Rav Shagar on Being Religious as Being Weird and Avant Garde, with a Note about Academic Bible Scholarship

So apparently men wearing skirts is getting more and more popular (hold onto your hats, because this essay is going to end up talking about academic Bible scholarship). Just a few years ago, however, it was considered avant garde, meaning that the men doing it were breaking cultural norms, but they were doing so with confidence. That confidence is the key factor in whether breaking cultural norms makes you a weirdo, a loser, or makes you avant garde. If you can pull it off, this confidence often wins the respect of the culture whose norms you are breaking; often, however, the avant garde remain something of a marginalized group.

Any person who defines herself as both modern and religious invariably finds herself in this position. The cultural norms of contemporary western cultures are, to a great degree, secular, and so being religious means breaking those cultural norms. Being religious can therefore require being “weird,” or having the confidence to be avant garde.

Writing in the religious Zionist community in Israel at the turn of the millennium, Rav Shagar strived to create Jews who saw themselves as avant garde. Concluding an essay on love and marriage in the postmodern era, he writes:

I would love to see marriage as the true avant garde of today’s society, marriage as a covenant, in the rite of Moshe and Israel. The true rebellion is the Orthodox rebellion to be a “loser” (freier) in a world where not a single person is willing to be a loser, to commit in a place where everybody runs from commitment. This is intimately bound-up with self-sacrifice, but self-sacrifice in this sense is the very essence of the covenantal relationship. (“Love, Romance, and Covenant,” Nehalekh Beragesh, p. 286)

Finding postmodern sensibilities about romance to be decidedly more “frum” than modern ones, Shagar argued that religious Zionists should take up this postmodern yet very traditional view of marriage, even if it means breaking with the non-committal values of mainstream Israeli society. Notably, Shagar invokes the idea of being a freier, a “loser,” something Israelis are constantly attempting to avoid, and asserts that religious Zionists should embrace that role, being willing to sacrifice for the betterment of others, which is the foundation of a covenantal relationship.

At the very end of an essay on the interplay of education and ideology, Shagar looks to the future of religious Zionist education in Israel and argues that we have to be educating for avant garde-hood.

For what, then, shall we educate? How will we want to see the next generation of religious Zionism? I would prefer to strive to make it an avant garde generation. What do I mean by this? – the stubbornness to hold on to ethics in a world without ethics; to faith in a nihilistic world; to be the “loser” of the world out of a sense that “This is how I am and this is how I want to be.” This is a holy rebellion: the rebellion against the rebellion, a postmodern rebellion against the modern rebellion. Education needs to create complex people, with many aspects and no need to construct ideological unity that will resolve them, by creating a deep and rooted Jewish identity that can connect with and absorb the different direction and oppositions. (“Education and Ideology,” Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, pp. 206-207)

Shagar is pushing for a broad embrace of values in the face of a culture that rejects them. Mainstream Israeli culture, he says, is unethical and nihilistic; we must therefore break with it in being ethical and full of faith. Religious values necessarily set us apart from the broader culture, and we must embrace that gap.

It is critical to note that Rav Shagar is not arguing for the approach taken by Haredi society, which in that same essay about education he calls a “heterotopia” (a term he adopts from Michel Foucault), a society that is so disconnected from all other societies that its boundaries are determined not by where it butts up against other societies but by its own nature. It’s so separate that it doesn’t really even know other societies exist. Shagar admits that this depiction is idealized, not necessarily fitting the reality of contemporary Haredi society, and he therefore calls it “rectified” or “authentic” Haredism (for the latter, see the essay “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” also published in English in the book “Faith Shattered and Restored”). However, real Haredi society is still very separate from mainstream Israeli society, particularly when contrasted with the religious Zionists who, as Shagar says, “live in multiple worlds” (Education and Ideology,” pp. 183-185). This means that Haredim cannot be avant garde; in a sense, you have to be part of the culture in order to be a counter-culture, while Haredim are simply a different culture altogether. Religious Zionists, as well as Modern Orthodox Jews in the US and anyone who finds herself in a similar situation, are fully a part of mainstream, modern, society. This is what makes it significant when we break away from it. Breaking with the norms of our own culture, or perhaps more accurately the norms of the larger culture, marks us as weird and often draws scorn. The trick, however, is to embrace that difference and wear it confidently, thus shifting from “weird” to “avant garde.” We must realize that we’re different, and not expect to fit in perfectly, which means accepting that we will not be embraced by our larger culture one hundred percent of the way.


