The Divine Unconscious and Individual Meaning: A Materialist Approach to the Commandments from Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah Derashot

The Divine Unconscious and Individual Meaning:
A Materialist Approach to the Commandments
from Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah Derashot

As I have shown in my post on the materialist theory of the commandments in Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Mind, materialist theories have two components, one primary and one secondary. The primary component is that the physical acts of the commandments are logically and causally independent of any reasons that might be given for them. The commandments aren’t meant for any purpose, no matter what purposes they might serve. Secondarily, and as a corollary to the first component, different people in different historical situations can quite validly give different explanations of the commandments. However, this second component does not have to follow from the first. This is why it appears in Rabbi David Silverstein’s approach but not in Rav Soloveitchik’s.

In this post, I want to look at two short excerpts from Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah sermons, published in the book Leha’ir et Hapetahim. Neither of these excerpts comes from a formal, systematic discussion of the reasons for the commandments, something as of yet unpublished among Rav Shagar’s writings. However, each independently deals with one of the two components of a materials approach to the mitsvot, giving us a comprehensive materialist understanding when we read them together.[1]


The first piece comes from a great derashah entitled, “Screen for the Spirit, Garment for the Soul,” which explores the meaning of the commandments in the teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Baal Hatanya, based on the biblical images of the human soul as the candle of God, and the commandment as a candle that shines with the Torah’s light. Rav Shagar finds that, as opposed to other Hasidic thinkers such as the Izhbitzer Rebbe, the Baal Hatanya sets up an opposition between the candle of the person’s soul and the candle of the commandment. Mitsvot are therefore not about authenticity, and can even be a source of alienation.

Moreover, Rav Shagar then moves into a discussion of the relative importance of will as compared to wisdom in understanding God and the commandments, based on the Baal Hatanya’s discussion of and departure from Maimonides. As opposed to Maimonides, for whom wisdom is the primary aspect we must understand about God and the underlying principle behind the commandments, the Baal Hatanya emphasizes the divine will, which precedes the divine wisdom.

If we return to characterizing the commandments, the Baal Hatanya says that even the physicality of action precedes thought and spirituality. “The root of the commandments is incredibly lofty, for they are rooted in the aspect of the highest crown (Keter Elyon) […] which ultimately devolves down into physical action […] specifically there we find the divine will. The final act is first in thought.” By its very nature, the essence of the will of the infinite can’t be revealed in a garment, in sense, in the finite. It therefore does not appear as the inner light of reality, as meaning, as clarity, as the delight of holiness. Though these things cannot be defined, they are comprehended and contained in the categories (kelim) of existence, just as meaning is comprehended through sense. The essence of will appears only as light that surrounds reality, overlapping the opaque act by virtue of it lacking sense. This opaque act defies human existence which relies on reason, knowledge, comprehensibility, and meaning, wherein every effect has a cause and everything that happens is determined by a thought or experience.

Based on the Baal Hatanya, we might say that people fail to understand will because it is performative (performativi). Its only justification is its being. It has no value as a logical assertion, as a statement or claim, and it cannot serve as an argument for anything. The will wants a specific act because it wants it, and this is what makes “the highest will” absolute. It is will, and it does not need to rely on any external justifications. (52-53)

Rav Shagar describes the will, and the divine will specifically, as “performative” in the sense that philosopher J. L. Austin used the term, describing words that do things instead of describing them, creating or shaping reality rather than referring to or depicting reality. This creative will precedes any intellectual ideas, any words or meanings, which always explain a pre-existing reality. The Baal Hatanya roots the physical forms of the commandments in this pre-intellectual will, in the simple meaningless insistence that precedes conscious thought. These physical act therefore are not, and could not be, preceded by an idea or goal for which God commanded them. You can’t get “behind” the commanding of the specific acts, because there’s no “before” that precedes them. They are primordial. God didn’t command them because they make sense, and this as Rav Shagar continues there, you can’t choose to keep them because they make sense. It requires an act of passionate commitment (mesirut nefesh), a decision to take upon yourself the framework of the mitsvot, only after which can you find meaning in them.

Our second excerpt comes from a derashah called “Candlelight: Genealogy of a Metaphor.” In this text, Rav Shagar traces the way different thinkers have understood the metaphor of candles and light within Judaism. Simultaneously, he traces the way the different thinkers have understood the metaphors to function; do they reveal the inherent connection between light and intellect, for example, or do they somehow create this connection?

