Objectless Repentance in the Religious Zionist Turn to Hasidic Texts

Introduction

When we talk about teshuvah, about repentance, what do we mean? Is it a process of reviewing our sins and determining how to make up for them? Is it about feeling bad about the things we’ve done wrong? While this is a fairly typical way of describing the process of repentance, thinkers from Religious Zionism’s turn toward Hasidic texts would have us think otherwise. Rav Shagar and Rav Froman critique this model of repentance, and each suggest their own alternative. Rav Shagar wants us to focus on the future, on living up to our ideals in a broad sense, in making the world the way it ought to be. Rav Froman wants us to open up ourselves rather than examine our actions, and express ourselves before God. This is in line with Rav Froman and Rav Shagar’s broader critiques of “religious materialism” and religion that is focused on checking boxes and acquiring religious achievements. Yishai Mevorach does not discuss repentance specifically, but he aims the same critique at faith in general, arguing that only giving up on an object-based faith can save religion from fundamentalism.

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Rav Shagar

In a small book of Rosh Hashanah derashot called Zikaron Leyom Rishon, Rav Shagar challenged the way people often talk about repentance. In a derashah called “Sin, Guilt, and Covenant” (1990), he says:

We review our personal history (ḥeshbon hanefesh); here is where we made mistakes, this is where we transgressed, etc. We accept upon ourselves to be better. Do we stop reviewing at that point? Is that the extent of sin and repentance? (36-37)

Is that really sufficient? Does the simple process of “I did X, I regret it, I commit to not doing it again” exhaust the process of repentance? Some of what is at stake here, as we shall see throughout this post, is the nature of religion. Is religion about more than just actions? If it is, then a word as fundamental as “repentance” has to be about more than just actions as well.

Without going as broad as that, however, Rav Shagar raises another issue with this form of repentance. In a derashah called “Repentance and the World to Come” (1989), he differentiates between “this world” and “the world to come.” “This world” is characterized by that at which we can point; if you can put your finger on it, it’s part of this world. “The world to come,” in contrast, “is not what exists, but what could exist” (29); “the world to come” (which Rav Shagar follows the Zohar in understanding as “the world that is always coming”) is about the potential of a better future. In this context, Rav Shagar raises the problem of the sincerity and finality of repentance.

Someone could claim: Do any of us really think that it’s possible to become different? That we might merit forgiveness (seliḥah) on the complicated personal level or the confused and conflicted national level? Perhaps this is all just self-deception. Will any of us really merit forgiveness (meḥilah)? “This” is “this,” hard and unchangeable! […] The world is indeed “this world.” However, it is possible to live it as “what is coming” rather than “this,” to gaze upon the possible rather than the already existing. This is actually no less real a reality. Even as something as of yet unrealized, as something that is not yet “this,” it is decisively important that we connect to it at least as “what is coming.” (30-31)

The anxiety of repentance, permeating the months of Elul and Tishrei, questions where we can ever really be sincere in our desire to be better. And even if we can be sincere, who is to say that it will last? What if we change ourselves only to rapidly fall back into our old ways. While he does want us to acknowledge that real, lasting change does happen (31), Rav Shagar thinks we should shift away from these questions. They are “this world” questions, they’re concerned only with the actions we have or have not performed. Instead, we should look to the future, to the world we want to create and how we want to live. Instead of a critical repentance wherein we scour and examine ourselves and our actions, Rav Shagar wants us to embrace a creative repentance, where we create ourselves anew.

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Rav Froman

Rav Froman’s small book, Ḥasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh, contains many short, aphoristic sayings on a number of topics. In one of them, he addresses the nature of repentance.

What is repentance according to Rebbe Naḥman?

It doesn’t mean sitting with a journal, writing out a personal accounting (ḥeshbon hanefesh) and repairing all your deeds. That’s repentance for Yekkes.

What is repentance for Rebbe Naḥman? You pour out your heart before Hashem. Your heart, like water. (§41, trans. Ben Greenfield.)

