The Commandments and their Reasons as Hardware and Software: Toward a Materialist Understanding of Mitsvot

In this post I want to continue exploring new metaphors for talking about aspects of Judaism (an exploration I started here). Specifically, I want to look at what it might mean if we think of the commandments and their reasons (traditionally referred to as “ta’amei hamitsvot”) as analogous to hardware and software, respectively. This analogy will enable us to draw out and discuss various aspects of the commandments and their reasons, and the relationship between the two.

To clarify a little what I mean by the terms “hardware” and “software,” hardware is the physical devices we interact with in order to access software, while software, the thing we actually want to access, can only be accessed via hardware. I use my computer to access Microsoft Word; using Word is a goal that is only accessible via my computer. Similarly, once we say that the commandments have reasons (not uncontroversial in the history of Jewish thought), it makes sense to articulate reasons that can only be achieved via the commandments. If giving charity makes you a more generous person, “becoming a more generous person” is something that is only accessible via the generous act of giving charity. I therefore use charity to access “becoming a more generous person.”

However, while giving charity is one way of becoming a more generous person, it is certainly not the only way; similarly, my computer is not the only device with which I can access Word. We might therefore ask why we should use these specific pieces of hardware rather than any other. On one level, it’s worth noting that the question is not so fair. Sure you could use any device, but you have to use one, no matter which one it is. So you might justify the one that you use based on simply having to pick one, rather than any specific traits about it. Charity is as good a way as any to become a more generous person.

You also might justify your choice of hardware based on the fact that it is the one you have. Maybe you got it as a present, maybe it’s the one that all of your friends had, maybe you just found it lying on the curb and took it home; however it came to you, now you have it and it is yours. Barring significant issues with the device that interfere with its functioning, this alone is enough to justify using it, as opposed to switching to some other device. I have my phone, I like it, I identify with it, it’s mine. Sure the screen is cracked and the battery-life is stress-inducing, but I identify with its flaws as much as its functions. Moreover, having to pick out and purchase a new phone would be a difficult process.

This leads us toward Maimonides’s historicist conception of the commandments, and their relationship with the idolatrous rituals of ancient Israel’s neighbors. Maimonides argues that human nature cannot change rapidly, that it must be shifted gradually, and that God therefore gave the Israelites commandments that were the same or incredibly similar to the idolatrous forms of worship they were already familiar with. If the ancient Israelites wanted to “access” worship, they would inevitably turn to the “device” animal sacrifice, simply because it’s the one with which they were most familiar and comfortable, and so God accommodated this fact of human nature (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32). This, Maimonides argued, despite the fact that animal sacrifice has noticeable drawbacks, and prayer or silent meditation would work much better. Sacrifice worked, however, and it was the hardware they already had.

If Maimonides conception assumes the difficulty of changing “hardware,” it assumes  some more ease in changing software. Animal sacrifice used to run “worship pagan pantheon X” and was now being used to run “worship YHWH, the one god.” This holds true to our analogy to software, which was always replaced more easily than hardware, particularly now that even major upgrades and shifts in operating systems can be achieved via the internet.

This brings us to an important point: software is not self-justifying. I use my phone to access WhatsApp, but I don’t use WhatsApp just for the sake of using WhatsApp, I use it for communicating with other people. If a certain piece of software isn’t getting the job done, I am likely to replace it. Moreover, because software is replaced so easily, it is not as easy to hold onto it simply“because it’s mine,” as in the case of hardware.

The analogy to reasons for commandments here is a bit tricky, but I think also important. Commandments are, as I have said, intended for the sake of the reasons for the commandments. But are those reasons for anything outside themselves? I think they are. I think we should understand reasons for the individual commandments as pivoting around larger ideals, such as holiness, morality, covenant, etc. The reasons for individual commandments serve to give us “access” to the larger ideals, much the same way as the commandments themselves give us “access” to the reasons for the commandments.

This is important for the way it enables us to view the historic assertions of reasons for the commandments, some of which we have moved well away from today (for a good example of this regarding the laws of Niddah, see Jonah Steinberg’s “From a Pot of Filth to a Hedge of Roses”). If there is one reason to which a given commandment is meant to provide access, then debates and differences of opinion in regard to the reason for that commandment require deciding who is right and who is wrong. However, if we conceptualize the reasons for the commandments as tools for accessing the larger ideals, then different reasons can coexist without one needing to be “the right one.” Moreover, in changing historical circumstances, with the people already used to certain actions and thought processes, different reasons might be just what is necessary to access the same larger ideal. Whether the details of commandments are based on the ritual worship of the Israelites’ neighbors (Maimonides) or on strict symbolism (Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch), both reasons are part of shaping the life of the nation in relation to God (cf. Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Shemoneh Kevatsim, 2:54-57). Because the reasons are not ends in and of themselves, they can be replaced when they are not serving their function and we can change between them as necessary. Moreover, different people use their phones and computers for different things, and different people can perform the commandments for different reasons. People even generally use their hardware to access a variety of softwares, and there’s no reason that the commandments and their reasons could not work similarly.