After tracing this genealogy, Rav Shagar turns to propose his own way of understanding metaphors, based on a Lacanian understanding of psychoanalysis and the unconscious. For our purposes, there are two Lacanian ideas necessary for understanding what Rav Shagar is trying to get at. The first is that a symptom does not have a preexisting meaning. The meaning is created in the process of its verbalization. Second, nothing exists in the abstract, separate from its linguistic context. To be conscious means to exist within and be constituted by language. Rav Shagar weaves these two ideas together, such that the mitsvot are a “language” from which the Jew who “speaks” (fulfills) then is not separate, and the meaning of which emerges in the moment when the Jew fulfills them. For the sake of context and clarity, I will quote Rav Shagar’s words at length:

I want to depict another way to understand the metaphor of light and candle, one in which the meanings themselves of the different depictions happen in the present of “this time” (hazman hazeh). As opposed to Rav Kook and the Kabbalists, for whom metaphors reveal psychological and idealistic truth and meaning that already exist in reality, we could see metaphors as functioning as a chain of connections and contexts functioning in the psychoanalytic realm. This realm is the realm of the creation and construction of the unconscious which those contexts represent. The psychological connections are created at the moment of the interpretation of the dream, or in the associative games of therapy. Similarly, the creation of a metaphor (“candle-light = Torah-light”) is an illumination that creates a language in real time. We should therefore understand the metaphor as a work of art that uses language as its “vocabulary,” a use that creates the network of connections and the truth and meaning that it bears within it, rather than a gesture toward some truth that existed “there” in the past. Of course, in order to be present to this sort of creative process, we must, as Richard Rorty said, abandon metaphors of “revelation” and “discovery” of truth, which perpetuate the idea of truth and meaning as things of the past to which we must return, which we must signify, and which we must track into its present traces. Instead, we must discuss truth and meaning using metaphors of creation and construction.

The metaphor of the light of candlelight as the light of Torah is a creation that structures all the levels, both light and vessel, of the real world. Lighting a candle is not a symbol or a behavioral-psychological effect. It is a real place wherein a person acts as fulfiller of the commandment. In this sense, the individual grants meaning to the existence of the commandment. However, we must emphasize that this meaning is not subjective. We’re not talking about a dualistic split between the person and the commandment, consciousness and action, light and vessel, but about a person fulfilling the commandment in the fullest sense of the term, and they cannot be separated. The two together construct the meaning-creating event. […]

Just as words are not external to the speaker, so too the commandments are not external to the person fulfilling them. As such, the meaning that he grants them, the metaphors they inspire within him, […] enter into the action of fulfilling the commandment itself. Just as […] the idea does not precede the action, so too the intent (kavvanah) does not precede the commandment, and there’s no set, foreseen, meaning to which the action must point. The light of the candle which we are going to light in the evening thus becomes a real opening to all kinds of worlds which a person can create, rather than discover. […]

The metaphor of candlelight does not belong to language’s sense. Rather, it is part of a network that constructs the world. In fulfilling the commandments, a person has the freedom to create an event. Of course, the process of creation is not ex nihilo, something from nothing, but something from something. The person who lights the candle uses the teachings that he learned, the different intentions to which he was exposed, the words and sentences of the language which he and those around him speak. All these elements come together in a new way in order to create something new, a creative construct. The Hanukkah candle can create an event, but this depends on man’s capacity to break himself loose from already-known nature. Only then will something happen, a connection will be made, a metaphor and similarity between images. (78-80)

According to Rav Shagar, when a Jew fulfills a commandment, she and the commandment are not two separate things. In that moment, the person is a fulfiller and the mitsvah a fulfilled, neither of which can exist or be understood without the other. Not only does the commandment not have any pre-existing meaning, but it doesn’t make any sense to talk about the meaning of a commandment separate from the person fulfilling it. Meaning is always “meaning to,” the meaning a thing bears for a specific individual or group, rather than being inherent in the thing itself. This is true of the metaphors surrounding candlelight, and it is also true of the commandments. Moreover, like the metaphors about candlelight, commandments are always going to be understood differently by different people, with this new meaning or understanding emerging when individual and commandment become fulfiller and fulfilled.

Combining these two excerpts gives the following picture: The commandments are inherently meaningless, originating as they do in the divine will that precedes any conscious, verbalizable thought or meaning. Their meaning emerges in the moment when an individual Jew fulfills them. This meaning is not the meaning of the mitsvah, but of the fulfillment of the commandment by this specific person in their specific historical situation. This reason cannot serve as the reason for the commandment, as it is always subjective, and is created after the commandment already exists. For the same reason, there is no need or possibility of saying that certain reasons are wrong while one reason is right. In my last post we saw that Rav Soloveitchik frames the commandments as objectifications of subjective religious experiences, with one such subjective experience being the correct one that we ought to reconstruct. In contrast, Rav Shagar sees the commandments as originating in the essential divine will, in a sense beginning as objects, which then generate subjective experiences as they are fulfilled by individuals.

