Science-Fictional Messianism in the Writings of Rav Shagar and Rav Froman

A shiur I gave for Yom Yerushalayaim 2018 discussing how Rav Shagar connects science fiction and Messianism, as well as how this “Science-Fictional Messianism” shows up in other places in his writings and in the writings of Rav Menachem Froman. Sources below.

 

  1. Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 9:10
    The only difference between this world and the Messianic Era is subservience to the Nations.

  2. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 165-166

In order to understand these wondrous, magical depictions, which are not of this world, we can look to a somewhat parallel literary phenomenon, science fiction. Both science fiction and the rabbis’ homilies (midrashim) about the future redemption describe an alternative world. This world’s primary purpose, if we can speak of such a thing, is to lay bare the mystery (mistorin) of our lives, aiding the collapse and destruction of our banal, boring everyday life.

In the rabbis’ days there were no rockets; the eschatological homilies don’t talk about distant galaxies or about worlds full of robots and beyond-human creatures. However, they contain just as much magic and wonders just as great [as science fiction contains]. They provide the realistic possibility of a substantive alternative to this world, an alternative that many of the rabbis certainly thought would arrive one day. […] In this way, the miraculous and the wondrous bursts into the world and disrupts its factual, scientific stability.

  1. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 241

To truly rebel against force, you must abandon it. The ability to abandon the game of force and violence is truly a messianic option. We do not dream of a time when the right power will win out, but for a time when power and might will not make right at all. We seek pleasure (oneg) and not reality (metsiyut) – this is true messianism.

  1. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 346

I don’t know how to depict this redemption, but Rebbe Naman’s words inspire me to think that, perhaps, if we stand vulnerable before God… this will enable a shift, something transcendent will reveal itself, something that is beyond difference. I am not talking about tolerance, nor about the removal of difference. The Other that I see before me will remain different and inaccessible and, despite this, the Divine Infinite will position me by the Other’s side. Again, how this will manifest in practical or political terms, I do not know. But Yom Yerushalayim will be able to turn from a nationalistic day, one which has turned with time into a tribalistic celebration of Religious Zionism alone, into an international day.

  1. Rav Menaem Froman, Ten Li Zeman, 140-141

The way each side sees it’s way of thinking as natural and obvious closes them in on themselves. Open dialogue, never mind mutual understanding, gets father and farther away. […] Perhaps the path to Jewish normalcy goes by way of abnormalcy. For example (to suggest a product of abnormal Jewish thinking), the idea that the Jewish world which sees this land as its ancient homeland and its modern destiny does not necessarily contradict the Palestinian world that see this land as the refreshing cradle of its birth. For example, perhaps peace will not come about through the mutual contraction of two cultural worlds, but through their expansion and sublimation.

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  1. Rav Menaem Froman, Ten Li Zeman, 160

Once a year, when we approach the juxtaposition of Pesaḥ and Yom Ha’atsma’ut, a Jew like me is permitted to write a new proposal: all the birds that broke forth from their eggs are chirping that the time has past, but perhaps this movement of faith is a real movement of non-submission to the enslaving world and of building a free nation – from an intellectual perspective, adhering closely to reality, to the hope that creates reality.

  1. Rav Shagar, Panekha Avakesh (derashot from 1982), 163

What would happen if the state of Israel absorbed “the territories,” conquered the entire promised land of Israel and reigned over it? What if we really achieved political liberty and were politically and economically independent from other nations? Would this be redemption (ge’ulah)? Would all our sufferings really disappear? Certainly not. The basic suffering of the Jews is first and foremost a spiritual, mental, and religious suffering. It is the suffering of our distance from God. This is the suffering described by the terrifying curse, “I will surely hide my face” (Deuteronomy 31:18), when God hides his face. This is the suffering of a person who has no faith, a person drowning in despair, whose life is torn and imperfect, who does not “live in the light of the face of the king” (Proverbs 16:16), the king of kings, the king of life.

All the sages of Israel have agreed that the meaning of redemption, and not just the World to Come, which “eyes other than God’s have not seen” (Isaiah 64:3), which the human mind cannot comprehend, but also the lower redemption, the Messianic Era, cannot be summed up by physical or political redemption.