By way of conclusion, I would like to take note of how this analogy structures the relationship between the commandments and their reasons. In a sense, it makes the reasons more primary. The commandments exist and are performed for the sake of the reasons. However, the reasons themselves serve larger ideals and are easily replaceable. The commandments themselves, on the other hand, have a significant presence in the life and laws of the people, and thus are not easily replaceable. This very real presence, and the difficulty it would create in trying to change the commandments, make the commandments more primary. Barring gradual change, the physical commandments are sticking around, while their reasons may shift. This emphasis on the primacy of the physical actions that make up the commandments in the historical life of the nation leads me to call this a materialist understanding of mitsvot. This approach also puts an emphasis on the shifting historical situation of the nation and the way it shapes the reasons for the commandments. The Jewish people have carried these actions with us through various contexts over the millennia, and we have been different in these various contexts. The commandments therefore have served, and continue to serve, different reasons at different times and for different people, just as different people use their hardware for different softwares.



Rav Shagar’s Purim Derashot – English Summaries [and Notes]


Pur Hu HaGoral

[This is the small book of Rav Shagar’s derashot on Purim. It’s one of the earlier works that was published, and thus is unfortunately not nearly as well put together as some of the more recent works,]



[There’s not a lot to the introduction but it’s worth noting because Rav Shagar himself wrote it, as opposed to many of his books that were published posthumously.]

In these drashot Amalek is seen as representative of the duality of human perception, and to some degree of human perception write large. Thus there are derashot that talk about the removal of all human categories.

Part of the goal of the book is to create a new religious language. In this Rav Shagar turned to kabbalistic texts because they provide a lot of room and material for interpretation. These texts around Purim deal with a lot of questions of human existence like providence, the contingency of existence, etc. Hence the midrashim that invoke Kohelet in context of Purim.

In the rest of the book, Amalek is seen as representing a Nietzschean Will to Power, there is a discussion of Hasidic join, and a lot of Rebbe Nahman.

The epilogue and the derashah on the canonization of the Megillah contradict the usage of “Aught” and “Naught” [translations of “יש” and “אין” following M. Fishbane’s “Sacred Attunement] in the rest of the derashot, where Amalek is connected with “Aught,” while in those two places Amalek is the disconnect between “Aught” and “Naught” and there is an “Absolute Aught” [“יש המוחלט”] beyond the “Naught.” These are essentially starting a new discussion.

[Practically, the contradiction is mainly whether the goal is to get to the “Naught” or the “Absolute Aught.”]


Between Remembrance and Remembrance – Shabbat and Amalek


Kohelet is bothered by the arbitrary nature of Chance, which the midrash sees as being due to the equivalence of Shabbat and Amalek: Bnei Yisrael are commanded to remember both. The midrash explains that one is a remembrance of emptiness and one of fullness, of meaning. This doesn’t solve Kohelet’s ultimate problem, however, which is that everything is eventually forgotten in eternity. Kohelet would just ignore this but for the reflectivity of Amalek, derived from the primordial sin. He cannot forget his finitude. Through drinking on Purim we get out of this reflective state, similar to the one found in the state of remembering to forget Amalek.


Kohelet was bothered by who would sit on his throne after him, by the possibility of a fool on the throne of God, which represents Divine providence. This is Amalek which keeps us from seeing the Divinity of providence, the reflective duality that divides between the Creator and the creation.


Shabbat is also connected to the throne of God in the liturgy. Shabbat is the symbol of God as Creation and Ruler of the world, reminding us that God controls everything. הכל בידי שמים. Shabbat reminds us not to get stuck in a causal mindset. When Bnei Yisrael didn’t keep shabbat by the manna, Amalek came and attacked them, due to how Bnei Yisrael didn’t see that everything is in the hands of Heaven.

Amalek is overcome by drunkenness, by getting beyond the divide between the “Rest” (מנוחה) of Shabbat and the “Work” (מלאכה) of the week. Thus there is no prohibition of work on Purim. On Shabbat, wine is drunk according to the measurement of Kiddush; On Purim there is no measure.


The midrash sees no difference between the remembrance of Amalek and Shabbat other than fullness, meaningfulness, as opposed to emptiness. These flow from a lack of knowledge, from that which cannot be known. But this itself can bring a person to self-acceptance (קבלת העצמי). [Self-acceptance is an important theme in Rav Shagar’s writings, one which will come up in a later derashah in these summaries.]

The difference is essentially about memory. Memory is the Divine eternity; things pass out of this world but exist there forever. There, Amalek exists as a conspicuous absence, while Shabbat is a Divine fullness.

This difference exists beyond the world, beyond thought and reason, accessible by the drinking of Purim.


The Knowing That Doesn’t Know

Chance, Fate, Providence, and Divine Chance are four ways of reading the Megillah, with different parts lending themselves to the different hermeneutics. This is the essential war of Amalek and Bnei Yisrael, over the question of God’s control of the world. Chance is about possibility. It could be any which way. Fate is about necessity. It could not be any other way. Fate receives its sense of arbitrariness by virtue of having no reason. Thus is the Divine Will. Providence is well reasoned, coming not from the Divine Will but from the Divine Wisdom. Divine Chance comes from the Divine Infinitude, beyond all possible reason, where the possible becomes essential. Fate is God’s Will, Providence from God’s Wisdom; Beyond and combining both is the knowing that doesn’t know. This is Divine Chance as a form of providence, the ultimate defeat of Amalek, who strive to create Chance the possible. In the Divine Infinite, the monistic reality, the possible becomes the essential, Will and Wisdom are united, there is no separation between chance and providence.