As typical of aphoristic works, Hasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh tends to be striking, but often cryptic, and this passage is no exception (what does it mean to pour out your heart before God? Why is the water bit important?). Despite this, we can derive some clear ideas from it. The first is that he shares Rav Shagar’s critique of repentance as reviewing your personal history and actions (ḥeshbon hanefesh). Repentance is not about deeds, about things you can write down in a book (corresponding to Rav Shagar’s image of things at you can point). Instead it’s about personal expression. Whatever exactly he means by pouring out your heart before God, the bigger idea is that who you are exceeds your actions, and you should express who you are within the context of religion. Repentance is thus perhaps a return to who you are, or perhaps a decision to have a more personal relationship with God going forward, more based on who you are rather than on what deeds you do or do not perform.

Yishai Mevorach

Finally, Yishai Mevorach applies the same critique to faith more broadly. Working in a Lacanian, psychoanalytic mode, he provides an interesting reading of Rebbe Naḥman’s popular teaching, Lekutei Moharan §282. The teaching talks about the importance, particularly for someone leading communal prayer, of finding something good in everyone, including yourself. Reading Rebbe Naḥman very close, Mevorach notes that the teaching instructs the reader to search for “another bit more” (od me’at) good in each person, while saying that if they search for “another thing” (od davar) that is good in each person, they will fail. You can always challenge the validity or sincerity of a good thing that you have done, so it can’t hold up to scrutiny. Instead, you have to search for the good in each person, and yourself, that is not a thing or deed, it’s just “another bit more.”

Building off this reading of Rebbe Naḥman, Mevorach discusses the nature of faith and religion more broadly.

The religious person’s castration anxiety comes from how he understands his religion-faith as an object that he holds. this is a possessive, phallic relationship, afraid of losing the additional object, which does not really belong to the individual. In Rebbe Naḥman’s language, the believer’s relationship to the faith object is a relationship of “another thing,” rather than “another bit more“: another thing, another object, and now I hold onto it really tightly so that it doesn’t scatter or disappear. I have to demonstrate ownership. At this point, the religion descends into harsh, violent fundamentalism. In contrast, Rav Shagar proposes a different possibility, wherein faith is present as “another bit more,” as an excess of my being rather than another object. He was talking about faith that does not trying to preserve the thing, because it will persist no matter what. (37-38)

Translating out of his psychoanalytic idiom, Mevorach argues that faith and religion too often become possessions, objects external to us. Religion that is too obsessed with specific actions leads to two problems, he says. First, it loses the self, it becomes about a person’s actions rather than about who they are. It is separate from them, and easily abandoned. Second, and connected to this, is it becomes violent. Because religion is external, in this model, even affirming religion yourself is just imposing it on yourself. At that point, imposing it on others is a difference of degree, rather than kind.

As I hope I have shown at this point, the school of thought embodied by Rav Shagar, Rav Froman, and those around them seems to have maintained an idea (at least by some of them) that repentance and religion not only are not about specific actions, but cannot be about specific actions. Focusing on specific actions is, for various reasons, very problematic. When we approach the high holidays, as we pass through the season of repentance, the focus should not be on our actions, but on our personal capacity for change and for a relationship with God.

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Rav Kook

In this light, it’s worth noting a very similar idea from Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook’s Orot Hateshuvah, albeit with an important difference. The third chapter of Orot Hateshuvah lays out a dichotomy between “detail repentance” (teshuvah peratit) and “unspecified and general repentance” (teshuvah stamit kelalit).

There is a form of penitence that addresses itself to a particular sin or to many particular sins. The person confronts his sin face to face, and feels remorseful that he fell into the trap of sin. Slowly he struggles to come out of it, until he is liberated from his sinful enslavement and he begins to experience a holy freedom that is most delightful to his weary self…

There is another kind of feeling of penitence, unspecified and general. A person does not conjure up the memory of a past sin or sins, but in a general way he feels terribly depressed. He feels himself pervaded by sin; that the divine light does not shine on him…

Day by day, inspired by this higher level of general penitence, his feeling becomes more firm, clearer, more illumined by reason and more authenticated by the principles of the Torah. His manner becomes increasingly brightened, his anger recedes, a kindly light shines on him, he is filled with vigor, his eyes sparkle with a holy fire, his heart is bathed in rivers of delight, holiness and purity hover over him. His spirit is filled with endless love, his soul thirsts for God, and this very thirst nourishes him like the choicest of foods. (trans. Bentzion Botsker, 46-48)