In my next, and likely last, post on this subject, I want to look at Brennan Breed’s theory of biblical reception history research, which inspired this whole project.

[1] As to the legitimacy of reading them together, a few technical notes are in order. First, I’m on the whole in favor of reading Rav Shagar’s corpus as a comprehensive whole, unless there’s good reason to take exception in a given instance. There are many such exceptions, but coherence is the rule that enables to understand both the whole and the exceptions. Second, the two excerpts were not only published in the same book, but they are from adjacent sermons within that book (“Masakh Lanefesh Levush Laneshamah” and “Or Haner: Gilgulah Shel Metaforah”). Reading them together is almost unavoidable given that publishing choice. Third, a good starting point for questions like this is when the material was originally written. Differences in Rav Shagar’s writings can often be traced to the difference between pieces written in the 1980’s-90’s and pieces written in the 2000’s, though that’s not a firm rule. This lens can be applied with the help of the editorial notes that appear in most of the more recent volumes of Rav Shagar’s writings noting the dates of original material used in composing the texts. In our case, “Or Vener” is from 2007, near the very end of Rav Shagar’s life. “Masakh Lanefesh Levush Laneshamah” is more complicated. According to the editor, the sermon is based on transcripts of oral teachings stretching from 1986 until 2004, as well as two written texts from 2004 and 2006. It is therefore difficult to know how to decipher that sermon for era indicators, but the predominance of material from the 2000’s (“Shenot HaSamekh” as I have heard his students say), when he was more involved in “postmodern” and psychoanalytic materials. This bears out in both of the sermons, which have distinct psychoanalytic underpinnings, as we shall see.


Texts Transform Readers Transform Texts: Fleischacker and Maimonides

Texts Transform Readers Transform Texts:

Fleischacker and Maimonides


I have recently been thinking a lot about a passage from Samuel Fleischacker’s excellent short work, The Good and the Good Book, which develops an argument for taking traditional texts to be good guides for living. In the first chapter he discusses a story of a wise man who tells a miser where he can find treasure. In going to that place, the miser finds people living in squalor, is moved to dedicate his money to improving their lives. This experience transforms him, and he realizes that the transformation was the promised “treasure.” He later returns the wise man, protesting about the misleading advice, and the wise man points out he originally would not have been motivated by the idea of such a “treasure.” Analyzing this story, Fleischaker notes:


And finally, following an authority makes best sense if one is carrying out an extended course of action and can periodically reinterpret what the authority says as one goes along. If the point is precisely to transform oneself, radically to change one’s character or orientation in life, then that is likely to take a while, and to lead one to have a new, deeper understanding of what one’s authority says after the change than one did before. This last point is the reason why authorities may employ obscure or indirect ways of saying things: what they want to convey cannot be properly understood by their listeners until those listeners have been transformed. And in the course of transformation, the authority’s utterances may well shift from a literal to a metaphorical register, or acquire new literal meanings that we did not expect them to have when we first heard them.[1]

Any statement or text that tries to change a person, moving them from personality A to personality B, risks the possibility that only one of the two personalities will be able to comprehend it, not both. Alternatively, it has to be capable of meaning two different things to each personality.

This is basically the problem Maimonides is struggling with throughout the Guide for the Perplexed. The Torah and its laws are meant to improve the people, as individuals and as a society (I:2, III:28). That means that it has to make sense to them both before and after it has improved them. This is all the more urgent a problem as the Torah is meant to improve the people’s cognitive understanding and beliefs as well (ibid.). The Torah has to make sense to people who think God wants sacrifices, but also to people who know that God doesn’t want sacrifices, or possibly even prayer; instead people should ideally just meditate (III:32).


Maimonides solves this on a legal level by allowing the legitimate authorities strong powers both in interpreting the Torah’s laws and in creating legal enactments (Hilkhot Mamrim; intro to MT). On the level of the Torah text and how we interpret it, this is a project that occupies much of the Guide. The words of the Torah, he says, can have more than one meaning (intro to Guide). He therefore must go through and explain to the reader which meaning is the proper one, in all places trying to move away from corporealizing and “primitive” understandings of God.

