Internal and Absolute: A Close Reading of Rav Shagar

A lot is made of the fact that Rav Shagar consciously and vigorously embraces subjectivity within Judaism, even going so far as to champion the “postmodern” claim that, subjectively speaking, there is no objective truth. The problem with this is that “subjective” and “objective” are slippery words, used in a variety of different ways. If you consider how Westerners often use them, it doesn’t quite match the picture that emerges from Rav Shagar’s writings. Below, I want to demonstrate this with a careful reading of a passage from one of Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah sermons.

For context, the essay deals with the Baal HaTanya’s embrace of an alienated observance of mitsvot in contrast to Rav Kook’s focus on authentically observing the mitsvot. The paragraph on which we will focus is Rav Shagar’s summation of Rav Kook’s position, which he sees as ideal, as opposed to the more realistic approach of the Baal HaTanya, which he explicates throughout the rest of the essay.

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Setting Up the Binary

To get started, I just want to go through and note the adjectives which Rav Shagar uses to discuss truth, reality, command, etc. They are indicated in bold.

Ideally, an individual’s inner truth will match the objective truth. This would mean that his inner life burns strongly, while his sense of obligation to this inner life is unassailable. He understands his inner life as absolute, objective reality. Such a person’s inner life stops feeling relative, and gains the strength of an external command; it obligates him no less than external truth would. (Leha’ir Et Hapetahim, 55)

Rav Shagar’s use of the adjectives “inner,” “external,” “objective,” “unassailable,” “relative,” and “absolute” lays out a familiar dichotomy between “objective” and “subjective” (despite the fact that latter term does not appear). This dichotomy is represented by the table below (for reasons that will become clear, I have headed the columns with “Internal” and “External” rather than “Subjective” and “Objective”).

Internal

External

Subjective

Objective

Relative

?

?

Absolute, Unassailable

On the one side we have that which is subjective-internal-relative, while on the other we have what is objective-external-absolute. This fits how we generally think of these categories. “Objective truth” refers to truths about the world outside ourselves, which are “absolute” in that they exceed the whims of any individual. These are what people often call “facts,” and they do not care about the individual’s whims, desires, or personal situation. “Subjective truth,” on the other hand, refers to truths about the individual and her inner world. These truths are specific to a given individual, often to the point where they could not be explained to another person, and they are generally seen as much less absolute, more whims than facts. (While I take “unassailable” to be essentially synonymous with “absolute,” I am less certain that “relative” should be understood as their antonym. I have therefore left them in separate rows, without clear opposites).

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Crossing the Streams

While Rav Shagar is clearly using these same categories, he does not maintain the strict dichotomies we laid out above. In the first have of the paragraph the two columns are separate, but coinciding. “Ideally, an individual’s inner truth will match the objective truth.” Internal, subjective truth would correspond to external, objective truth, while still remaining distinct from it.

However, as Rav Shagar proceeds, things become more complicated. “He understands his inner life as absolute, objective reality. Such a person’s inner life stops feeling relative, and gains the strength of an external command; it obligates him no less than external truth would.” Here the differences between the two columns begin to collapse. The distinction between internal and external still remains, but suddenly the internal side gains the attributes of the external side, yielding the following table:

Internal

External

Objective

Objective

Relative

?

Absolute, Unassailable

Absolute, Unassailable

Suddenly the individual’s inner life is seen as something that far exceeds them. Truths about the individual, are also “objective” and “absolute.” In this case, then the definition of “objective truth” offered above, “truths about the world outside ourselves, which are “absolute” in that they exceed the whims of any individual,” becomes untenable. Therefore, without being so bold as to try and redefine “objective” in a broad sense, I want to try and trace its contours as they emerge from this discussion. This should give us a sense of what Rav Shagar means when he uses the term.

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Toward Definitions

Given the above, I will begin by laying out new definitions of internal an external truth. External truth refers to truths about the world outside ourselves, which are “objective” “absolute” in that they exceed the whims of any individual. However, internal truth is not entirely dissimilar, referring as it does to truths that are relative to the individual, but which can be “objective” and “absolute” in that they exceed the whims of any individual. However, internal truths can also be “subjective” and “non-absolute,” as Rav Shagar notes in the immediately following paragraph.