The former is focused on repenting and making up for specific acts a person may have performed. The latter, is an attempt to fix a general feeling of distance from God. It’s part of the person, and really all of existence, moving towards God, rather than away from specific actions. While Rav Kook does not critique action-focused repentance the way that Rav Shagar and Rav Froman do, in fact he maintains its validity throughout Orot Hateshuvah, it’s notable that he both distinguishes between them and seem to put the broader form of repentance on a higher level. While the later thinkers may not be basing themselves on Rav Kook, at least not explicitly, the resonance with their ideas is striking.

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Where We Start and How We Continue: Tsidkat HaTsadik #1-2

The first chapter of Tsidkat Hatsadik, by Rav Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin, discusses passages from the first chapter of the talmudic tractate Berakhot from a Hasidic perspective. The first two paragraphs of the book, however, diverge from this commentary-esque character, with the first discussing the Pesaḥ sacrifice and the second discussing Berakhot only in the most abstract sense.

The two paragraphs meditate on the same issues: where do we start and how do we continue (serving God and studying Torah/making blessings, respectively), touching on fundamental issues regarding the respective roles of God and man in the service of God and in life more generally. Below are the passages and their translations, followed by an exploration of the ideas contained therein.

Continue reading “Where We Start and How We Continue: Tsidkat HaTsadik #1-2”

“Books of the People”: On Modern Orthodoxy’s Reading Habits

Is there a Modern Orthodox philosophical canon, a list of books that comprehensively represents Modern Orthodoxy’s philosophical outlook? This is presumably a question that occupied Dr. Stuart Halpern while organizing, assembling, and editing “Books of the People” (BP), a collection of essays discussing twelve important philosophical books or authors from the Jewish tradition. In the preface he writes: “While the list of books discussed in this work is not exhaustive, nor does it represent a formal canon in any way, it reflects the changing priorities and religious sensibilities of readers and students, whether in the academy or among the general population” (BP, x). If there is such a canon, Halpern says, this book is not it. It is, however, something not altogether different. If a canon determines which books are should or should not read (for whatever purposes), then BP does the opposite; it is a list of books based on what the community is already reading. As such, examining it can perhaps tell us a good deal about this community, namely, Modern Orthodoxy. Given the incredible degree of variation in the forms and styles of the various essays, I want to use this review to look at some recurring themes and what Modern Orthodoxy’s reading habits have to say about the community writ large, rather than focusing on individual essays.

Continue reading ““Books of the People”: On Modern Orthodoxy’s Reading Habits”

Rav Tsadok and Why Jewish Continuity Discourse Re-enacts the Sin of the Spies

In recent years, and probably longer, there has been an ongoing discussion in the Jewish community about “continuity,” about which sects of Judaism will or will not produce people who are Jewish according to Jewish law (however you define that) and who actually care about living a Jewish life (once again, however you define that). A few years ago, Pew Forum released a poll showing that the only Jewish denominations gaining in size are the Orthodox ones, and they get bigger even faster the farther they are to the right. More recently, a study found that significant numbers of Religious Zionists in Israel leave religion behind as they move into adulthood. Both of these data points have given rise to panicked rethinking, on the one hand, and joyous triumphalism on the other. In this post, I want to go back over Rav Tsadok’s ideas from Dover Tsedek, Aharei Mot, #4 (If you haven’t read the last post with my annotated translation, I recommend doing so), and apply them to this Jewish continuity discourse, with the goal of pointing us in a different direction altogether.

 

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Exhibit A. Source: http://www.aish.com/jw/s/48910307.html

 

Rav Tsadok starts his exegetical and creative work with the sin of the spies from Numbers 13-14. The spies came back from exploring the land of Canaan and said that it would be impossible to conquer because of the current residents, and what is more, even if they managed to conquer the land they would not last there, as it is a land that consumes its inhabitants. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, protest that God can bring the people into the land if they so choose, a claim that Rav Tsadok radically extends.