There is thus no meaning to the question of why something is the way it is. Everything exists as it is, without any external, transcendent, justification or cause, simply out of the Divine Freedom. A person can reach this level in drunkenness, beyond the human realm of reason and justification. Accepting the chance of the Divine Source, the unknown which is not an absence.

[To some degree, when working with a Kabbalistic concept of the Divine Infinite, any and all ideas like “wisdom”, “providence,” “good,” are limiting factors, attempts to work within a very specific, very human, framework. The Divine Infinite includes this framework, perhaps, but it is so much more than this framework, and thus it must, by definition, manifest as “chance,” as that which cannot be fit into the normal framework.]


Amalek as the Will to Power

Haman attempted a Nietzschean reach into the infinitude that precedes the Good/Evil binary by way of the casting lots. Thus there is a parallel “Haman of Holiness” (המן דקדושה), reaching beyond current structures and values of Judaism into the infinitude for the sake of innovation/renewal (חידוש). [All this so far is based on various writings of the Baal HaTanya.]

Eradicating Amalek is the ultimate realization of the subject-self of Israel [Rav Hutner]. This is very similar to the making ultimate of the self that Haman was negatively attempting. The difference is the subject’s position in regards to God. For Haman, the self essentially replaces God as Ultimate; With the eradication of Amalek, Israel remains humble before God, though the Haman of Holiness goes further than that.

[I’m not convinced the combination of Rav Hutner and the Baal HaTanya works as Rav Shagar clearly thought it did.]


The Mystery of Disguise


Yaakov had to deceive Yitzchak because the only way to succeed in this world, the World of Falsehood (עלמא דשקרא), is through deception [Rav Tsadok]. Thus Yaakov disguised himself as Esav. However, Esav disguised himself as the Yaakov, the man of the bet midrash, by asking his father about halakhic minutia [Midrash Tanhuma]. Esav’s disguise is not a conscious one, however. He is not intentionally deceiving his father so much as being inauthentic to himself. When Yaakov disguises himself as Esav, he is knowingly embracing inauthentic religiosity, as participating in a shared religious discourse, in a shared set of rituals, in the only way to function and be understood in this world.

[This represents a turn from many of Rav Shagar’s other writings which have a strong emphasis on personal truth and authenticity. It suggests that this derashah may be from his later, more postmodern, thought. He seems to have become more caught up in and embraced the way we can never really succeed in becoming unreflective, always living in alienation from ourselves. But as these derashot are not dated, it’s hard to know definitively.]


Drinking on Purim conveys the Divine abundance to the negative aspects of reality (סטרא אחרא), in an intentionally minor and unconscious way [Arizal]. It does this by connecting us to the a-logical Divine infinitude where Good/Bad is meaningless.


Whereas Yom Kippur (יום הכיפורים) is an attempt to escape this world into the Infinite, Purim (פורים) is an attempt to live with the Infinite in this world. That’s why Purim is the holier day and Yom Kippur is only “like Purim” (כפורים).


Bnei Yisrael are inherently finite, as are all things including the Torah, but the God will sustain Bnei Yisrael infinitely. That is why the lot fell on Adar,  which as the last month of the year signifies transience and finitude, which is why Haman thought he could destroy the Jews. Hence the only Purim and Yom Kippur, which point to finitude, will remain in the messianic era [Based on the Maharal]. All senses of Good/Evil, all rites and ritual structures are just constructs of a certain historical period. On Purim we live outside of history via carnivalesque drinking and behavior.

[The shared concept in all of these sections is that the world of our experience and cognition is a very limited construct, especially when held up against the Divine Infinite. Within that framework, everything necessarily functions according to rules and languages, systems of signifiers that do not apply beyond the realm of our experience and cognition. Living with an awareness of this is the experience of Yaakov Avinu as described in the first piece. The next two focus on Purim as time of somehow experiencing this unlimitedness within the bounds of our world. The last piece applies this idea to the realm of history, and says that the world of our experience, guided by the laws and languages of the Torah, only exists within certain historical bounds, beyond which it simply does not apply.]


They Accepted it Anew in the Days of Aḥashverosh

The Torah was forced on the Jews at Har Sinai, creating an internal, oedipal, process where a person is bound to the Torah even as, or even by virtue of the fact that, they rebel against it [Based on the Maharal]. The Torah could not have been given otherwise, due to the alienation and reflective duality that have characterized humanity since the primordial sin, where rebellious transgression shattered the unselfconscious unity humanity lived in. This state will only be overcome in the Messianic Era, not by a return to the unselfconscious state but to a state that maintains both the reflective duality and the unselfconscious unity [based on Rav Simha Bunim of Peshischa]. The Torah will be revealed as the very nature and will of humanity. We can experience this state here and now through the drunkenness of Purim.


The Composition of the Megillah and the Redemption of Purim

The megillah is something between Written and Oral Torah. Its inclusion in the written canon was dreaminess and justified via a derashah, the classic mechanism of the Oral Torah. Meanwhile, the megillah text becomes a source for derashot and has halakhic rules regarding שירטוט and תפירה, similar to a Torah scroll. It, of all post-Mosaic prophecy, will outlast this historical period into the Messianic Era. [Each of these points is based on a different midrash or halakhic source.]

