Rav Shagar and Heidegger: Some Speculative Archaeology

Rav Shagar and Heidegger:
Some Speculative Archaeology

Some investigation into Rav Shagar’s familiarity with Martin Heidegger deserves clarification. He mentions Heidegger throughout his various writings, in a variety of contexts. Some of his important ideas resonate with, and perhaps even derive from, Heideggerian ideas. Prof. William Kolbrener’s forthcoming review of Faith Shattered and Restored highlights the Heideggerian resonance of Shagar’s shorshiyut, “rootedness” (my thanks to Kolbrener for the sneak preview). R. Zach Truboff has suggested to me that Shagar’s baytiyut may well derive from Heidegger’s zuhaus-sein, neither really translatable but meaning something like a way of existing built on familiarity and identification, potentially called “at-homeness” or “the feeling of being at home.” Shagar’s long-running concern with the meaning of death for a Jew’s existence certainly also echoes Heidegger, something Prof. Admiel Kosman notes in his essay “Bakashat Elohim Be’idan Postmoderni” reviewing two of Shagar’s books (Akdamot 21, 2008). So clarifying what he might have known about Heidegger and when is paramount.

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Primary Literature

The first thing to note when considering what Rav Shagar might have read from Heidegger is that Rav Shagar does not seem to have read extensively, if at all, outside Hebrew (and probably Yiddish, though I haven’t confirmed that). So any Heidegger he read would have been exclusively in Hebrew translation.

We can thus begin with what Hebrew translations of Heidegger were available during his lifetime, between 1950 and 2007. Part of Being and Time was already translated into Hebrew by Alexander Barzel in 1964, but it seems like a full translation is still unavailable (this seems to have been some sort of limited production for Hebrew University students). The Origin of the Work of Art was translated by Shlomo Tsemaḥ in 1968 (Devir publishing). In 1999, a collection of Heidegger’s essays spanning from 1929 to 1959, entitled Ha-Yeshut Ba-Derekh was published, translated by Adam Tennenbaum (who would later translate a new Hebrew edition of The Origin of the Work of Art, published in 2017).

Notably, 1999 is only 8 years before Shagar’s death, so it is unclear how much influence Ha-Yeshut Ba-Derekh would have had on Shagar’s oeuvre. While some texts clearly influence Shagar dramatically in only a short period of time. For example, Eric Santner’s The Psychotheology of Everyday Life was published in Hebrew only in 2005, yet it shows up in several sermons and his student Yishai Mevorach, in the introduction to Teologiah Shel Heser, notes that Shagar encouraged him to read it. Mevorach was the editor who put out essays where Shagar uses Santner, so that may be circular, but other students have told me that Shagar encouraged it as well. Regardless, many of Shagar’s more Heideggerian works were written well before this.


Secondary Literature

Those three works are all of Heidegger was that translated into Hebrew in Shagar’s lifetime (several more translations have been published since then). So what about secondary literature? If there wasn’t much Heidegger in Hebrew, then what did people write about Heidegger in Hebrew? Perhaps unsurprisingly, not a lot. In 1960, Yitzchak Klein wrote a dissertation at Hebrew University on the idea of fundamental ontology in Heidegger’s philosophy. In 1970, Ran Sigd wrote his dissertation on the idea of authenticity in Existentialism which discusses Heidegger. While Shagar does not cite Sigd’s dissertation, he read and cites Sigd’s book on Existentialism, which presumably is essentially the same. In 1988, George Steiner’s Martin Heidegger was put out in a Hebrew translation by Schocken Books. Shagar actually cites this edition in the essay “My Faith” (Luhot u’Shivrei Luhot, 416 n.23; Faith Shattered and Restored 30 n.24). Parenthetically, this is the lone occasion when Shagar actually provides a citation for his usage of Heidegger. In all other instances, Shagar simply throws Heidegger’s name out in the middle of whatever discussion he is having without providing any reference.