The spies saw the outer layer (levush), the skin of the snake, while Joshua and Caleb saw the inner truth that the land is good. The skin of the snake causes people to fail, regarding which the verse says, “If God desires us” (Numbers 14:8), meaning that if God wants to bring us to the land he will do so, even given that he knows about the skin of the snake.

The claim, according to Rav Tsadok, is not only that God can help them conquer the land if God so chooses, but that the functional practicality of conquering and living in the land is entirely irrelevant. God is aware of the practical issues and gave the command anyway. What should be of immediate concern to the people is what God wants them to do.

In terms of Jewish continuity discourse, I think we need to be asking ourselves: is continuity part of what God wants us to do, or is it a practical issue? I suspect it is the latter. Continuity is not a principle that should guide the direction of Jewish life, it is something you deal with as you go. But we cannot decide how to be Jewish, what it means to be Jewish, based on what that means for our kids. We have to ask ourselves, how does God want me to be Jewish right now? Continuity discourse keeps us focused on the practical issues without getting down to that question of principle, in a way that I think is really inexcusable. Continuity is certainly important, but it can’t tell us what we are supposed to be doing now.

 

 

Rav Tsadok next moves on to discussing a talmudic narrative where the prophet Isaiah rebukes King Hezekiah for refusing to have children simply because he foresaw that his son would be evil. Isaiah pushes back against this logic, arguing that Hezekiah should not be concerned about future results more than he is about the divine command.

It was said regarding this, “Why do you involve yourself with the secrets of the Holy One, Blessed be He?” And this even though he had seen through the holy spirit that his sons would not be good, as it says in Berakhot (10a).

The future outcome of fulfilling the commandments are the “secrets” of God, argues Rav Tsadok, even when a person has divinely inspired knowledge of said outcome. The use of the term “secret” therefore seems to mean “something you are not supposed to be thinking about or factoring into your decision making process” rather than “thing you cannot know.” Thus, even when Hezekiah knows the outcome of fulfilling the divine command, he should act as if from behind a veil of ignorance and perform the command as if he did not know what would come of it.

Continuity discourse wants us to act based on our understanding of what will happen in the future, our understanding of the secrets of God. The most obvious problem is that, unlike King Hezekiah, we have no way of actually knowing what the future holds. Even if assimilation and birth rates have recently trended one way in our denominations, this trend may shift. God only knows what might happen in the future, so it’s not something we can, or should, factor into our decisions.

Perhaps more importantly, continuity discourse thinks about the future in a way that ignores our role in it. In the continuation of the talmudic narrative, Hezekiah agrees to have children (in fulfillment of the divine command), but refuses to accept that his son will be wicked. Despite the prophet insisting that this cannot be changed, Hezekiah insistently tries to ensure that his son will be righteous. This brings us back to the split between principle and practical issues. After Hezekiah has committed to acting based on principle, doing what he knows he is supposed to do, he then tackles the practical issue on its own, doing whatever he can to change the outcome he has foreseen. Continuity is a practical issue, and as such can and should be tackled head on, but only after we have decided on what the proper, principled, path is to take. We should decide what denomination, if any, we ought to associate with, and then afterward we should  dedicate ourselves to ensuring Jewish continuity.

 

 

The next step in Rav Tsadok’s thought-process suggests that what we see as practical issues may really be an important part of the process. He references a parable from the Zohar about a doe who cannot give birth until a snake bites it, violently opening its birth canal.

In reference to this, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoḥai said (Zohar, Beshalaḥ, 2:52b), “There is one doe there… do not ask and do not test God–so it is precisely!”

The implication of the story is that violence and suffering may actually be part of the divine plan. Rabbi Shimon’s concludes from this that you cannot question God; once suffering and violence can be legitimate parts of the divine plan, then they stop being reasons to question or challenge God. Practical issues like continuity may be part of the divine plan, and thus certainly should not be a decisive factor in choosing how to live. This is the point at which divine providence is so expansive and undefined that human decision-making becomes impossible, so I’m mostly going to ignore this point. However, the basic idea of humility before the potential vicissitudes of the divine plan is worth keeping in mind.