Unfortunately, we live in a situation where our inner lives lack strength and force. Our inner lives, and our relation to them, are prone to ups and downs. The dullness of our inner lives makes them susceptible to all kinds of outside influences, and they therefore feel inauthentic. This is the reason that the Shulhan Arukh, rather than our inner lives, is the basis of our religious obligations. It anchors our lives absolutely. (Ibid.)

The fact is, our inner lives are highly fluid, rising and falling constantly, rarely if ever stable. They thus cannot always be a source of absolute, objective truth. Navigating this experience is one of the most common themes of Rav Shagar’s writings (his most thorough treatment of the topic is the entirety of the book Shuvi Nafshi, but particularly the chapter on Rav Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin; the best English treatment available is the chapter “Freedom and Holiness” in Faith Shattered and Restored).

To return to our initial text, we should note that it seems to essentially identify the two terms we have been using in unison: “objective” and “absolute.” If “subjective” and “objective” are opposite, then what would make something “subjective” as opposed to “objective” is that we take it to be non-absolute, and vice versa. For the sake of consistency, here’s a table:

Subjective

Objective

Non-Absolute

Absolute

Notably, this whole table could describe inner truths, some of which may be objective/absolute and some of which may be subjective/non-absolute. External truth is always objective/absolute, rather than subjective/non-absolute, while internal truth can be either. The distinction between subjective and objective is not something that separates the individual from the world, as the dividing line actually falls within the individual herself

Broader Context

It’s worth noting that the idea of truth that is absolute but also appears only to the individual not only exists within Judaism, it is actually critical to any revealed religion. With the exception of some sort of public revelation, all prophecy is an absolute truth revealed within the prophet’s inner self. This truth is generally taken to be universal, rather than individual, but prophecy is certainly a step toward what Rav Shagar is talking about.

Of course, not everyone agrees about the nature of prophecy. For Maimonides, prophecy is something more like perfect knowledge of the world and God, so the above description would not apply. For Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, however, prophecy is indeed a singular revelation. In his Kuzari, the king rejects philosophical religion because, while it is a universal, demonstrable truth, it does not fit with the singular revelation that he experienced.

A second, more radical step can be found in the teachings of the Hasidic thinkers Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica and Rabbi Tsadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin. These thinkers see the human impulse as the site of divine revelation. There are steps necessary for ascertaining that any given impulse is in fact divine, but they are minimally open to the possibility of absolute, divine truth being totally individual and internal. Moreover, (and here the two disagree somewhat), Rav Mordechai Yosef, sees this divine revelation as inherently opposed to any sort of universalizable truth or principle. The moment of divine revelation within the human self is a moment when external, universal truth ceases to be relevant. Rav Shagar is not quite so radical as that, but he does share the understanding of singular revelation within the self (see the essay in Shuvi Nafshi referenced above).

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Conclusion

To put this all in the context of Rav Shagar’s broader writings and embrace of “subjective” truth within religion: Rav Shagar absolutely embraces “subjective” truth in sense it was described at the beginning of this essay, as internal truth. However, this is only insofar as this internal truth possesses a sense of absoluteness, and thus “objective,” as we have defined it here at the end of the essay. Rav Shagar wants us to be authentic, which requires having a strong sense of self and inner truth. It requires feeling like there’s some parts of our inner lives that exceed us, that we can and should simply accept as facts, as divine grace. In the absence of this divine grace, Rav Shagar wants us to grapple with out alienation, and with the possibility of creating ourselves anew (see my essay on accepting the yoke of heaven in Rav Shagar’s writings).

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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]

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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.

Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey”: A Materialist Approach to the Commandments

Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey”:
A Materialist Approach to the Commandments

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Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey” is a masterful contemporary rendition of the traditional genre of taamei hamitsvot literature, books that give reasons for the commandments. Each chapter is dedicated to a different commandment or halakhah, stretching from saying modeh ani upon waking to saying shema before bedtime, and even touching on interpersonal mitsvot, loving God, and more in between. It also sports a helpful introduction that gives the reader background on taamei hamitsvot throughout Jewish history.

The introduction focuses on the question of whether or not Jews should speculate about the reasons for the commandments. The topic has been hotly debated throughout Jewish history. On the one hand, God’s commands are presumably rooted in the infinite divine wisdom. They should therefore “represent the physical actualization of a divine set of values and ideal” (p. xxiv), rather than simply being commands that a person must obey. On the other hand, emphasizing the reason for a command can come at the expense of obedience to the command itself. If keeping kosher is about eating healthy (the opinion of the Sefer HaHinukh, quoted in chapter 19), then shouldn’t eating healthy take precedence over keeping kosher? If the two were to contradict, shouldn’t we side with healthy eating over its handmaiden, kashrut?