1990 saw two dissertations written on Heidegger. The first was by written the aforementioned Adam Tennenbaum at Tel Aviv University, focusing on the idea of truth in the philosophy of the “young Heidegger.” The second, quite significantly, was written by Shagar’s student Eliezer Malkiel at Hebrew U, and focused on Heidegger’s understanding of immanence and redemption. Now some work on Shagar’s similarity with Heidegger can be found in Tomer Danziger’s 2012 Hebrew University thesis on death in Shagar’s thought. He doesn’t do much in the way of historical work, but he does note Kosman’s article, and he reached out to Kosman who directed him to Malkiel. Kosman said that Malkiel and Shagar learned Heidegger together one one one, which Malkiel confirmed, but Malkiel also said that this had been over twenty years ago, and he could not attest to Shagar’s specific vision of Heidegger’s philosophy. We should note, however, that the only Heideggerian texts available in Hebrew at the time were part of Being and Time and The Origin of the Work of Art.

In 1994, Avraham Ansbach wrote a dissertation called “Beyond Subjectivism” (Hebrew) at the Hebrew University, which presumably became part of his Existence and Meaning: Martin Heidegger on Man, Language, and Art (Hebrew), published by Magnes. This dissertation is important because of a story I recently heard from another of Shagar’s one-time students, Ishay Rosen-Zvi. Rosen-Zvi studied under Shagar at Beit Morashah, which Shagar helped found in 1990. Shagar ran the beit midrash there until 1996, when he left to found his own yeshivah together with Rav Yair Dreyfuss. In discussing the fact that Shagar did not read widely, if at all, outside Hebrew, Rosen-Zvi told me the following: When he studied under Shagar, Shagar had been very excited about Heidegger, but had been unable to find much to read on Heidegger (which fits with the state of the translation and secondary literature as I have described it). However, Shagar had a student who studied at Hebrew University and heard about a “thesis” written being written there in Hebrew on Heidegger. Shagar, Rosen-Zvi says, made sure that his student got him a copy of the thesis, and was very excited to read it. Given that only two dissertations were written at Hebrew University between 1990-1996 (Shagar’s time at Beit Morashah), and one of them was by Shagar’s student Malkiel (likely the student in the story), it is likely that the dissertation under discussion was Ansbach’s.

1998-2007 saw 13 theses and dissertations that focused on Heidegger to some degree or another, as well as a Hebrew translation of Timothy Clark’s Heidegger. As there’s nothing more to say about any of them individually, I will simply list them all in an appended list below.


Summary – Citations, Availability, and Speculation

So, based on all this, what can we say about Shagar’s resources for understanding Heidegger? There are essentially three categories of texts.

The first is those cited by Shagar, which is essentially just George Steiner’s Martin Heidegger. That is the only text on Heidegger that we can know Shagar read.

The second category is those texts potentially available to Shagar, even though he does not cite them. This is two Hebrew translation, The Origin of the Work of Art and the collection of essays called Ha-Yeshut Ba-Derekh, as well as part of Being and Time, 20 or so theses or dissertations, and potentially Timothy Clark’s book (though it was published the year Shagar died, so it’s very unlikely he read it).

The third category is the texts we have reason to think Shagar read, even though he does not cite them. The first of these is obviously Malkiel’s dissertation on immanence and redemption, as the two were close and studied Heidegger together (Edit: my thanks to Dr. Aviezer Cohen for confirming that Shagar had and read a copy of Malkiel’s dissertation). The second, based on Rosen-Zvi’s (admittedly 20-year old) testimony, is Avraham Ansbach’s dissertation, “Beyond Subjectivism.” Third, and perhaps most speculatively, is whatever Shagar studied together with Malkiel. As this was sometime around the beginning of the 1990’s, it would likely have been The Origin of the Work of Art, and perhaps the portion of Being and Time that had been published in Hebrew for students of Hebrew University, where Malkiel studied.