  1. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 363-367 (derashah-letter from 2007)

We yearn for more than just “natural” redemption, which some of the rishonim, such as Maimonides, thought would be realized in the Messianic Era, differing from this world only in terms of “subservience to the Nations.” Our messianic pathos also contains the melody of the open miracle, what Rebbe Naman called the melody of the land of Israel, which stands opposed to the melody of nature. This miraculous redemption means the shattering of nature’s lawfulness. Reality itself will metamorphose. The world will shine differently, as reality’s crude matter will be purified and receive the translucency and illumination of the day that is entirely Shabbat and rest. […] This is redemption as described by the Kabbalists, the Hasidim, and all varieties of mystics, as well as by modern, anarchistic, utopians. The indwelling of the Shekhinah which they are waiting for is real divine presence, which not hidden behind the lawfulness of nature, no matter how pure it is.

  1. Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, quoted in Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Bereshit 8

If a person knows that God is concealing himself, then there is no concealment, for “all evildoers are scattered” (Psalms 92:10). This is the meaning of the verse, “And I will conceal, yes, conceal, my face from them” (Deuteronomy 31:18). This means to say that God will conceal from them such that they will not know that God is hidden there.

10. The Greatest Showman, “Come Alive”
When the world becomes a fantasy / And you’re more than you could ever be / ‘Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open / And you know you can’t go back again / To the world that you were living in / ‘Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open / So, come alive!

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Realpolitik in Jerusalem – Dov Zakheim’s “Nehemiah”

Dov Zakheim’s Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage, the latest in Maggid Books’ series of studies in Tanakh, presents the reader with a vivid and relatable picture of the life and times of one of Judaism’s forgotten leaders. Despite being the main character of a book of Tanakh, and the source of its name, the average Jew has little knowledge of who Nehemiah was or what he did. Unfortunately, this isn’t is a problem that can be fixed just by people reading the biblical book of Nehemiah. The biblical text gives only small, often cryptic, windows into Nehemiah’s life, with mysterious gaps throughout. It is into these gaps that Dov Zakheim steps, bringing with him not only knowledge of the biblical text and commentators, medieval and modern, but also his extensive familiarity with politics and statecraft. This is the real “value-add” of Zakheim’s Nehemiah. Having served as both Under Secretary and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense in the United States government, Zakheim has a comprehensive background in the practical aspects of governmental politics. He draws out and explicates the political background lying behind Nehemiah’s actions and interactions throughout the biblical text.

As the book of Nehemiah is often completely silent on these matters, much of Zakheim’s explanations are unavoidably speculative. However, this just emphasizes how necessary this process is, as without this speculation there would be so much missing from the story. Zakheim’s reasoned filling-in of the narrative creates a continuous and comprehensible story for his readers to follow. There are times, however, where it seems like he leans too hard on modern political realities in a way that leads to anachronism. Not every situation from Persian-ruled Judea will have an exact parallel in the history of contemporary Israel and the West. Zakheim’s readings of the biblical narrative sometimes therefore obscure as much as they illuminate. By and large, however, Zakheim’s readings seem to be faithful and helpful representations of the biblical Nehemiah.

An interesting feature of Zakheim’s Nehemiah is the consistent emphasis on tension between religion and statecraft. Early on, Zakheim quotes the rabbinic critique of Nehemiah for asking God to remember his good accomplishments. Then throughout the book he suggests additional reasons why Hazal may have disapproved of Nehemiah. He emphasizes how this may already be foreshadowed in the biblical text itself, in the relationship between Nehemiah and his more famous priestly contemporary, Ezra. The biblical text records very little in the way of interaction between these two figures, outside of mutual but separate participation in a few ceremonies. Zakheim argues that the reason Ezra does not seem to have been enlisted in Nehemiah’s state-building efforts is that Nehemiah saw Ezra as nothing but a religious leader, one who had failed to make any real impact on his community. Nehemiah felt that only someone fully involved in the practical life of the community would be successful. While this reading does not contradict the biblical text, it is also far from evident from the text itself. Minimally, it presents an interesting window into the worldview of the author, and perhaps also of the Modern Orthodox community writ-large.