“Esther is the end of all miracles.” Specifically, those miracles that have the absoluteness and objectivity that requires being written down. Writing is confined to the realm of the signifier, the absolute and concrete. Speech gives the audience access to the speaker, the subjective signified.

Olam HaZeh, the period when Amalek reigns, is characterized by a dissonance between the concrete world and the hidden Divine. Thus the defeat of Amalek in Megillat Esther is the revelation that what seems like Chance is actually Divine decree, or, on a higher level, Divine Chance. This is the absolute redemption. This is the manifestation of the Absolute Aught, beyond the Naught that bounds the Aught.

This is achieve when faith, normally subjective, becomes objectified in the faith of the other. When you believe in the freedom of the other, qua subject, you can have a conversation. This conversation allows for the presence of the Absolute Aught, the true subject, from beyond the Naught of the transcendence of the subject. This becomes objectified by the other as alienated, concrete, signification.

[I would connect this to Michael Wyschogrod’s critique of Martin Buber in The Body of Faith. Buber sees God as the Eternal Thou, always a subject and never an object. Wyschogrod argues that being real and present requires have a personality, a describable aspect. It requires being at times not a subject, but an object.

On a practical level, this would seemingly look like accepting the fact that you are, in whatever way, an object, not just a subject. “Accepting the self” in this sense is actually a broad and important theme throughout Rav Shagar’s writings.

However, all of this makes sense as an explanation of the idea as it shows up here. In a separata derashah, “Epilogue – Faith: Aught or Naught?”, the idea is more clearly laid out as being about intersubjectivity. See the note there for more.]

So too the Megillah becomes an object via the attention of the Sages, turning from speech to text due to the gaze of the other.

[In an intersubjective sense, the Sages took it to be objectively true that the Megillah was a part of the canon and should be written down, and thus it was so for them.]

Openness to the other is beyond thought and reason, and is achieved in the drunkenness of Purim.


Sparks of Fire – The Joy of Purim

The essence of Purim is reversal. “ונהפוך הוא.” “סופן נפוץ בתחילתן.” The joy of Purim is not the absence of sadness but occurs in the presence of it specifically. Whereas the joy of the Holidays is based on transcendent meaning and life-fulfillment, the joy of Purim is based on the Divine Infinite, which is beyond the created order, and this is often manifest in pessimism and in hard time. In fact, the highest infinite Divine is beyond such categories, and specifically is revealed in that which ignores and violates normal religious expectations. Hence the Megillah represents the highest level of the Divine, even though it ends with the Jews as subject of Aḥashverosh and it does not contain Divine names because Divine names are part of the normal symbolic order of Divine manifestation and Jewish victory is the normal Divine manifestation in History. The ecstasy of Purim flows from the recognition of the conditional nature of all our normal conceptions, nullifies before the Divine. This ecstasy is beyond both order and chaos, both “הדר קבלוה” and “עד דלא ידע.”


Breslav-Style Derashot

[These next three derashot are in various ways based on Rav Shagar’s deep relationship with the texts of Rebbe Nahman of Breslav. The first is an explication of “The Story of the Palace,” Rebbe Nahman’s version of a parable that, as Rav Shagar points out, is found in Arabian Nights. The second is a “purim-torah” that is written in the style of Lekutei Moharan, and is clearly humorous while simultaneous teaching ideas similar to those found throughout the other derashot. The third is a story in the style of Rabbe Nahman’s stories, but composed by Rav Shagar himself.]


The Story of the Palace – The Joke as Nullification of the Aught

[This is just Rav Shagar’s explanation of the story, not the story itself.]

“Eros and Thanatos walk hand in hand.”In “The Story of The Palace” (סיפור הפלטין) the hero mimics what he is supposed to do, in place of actually doing it, and yet is rewarded as if he had done it properly. This is in contrast to the original ending of the story where the hero was rewarded with imitation money, a fitting recompense. Rebbe Nahman saw himself as a failed tsadik, a clown and a fake. The task recognizes the falsity in his existence, and in being conscious of this expresses the Divine. Never is this more true than in the fictitious tsadik. Recognizing the fake, false, nature of institutional religion is the nullification of the Aught (ביטול היש) that is inherent in humor and jokes. This עבודה is not simple or easy, however, which is why the joker gets paid as much as the hard worker, as his work is at least as hard. [Rav Shagar makes a similar point about the difficulty of truly accepting the fictitious nature of your self/reality in an essay on Rav Tsadok’s approach to Teshuva in his book “שובי נפשי.”]


“Give Liquor to the Perishing, and Wine to the Bitter-hearted.” – Purim “Torah”

[This jumble of sources and verses who’s off not just Rav Shagar’s breadth of knowledge and familiarity with Rav Nahman’s style, but also his creativity in the linguistic play of connecting the various sources and ideas.

What follows is my own understanding of what is going on behind the various connections and ideas, many of which are far from explicit.]