Silverstein indicates that despite the critical importance of the “spiritual messages” of the mitsvot, we cannot give the reasons for the commandments priority over the commandments themselves. In addition to preserving obedience to the commandments, this has the added value of keeping a person humble. Just because I do not know the value of a commandment, that does not mean there is no value. Trying to understand the commandments is therefore an important, if not always achievable, goal.

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A Materialist Model of the Commandments

Silverstein’s approach to the commandments is what I have elsewhere called a “materialist” model of the commandments. Though he says the commandments are intended to convey spiritual messages, he ultimately gives priority to the physical acts of the commandments, their material presence in the world and history, over the ideas attached to them. This manifests in the call for obedience in the face of incomprehensible mitsvot. If you have to obey the commandments regardless of the reason, then clearly the actions take priority over the ideas.

The materialist model also shows up in the number of reasons Silverstein gives for each commandment. Classically, books of taamei hamitsvot give one reason for each commandment. They attempt to determine what goal God wanted to achieve by commanding each action, what specific idea or value God wanted to convey. In contrast, “Jewish Law as a Journey” doesn’t talk about what the purpose of each commandment is, or what God’s intent was in commanding it. Instead, Silverstein goes through the historical journey of each mitsvah, looking at what it has meant in different texts throughout history. He starts with Tanakh and the rabbis, for laws that go back that far, and continues all the way to rabbis so contemporary that their ideas are referenced from webpages rather than books. In a materialist model, the reasons for the commandments are not what God meant by them, but what they have meant to Jews throughout history.

One of the advantages of a materialist model of the commandments is the way it lets us look back at the history of reasons for the commandments. With a model like this, we do not need to say that everyone who disagreed with our understanding of a commandment was wrong, nor do we have to pretend that no one ever disagreed. We can recognize the full diversity of the Jewish tradition when it comes to taamei hamitsvot. Silverstein can therefore quote a variety of interpretation by thinkers who may have been consciously disagreeing with each other, as he explores the various things a commandment means. It does raise the question of what God’s intent actually was for each commandment, but this can be solved in a variety of ways, such as suggesting that God wanted each Jew to understand each mitsvah in a way that made sense to her in her historical situation, or that God omnipotently foresaw all the meanings that Jews would attribute to the commandments.

“Jewish Law as a Journey” therefore provides the reader with short collections of ideas that have been attached to each commandment, helpfully summarized in the book’s conclusion in the form of short meditations. However, it also asks the reader an implicit question: If these ideas are what the commandment has meant throughout its historical journey, then what does it mean today?

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.

 

Teaching Texts: Alex Israel’s I Kings

Teaching Texts: Alex Israel’s I Kings

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Rabbi Alex Israel’s I Kings: Torn In Two is a book born out of teaching. In the introduction, Israel discusses the way the book developed over the course of years of his teaching the book of Kings in various settings. Consequently, I Kings is not a commentary on the biblical text so much as a companion to it. It does not go through each line of the text explaining difficulties and ambiguities. Instead, it follows each chapter and explains it simply and clearly. It gives a basic familiarity with the story, with what is happening in the biblical text, and with the characters that populate the narratives. Throughout the chapters it also develops and points out the various themes of the book of Kings, often through discussions of apparent textual problems. As such, I Kings is not just a great companion volume for the casual reader of Tanakh, but also for a teacher looking for insights for her classroom (notably, there’s a fantastic index of study questions for engaging students with the text).

The sense of pedagogy and education that permeates I Kings is perhaps most evident in its use of other texts outside the book of Kings. In many of the chapters Israel quotes passages from the book of Chronicles that parallel the narrative under discussion from the book of Kings. These texts are used to fill in perceived gaps in the narrative in Kings (a valid, but also debatable, approach), but also to point out contradictions between the two texts. Instead of trying to resolve such contradictions, Israel often uses such contradictions as a jumping off point for larger discussions about the purposes of both books. If they contradict each other, it is taken not to be a disagreement about objective fact but a manifestation of different pedagogical goals. If Kings says something different from Chronicles, then it is because it is trying to teach us something different. The teacher, and student, must then ask, “What is Kings trying to teach us?”