So that is it for our speculative archaeological study of Shagar’s library. Further work would involve checking these works inside to see what matched up with Shagar’s fragmentary discussions of Heidegger, and perhaps getting accessed to the unpublished Shagar archives to see what he might cite there. Hopefully someone else can take up that task.


Secondary Literature – 1998-2000


Chavi Karel, מושג המוות של היידגר : קריאה פסיכואנליטית ופמיניסטית, MA thesis at Tel Aviv University

Hayyim Luski, ברור חלום הקיוםהיידגר, ביקורת פרויד וחשיפת ה– DASEIN כמציאות אונירית בהקדמה (לבינסוואנגר) : חיבורו הראשון של מישל פוקו הצעי, MA thesis at TAU


Michael Robeck, אונטולוגיה ומתמטיקה במחשבתו של מרטין היידגר, Dissertation at Hebrew University

Tali Wolf, שאלת ההוויה בהגותו של היידגרמקיום אותנטי לחשיבה, MA thesis at TAU

Yoel Perl, אזור הבינייםמפגש בין האונטולוגיה ההיידיגריאנית לפסיכואנליזה של פרויד ווינקוט, MA thesis at TAU

Idan Dorfman, שפה ועצמיותמהיידגר ללאקאן, MA Thesis at TAU


Sigal Tzoref, חינוך להתייחסות למוות בהתאם לרעיונות הפילוסופיים : של מרטין היידגר ושלוש נובלות של גוזף קונראד, MA thesis at Ben Gurion University of the Negev


Idanah Langenthal, חלל, מקום ובית במשנתו של היידגר, MA thesis at TAU


Amir Konigsburg, הבנה והוויהמושג ההבנה בפילוסופיה של מרטין הידגר, MA thesis at HU


Uri Etzyoni, ביחס לאבסולוטי בחינה השוואתית : הלדרלין והמשורר, קנט והגאון, המיצב של הידגר, MA thesis at TAU

Dror Pimental, כתיבה והוויה : קריאה דרידיאנית בהיידגר, Dissertation at HU


Amit Kravitz, אי ההבנה של אי ההבנה : היידגר וניטשה על שופנהאואר וקאנט, MA thesis at HU

Timothy Clark, מרטין היידגרמבוא, Resling

Yoel Perl, שאלת הזמן בפסיכואנליזה בראי הזמניות של היידגר, Dissertation at Bar Ilan University


Eruvin 54a – Hedonism, Death, and Non-Being

Before you is an aggadah from Masekhet Eruvin that seems almost hedonistic on a textual level, but I think the motivation behind the hedonistic statements is almost more interesting. Beneath the main quotation of the whole text is my breakdown and analysis thereof.

אמר ליה שמואל לרב יהודה: שיננא, חטוף ואכול חטוף ואישתי, דעלמא דאזלינן מיניה כהלולא דמי.

אמר ליה רב לרב המנונא: בני, אם יש לך – היטב לך, שאין בשאול תענוג ואין למות התמהמה. ואם תאמר אניח לבני – חוק בשאול מי יגיד לך. בני האדם דומים לעשבי השדה, הללו נוצצין והללו נובלין.

Samuel further said to Rab Judah, ‘Shinena [commentators indicate this means something like “clever one” ~LM], hurry on [lit. “grab” ~LM] and eat, hurry on and drink, since the world from which we must depart is like a wedding feast’.

Rab said to R. Hamnuna, ‘My son, according to thy ability do good to thyself, for there is no enjoyment in she’ol nor will death be long in coming. And shouldst thou say: “I would leave a portion for my children” — who will tell thee in the grave? The children of man[or more colloquially, “People” ~LM] are like the grasses of the field, some blossom and some fade’. (translation from halakha.com)

This gemara has a broader context that would certainly be worth looking into for anyone interested, but it’s not so important for the purposes of analyzing these two statements, which I will now examine piecemeal.