The absence of God in suffering (ייסורים), Naught, is found in pulling away from Torah (ביטול תורה), which paradoxically is keeping it (ביטולה היא קיומה). This is the incredibly high level where you merit freedom (חירות/חופש). This level of Naught is when the Torah is hidden (מוסתר), creating the situation for the revelation of the mysteries of Torah (סתרי תורה). When Yaakov dressed as Esav, this was the hiddenness of the mysteries of Torah. This disguising (התחפשות) lays Esav bare (נחשף) while freeing (חופש)Yaakov. This was the sin of Bnei Yisrael at the Golden Calf, with which they covered (מסכה) themselves, “hiding” from God. The correction (תיקון) for this was the Keruvim whose wings cover, hide, the Torah, just as Amalek is a wing covering God’s presence. All this is the עבודה of the אובד ה׳, who serves God without intellect, via ביטול תורה.


A Story of Aught and Naught that were Reversed

[This is another piece that shows off Rav Shagar’s averseness in the style of Rebbe Nahman and the sources of the Jewish tradition. Here it is in the style of Rebbe Nahman’s stories, and thus my interpretation, which follows, is somewhat tentative.]

A unified consciousness exists until it is suggested that things could be different. This creates alienation and estrangement. A person attempts to overcome this by empty praxis, by wholeheartedly devoting themselves to a totally external, heteronomous, identity, hoping that it turns out to be who they are. As a rule, this does not work. But sometimes, in a moment of unselfconsciousness, the praxis becomes a revelation of the inner self. “אור דאבא שמאיר לנוקבא.”


Epilogue – Faith: Aught or Naught?

The Hasidic reading of “היש ה׳ בקרבנו אם אין?” is that the Israelites were asking if there faith was on the level of Aught or Naught. Naught means totally subjective faith, which maintains the subject/object divide that is represented by Amalek. It is conscious of the conditioned nature of existence, bounded by Naught. In the Naught, everything is possible, including faith.

Above the Naught is the Absolute Aught. This is formed by dialogue,by “intersubjectivity.” Faith in the Faith of the Other provides both subjects with objective status. Only thus is Amalek overcome.

[Rav Shagar here essentially goes over the concluding idea of the essay “The Composition of the Megillah and the Redemption of Purim,” but he adds a twist that was unmentioned in that essay (unfortunately, this collection of derashot does not include the original dates of the individual derashot, so it’s impossible to tell if the change is due to an actual change in Rav Shagar’s thought or if the two derashot should be understood in light of each other). Here, Rav Shagar chalks the newly-acquired objective status to “intersubjectivity.” This is a term from Phenomenology that essentially refers to when two or more individuals take something to be objective within a certain framework. “We take these truths to be self evident..” So starts the US constitution. In those words, the authors laid down the rules for US civil discourse, wherein the ideas that follow that opening are taken to be objectively true, regardless of their status outside that discourse. So too in a conversation between two individuals, the fact of each of the individuals existing as a free subject capable of thought and belief is taken, at least implicitly, to be objectively true, otherwise the conversation isn’t really happening.]


She’arit Emunah

[This is one of the most recent collections of Rav Shagar’s derashot to be published, with derashot for all of the holidays of the year. Below is a summary of the derashah for Purim.]


The Jest of the Megillah

[This derashah was given in the wake of the decision to unilaterally disengage from the Gaza Strip, and Rav Shagar references current events not just throughout the footnotes, but also in the body of the derashah itself, in the conclusion of the appendix.]

The Megillah is a book of satire and parody, aimed at Aḥashverosh more than at Haman, and most especially at Law. Aḥashverosh gets legal advisors to resolve a marital spat, and enacts a totally pointless law in the process. The dark absurdity of the parody is present in the way everyone follows along with the law, no matter how evil.  The parody comes from despair. The ability to laugh at all this flows not from the salvation but from the way God is seen to be in control. This does not erase the very real human experience of fear and suffering, however; it ultimately only heightens its absurdity. This is the בטחון that doesn’t assume that everything will go well, in fact often the opposite, God’s Will is not logical and human expectations are meaningless in relation to it. The reason-less Divine Will is met by a similarly reason-less human response. “ככה”.

Appendix: The Law and the Jew

Aḥashverosh’s servants are bothered by the fact that Mordechai is a Jew, because Jews are beholden to a different law and authority, and thus undermine the law. This is the root of anti-Semitism. Mordechai participates in the law and saves the life of the sovereign, but he also refuses to bow to Haman, directly violating the law of the King. This is disloyal loyalty. he’s not simply a lawbreaker. So too Esther, who is generally obedient, but comes before the king in violation of the Law. Vashti, in contrast, is simply a lawbreaker. This is why Haman made a law to kill all of the Jews instead of just executing Mordechai. The law fights via legislation. the Megillah thus reveals the violence inherent in the absolute nature of legislation. It is self-justifying. It must be followed by virtue of its existence, simply because it is the law. Legislation is a more egregious act of violence than breaking the law.

[The raw pathos exposed here is quite telling regarding the Religious Zionist community writ large. Rav Shagar was probably towards the left end of the RZ political spectrum in his lifetime, and yet the last few sentences could have been written by the “hilltop youth” of our own day. This is a community (who feel) ravaged and betrayed by their government. Despite this, Rav Shagar’s responses to the disengagement, found throughout his writings from the period, display a vastly different response than many parts of the RZ community today. This contrast is damning, as it highlights that the more morally questionable responses are in no way unavoidable for the responsible individuals.]