By way of conclusion, and to keep my parenthetical promise from the beginning of this post, I want to apply this model to recent discussions about academic Bible scholarship. This most recent debate was inspired by R. Dr. Joshua Berman’s essay “The Corruption of Biblical Studies” on mosaicmagazine.com, which argued that “conservative” scholars and scholarship are consistently marginalized in the world of academic Bible scholarship. This inspired 4 responses on the site from other scholars, followed by Berman’s rejoinder, as well as other pieces around the internet such as a piece by Prof. Marc Brettler on thetorah.com and one on thelerhaus.com by Dr. Michah Gottlieb. This last piece concludes, based on R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, that “an Orthodox Jew engaged in biblical criticism is knotted in impossible self-contradiction.” This piece, as well as Berman’s first piece, fall prey to some of the problems I mentioned above. R. Hirsch, as portrayed by Gottlieb, seems to fit into the heterotopic-Haredi model, seemingly pushing for Orthodox or conservative scholars to withdraw from biblical scholarship entirely, not recognizing that there are models of Orthodoxy that can embrace some form of historicism (for some of Shagar’s approach to historicism, see “Religious Life in the Modern Age”). Berman, on the other hand, seems to not be accepting that Orthodox and “conservative” scholars are in some ways breaking from the mainstream culture of academic Bible scholarship (I make this point somewhat more tentatively than the previous one). Such scholars will therefore almost unavoidably be marginal figures, and that uncomfortable status ought to be proudly embraced. This doesn’t mean that it is a good thing or that it shouldn’t be pointed out, but it does mean that it’s probably here to stay.

Parashat Devarim 5774 – The Oral Torah and The Things That Moshe Said

אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה


Parashat Devarim opens the final book of Humash, marking a radical departure from the previous books. It’s uniqueness is encapsulated in the name by which it is referred to in Midrashim and the Gemara, “Mishneh Torah”, meaning “Repetition of the Torah”. This title is probably a reference to the many narratives and laws from previous books of the Torah that are repeated in Sefer Devarim. However, the narratives and laws[1] of Sefer Devarim also include many things not found in previous books, lack many things found in previous books, or outright contradict the laws and narratives of previous books. Parashat Devarim includes a few excellent examples of all of these, such as the appointment of judicial system (Devarim 1:9-18; originally found in Shemot 18) and the incident of the spies (Devarim 1:19-46; originally founding in Bamidbar 13-14). Perhaps the most striking changes from the previous books of the Torah to Sefer Devarim are in the writing style and the perspective of narration. The language and sentence structure used are strikingly different from the other books, to the point that switching from one to the other is actually difficult. Most of the books of the Torah are narrated from a third-person perspective (“And Moshe said…” “And Moshe struck the rock…”), but Sefer Devarim is dominated by first-person narration (“I said…” “We did…”). This final detail, as we shall see, actually contains the explanation for all of the other discrepancies of Sefer Devarim.

Sefer Devarim opens with the phrase, “These are the words which Moses spoke to all of Israel” (Devarim 1:1). Just a few verses later (1:6), Moshe begins a speech that spans for about 4 chapters of Sefer Devarim. Immediately thereafter, Moshe begins his second speech (5:1), which will span 22 chapters. This is followed immediately by the beginning of a third speech (27:1), filling chapters 27 and 28, and then chapters 29 and 30 are a fourth speech (beginning with 29:1).  The last four chapters of Sefer Devarim (31-34) are a narration of Moshe’s Last Acts and Farewells, much of which is still him speaking or singing, though not all of it. This breakdown demonstrates that Sefer Devarim is almost entirely a recording of Moshe’s speeches! 30 out of 34 chapters of Sefer Devarim, give or take a few verses, are entirely his speeches, and the other four chapters include a hefty amount of his speech as well. The sudden switch from third- to first-person narration is therefore obvious and understandable, as Moshe would not narrate from a third-person perspective. Fascinatingly, this also suggests that the style switch is also a matter of Moshe’s narration, meaning a switch from the previous, presumably Divine, perspective, to Moshe’s human perspective.