 

 

The final step of Rav Tsadok’s train of thought involves radical interpretations of a hasidic tradition about the biblical book of Esther and a famed talmudic narrative. The hasidic tradition suggests takes Vashti’s refusal to come before Aḥashverosh naked as indicative of the impossibility of an unmediated (“naked”) experience of God in this world, something Rav Tsadok extends even to the idealized world to come.

Outer layers and the skin of the snake exist even in the life of the world to come [as I heard regarding the verse (Esther 1:17) “bring Vashti” naked, but she did not come, for in this world there is always clothing (levush)] and there is room there [in the world to come -LM] to make mistakes.

Nothing is perfect, nothing goes according to plan. Problems arise even in the world to come. Hence an experience of the world to come, like that of the talmudic figure Aḥer, is perforce affected by the presence of negative elements.

As they said, Aḥer tasted from the trip through the orchard (Ḥagigah 14b), a taste like that of the world to come, and he strayed.

Even the world to come, the theoretical ideal of human reality and its relationship to the divine, is not perfect. Extrapolating theology from this ideal reality can therefore lead to mistakes and even heresy.

While at this point Rav Tsadok has wandered rather far afield, I think this final step is still very important for our discussion of continuity. The basic idea that Rav Tsadok is exploring here is that nothing is perfect; try as hard as you might, there will always be problems. It is therefore a waste of time to try and decide on a way of life that won’t have any problems. You have to just decide based on principle and then do your best to alleviate the problems that inevitably arise. If a certain form of Jewish life leads to less Jewish babies or less religious adults, that does not bear on whether or not that is the right way to live Jewishly. Even if you could find a way of life with no continuity problems, there would inevitably be other problems. Ensuring that people are Jewish or religious does not mean that they will be Jewish or religious in the way that you would hope. Or there could be one of any number of other problems. Continuity is an important issue, but it is one (and not the only one) that needs to be tackled after we decide on the right way to be Jewish, rather than being a part of that decision.

 

There’s obviously a lot in this piece from Rav Tsadok that is challenging theologically, particularly the section on the Zohar. However, I think the basic idea that shows up throughout is compelling, and very important for contemporary Jewish discourse about denominations. Continuity is important, but it’s a practical issue, not a principle. The question of how to be Jewish has to be answered by looking for what is right, what God wants from us, etc., not by pointing to practical issues like continuity. This will still allow for hearty inter-denominational debate, but at least the discussion will center around actual points of debate. Moreover, when we ask ourselves why we live Judaism the way that we do, the answer will be because be actually believe in it.

I do expect some pushback on this. Some of this may need some nuancing; perhaps the distinction I drew between principle and practical is not as sharp as I made it out to be, or perhaps there is some other issue I haven’t imagined yet.

 

 

[This post was based on and inspired by lectures by Yishai Mevorach, a student of Rav Shagar’s and an editor of his writings, and an interesting thinker in his own right. An English interview with Prof. Alan Brill about Mevorach’s new book, “A Theology of Absence” can be found here, and Mevorach’s Hebrew lectures on a variety of topics can be found on his youtube channel here.]

Rav Tsadok Hakohen, Dover Tsedek, Aharei Mot, #4: An Annotated Translation

Below is the original Hebrew of a piece from Rav Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin’s “Dover Tsedek,” followed by an annotated translation. In a future post I will apply the piece to some of the ongoing discourse surrounding the different Jewish sects, particularly the issue of continuity.

 

רבי צדוק, דובר צדק, אחרי מות, אות ד, עמ’ 187:
ומרגלים ראו הלבוש דמשכא דחויא, ויהושע וכלב ראו הפנימיות דטובה הארץ. ומה שהלבוש דמשכא דחויא מכשיל מאוד על זה נאמר ״אם חפץ בנו ה׳״ וגו’ פירוש אם ה׳ יתברך חפץ להביאנו והוא יודע גם כן מהמשכא דחויא. על זה נאמר בהדי כבשי דרחמנא למה לך. ואף על גב דחזי ברוח הקודש דהוה ליה בנין דלא מעלי כדאיתא בברכות. ועל זה אמר ר’ שמעון בן יוחאי אהא דחד איילתא דתמן… לא תשאל ולא תנסה את ה’, והכי דייקא. וגם בחיי עולם הבא יש משכא דחויא ולבוש [כמו ששמעתי על פסוק להביא את ושתי ערומה ולא באה כי בעולם הזה אי אפשר בלא לבוש] שיש בו מקום לטעות. וכמו שאמרו באחר דטעם הטיול בפרדס הוא טעימה מעין עולם הבא, ואחר טעה.

