significance. The hope for redemption has been deferred indefinitely, and that’s ok.

The idea that there is no theological significance to political success (or failure), has its roots in books of Tanakh that Angel doesn’t mention, like Yirmiyahu and Yehezkal, but it runs against the dominant trend in both Tanakh writ large and the Torah itself, as well as, I think, some pretty basic religious intuitions. The Torah promises extended dwelling on the land of Israel for obedience to God’s law and proclaims exile as punishment for disobedience. The book of Melakhim depicts a tight correspondence between obedience to God and the length of a dynasty, until ultimately the people are exiled and the temple is destroyed. And if God is the sovereign lord of history (Angel uses the term “miracle of history” throughout the book), there is a basic degree of logic behind the idea that those who receive God’s grace will experience it on the historical, political, stage. Cutting the other way are all kinds of intuitions about the limitedness of human conceptions and evaluations, but these prophecies remain rather radical and innovative. Unfortunately, Angel glosses over the theological-political significance of these prophecies without much fanfare. He gets close when discussing Zechariah’s prophecy of Jerusalem without its walls from the the earlier era, but the discussion doesn’t quite make the leap from biblical interpretation to theological significance, and it, in my eyes, is a noticeable lack in the book.

Overall, the book is excellent. It is well-written and engaging, and it contains ideas that are important both in terms of the interpretation of Tanakh and in the religious lives of Tanakh’s readers. It just doesn’t seem to be aware of how important some of those ideas really are.