אמר ליה שמואל לרב יהודה: שיננא, חטוף ואכול חטוף ואישתי,

Samuel further said to Rab Judah, ‘Shinena [commentators indicate this means something like “clever one” ~LM], hurry on[lit. “grab” ~LM] and eat, hurry on and drink,

Shmuel’s statement to his student Rav Yehudah, to take and consume, and quickly, seems to express a hedonistic sentiment that we’re not used to seeing in religious text. The contrast is so stark that several commentators argue that the various forms of hedonistic pleasure that appear in aggadah all refer to learning Torah and performing mitsvot (Meiri, Sefat Emet). Despite this, Rashi is quite clear that the simple, hedonistic, meaning of the gemara is the correct understanding. Interestingly, the Maharsha comments throughout the aggadah, noting how consistently the aggadah reflects themes and ideas found in Sefer Kohelet, if not always as intensely. What makes this particularly interesting is that there is a rabbinic statement in Kohelet Rabbah to the effect that “every time Kohelet discusses food and drink, it is in reality referring to Torah and Mitsvot.”[1] This then suggests that perhaps the approach of the first commentators we mentioned is not so wild after all. Certainly, it shows how the commentators often relate to the Gemara the same way Hazal related to the Biblical text.

What is, to my mind at least, more interesting is the explanation Shmuel invokes for why Rav Yehudah should consume so voraciously.

דעלמא דאזלינן מיניה כהלולא דמי.

since the world from which we must depart is like a wedding feast’.

The most obvious connection between this argument and the instruction to hedonistically consume is the statement that the world we live in is like a celebratory feast. The clear purpose of such a meal is to enjoy it, so the argument based on that would just be “the world is for enjoying yourself, so enjoy yourself.” But there’s more to it than that.

Rashi explains that the “wedding feast” image is meant to convey the rapidity with which our tenure in this world ends. Much as a wedding feast is over in the course of a night, so too we all one day wake up much closer to the ends of our lives than we’re comfortable admitting. This also means that the wedding feast section of the argument is of one cloth with the section of the argument that we had skipped until now.

The first part of Shmuel’s argument is actually in the term he uses to refer to the world we live in, “the world from which we must depart,” or perhaps more literally, “the world from which we are departing.” Our time in this world is measured in sparse seconds that slip through our fingers ever fast the more we try to hold on to them. Our existence is not static; we are inexorably moving toward the ends of our lives, leaving more and more of this life behind us. Taken this way, Shmuel’s argument is strikingly reminiscent of the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger’s idea that existence is “dasein,” a term which literally means “being there.” Heidegger argued that to exist to is be “thrown” into this life without a choice in the matter, and to be inexorably moving towards death. Moreover, human existence in particular is marked by consciousness of this inevitable process. Shmuel may thus be best understood to be saying, “this life is short and fleeting, so make use of it while you can!” Whether you understand that as physical or spiritual pleasure is up to you.[2]

And now to turn to the second section of our aggadah.

אמר ליה רב לרב המנונא: בני, אם יש לך – היטב לך,

Rab said to R. Hamnuna, ‘My son, according to thy ability do good to thyself,

Rav’s instruction to Rav Hamnuna opens, as with Shmuel’s to Rav Yehudah, with a simple and seemingly hedonistic instruction: “according to thy ability do good to thyself.” If you have it, enjoy it. Once again paralleling Shmuel’s statement, Rav then provides a reason for this instruction. His reason, however, differs from Shmuel’s in ways that I think are significant.

שאין בשאול תענוג ואין למות התמהמה.

for there is no enjoyment in she’ol nor will death be long in coming.

In She’ol, an ancient and murky term for the afterlife, there is no enjoyment or physical pleasure. Moreover, not only is there no pleasure after death, but death is fast approaching. Thus it is imperative, Rav seems to argue, to get your pleasure now, while you can. Once again, there are commentators who understand this to refer to the pleasure of Torah and Mitsvot, rather than more hedonistic satisfactions, but Rashi is consistent as to hedonism being the plain sense of the aggadah.