More even than it quotes from the biblical book of Chronicles, I Kings quotes heavily from rabbinic literature. Israel’s approach is self-conscious about having “one eye on Ḥazal” and trying to create “a dialogue between the text and the sages.” Israel reads rabbinic texts of all genres, from aggadot (rabbinic stories) to textual commentaries, as if they were commentaries on the text. He looks to find the basis for their statements, no matter how outlandish, within a careful reading of the biblical text. Moreover, he reads the rabbinic texts in light of the biblical text, which can paint them in a different light than how one might otherwise read them. Finally Israel’s I Kings asks what lies behind the rabbinic understandings of the biblical text, what were they trying to teach us, and, perhaps more poignantly, what did they see the biblical text as trying to teach us.

A Review of Rabbi Michael Hattin’s “Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land”

Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land by Rabbi Michael Hattin, Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2014.

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There are many approaches to writing about a section of tanakh, from the disinterestedly academic to the passionately religious. Even between those two poles, the chosen approach can be as nuanced as an academic approach that participates in religious discourse, or a religious book that makes use of academic tools. Rabbi Michael Hattin’s “Joshua: The Challenge of the Promised Land” falls squarely in the latter category. Joshua is not an academic book that gleans religious meaning from dispassionate study but a deeply and unapologetically religious book that uses the best tools of the secular world to uncover the meaning behind the biblical text.

Joshua is essentially a collection of essays on the biblical book of Joshua, arranged according to the order of the biblical text. Each chapter opens with a quick introduction to a section of biblical text, and in short order, an apparent problem within the text or the story is presented. By the end of the chapter not only is the problem resolved, but it is resolved in such a way that what had at first seemed to be a problem is now an expression of a religious theme or ideal. While each chapter focuses on a different concept, there are several recurring concepts that Hattin highlights as the dominant themes of the biblical book of Joshua. Hattin discusses the way the biblical text explores the character of Joshua as he takes over the leadership role of his late mentor, Moses, through parallels between events in the Torah and events in the book of Joshua. He also looks at the tension between divine providence and human initiative as the Israelites transition from the Wilderness, where they were entirely dependent upon God, to the land of Canaan, where they will have to run their own society.

The common thread that runs throughout Joshua is the idea that the biblical text is inherently meaningful. There is no such thing as a passage that doesn’t have relevance to our lives, including the long lists of geo-topographical data in the second half of the book. All of it is meant to guide us in our religious and moral development, and thus the act of studying the biblical text is religious, not literary. This orientation towards meaning drives much of the content of Joshua. The book’s hermeneutic, it’s guiding principles of interpretation, flow directly from this orientation. The discussions of both morality and archaeology throughout the book are not abstract, but driven by their relevance to the modern Jew. The same goes for Hattin’s discussions of rabbinic literature related to the book of Joshua.

The basic religious hermeneutic of Joshua is laid out in the introduction, in a section discussing the pros and cons of secular scholarship. While many fields of academia are trumpeted as greatly valuable, one field is rejected quite forcefully. According to Hattin, source criticism “hinges upon charging the text with literary superficiality that… relegated the underlying message to the proverbial dustbin” (pg. xx). However, it is not that he rejects source criticism, but how he does so, that makes his book so firmly religious. Source criticism can be rejected from a secular perspective; the rise of Literary Criticism in the last half a century more than demonstrates that. That Hattin chooses to reject source criticism from a strictly religious perspective is therefore incredibly significant.

The Tanakh is, at its core, a sacred document that describes the ongoing interaction between God and humanity, between God and the people of Israel. It is a document that continuously challenges us to ask penetrating questions that relate to the essence of human nature and the purpose and meaning of existence. Its ancient but timeless words kindle the spiritual yearning that glows in every human heart, the longing for God, for goodness and a better world. No assault on the text can ever rob it of this transcendent quality. (pg. xx)

With this, Hattin not only rejects source criticism, but also sets up a strictly religious hermeneutic that will guide the reader throughout the rest of the book. It is not simply that source criticism is incorrect, it’s that it fails to appreciate the inherently meaningful nature of the text.