A Time of Freedom

[This is the book of Rav Shagar’s derashot and essays for Pesaḥ, but the below essay discusses Purim as well.]


“Engraved on the Tablets” – Between Purim and Pesaḥ

Pesaḥ celebrates the time when we were freed from egypt, and as such raises all kinds of important questions about freedom.

Sartre presents the problem of freedom as twofold: 1. There is no essential nature. A person most often is mindless. 2. “Man is sentenced to liberty.” Man must choose, but has no way to do that, given the constructed or conditional nature of all values. All man can do is flip a coin.

Rav Kook saw Freedom as returning to one’s essential self. Freedom as the ability to live according to internal, existential truth. It’s a function of identity, of who you are.

Rav Kook can actually be read as supporting a Sartrean freedom to create your own identity. You have an identity but you have the freedom to choose it or not. This is the real meaning of Brit and Devotion. This makes the Brit less the traumatic thing you’re born into and instead something you choose wholeheartedly, by choosing to identify with that which is already your identity. This ability creates true happiness and meaning.

[The footnotes point out that Rav Shagar explains Rav Kook differently in his essay on conceptions of Freedom that appears in Kelim Shevurim and then in an updated form in Luḥot U’Shivrei HaLuḥot. I think the reading here is a little forced. Rav Kook had a very strong concept of the inner essence of a person.]

It’s possible this is what Rebbe Nahman alludes to in a clipped and cryptic passage: Pesaḥ represents freedom as the ability to express our essential selves. Purim represents the freedom to choose our selves. Thus Purim is a necessary step on the road to Pesaḥ.

[Rav Shagar does not clarify the connection to Purim, but presumably this is related to one or both of two things: 1. The wearing of costumes on Purim may be taken to symbolize the ability of choose/craft and embrace a new identity. 2. Many of Rav Shagar’s derashot on Purim have a focus on the ability to get beyond the current construct, the framework we are currently working from within, into the Divine Infinite, and from there to see the possibilities of, and perhaps even to create, a new framework.

Meanwhile, Pesah occupies a very clear spot in Rav Shagar’s thought as a moment of the transferring and engendering of tradition. It’s a time when families gather together to participate in tradition, to discuss and create their link to the past and the future. It is serving in this derashah to symbolize the ability to accept one’s inner essence, which one has inherited from their surroundings and family, and to express freedom from within that framework.]

Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law

Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law


Revelation presents a problem, one that it has been acknowledged, discussed, and struggled over since Plato. In short, if revelation provides information that can be discovered via reason, then revelation is unnecessary. However, if it provides information that contradicts reason, then why should reasonable beings accept it. The two prongs of this discussion have brought forth many answers and responses from within the Jewish tradition.

While not dealing with this problem explicitly, Rambam lays out an approach to the tension between reason and revelation in the Moreh Nevukhim[1]. In discussing various approaches to the origin of the universe (MN 2:25), Rambam says, with some reservation, that the true opinion is the one that is most philosophically compelling, and that were it to contradict the plain sense of verses of the Torah, then those verses would have to be reinterpreted. This flows logically from his belief that the Torah was very limited in what it could discuss due to the primitive and pagan beliefs of the Israelites who left Egypt. Thus the plain sense of the Torah was designed to convey beliefs and truths that could be accepted by the masses, while the wise man (read: the philosopher) would be able to plumb its depths and discover the truth, with a capital “T”. The problem with this approach is that it seems to indicate that the Torah is primarily aimed at the more philosophically inclined, with everyone else being hopelessly doomed to misunderstand the Torah. Only the philosophical elite can truly understand the Torah.

In the third volume of Mikhtav Me’Eliyahu, Rav Eliyahu Dessler tackles a similar discussion. Rav Dessler says that, initially, the Torah was only accessible through the inner-life of man. It was through introspection and developing ethics and spirituality that a person connected to the Torah; this was the path of our forefathers. Then Moshe delivered the Torah from Heaven to Earth. Ever since Sinai, the Torah is accessible in our external, practical, lives. This is because the Torah is now manifest in mitsvot, in commandments that are fulfilled equally no matter who is performing them. While certain people have a natural inclination towards philosophy, spirituality, or introspection, all people are equal before the law.

Returning to the Moreh Nevukhim, it is actually easy to identify this ethos in one of the later chapters (MN 3:34). Discussing the way commandments were given to help with the self-perfection of Man, Rambam confronts the problem of individuality. Given the way people vary, it is inevitable that there will be a person for whom a certain law is not only not helpful, but it actually harmful in terms of their development. To put in terms of the text of the Torah, a person might be developed enough that they do not need the original plain sense of the text, but not so philosophical that they immediately grasp the divine Truth behind it. For this person, the text can only be confusing. So too in the case of the law; even to their detriment, the wise are equal to everyone else when it comes to following the commandments.

The Kuzari presents a similar idea as part of a polemic against the Karaites (3:39). In contrast to the Karaites, for whom each person must understand Torah according to their own intellect interpretive biases, Rabbinic Jews all follow the same tradition of interpretation. This not only serves to create unified practice throughout the entire nation, it also creates unity of practice throughout a person’s life, as they follow the tradition as opposed to their own ever-changing opinion. Not only are all Jews equal before the law, but all Jews share in the same law.