While I overall enjoyed reading Nehemiah, there are two trends in the book that negatively affected my reading experience. The first is the random digressions that Zakheim sometimes makes. In the middle of talking about the political and practical aspects of Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem, it was weird to suddenly encounter an in-depth discussion of whether the Jerusalemites had been violating biblical or rabbinic commandments while Nehemiah was away. There are numerous occasions where there is a side-discussion like this, one that might have been appropriate for a footnote but certainly not for the main body of the text. Being so out of place, it makes the reader feel like they’ve stumbled out of Zakheim’s book on the biblical character and into one of the secondary commentators, traditional and critical, that he so extensively footnotes. Secondly, scattered throughout the book, perhaps only once or twice per chapter, there are words that belong to a much higher level of vocabulary than the rest of the book. This is not inherently problematic, and Zakheim is clearly smart enough that one doesn’t suspect him of artificially forcing fancy language into his writing in order to sound intelligent. But it is jarring. These words just feel like a rather obvious authorial and editorial oversight. While the words’ meanings are usually clear enough from context that I was able to get by without googling any definitions, these words distract from an otherwise enjoyable reading experience.

Despite these critiques, Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage is an informative and enjoyable read, recommended to anyone looking to know more about this oft-overlooked figure from the Jewish tradition, particularly where it comes to the practical and political realities of his day.

 

Yom Yerushalayim 5774 – The Place that Dovid had Designated: Unity and Responsibility

אֲשֶׁר הֵכִין בִּמְקוֹם דָּוִיד

 

The picture of Jerusalem in Tanakh is a complex one. Beyond the fact that its name is not mentioned until Sefer Yehoshua (in the Torah it’s just called “the place that ‘א will choose”[1]), it is also the city whose destruction is probably most often prophesied. And yet it is ‘א’s City, which Yeshayahu depicts as the center of a new world-order based on the knowledge of ‘א. This complexity becomes clearer when one takes a look at the origins of the city as depicted in Tanakh. The conquest of Jerusalem is described multiple times, in the books of Yehoshua, Shoftim, and Shmuel. A closer analysis of these descriptions, and the interplay between them, demonstrates that Jerusalem’s complexity is a feature which goes back to its very origin.

The 15th chapter of Sefer Yehoshua depicts the conquest of the borders and cities of the territory given to the tribe of Yehudah, with a brief interlude detailing the experiences of Caleb Ben Yephuneh and Otniel Ben Knaz (Yehoshua 15:13-19). Verse 63, the last line in the chapter, describes Yehuda’s attempt to conquer Jesrusalem. “ And as for the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the children of Yehudah could not drive them out; but the Jebusites dwelt with the children of Yehudah in Jerusalem until this day.”[2] This is not a promising start to the city, but its real importance comes in its contrast to the description found in the first chapter of Sefer Shoftim.

The first chapter of Sefer Shoftim both agrees and disagrees with Yehoshua 15.[3] Verse 8 describes the Tribe of Yehuda conquering the city. “And the children of Yehudah fought against Jerusalem, and took it, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and set the city on fire.” This fits with the verse from Yehoshua 15 only in the broadest sense. It completely lacks the sense of difficulty in conquering the city expressed in Sefer Yehoshua. However, Verse 21 reads almost exactly the same as Yehoshua 15:63, with the notable exception of Yehudah being replaced by Binyamin. “And the children of Binyamin did not drive out the Jebusites that inhabited Jerusalem; but the Jebusites dwelt with the children of Binyamin in Jerusalem until this day.” This is an outright contradiction to both the verse in Yehoshua 15 and verse 8 in this very same chapter of Shoftim, which describe Yehudah, not Binyamin, conquering Jerusalem.

