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.