More than Matan Torah (a traditional term meaning the “the giving of the Torah”) was the giving of the law, it was the creation of a national identity through the law. While the nation shared a familial and cultural history, we were not truly united until they received the law at Har Sinai. From then on, we shared an identity based around our connection to the Torah, based on our connection to ‘א through His law. It is this identity that has been our guiding light throughout history[2], keeping us united in times of immense hardship. This Shavuot, let us reaffirm this identity, and let it keep guiding us in our future.

[1] For more on the ideas of this paragraph, see my discussion of the Torah speaking in the language of man here.

[2] This brings to mind Ehad HaAm’s famous statement, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

Rav Saadiah Gaon on Trusting a Prophet and the Place of the Intellect in Religion

Rav Saadiah Gaon on Trusting a Prophet and the Place of the Intellect in Religion

Rambam begins the eighth chapter of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah with a discussion of why the Israelites believed in Moshe. He rejects the position that they believed on the basis of the miracles they witnessed in Egypt and instead says that they believed Moshe because they witnessed Moshe being spoken to by ‘א at Har Sinai (notably, they first part of this statement clearly contradicts Shemot 14:31, but the second part works well with Shemot 19:9). In this he stands directly agains the position of Rav Saadiah Gaon in his work Emunot VeDeot, where he states that the reason Moshe was believed, the reason any prophet was believed, was because of the miracles they performed.

Rambam objected to this approach because he saw it as a manifestation of a larger trend where religion is seen as a tool for the betterment of life in this world (See also Hilkhot Tefillin 5:4). For RaSaG this issue is a non-starter, because while the emphasis was not on this world, RaSaG did see the mitsvot as being essentially for the sake of mankind. He begins the third essay of Emunot VeDeot by stating that ‘א created the world as an act of kindness, and that the giving of the mitsvot was a similar act of kindness, intended to enable the earning of reward, a motivation Rambam was very against. RaSaG therefore had no problem affirming the idea that a miracle might be the basis for Bnei Yisrael trusting a prophet.

Throughout the third section of Emunot VeDeot RaSaG develops this concept of the prophet as someone who proves the divinity of his message by performing miracles. He says that a prophet must predict the miracle beforehand, in order that it be clear that he performed the miracle. He also says that a prophet cannot be an angel, only a person, because people don’t know the capabilities of angels, and so the angel might be doing the miracle of his own power and authority, not ‘א’s. RaSaG develops a complete theory of prophetic confirmation by miracle.

He also, therefore, discusses the limits of this model. He asserts that a prophet cannot lie, because even if a prophet demonstrated that he had a divine message, who could then trust that he would transmit the message faithfully, and creatively interprets Tanakh to fit this model. He also discusses the possibility, in his discussion of the opinions that say the Torah of Moshe was already nullified, that a prophet might arise and perform miracles but say that the Torah of Moshe should not be followed. He rejects this, giving a more formal description of the process of a prophet giving instructions to the nation(3:8).

RaSaG says that, counter-intuitively, the prophet does not perform the miracle, thus establishing his authority, and then proceed to deliver his now-authoritative message. Instead, step one is that the prophet delivers his message. Then, the message is evaluated based on whether it contradicts both the intellect and the received tradition(2 of RaSaG’s 4 sources of knowledge from his introduction). If the message of the prophet contradicts either of these, it is rejected immediately. The people do not ask the prophet for a miraculous proof, nor do they care if he provides one of his own volition.

Importantly, by “the intellect” RaSaG does not mean logic, but the plainly obvious, the truths that are inherent in the human mind, including moral truths. The reason for putting so much faith in the power of the intellect, to the point of letting it reject potential revelation, is that for RaSaG both revelation and intellect has the same source. Both are given to man by ‘א. The received tradition is comprised of the written and oral traditions of the people, which of course themselves were revealed to Moshe via this process, and so were also subject to rejection if they contradicted the intellect. Thus perhaps the most important arbiter in accepting prophecy as divine is the human intellect.

Nowadays, we don’t necessarily believe that there are certain divine truths inherent in the intellect of man. In the age of globalization and the internet we are more than aware that not everyone automatically agrees with us, that the ideas we think of as plainly obvious are in fact culturally conditioned. However, our intellect remains without a doubt a gift from ‘א. He created man with the mental complexity to create societies and improve the world, with the intellectual tools to realize the Image of God and the blessings He gave to man (Bereishit 1:26-30). Thus while we cannot necessarily make the clear statement that our intellect is the final arbiters of the truth of revelation, we absolutely should be using our intellect to grasp revelation critically. Rav Saadiah Gaon doesn’t just invite us to analyze the torah with our minds, he enjoins us to do so, saying that the explication and realization of the Torah is only possible through the use of the intellect (3:10). We have an obligation to approach the Torah with our minds alert, ready to grasp and explore the will and wisdom of ‘א.