While the Torah can more obviously be meaningful for someone who shares those understandings, people who have already moved away from those understandings may have a harder time (ibid.). Moreover, encouraging such a person to take up those understandings would actually be harmful (III:34). Therefore the Torah cannot mean the same thing for them that it meant for people who had those understandings.

In a real sense, this problem underlies all interpretation, and gives rise to the need for an Oral Torah. If the Torah is to speak to different people in different historical realities, it must be subject to significant interpretation. What Maimonides work points out is that this problem is internal to the Torah and its goals. If the Israelites had never been exiled, if international politics essentially froze during the First Israelite Commonwealth, the Torah would still eventually require reinterpretation. As society and individuals conformed more to the Torah’s laws, they would become more like the ideal society and individuals. They would then read the Torah and see that it must mean something different than what it had meant to them previously.

[1] Samuel Fleischacker, The Good and the Good Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 23.

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.


This is My God, the God of My Father’s Religious Language

As a general rule, Modern Orthodox thinkers have always preferred personal religious experience to objective proofs as a basis for faith.[1] To some degree, this is a function of necessity, as Modern Orthodox thinkers tend to be less than convinced of the viability of objective proofs. As such, it is unsurprising that much has been made of a quote from the Kotzker Rebbe on the topic.

This is my God, and I will glorify Him, the God of my fathers and I will exalt him(Shemot 15:2). First one had to be able to say, this is my God; then one could add, the God of my father.”[2]

The Kotzker puts personal religious experience on a pedestal. Regardless of whether or not objective proof is possible, it is not desirable, at least, not at first. First, a person must have a personal relationship with the Divine, and only then should they worry about how their faith relates to that of their tradition.

The idea that personal experience can tell you about the Divine becomes problematic, however, when held up against 20th century conceptions of the relationship between language and thought. We think and understand in language, a language we absorb from the community around us, and our personal experience of the Divine is therefore inseparable from that community.[3] This was discussed by the Christian mystic and theologian Paul Tillich in his book Dynamics of Faith, though he does not discuss the problems this raises.

The act of faith, like every act in mans spiritual life, is dependent on language and therefore on community. For only in the community of spiritual beings is language alive. Without language there is no act of faith, no religious experience. This refers to language generally and to the special language in every function of mans spiritual life. The religious language, the language of symbol and myth, is created in the community of the believers and cannot be fully understood outside this community. But within it, the religious language enables the act of faith to have a concrete content. Faith needs its language, as does every act of personality; without language it would be blind, not directed toward a content, not conscious of itself. This is the reason for the predominant significance of the community of faith. Only as a member of such a community (even if in isolation or expulsion) can man have a content for his ultimate concern. Only in a community of language can man actualize his faith.[4]

Tillich is concerned with the question of how a personal, individual thing like faith can ever be part of a communal thing like organized religion. Tillich points to the fact that personal experience of the Divine is something we, by force, translate into our own language, a language we get from our community, and thus even personal religiosity has a communal aspect. While this solves Tillichs problem, it alludes to our own. A persons experience of the Divine is mediated through the terms they possess for thinking about the Divine, terms they learned from their tradition and community. How much can our personal experience then tell us about the Divine? It seems like the answer is, perhaps, very little; anything we learn from our experience will have more to do with our language than with something external to us, something objective. The Modern Orthodox believer is thus left in a quandary, challenged and inspired by personal experience of the Divine, but unsure of what to make of it, of exactly what and how much it can really tell them.

The way out of this quandary may be in reversing our expectations, asking not What can my linguistic experience of the Divine tell me about the Divine?but What can my linguistic experience of the Divine tell me about my language?The answer to that question is much clearer. The fact of experiencing the Divine through our language means that the Divine is willing to be, or capable of being, expressed in our language. Thus our language, and the religious tradition it both is born out of and gives birth to, are vehicles through which I can connect to the Divine. Our experiences may not be able to tell us about the Divine, but maybe they dont need to. The Kotzker said that what is really important is not the Divine as it exists beyond us, but rather the Divine as we relate to it. Not whether there is a God, but whether we have a God.

[1] This is in contrast to the approach generally taken by Haredi thinkers. For more on this see the phenomenal chapter on popular theological works in Yoel Finkelmans Strictly Kosher Reading.

[2] AJ Heschel, A Passion For Truth, pg. 188; similar in S. Raz and E. Levin, The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, pg. 12. Also in Rav Shagar, Al Kapot HaManoul (Hebrew).

[3] The degree to which our language shapes our thought is hotly debated, but the fact that we need language to conceptualize abstract ideas, and the corresponding fact that all conceptualization happens in a language, seems inescapable.

[4] Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, pg. 23-24.