This raises an immediate issue in terms of our conception of the giving of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva says that the entirety of the Torah, in its general principles and its minor details, was given to Moshe on Har Sinai[2]. If this is true, then Sefer Devarim was given to Moshe on Har Sinai, from ‘א, and for it to be narrated by Moshe, phrased in his own perspective, would be strange at the very least. However, this is not the only opinion in Hazal. Rabbi Yishmael says that the general principles of the Torah were given on Har Sinai, and then the minor details were given in the Mishkan and in the Plains of Moav (where Moshe delivers the speeches found in Sefer Devarim)[3]. Even this does not quite say that Moshe himself said over, of his own volition, the speeches recorded in Sefer Devarim, but it is a step in that direction. The next step is taken by Abarbanel in his Introduction to his commentary on Sefer Devarim.

In truth, Moshe our teacher stated the words of this book and explained the mitzvot mentioned therein as he prepared to part from the people of Israel.  After he completed his words to Israel, God desired that they be included in the Torah as Moshe stated them.  Perhaps God added elements to those words at the time that they were committed to writing.  Thus, although the words may have been stated by Moshe, the authority to include them in the Torah’s text did not derive from him.  Moshe did not decide to commit these words to writing, for how could he compose even a single thing in God’s Torah without Divine sanction?  Rather, all of these words of the Book of Devarim were by the mouth of God, together with the rest of the Torah’s text, for God agreed with his formulations and favored the words of the ‘faithful shepherd’ Moshe.  Thus, God restated them to Moshe and ordered them to be written by him, and Moshe therefore composed them by God’s authority and not by his own

Thus the speeches of Sefer Devarim are actually Moshe’s own narration[4], which then received the Divine imprimatur when ‘א decided to make them part of the Torah[5]. The significance of this idea is powerfully expressed by Rav Tsadok HaKohen of Lublin[6].

The latter version of the Decalogue, that in Sefer Devarim, was said by Moshe, on his own account. Nonetheless, it is part of the Written Law. In addition to the mitzvot themselves that Moshe had already received at Sinai, by the word of God, these words as well [in Sefer Devarim], which were said on his own account, which are not prefaced with the statement, “And God said…”, these, too, are part of the Written Law. For all of his (i.e. Moshe’s) are also a complete “torah”, just like the dialogues of the patriarchs and other similar passages are considered part of the Written Law. But the material that begins “And these are the things” (i.e. the first verse of Sefer Devarim and the rest of the book that follows), material that was said on his own account, represents the root of the Oral Law, the things that the sages of Israel say of their own account.

Rav Tsadok is saying that as part of the ‘א’s Divinely commanded text, Sefer Devarim is part of the Written Torah, but as the words of Moshe Rabbenu, Sefer Devarim is the beginning of the Oral Torah. Therefore it is not strange that Sefer Devarim should depart from previous books of the Torah in retelling past events. As part of the Oral Torah, it is a completion and an interpretation of the Written Torah. It is Sefer Devarim’s nature as interpretive retelling that explains its divergences from previous recordings of laws and narratives in the Torah.

The first great example of that in Parashat Devarim is the Appointment of the Judges. This first occurs in Shemot 18, when Yitro arrives at Har Sinai and suggests the appointment of judges as a way to lighten Moshe’s burden. Yitro tells Moshe that he should take “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens” (Shemot 18:21). Moshe does as Yitro recommended, and goes from being the sole judiciary authority to being the final authority when lower judiciary authorities were not enough. In Sefer Devarim, Moshe initiates the appointment of the leaders, due to his inability to lead the people.