Maimonide’s View on Divine Providence, Acc. to Moshe Halbertal

From Maimonides: Life and Thought by Moshe Halbertal (Princeton, 2014) pp. 338-341


“Maimonides’ position departs in no uncertain terms from the traditional view of providence, which believes that God punishes the wicked and rewards the ordinary (that is, those who are neither wicked nor virtuous). According to Maimonides, the wicked and the ordinary, constituting most of humanity, are relegated to happenstance. But despite this dramatic divide, the concept he presents has an internal religious logic: providence is not a basic given and does not apply to all people; it is, rather, something achieved only by a few. Throughout existence, God attends only to species as a whole, but perfected human beings merit individual providence. How that individual providence operates, however, is subject to widely differing interpretations.


The conservative reading of the Guide offers one such interpretation. The causal structure is what controls all existence and the fate of most men, but perfected men are subject to God’s special attention, and He exercises His will to protect them from the harms and misfortunes that befall other creatures. On this reading, nature and wisdom are maintained with respect to reality as a whole, but when necessary, divine will bursts through and acts within it. If that is so, Maimonides rejected the [Islamic] Ash’arite position, according to which God’s willful providence governs every individual and event to the point of negating the entire causal order. But he also rejects the Aristotelian position, which sees the causal order as the exclusive principle governing all existence, wicked and perfected alike. According to the conservative reading, Maimonides’ view of providence parallels his views of creation and prophecy. With respect to creation, he preserved a necessary, fundamental element of creation in time-the creation of existence ex nihilo – and allows for the action of divine will when necessary. With respect to prophecy, he interpreted the phenomenon as a natural one but left room for a supernatural exercise of will in the case of Moses’ prophecy. The same structure can be seen in connection with providence. The causal order applies everywhere except with regard to perfected people, who are protected by God’s will. Accordingly, the principle of causal wisdom is not the exclusive explanation for what happens in the universe, and it is limited in areas related to the principles of religion-creation, prophecy, and  providence.


The Guide’s philosophical readers, for their part – that is, those who understood it as affirming eternal preexistence-took a very different view of the idea that perfected people were subject to divine providence on an individual basis. On their reading, which seems to have better internal, textual logic, perfected individuals are not providentially overseen by means of divine intervention volitionally bestowed only on them. Providential oversight is afforded them, rather, by reason of causal reality itself, and it can be accounted for in terms of wisdom, not will. The perfection of the individuals who enjoy providence is commensurate with their apprehension of God and the world, as Maimonides emphasized, and that apprehension affords them two advantages that distinguish them from other men and beasts. Those advantages are theirs without any intervention of the divine will.


The first advantage is that of a place in the world to come; their souls do not perish and they are not eliminated from the world. Like Aristotle, Maimonides believed that providence implies the possibility of eternity and stability inherent in the causal order. That capacity for eternity is granted to those who attain knowledge and become bound to the active intellect; accordingly, providence – bestowed, in Aristotle’s view, only on sorts whose eternity is ensured – pertains to perfected individuals.


Samuel Ibn Tibbon read Maimonides this way, understanding him to hold the view that individual providence did not involve willful divine intervention in an individual’s life. In a letter on providence that he sent to Maimonides (and that Maimonides never answered), he afforded a philosophical interpretation to the concept of prophecy as it appeared in the Guide. In his view, misfortunes befell perfected people in the same way as others, and God did not intervene to free them from poverty, illness, or travail. But because they adhere to the proper goal of apprehending the intelligibles, which assures them eternal life, they do not regard these events as troubles. They do not consider such things as loss of wealth, illness, or handicap to be losses, for they are bound to what truly matters and what assures a person eternal life. Accordingly, in addition to the eternal life these individuals are assured of, they experience providence in their day-to-day lives, expressed not in the form of events that happen to them but as a profound change in consciousness.


The second advantage that apprehension affords to individuals overseen by providence was formulated by Moses Ibn Tibbon, Samuel’s son. Unlike his father, Moses held that those perfected in thought were protected from troubles in a practical way, but not because God willfully directed reality to their benefit, as the conservative reading would have it. Rather, the knowledge of the world that these people acquired allowed them to live better-protected lives, and that is their second natural advantage: they know how to foresee risks and properly assess situations. Moreover, their focus on the higher goal of knowing God frees them from the mental and physical woes that ensue when a person’s life is controlled by his desires. Perfected individuals are distinguished, then, by being providentially protected from the afflictions of the world to a greater extent than other people, bur in the understanding associated with a preexisting universe, that distinctiveness does not entail a miraculous departure from the causal order. The protection and endurance simply reflect the fact that the causal order itself does well for the good.


Conservative and philosophical readers agree that Maimonides’ great innovation here was the idea that providence was something afforded only to individuals and that other people were given over to chance. He thereby rejected the position of the [Islamic] Kalam, which saw divine intervention in every event that transpired in the world, and dissented from the traditional Jewish view that individual providence governed all people. According to Maimonides, God’s presence and providence, for most people, are mediated via the causal order that He created, an order to which people are subject. The dispute between the conservative and philosophical readings pertains to how the providence extended to perfected individuals should be understood: is it effected through willful divine intervention, as the [Islamic]  Kalam understood it to be, or is it built into the causal order itself, to be understood in terms of eternity and immortality, as Aristotle understood providence with respect to other species? The philosophical reading affords Maimonides’ acceptance of reality, emphatically declared in the discussion of theodicy, a more profound meaning. Existence itself, structured through divine wisdom, corresponds to the varying degrees of human virtue, responding to differences among people without any need for willful divine intervention.”