Hattin makes a phenomenal attempt to integrate the narrative of Joshua with modern archaeological discoveries. He rightly trumpets the scorched ruins of H̱atzor as fitting the biblical narrative perfectly. He is willing to remain agnostic on some issues, leaving the challenge to the biblical narrative unanswered, but he is impressively willing to reinterpret the biblical text when the popular interpretation does not fit the archaeology. For example, the ruins of Jericho bear no indication that the entirety of the walls came down in the period of history under discussion. Hattin begins by suggesting why the ruins might indicate this when in fact the entirety of the walls had come down, enabling the reader to affirm the traditional understanding of the text. He then switches gears and discusses traditional approaches that don’t contradict the archaeological record. Applying this method to the issue of the speed of the conquest of the land, which the bible indicates is miraculously fast while archaeology suggests that it was very slow, Hattin differentiates between the conquering of the land, which was fast, and the settling of the land, which was slow. Hattin also points out that not only does this fit with the biblical data from other books of Tanakh, but also with the text of Joshua itself.

Hattin also tackles the moral difficulties of the book of Joshua. It is difficult to read the book of Joshua in the 21st century without being bothered, at least a bit, by the morality of a holy war to conquer the land of Canaan. Hattin’s main argument is that the narrative of Joshua cannot be taken in a vacuum; Joshua assumes the reader is familiar with many of the narratives and polemics of the Torah. Hattin quotes numerous biblical texts which suggest that the war against the Canaanites is not racial but moral; the Israelites are not wiping out a different race, but an incompatible moral system. In this light, the entire discussion of the morality of the conquest is flipped. In place of a morally dubious land grab, Hattin depicts the victory of a divine moral system over pagan moral relativism, of human dignity over oppression.

It is at this point that Hattin perhaps becomes a little overzealous in his depiction of the conquest as a moral war. Hattin sees this moral understanding of the war not just in the voice of the biblical text, but also in the minds of its characters. In discussing the textual depiction of Raẖab, Hattin discusses the way that Tanakh generally takes a rather dismal view of prostitutes, something that surprisingly fails to manifest here. Hattin argues that the reason for the generally dismal view of prostitutes is that they are seen as disloyal. In contrast, he argues that Raẖab should be seen as motivated by the vision of a moral society heralded by the arrival of the Israelite nation. This explains the Tanakh’s positive depiction of Raẖab, as her betrayal of Jericho is not a function of disloyalty but of a strong sense of morality. While this moral depiction of the entire conquest may be the way the Tanakh depicts the war, it seems incredibly forced to read this into Raẖab’s motivation. Hattin ignores the possibility that it is at least as likely that she was motivated by the survival of herself and her family, and that the reason the Tanakh does not depict her badly, despite being a prostitute, is that she was instrumental in the success and survival of the Israelite spies.

A similar instance is found in Joshua’s discussion of the battle with the Southern Kings. He describes the Southern Kings gathering together to fight the Israelites not just because they’re afraid for their survival, but because they see the Israelite invasion as the end of their immoral pagan societies. This moral awareness seems like a stretch in a situation where it is so much simpler and more likely to say that the kings were afraid of physical destruction.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Joshua is the total mastery Hattin displays over not just the biblical text of Joshua itself, but over any and all related rabbinic literature. Throughout the various essays that comprise the book, textual problems are resolved not just from the text, but also from the traditional rabbinic commentaries. But Hattin doesn’t just bring the commentary that he feels best resolves the problem; instead, he brings a variety of opinions, and then shows what in the text led each commentator to their opinion. When those opinions are actually based on midrashim from Hazal, he not only points this out, but goes in depth to show the various exegetical understandings underlying the midrashim.

However, Hattin’s approach to midrashim is frustratingly vague. He continuously refers to midrashim as “traditions,” but this phrase could mean prophetic revelations passed down from Sinai or rabbinic exegeses passed down through the generations. He is also unclear about whether he considers midrashim to be taken literally, figuratively, or some blend of the two. He reads them thematically, showing how the midrash plays off and expands themes of the text, but he doesn’t seem to take them to be entirely metaphorical in nature. Perhaps, however, it is for the best. Hattin’s studies in midrashim and their relationship to the text allow for appreciation of hazal not just as legalists and story-tellers, but as careful readers of texts in a way the “metaphorical” approach does not do. Midrashim are a complex and disparate body of work, and appreciating that complexity by default leads to some vagueness and ambivalence. Hattin does a good job of demonstrating that this in no way detracts from their significance; in fact, it makes them all the more meaningful.

