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 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.