And I spoke to you at that time, saying: “I am not able to bear you myself alone; the Lord your God has multiplied you, and, behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven in multitude. The Lord, the God of your fathers, made you a thousand times so many more as you are, and blessed you, as He has promised you! How can I myself alone bear your trouble, and your burden, and your strife? Get you, from each one of your tribes, wise men, and understanding, and full of knowledge, and I will make them heads over you.’ And you answered me, and said: ‘The thing which you have spoken is good for us to do.’ So I took the heads of your tribes, wise men, and full of knowledge, and made them heads over you, captains of thousands, and captains of hundreds, and captains of fifties, and captains of tens, and officers, tribe by tribe. And I charged your judges at that time, saying: ‘Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him. You shall not favor persons in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike; you shall not be afraid of the face of any man; for Justice is God’s; and the cause that is too hard for you you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.” And I commanded you at that time all the things which you should do. (Devarim 1:9-18)

There are many differences between this passage and the passage in Shemot. First off is the lack of any mention of Yitro is Sefer Devarim. More interesting, however, is the description of the judges, both in terms of their innate qualities and their assigned duties. Whereas in Shemot the men are described as “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain,” in Devarim they are referred to as “wise men, and understanding, and full of knowledge.” Moshe appoints the men in Shemot as “rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens,” whereas in Devarim they are additionally appointed as “officers.” In Shemot Moshe chooses the men, whereas in Devarim the nation chooses them. These differences all flow from differences in the initial cause for the appointment in each passage. In Shemot the men are appointed to create a necessary Judicial structure, whereas in Devarim Moshe is appointing ‘heads” over the tribes, to help him lead a nation that has grown to large for his singular leadership. Therefore only Shemot mentions Yitro, while he isn’t part of the story in Devarim. The traits of the men chosen in Shemot are appropriate for judges, while the traits of the men chosen in Devarim are more generally useful for leadership. That’s why in devarim they are “officers” as well as judicial “rulers”. Shemot emphasizes the issues of jurisprudence, right before the giving of ‘א’s Law, where Devarim emphasizes matters of leadership. These two issues came up simultaneously, and we only get the full picture due to their being split apart textually.

The second such example that appears in Sefer Devarim is the Sin of the Spies. The first recording of this narrative occurs in Bamidbar 13-14, instigated by ‘א commanding Moshe to send men to scout out the land. The men bring back a misleading and evil report that causes Bnei Yisrael to rebel. Despite the protestations of the good spies, Yehoshua and Calev, Bnei Yisrael refuse to enter the land, leading to ‘א condemning the entire generation to die in the desert. The departures from this representation in Devarim are few, but significant.

And I said to you: “You have come to the hill-country of the Amorites, which the Lord our God gave to us. Behold, the Lord your God has set the land before you; go up, take possession, as the Lord, the God of thy fathers, has spoken to you; do not fear, nor be dismayed.” And you came near to me every one of you, and said: “Let us send men before us, that they may search the land for us, and bring us back word of the way by which we must go up, and the cities to which we shall come.” And the thing pleased me well; and I took twelve men of you, one man for every tribe; and they turned and went up into the mountains, and came to the valley of Eshcol, and spied it out. And they took of the fruit of the land in their hands, and brought it down to us, and brought us back word, and said: “Good is the land which the Lord our God gives to us.” Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God; and you murmured in your tents, and said: “Because the Lord hated us, He has brought us forth out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. To where are we going up? Our brothers have made our heart to melt, saying: The people is greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; and moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.” Then I said to you: “Dread not, neither be afraid of them. The Lord your God who goes before you, He shall fight for you, according to all that He did for you in Egypt before your eyes; and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God bore you, as a man bears his son, in all the way that you went, until you came to this place. Yet in this thing you do not believe the Lord your God, Who went before you in the way, to seek you out a place to pitch your tents in: in fire by night, to show you by what way you should go, and in the cloud by day.” And the Lord heard the voice of your words, and was angry, and swore, saying: ‘Surely there shall not one of these men, even this evil generation, see the good land, which I swore to give to your fathers… (Devarim 1:20-35)