 

 

Rav Tsadok Hakohen, Dover Tsedek, Aharei Mot, #4:

The spies saw the outer layer (levush),[1] the skin of the snake,[2] while Joshua and Caleb saw the inner truth that the land is good. The skin of the snake causes people to fail, regarding which the verse says, “If God desires us” (Numbers 14:8), meaning that if God wants to bring us to the land he will do so, even given that he knows about the skin of the snake.[3]

It was said regarding this, “Why do you involve yourself with the secrets of the Holy One, Blessed be He?” And this even though he had seen through the holy spirit that his sons would not be good, as it says in Berakhot (10a).[4]

In reference to this, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoḥai said (Zohar, Beshalaḥ, 2:52b), “There is one doe there… do not ask and do not test God–so it is precisely!”[5]

Outer layers and the skin of the snake exist even in the life of the world to come [as I heard regarding the verse (Esther 1:17) “bring Vashti” naked, but she did not come, for in this world there is always clothing (levush)][6] and there is room there [in the world to come -LM] to make mistakes.

As they said, Aḥer tasted from the trip through the orchard (Ḥagigah 14b), a taste like that of the world to come, and he strayed.[7]

Notes:

1.  The “levush” (literally “garment”) is a common idea in hasidic thought with its roots in the Zohar, referring to aspects of a thing that obscure and prevent access to the inner truth of a thing, just as clothing obscures and prevents access to the body. See, for example, Zohar 3:152a where the Torah is divided up into outer layer, body, and soul, parallel to narratives, laws, and mystical secrets respectively.

2. “The skin of the snake” is a common kabbalistic trope going back to the Zohar, referring to the mystical evil that has attached to holiness since the primordial sin, drawing power from it and corrupting it.

3. Rav Tsadok is working here with the narrative of the spies from Numbers 13-14. When most of the spies claim that the land will consume them, two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb respond with the referenced verse: “If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us” (Numbers 14:8). Rav Tsadok is pointing out that Joshua and Caleb at no point suggest that the spies were lying and incorrect, instead claiming that God wants them to enter the land despite the spies being correct about the land “consuming its inhabitants” (13:32). God knows about this, and commanded it anyway; it’s the people’s job to listen to the command.

4. Rav Tsadok is referring to an aggadah that depicts a back-and-forth between King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah, and it’s worth quoting in full:

What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do to effect compromise between Hezekiah and Isaiah? He brought the suffering of illness upon Hezekiah and told Isaiah: Go and visit the sick. Isaiah did as God instructed, as it is stated: “In those days Hezekiah became deathly ill, and Isaiah ben Amoz the prophet came and said to him: Thus says the Lord of Hosts: Set your house in order, for you will die and you will not live” (Isaiah 38:1). This seems redundant; what is the meaning of you will die and you will not live? This repetition means: You will die in this world, and you will not live, you will have no share, in the World-to-Come.

Hezekiah said to him: What is all of this? For what transgression am I being punished?

Isaiah said to him: Because you did not marry and engage in procreation.

Hezekiah apologized and said: I had no children because I envisaged through divine inspiration that the children that emerge from me will not be virtuous. Hezekiah meant that he had seen that his children were destined to be evil. In fact, his son Menashe sinned extensively, and he thought it preferable to have no children at all.

Isaiah said to him: Why do you involve yourself with the secrets of the Holy One, Blessed be He? That which you have been commanded, the mitzva of procreation, you are required to perform, and that which is acceptable in the eyes of the Holy One, Blessed be He, let Him perform, as He has so decided.