Rabbi Michael Hattin’s Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land is a deeply religious book that is simultaneously engaged with modernity, a description that is equally apt when applied to Joshua’s audience. As part of Maggid Books’ new line of English books on Tanakh, Joshua serves as an introduction, not only to the book of Joshua, but to the field of Tanakh study in general. Many Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist Jews, presumably the book’s target audience, who might once have delayed their forays into Tanakh indefinitely will now find its pages open before them. Rabbi Hattin has succeeded in making Joshua not only accessible, but incredibly meaningful as well. While Hattin does not mention the immediate, everyday, relevance of each chapter, he demonstrates the basic meaningfulness inherent in the text and leaves the reader to apply it to their daily life. Simultaneously, he introduces the reader to a range of modern literary techniques for understanding tanakh, from literary parallels to keywords. Thus armed with both newfound skills and an orientation toward meaning, the reader can begin to approach Tanakh on his or her own.

Purim 5774 – And It Was In the Days of Ahashverosh: On the Timely and Timeless in Megilat Esther

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ

The books of Tanakh are meant to be both timeless and timely. The Torah existed for thousands of years before the world was created[1] but was written in the language of man[2]. It is meant to have meaning on multiple levels. This means that while distinguishing the historical context of a biblical event is important, one should not disregard the unique extra-historical significance[3]. However, when a book opens up with a line like, “And it was in the days of..” it is clear that the history is going to be important. With this introductory line, the author of the Scroll of Esther tells the reader that this book is dominated by a timely message, which means that the timely significance will have to be drawn from there[4].

Which Persian king exactly is intended when the Book of Esther says the name “Achashveros” is not a simple question to answer. There are several perfectly good candidates, which is further complicated by  the presence of a second Achashverosh in tanakh[5]. However, sufficient examination of the history of the Persian kings of the era would indicate that the Achashverosh of Megillat Esther is the Persian king known as Xerxes. This in and of itself is not particularly meaningful, but what makes this important is Xerxes’s position shortly after Cyrus the Great, referred to in Tanakh as Coresh. Cyrus the Great is most famous for undoing the work of the Assyrian Empire. When the Babylonians took power from the Assyrians, Cyrus decided that the best policy was not the Assyrian policy of exiling peoples from their native lands, but rather that each nation should be returned to its native land, and be permitted to rebuild its temples in a semblance of independence[6]. The relevance of this to Megillat Esther is deeper than the sea, a fact that midrashei Chazal highlight beautifully.

Of all the various Midrashim on Megillat Esther, perhaps the most famous is that of the “כלים שונים”, the vessels used in the Feast of Achashverosh in the beginning of Megillat Esther. In an attempt to simultaneously answer the questions of why this first chapter is needed in the narrative and, more importantly, what Bnei Yisrael did to merit the decree of destruction[7], the midrash says that ‘א decreed destruction upon the Jews because they participated in the Feast wherein the vessels of the Beit HaMikdash were being used. This midrash is problematic on two fronts. Firstly, why is this a big enough sin to merit destruction. Eating from the vessels of the Mikdash is really more of a misdemeanor. Secondly, this is historically problematic. Achashverosh comes after Coresh, and Coresh was the king who sent the Jews back to Israel to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash, and alongside this he sent the vessels of the Mikdash back to Israel for the rebuilding. Thus when the vessels are being depicted by the Midrash as being in Shushan, they are actually already back in Israel. So what is going on?

In truth, this is not a problem at all, assuming one has a proper understanding of midrashim. Midrashim are not necessarily meant to be understood literally. Rather, what midrashim do is highlight and expand upon latent ideas in the text. Most midrashim are based off of incredibly close readings of the text, and if you can’t figure out what a midrash is based off of, it means you’re not paying enough attention. Thus midrashim, by depicting thematic scenes in the text, also draw your attention to these themes. If you take a midrash literally you miss the whole point, and worse, you obscure the value and and purpose of the text of Tanakh[8]. Thus the midrash of the vessels is not saying that Bnei Yisrael ate from the vessels of the Mikdash but rather exactly the opposite[9]. Instead of being in Israel eating from the vessels, the Jews of Shushan are in the exile eating from the vessels of King Achashverosh. This image becomes a startling theme evident throughout the text of Megillat Esther.