There are various ways to resolve this contradiction. Professor Elitsur, in the Da’at Mikra Commentary on Sefer Shoftim, suggests that some of the verses refer to the city of Jerusalem itself, while some of them refer only to the area surrounding the city. According to this conception, Yehoshua 15:63 is referring to Yehudah conquering the land around the city, while Shoftim 1:21 refers to Binyamin conquering the city itself. Shoftim 1:5 speaks of the city itself, but not of Yehuda conquering it, only burning it. In the Daat Mikra Commentary to Sefer Shemuel, Professor Kiel suggests that the area of Jerusalem can be divided into two parts: the City of David, down in the valley, and the area of the Old City and Har Tsion, on the hill above. Thus he says that Binyamin conquered the City of David and Yehudah conquered the Old City and Har Tsion. These solutions each have their own pros and cons, but they do resolve the contradiction. They do not, however, answer the question of why it was written in this manner.

No matter which method one uses for resolving the contradiction, the glaring question remains: Why was the conquering of Jerusalem written in such a confusing manner? Either of the above solutions could have been written much more plainly, without any of the confusion and contradiction. Yehoshua 15:63 and Shoftim 1:21 use exactly the same words, but with a different name for the conquering tribe. However, this parallel is so exact as to imply conscious intent, which warrants assuming a greater degree of intent. Once the paralleling in the verses is recognized, there is a greater intent understood, that of specifically comlpicating the story of Jerusalem. Jerusalem does not belong to any one tribe, but to all of them. While it cannot physically be in the land of all of the tribes at once, it is right on the border of the lands of Yehudah and Binyamin. Therefore, its conquest is one which cannot be attributed to any one tribe.

It is important to note that at the time of Sefer Shoftim Jerusalem was not yet the official capital of Israel. Then it was just a city with a complex ownership situation. It didn’t become the capital of Israel until Dovid took it in Shemuel Bet 5:4-10.

David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and in Jerusalem he reigned thirty and three years over all Israel and Judah. And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who spoke unto David, saying: ‘Unless you take away the blind and the lame, thou shalt not come in hither’; thinking: ‘David cannot come in hither.’ Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion; the same is the city of David. And David said on that day: ‘Whoever smites the Jebusites, and gets up to the water channel, and [takes away] the lame and the blind, that are hateful of David–.’ Therefore they say: ‘There are the blind and the lame; he cannot come into the house.’ And David dwelt in the stronghold, and called it the city of David. And David built round about from Millo and inward. And David waxed greater and greater; for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.

 

This depiction, mirrored in Divrei HaYamim Alef 11:4-9, is most notable for its total lack of a mention of ‘א. When it comes to choosing and taking the city that will be the seat of Israel’s Kingship, theoretically until the end of time, the choice is not made by ‘א, but by David. Similarly, when the site of the Bet HaMikdash is chosen (Shemuel Bet 24:17-25), it is chosen by David, not ‘א, as is made clear by Divrei HaYamim Bet 3:1. “Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in mount Moriah, where [the Lord] appeared to his father David; At the place which David had designated, at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.” Once again, the choice is made not by ‘א, but by David.

Jerusalem has two different aspects: its function in terms of the nation and its function in terms of ‘א, and neither of which is as we would expect. While we normally expect a city to fall under one domain, Jerusalem falls under two, and is further considered to not really be their property anyway, rather being a place for all the tribes. It’s not so much a city as a national center. Meanwhile, one would expect the site of national encounter with ‘א to be at a place of His choosing, not some place chosen by Man. And yet, David’s choice designated not just the city but also the very place where ‘א would choose to make his name dwell. Both of these factors lead directly to Jerusalem as a city that could be the center of the universal service of ‘א, and also has its destruction prophesied with terrifying regularity. The city is founded on the unity of diverse groups of people and it is either good or bad based on their choices. Jerusalem represents all the good that Bnei Yisrael can possibly achieve when we are united, but also all the bad we can fall into when we are not. It is on us, not ‘א, to make sure that the city and the nation become all that they can be, and that they lead the rest of the world in living up to all the potential that ‘א has given us.

“And many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may instruct us in His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For Law shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Yeshayahu 2:3)

[1] Devarim 12:5, 11, 18, 21, 26, and others.

[2] Translations from www.mechon-mamre.org, with some emendations for clarity.

[3] The discussion of the interplay of the verses form Shoftim 1 and Yehoshua 15 and the conclusion drawn from it are based on a class from Rav Amnon Bazak’s year-long “Studies in Sefer Shotfim” (HEB) course, given at Mikhlelet Herzog.