Hezekiah said to Isaiah: Now give me your daughter as my wife; perhaps my merit and your merit will cause virtuous children to emerge from me.

Isaiah said to him: The decree has already been decreed against you and this judgment cannot be changed.

Hezekiah said to him: Son of Amoz, cease your prophecy and leave. As long as the prophet spoke as God’s emissary, Hezekiah was obligated to listen to him. He was not, however, obligated to accept Isaiah’s personal opinion that there was no possibility for mercy and healing. (Koren-Davidson Translation)

This aggadah plays with the same tension Rav Tsadok highlighted in the narrative of the spies between the divine command and negative future consequences of following that command. Hezekiah doesn’t want to have children because he knows that his son Menashe will be the worst king of Judah, marrying a foreign princess and bringing her nation’s idolatry into the heart of the temple itself . Isaiah rebukes him for getting involved with the “secrets of God,” meaning the potential future consequences of obeying the divine command.

5. Rav Tsadok is referencing a passage from the Zohar:

Rabbi Shim’on said, “There is one doe on earth, and the blessed Holy One does so much for her. When she cries out, the blessed Holy One hearkens to her anguish. And when the world is in need of mercy, for water, she cries aloud and the blessed Holy One listens and then feels compassion for the world, as is written: As a hind longs for streams of water… (Psalms 42:2).

“When she needs to give birth, she is totally constricted; then she puts her head between her legs, crying out and screaming, and the blessed Holy One feels compassion for her and provides her with a serpent who bites her genitalia, opening and tearing that place, and immediately she gives birth.”

Rabbi Shim’on said, “Concerning this matter, do not ask and do not test את י׳הוה (et YHVH)–so it is precisely!” (Pritzker edition, trans. Daniel Matt, Vol.4, pp.265-266)

Continuing the theme of childbirth from the narrative about Hezekiah, the Zohar speaks of God enabling childbirth by way of violence. While there are more esoteric interpretations (see the commentary in the Pritzker edition, ibid.), Rav Tsadok seems to be working with just the surface level of the parable, focusing on the idea that the divine plan might include, or even hinge upon, violence and suffering. It is concerning this that it was said, “do not ask and do not test God;” it’s not there are no problems and therefore you shouldn’t unreasonably ask/test God, rather even though there are problems that might encourage asking/testing God, you still should not do so, as this is simply how the divine works. There is always the skin of the snake, as Rav Tsadok said before.

6. This bracketed comment is a later insertion by Rav Tsadok himself. He is referring to a teaching from his teacher, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica. This is the relevant passage from a larger piece in the book of Mordechai Yosef’s teachings, Mei ha-Shiloa:

The Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory, said about “naked and she did not come” that this matter of naked has not yet come, end quote. The idea is that God gave Israel the Torah and the commandments, which are outer layers (levushim), and it is through them that Israel can grasp God’s essence. In this world, humans are incapable of grasping God’s essence except through crude [literally, “corporealizing” -LM] outer layers, so that ultimately everything that we receive comes via outer layers. […] Therefore when the men of the Great Assembly say that Aashverosh commanded that Vashti come before him naked, they understood that God wanted to give Israel true revelation, without any outer layer, such as there will be in the future when God will reveal his light without any outer layer… (Mei ha-Shiloa, Vol.1, Bavli Megillah 12b, s.v. vehakarov, p.259)

Rav Mordechai Yosef is getting at the same idea as his student, Rav Tsadok, regarding the presence of outer layers that mediate between people and the divine. However, Rav Mordechai Yosef is arguing that the mediated relationship with God characterizes our ordinary, banal, existence, there can potentially be an unmediated relationship with God, in an eschatological future period, or even in the here and now if God decided to reveal himself in that way. Rav Tsadok, on the other hand, is arguing that even the eschaton, “the world to come” is characterized by a mediated relationship with God. There is no escaping the skin of the snake or the outer layers. (This is not the only time we find Rav Tsadok arguing with the text of the Mei ha-Shiloa. The Mei ha-Shiloa suggests that Zimri, and not Pinhas, was the hero of Numbers 25 (Vol.1, Pinhas, s.v. vayera, p.164), whereas Rav Tsadok claims that Zimri really did sin (Tsidkat ha-Tsadik, #43). Interestingly, Rav Tsadok attributes this opinion to his teacher, seemingly contradicting the opinion attested to in the text of the Mei ha-Shiloa).

