What’s the Divine Part of Revelation? How Do We Find God in the Torah? Rav Shagar’s “Face to Face”

What’s the Divine Part of Revelation? How Do We Find God in the Torah?
Rav Shagar’s “Face to Face”

In a derashah for Shavuot from the year he died, Rav Shagar explores the complex relationship between the human and divine aspects of the Revelation at Sinai, as well as of the Torah. He points out the contradiction between verse that describes the giving of the Torah as speaking to God “face to face” and God’s own statement that, “no person may see my face and live.” Seemingly, revelation means encountering the divine, while encountering the divine is impossible for a human. Rav Shagar also quotes the Baal HaTanya, who points out that the Ten Commandments are a particularly human set of commandments. They’re all “banal matters that are necessitated by human intellect itself.” If the Revelation at Sinai was some sort of transcendent experience of the divine, then why are the commandments so very human? Simply on a practical level, what did revelation add? If these are intuitively obvious rules, then we didn’t even need revelation to know them. Why did God have to reveal simple, human rules?

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Moreover, what about this revelation is divine? Where do the human words and ideas end and the divine suddenly begin? In Rav Shagar’s own striking formulation, “What significance can revelation have if it must always be processed through human concepts and ideas? What connection could revelation create, when the very idea of a connection is a human idea?” If any way we try and formulate or conceptualize revelation will be unavoidably human, how can it be an encounter with, or revelation of, the divine? And what does that mean for the Torah, written entirely using human words?

As I will briefly explain below, Rav Shagar tackles each of these topics, revelation and the Torah, in turn (I’m not going to touch on every idea in the derashah, just trace out the main ideas regarding to these two issues). He explains revelation through the ideas of dialogic philosophy, which asks about how we encounter other people as unique individuals. Given that any words we could use to describe another person, or even speak to them, could just as easily describe or be spoken to a different person, how do we encounter that unique individual. Rav Shagar will conclude that the words of revelation provide a platform for the actual, wordless encounter with the divine. This will in turn lead to his understanding of the divinity of the Torah. He will argue that what makes Torah divine is not its words or ideas, themselves unavoidably human, but the way they provide a sort of linguistic space wherein we can encounter God. Moreover, this encounter “ensouls” us (Rosenzweig’s term), bringing our normally stagnant and unnoticed inner selves to the fore, as we study and create Torah from a most intimate space within us.

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Wordless Encounter in the Words of Revelation

Rav Shagar distinguishes between “indirect, theoretical knowledge” and “unmediated knowledge derived from direct recognition.” The former refers to any knowledge you could learn from a book, or hear about from another person. The latter refers to the sort of knowledge you can only get through personal experience. Revelation thus “lets you distinguish between the layer of what is common to others and the revelation of what cannot be conceptualized.”

To borrow an example from R. Jason Rubinstein, there are two ways to learn about a rainbow. You can read about the technical details of its appearance and the scientific and atmospheric phenomena that give rise to it. However, none of that can tell you what it is like to actually look at a rainbow. In order to learn that, you have to experience it yourself. Experiential knowledge, like colors and flavors, can never be learned from another person, whether in writing or in person.

It is in this category of wordless, inexplicable, deeply personal experience that Rav Shagar locates the divine within revelation, in the “divine intimacy that is bared before the believer.” This bared intimacy evokes, demands, a parallel response from the individual (or nation, as it were) who receives revelation. For Rosenzweig, whom Shagar invokes, it is responding to divine revelation that the individual is “ensouled.” We only really become ourselves in responding to someone else, and to God above all. This is the intimate relationship of love, of עשיית מצווה לשמה as described by Rambam.

When we speak with someone we love (romantically or otherwise), the words we speak are often not what matters. Sometimes what we are talking about is much less important than the simple fact that we are talking. Spending time together with someone can be more important that what you do with that time together. Those topics you speak about or actions you do together are things anyone could do with anyone else. What makes the encounter a unique encounter between two unique individuals is the presence of those two individuals. What makes revelation divine is not it’s words, but their source in God.

Torah as a Linguistic Space for Encountering God

So if that’s revelation, where does that leave Torah? If the words and ideas of revelation are not what makes it divine, then what about the words and ideas of the Torah? And what does that mean for learning Torah?

“This idea requires us to change how we think about the truth of revelation. As the creation of a space wherein reality is revealed, the revelation of the Torah, like the creation of the world, cannot be evaluated based on external facts. The Torah is speech that creates, rather than depicting or representing. The words construct their meaning, which is not evaluated based on how close they adhere to reality, but rather based on internal coherence, on being substantive and not artificial.”

If revelation involves the manifestation of the divine within the human, then the divine can be encountered just as well within the human words and ideas of the Torah. What the Torah provides is not divine ideas or texts but a linguistic “space” within which to encounter the divine. It gives us a language and a set of topics to make our own, to obsess over the way a love-struck lover obsesses over a note from their significant other. The Torah becomes God’s love note, as it were, and we explore every jot and tittle for the sake of find God in it all the more.

Like the love borne within a note, the divinity of the Torah is not a function of the way the words depict some external reality. The words of the note create a sense of love independent of external reality, and the words of the Torah do something similar for divinity. The revelation of the Torah should therefore not be seen as God informing the Jewish people about reality, about objective right and wrong, but as the creation of a covenantal relationship within with God and the people encounter each other.

This has an important implication for how we study Torah. Studying Torah is not a search for objective, external truth. It requires “substance” and “internal coherence,” but beyond that it’s about the students deep, personal engagement with the text and the attempt to fing God within it. Moreover, these students can and should learn creatively, excitedly innovating new Torah ideas. The ideas have to make sense within the broader picture of Torah, but beyond that they should be very creative. The student should enjoy the process of innovation within Torah study. In revelation created this linguistic space, talmud torah helps expand and maintain it.