Megillat Esther, on a textual level, bears out the assertion of this Midrash. In all of Tanakh, only Jerusalem, the Beit HaMikdash, and Shushan are called “HaBirah”. Achashverosh’s first feast lasts 180 days, followed by a shorter 7 day feast, corresponding exactly to the amount of time from the command to build the Mishkan and its completion, plus the 7 days of its inauguration. Both King Shlomo and Achashverosh held feasts in the 3rd year of their reign, Achashverosh in order to show off his “Riches and Glories” (אושר וכבוד), Shlomo in context of a prophecy about building the Beit HaMikdash where ‘א promises him “Riches and Glory”. If one imagined a scenario where all the Jews are fasting, including their leader, and said leader has to appropriately enter the throne room of the King at great risk to their well being,that could either refer to the Kohen HaGadol in the Mikdash on Yom Kippur or Esther coming before Achashverosh in the Megillah[10]. When Mordechai is introduced it is specifically noted, as part of his introduction, that he is an exile. All of these verses serve to highlight the contrast between the Jews of the Exile and the theoretical messianic era occurring in parallel to the narrative of the Megillah, a parallel brought to its peak when one considers that the days of Achashverosh would have been shortly after the days of Zecharia.

The prophet Zecharia is one of the major prophets of the Return to Zion and the Second Temple. Thus, when the Jews of the exile had a question two years into the building of the new temple, they sent it to Zecharia. With the building of the Second Temple well under way, the Jews of the Exile needed to know if they should still be observing the fasts that were enacted to remember the destruction of the First Temple. In typical prophetic fashion, Zecharia launches into a tirade about how if they would just take care of the poor and their fellow man all roads would be open to them, how all they really need to do is to create Truth and Peace. These of course parallel the mitzvot of Purim to give gifts to the poor and others in need, and the scene from the last chapter of the Megillah Esther, in which a letter comprised of “words of Truth and Peace” is sent out. Perhaps most accusingly of all, Zechariah (Ch. 7) describes a messianic vision in which the nations of the world all come to Jerusalem (הבירה) in order to ask the איש יהודי for religious advice. In contrast, the only other  איש יהודי in Tanakh is Mordechai the exile, sitting in the gates of Shushan. Everything is turned on its head.

The consistent, timely, theme of Megillat Esther is obvious. The Jews of the days of Achashverosh knew that they were supposed to be in Israel, and yet they weren’t. Megillat Esther was given to them to remind them of their forgotten duty. They ought to have been in Israel helping build the Beit HaMikdash, not languishing in the Exile. This is the timely message, from which the timeless message can be easily recognized.

The Jews of the Exile knew what they ought to have been doing. They had a prophet declaring to them that Coresh was doing ‘א’s work in sending them back to Israel and that they ought to have gone to help build the Second Temple[11]. We don’t have prophecy today to tell us what to do. Instead all we have is ‘א’s word as embodied in the Torah, and generally speaking, we all know what it says. More often than not, we know what we are supposed to be doing. We know what the right choice is. The charge that Megillat Esther leveled at the Jews in the Babylonian Exile is the same charge we ought to be leveling at ourselves every day: you know what you have to do, now go do it.

[1] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 88b, Bereishit Rabbah 8:2.

[2] Sifre Bamidbar 112, Moreh Nevukhim 1:26.

[3] The Bible From Within, Meir Weiss, First Introduction.

[4] This essay draws heavily from R’ Hayyim Angel’s lecture “Megillat Ester: What they didn’t teach us in school” and Rav Menachem Lebitag’s lecture, “Between Ezra and Esther: considering author’s intent in Ketuvim”, both easily available at www.yutorah.org. Another useful resource in this composition were Yonatan Grossman’s essays on Megillat Esther from http://www.vbm-torah.org/ester.html.

[5] For more, see the above mentioned sources from Leibtag and Grossman.

[6]  This can be found at the beginning of Ezra and the end of Divrei HaYamim II, the very last verses of Tanakh.

[7] To highlight how difficult this question is, it is worth noting that not only does the text never mention Bnei Yisrael performing any sin, the only thing Haman really has to accuse them with before the King was that they were keeping to their own laws.

[8] R’ Yoel Bin Nun, http://www.ybn.co.il/mamrim/PDF/Pesach_Lot.pdf

[9] In a similar vein, the midrash says that feast was intended to celebrate the passing of Yirmiyahu’s date for the return to Israel. Achashverosh would have had no reason to celebrate the 70 years coming to an end, but the Jews out to have been celebrating in Israel and weren’t.

[10] This is reminiscent of the midrash stating that anytime “המלך” is used it is actually a reference to ‘א. Achasheverosh has replaced ‘א in the story, and his palace has replaced א’s palace.

[11] See R’ Leibtag’s “One Isaiah or Two?”, also available on www.yutorah.org.