Of the many differences here, a few stand out in particular. Where in Bamidbar 13, ‘א commanded the sending of the scouts, in Devarim the people asked to send spies. In Bamidbar the spies bring back a false report that incites the people, which is ineffectually countered by Calev and Yehoshua, while in Devarim the report of the scouts appears only in the words of the people after they have already rebelled. The people rebel of their own initiative and are rebuked not by Calev and Yehoshua but by Moshe himself. While here too there seems to have been two different things occurring simultaneously, two different missions performed by the same twelve men at the same time[7], depicted separately in two different places, this is not the reason for the differences here. Instead, here it seems to be simply a matter of a different perspective. By focusing on the initiatives and failures of Moshe and Bnei Yisrael, by excluding ‘א and the spies from the story, emphasis is placed on the actions and responsibility of the Nation and their Leader. Thus this retelling does not contradict or change the story, so much as it simply presents the narrative from a different point of view, emphasizing different things.

Sefer Devarim is a retelling of much of the laws and narratives of the Torah, but it is a complex retelling. It has additional information, intentional lacks of information, and apparent contradictions. However, far from posing a problem for the Torah’s integrity and for the religious reader, these complexities open up the Written Torah by anchoring it to our most precious gift, the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah is the god-given ability for the wise of Bnei Yisrael to interpret and apply the Written Torah, and it started with Moshe. Moshe took events and laws from the 40 years that Bnei Yisrael traveled in the wilderness and presented them in new ways, in order to convey the aspects he felt were most important for Bnei Yisrael to appreciate before entering the Land of Israel. Throughout the entirety of Sefer Devarim, many different aspects are emphasized, but a few themes, such as have been presented above, are dominant. The laws and events of Sefer Devarim highlight the ability, and corresponding responsibility, of Bnei Yisrael. Upon entering the land, everything will change for Bnei Yisrael. They will have to be responsible for themselves on a much greater level. They are losing Moshe, their faithful shepherd through the wilderness, and ‘א will begin to reduce His miracles and open Presence among them. The people can’t rely on Moshe or ‘א to take charge and save them. They will have to lead themselves, and they will have to take responsibility for their own mistakes. Correspondingly, the texts emphasize the ability of the people to do so. All of this is a function of Oral Torah. The Oral Torah allows for the expression of whatever aspects of the Torah are most relevant at any given time. “Since the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash, ‘א has no place in this world outside the 4 Amot of Halakhah.”[8] When the Bet HaMikdash was destroyed, the Oral Torah took us from the community-centered worship of the Bet HaMikdash to the individual-centered life of Halakhah. And when Bnei Yisrael were preparing to enter the Land of Israel, Moshe spoke to them the speeches of Sefer Devarim, that would take them from a people entirely dependent on ‘א to a people able to create a godly society, according to His laws, in His land.

[1] This composition will not discuss legal contradictions with previous books, as that is a separate topic. In brief, halakhic midrashim have their own method of solving it in relation to determining halakhah, and in terms of understanding the internal contradiction of the Torah text, it revolves around the institution of common law. For more on that and the specific case of Sefer Devarim, see essays 5-8 by Prof. Joshua Berman of Bar Ilan University, here.

[2] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Zevahim, 115b.

[3] Ibid.

[4] While some struggle with the idea of a human hand in the composition of the Torah, it is important to remember the level of Moshe in his prophecy, to the point where the midrash describes his as half man and half elohim (Devarim Rabbah 11:4).

[5] This is actually suggested by the gemara: One does not pause [to call up another reader] in [the reading of] the curses, but one person reads them all.  Abaye said: This applies only to the curses in Torat Kohanim [Vayikra], but in Mishnah Torah [Devarim], one may pause.  Why is this so? The former are in plural form and Moshe spoke them in the name of Hashem, and the latter are in singular and Moshe spoke them on his own. (Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Megilla, 31b).

[6] Pri Tzadik, Kedushat ha-Shabbat, article 7. Translation from Professor Joshua Berman, here.

[7] One of the missions was about military intelligence, while the other was more about surveying the land. The first indicator of this is the different verbs used for what the “spies” will do in each case, “לרגל,” “to spy,” or “לתור,” “to scout”. For more on this see Rav Elchanan Samet’s excellent essay, here.

[8] תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף ח עמוד א