In conclusion, appreciating the Torah, and revelation more broadly, is not about being able to point to specific aspects of the Torah and claim they’re divine. It’s about seeing God behind those aspects, and seeing those aspects as a pathway to encountering God. When we learn Torah on Shavuot, it’s not a scientific study about the nature of reality; it’s a deep yet playful engagement with God within the platform of Torah, a platform we can help build.

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The Practice and Possibility of Prayer: Rabbi Dov Singer’s “Tikon Tefilati”

In an article entitled “Towards an Understanding of Halakhah,” later incorporated into his book on prayer, Man’s Quest for God, R. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel sets up a dichotomy between prayer and philosophy.[1]

The duty to worship stood as a thought of ineffable meaning; doubt, the voice of disbelief, was ready to challenge it. But where should the engagement take place? In an act of reflection the duty to worship is a mere thought, timid, frail, a mere shadow of reality, while the voice of disbelief is a power, well-armed with the weight of inertia and the preference for abstention. In such an engagement prayer would be fought in abstentia, and the issue would be decided without actually joining the battle. It was fair, therefore, to give the weaker rival a chance: to pray first, to fight later.

I realized that just as you cannot study philosophy through praying, you cannot study prayer through philosophizing.[2]

Prayer, as Heschel argues extensively throughout the book, is not a primarily cognitive or reflective activity. The reflective stance of philosophy, he argues, actually obstructs prayer rather than aiding it. There is no degree of philosophizing, even about prayer, that will lead a person to prayer. You have to just start praying, and let that show you why you should pray.

Perhaps ironically, Heschel’s words are set within a broader work reflecting on the meaning and nature of prayer. Man’s Quest for God simultaneously tries to give the reader a broader understanding of prayer, and tells them to stop trying to understand prayer and just pray. To some degree, this calls into question the value not just of Heschel’s book on prayer, but of any book on prayer. Books would seem to be an inherently reflective medium, so how can a book be anything other than an obstacle to prayer?

Enter Rabbi Dov Singer’s Tikon Tefilati: Matkonei Tefilah (Maggid Books, Jerusalem, 2014. English title, May My Prayer Be Pleasing: Recipes for Prayer).

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Singer begins the book with a short introduction where he lays out the same problem that Heschel describes. Thinking about prayer, he says, is an obstacle to actually praying. Moreover, he adds, prayer is more essential to humanity than thinking is. Homo Sapiens (“thinking person”) would be better described as Homo Mitpalelos (“praying person”). We pray by our very natures, so all we need to do is get out of our own way and pray. Why, then, did he write a book on prayer? For the same reason that people write cookbooks. Cookbooks don’t explain to people why they should cook, or how cooking functions. They give practical instructions on how to cook for people who already want to cook, and so too with Tikon Tefilati and prayer.

Notably, the twin themes of non-reflective prayer and prayer as part of human nature can be found in two Singer’s three teachers that he mentions in his introduction, Rabbis Shagar, Froman, and Steinzaltz. While I am not familiar with the works of Rav Steinzaltz, Rav Shagar compares praying to the ability to enter into a story while reading it, rather than standing outside the story and reflecting upon it.[3] Rav Froman boldly suggests that all of religion, God included, may be humanity’s attempt to “explain that basic, instinctive, human thing called ‘prayer.’”[4] These two themes come together in Singer’s brief introduction, which then explains that, because of these two themes, the rest of the book will be very different.

After that short introduction, the form of the book changes drastically. Each section starts with powerful snippets on prayer from traditional Jewish texts (from the Mishnah to Rambam to Rebbe Naḥman) and from contemporary Israeli poetry. Then it briefly depicts forms of prayer, such as supplication, praise, dialogic encounter, or connecting with nature, and provides practical instructions, “recipes,” for practicing these forms. Some of the “recipes” are meant for individuals, some for pairs, and some for groups. The common thread is that they show the reader how to pray, without trying to explain why to pray or what that even means.

And that, perhaps, is the weakness of the book, and why Heschel’s encouragement of non-reflective prayer is somewhat ironically located in a very reflective book. Tikon Tefilati can tell you how to pray, but it can’t tell you why to pray, or what prayer is. While it serves as an excellent guide for someone who is already praying, it cannot explain to someone who does not pray why they should start. For someone who finds prayer impossible, practical advice on how to pray is useless at best. The book thus carves out a niche audience for itself – those who want to pray, but do not know how – much as as a cookbook serves only those who want to cook, but don’t know what to make.

I would end by noting that the book succeeds in being emotionally impactful on all levels. The quoted texts are powerful, and the graphic design is striking on each and every page. It will be pleasing to those who would pray.

[1] The original article was published in Conservative Judaism and Jewish Law, ed. Seymour Siegel, (New York, 1977).

[2] R. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God (Santa Fe: Aurora Press, 1998), 99-100. Emphasis in original.

[3] Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Shiurim Al Lekutei Moharan (Alon Shevut: Mekhon Kitvei Harav Shagar, 2012), vol. 1, 77-8.

Dr. Smadar Cherlow has an excellent treatment of this source in the second chapter of her book on Postmodern Judaism in contemporary Israel. See Smadar Cherlow, Mi Haziz Et Hayahadut Sheli (Tel Aviv: Resling Books, 2016), 71-88.

[4] Rav Menaḥem Froman, Hasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh (Jerusalem: Tsur Ot, 2016), §179, p. 160.