This explanation differs from that of Shmuel in its consciousness of life after death. Shmuel simply argues that this life ends. Being disappears into Non-Being.[3] Rav, in contrast, is arguing that Being continues after death, only qualitatively differently. It is this qualitative difference that motivates his instruction to Rav Hamnuna. Death is coming and She’ol fast on its heels. We leave this life and and move to one without pleasure, spiritual or physical. It is thus incumbent upon us, argues Rav, to seek out this pleasure while we can.

 ואם תאמר אניח לבני – חוק בשאול מי יגיד לך. בני האדם דומים לעשבי השדה, הללו נוצצין והללו נובלין.

And shouldst thou say: “I would leave a portion for my children” — who will tell thee in the grave? The children of man [or more colloquially, “People” ~LM] are like the grasses of the field, some blossom and some fade’.

Perhaps the most immediate, natural, response to “If you have it, enjoy it” might be, “Can’t I share it?” Most particularly, what if a person wants to share what they have with their children, an act that manages to be caring for another person while simultaneously caring for oneself. This could be material wealth, or the knowledge and ability to succeed in Torah and Mitsvot, as per the consistent debate we have seen among commentators.

Rav preempts this response, suggesting that it fails on two counts. First off, it’s all very nice to say that you want to leave behind something for your children. However, Rav argues, what you really care about is their experiencing whatever you left for them, and you will have no way of knowing about it after you have died. Second, when a person leaves something for their children, it is generally with a specific idea in mind of how they want their children to use it, how they want it to affect their children’s lives. But after you have died, says Rav, your children will continue to grow without your supervision, and you will have no way of controlling how they develop. So it is pointless to deny yourself enjoyment, be it spiritual or physical, for this reason.

We have thus seen two distinct but similar reasons provided by sages to pursue some sort of pleasure in this world. Shmuel, whose reason I will call “Non-Being,” focused on the end of Being as we know it. This world is for pleasure and it ends, so you better use it quick. Rav, whose reason I will call “Death,” focused on not the end of this life so much as the beginning of a new way of Being, one which differs significantly from this one. In that existence, in She’ol, there is neither pleasure, nor knowledge of pleasure occurring in this world. And She’ol comes sooner that we expect.

While they differ in their discussion of Being after this life, Death and Non-Being share the same sense of the end of life as a crisis. There is something about this world that ends permanently, that cannot be regained or recalled even in the afterlife. This sense of loss is quite powerful, and moreover is a stark contrast to ideas we may be more used to hearing, such as how suffering in this world is compensated for by reward in the next, and how this world is just an entry-way to the more real existence in the next world. These ideas aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but it is a stark contrast. Other ideas from Hazal that indicate that death is a crisis might be Lo’eg LeRash, the idea that the departed are bothered by their inability to perform mitsvot. This is clearly the same idea as “Death” that we have looked at here, where there is a distinct form of existence after this life, but it is missing a crucial aspect of this life. So too the mishnah in Avot (4:17) which states that one moment of good deeds in this world is better than all of the next, though that also states that one moment of bliss in the next world is better than all of this one, and is thus more complicated.

As with my piece on the subversive aggadah about tefillah in Masekhet Berakhot, I don’t have a specific point I’m getting at with this piece. I just think that it’s an interesting and somewhat surprising viewpoint to find in Hazal, and it’s worth talking about. I would to hear any questions or comments.


[1] Sourced in the second chapter of Moshe Halbertal’s “People of the Book,” in a discussion of interpretation and the Principle of Charity.

[2] The ever-scholarly David Nagarpowers has pointed out to me that both historically and content-wise, Epicurus may be a more apt comparison than Heidegger. However, I’ve chosen to stick with Heidegger due to the sense of movement inherent in both Shmuel’s “the world that we are departing from” and Heidegger’s “being-towards-death.”

[3] This isn’t to say that Shmuel denies the existence of the afterlife. It simply does not feature in his argument.