Rav Tsadok, at this point in the homily, is moving past the simple argument that the divine command or plan may involve some sort of problem, on to saying that even the most ideal situation imaginable is still going to have problems. There is no ideal, perfect, experience of God, clean of all imperfections, and we need to stop thinking that there is.

7. Here Rav Tsadok is referencing the aggadah about four individuals who “entered the orchard.” The exact nature of this experience is debated, with one major line of interpretation being that it was a mystical experience of the divine, which is why Rav Tsadok likens it to the world to come. Of the four, one left unscathed, while one died, one went crazy, and the last, Aḥer, “cut saplings,” traditionally understood as a metaphor for some form of heresy. Rav Tsadok claims that Aḥer did not stray upon experiencing the orchard so much as he strayed because he experienced the orchard. Even mystical experiences of the divine, as close to unmediated as possible, contain some elements of crude superficiality and mythical evil.

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?

Rav Shagar – Shaping Our Religious Language

Any reader of Rav Shagar’s sermons and essays will immediately notice that his language is a veritable pastiche of two things not found in many contemporary Jewish thinkers: Kabbalah/Hasidut and secular philosophy, Postmodernism in particular. Given how unique this feature of Shagar’s writings is, it is worth considering why he spoke and wrote that way. There seem to be a few reasons, some of which Shagar addresses in his introduction to the book of his sermons for Purim that was published in his lifetime:

It is necessary to translate the hasidic sermons to “the language of our times.” One of my goals is to attempt to shape substantial and relevant material for times and holidays that are supposed to be meaningful times of renewal and exploration, as well as to characterize each holiday in it’s own unique light. This is why I have integrated modern ideas into hasidic trains of thought, in order to translate these hasidic ideas for us and our world. […]

Further, I find in “kabbalistic language” great interpretive power and the ability to illuminate many cultural events in our time. Moreover, in many of the cultural events of our time I see the realization of the “kabbalistic vision” that speaks of the shattering of the vessels and their purification as necessary conditions for redemption, a redemption that is not simply national, but is an ontological shift in the “universal existence” (יש העולמי). (Pur Hu HaGoral, p.8)

Rav Shagar was trying to shape a new religious language, a language for talking about God and religion, for the Dati Le’umi community, with two primary components: 1) Contemporary philosophy. The Dati Le’umi (or Modern Orthodox) individual lives in the modern world, and contemporary philosophy and the social issues of postmodern society are a part of her life. They therefore ought to be a part of her religious language as well. 2) Hasidut and Kabbalah. Shagar was part of a movement that successfully introduced the study of Hasidut and Kabbalah into Dati Le’umi society, and he here gives two reasons for its importance: A) Interpretive power. The language of Hasidut and Kabbalah enabled, for Shagar, a particularly expansive and creative approach to Judaism, fitting with the creative and unbounded way these movements interpreted traditional texts. B) “Illumination of cultural events.” In addition to providing language, Kabbalah provides Shagar with a specific cosmic and historical vision that is ripe for identification with contemporary cultural events – The breakdown of all overarching narratives in postmodernity is the kabbalistic shattering of the vessels. Judaism can thus speak directly to the events of our times.

While that explains why Shagar has opted for the hasidic approach over other forms of Jewish language, it does not explain why he doesn’t simply look outside Judaism for suitable language. He’s already using secular philosophy, so why not use secular language as well? In answer to that, it is important to note that Shagar never tries speak as if he was not Jewish. He is Jewish, and that’s the starting point of his thought. He never questions this or tries to get outside it, and much of his thought philosophically argues for this kind of approach. This fits well with his interest in the thought of Franz Rosenzweig, who had an experience that concretized for him the fact that he was Jewish and that this was his starting point. He consequently became fascinated with Hebrew, in all its eras, and with the language of the traditional liturgy and the Bible. Traditional Jewish language was important to him simply because it is Jewish, and the same is true of Shagar.