Suffering Without Meaning – Rav Shagar on the Unsayable Trauma of the Holocaust

Below is a translated excerpt from one of Rav Shagar’s derashot for Yom Hashoah, the day Israeli society collectively recalls and remembers the Holocaust. Specifically, it is the introductory section of the derashah, “Muteness and Faith,” which focuses on two ideas:

1. that which exceeds or cannot enter our speech (using Lyotard’s concept of “the differend” and the Zohar’s concept of סתימא דלא אתיידע, “the concealed and unknown”).

2. the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg’s steadfast attachment to his Judaism, beyond reach of any mitsvah–beyond both Hitler and God.

The excerpt below is from the introduction to the derashah, where Rav Shagar meditates on his own relationship to the Holocaust as a child of survivors, as someone for whom the Holocaust was both an “incurable genetic disease” and “a horror on display in the noonday sun.”

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When tragedy strikes, believers typically ask, “What does this mean?”[1] The Holocaust denies all possibility of asking such questions, because it represents a total shattering of the world and its cultural construction. It falls outside the constructive world, the world of discourse.

This is how I experienced the “meaning” of the Holocaust in regard to my parents (of blessed memory), if it even makes sense to say such a thing. The Holocaust tore apart their youth, and they carried it with them for the rest of their lives. They almost never spoke about that time. They went on with their daily lives based on a sort of stubborn muteness, concealing the irreparable. They were victims for their entire lives. They could never speak, for the Holocaust had forced them into an incurable muteness. They lived without feeling like they could trust reality or people, rendering them incapable of accepting the other or addressing them with an open heart. They were barred from experiencing the sense of well-being which Tanakh describes as “everyone under his own vine and under his own fig tree” (1 Kings 5:5). In a certain sense, I myself continue to carry this burden.

This idea reminds me of the Kabbalistic and Hasidic commentaries on Passover and the exodus from Egypt which see the word Pesah as breaking down into peh-sah, “the mouth that speaks”–speech itself leaving its exile.[2] Speech generally enables us to turn a harsh, traumatic event into processable human suffering, which is the first step toward redemption from it. The Holocaust, however, is not just suffering. It is suffering that lacks speech, that is mute. There is no conceptual framework that could render it as suffering. In this sense, my parents never left the Holocaust. The Holocaust wasn’t just murder, it was the murder of murder. It is not an injustice or suffering that took place within the normal circle of human existence–it somehow transcends and refutes it. The Holocaust cannot be rendered conceptually into any other thing, so it cannot achieve any sort of conciliation. That is how I explain my parents’ muteness: they lived their lives in the empty space split open by the Holocaust. This is the meaning of the Holocaust, “the differend”–“an unsayable debt”: “Auschwitz was the death of death. In this death, even the possibility of mourning over what was lost is itself dead. The process of mourning cannot take place, so it is impossible to continue forward and move on.”[3]

When I discuss the Holocaust, I do so not from the perspective of someone who experienced it first-hand, but from the perspective of someone who inherited it–this is the incurable genetic disease of the second generation. In a certain sense, members of the second generation are no less victims of the Holocaust than members of the first. They too experience the Holocaust via an absolute lack of security in existence, in reality’s fundamental need for some basis or foundation. They experience a persistent sense of threat in the background of their lives, due to the presence of a “black hole” just waiting to swallow up everything.

For me, the Holocaust is just such a black hole of non-existence that nevertheless exists. It is a horror on display in the noonday sun–a horror that should have reduced annihilated everything, taking place in a world that continues to turn exactly as before–non-existence that nevertheless exists. This is a reality that leads only to being stuck, without any ability to escape or even to disappear.

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[1] See Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Bayom Hahu, 256–259.

[2] See, for example, R. Isaac Luria, Peri Ets Hayyim, Gate of the Holy Scriptures, ch. 4; Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav, Likkutei Moharan II 74. This is how I understanding a famous statement by the Hiddushei Harim of Ger: “’And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the sufferings of the Egyptians’ (Exodus 6:7) – ‘Sufferings,’ so that they no longer suffer from the practices of Egypt” (quoted in Sefat Emet, vol. 2, Va’era 1878). In Egypt, when speech was in exile, a person simply continued to suffer, unable to free himself from the sufferings imposed on him.

[3] Adi Ophir and Avraham Azulai, “Memale Makom: Be’ikvot Sihah Im Leyotar,” in Jean Paul Leyotard, Hamatsav Hapostmoderni (Jerusalem: Resling Books, 1999), 127–128. Indeed, I have often had trouble believing statements about the Holocaust, not because I thought they were insincere, but because I saw them as foolish attempts to conquer the unconquerable.

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.

Parashat Naso 5775 – The Nazir as the Hero of Morality

Parashat Naso 5775 – The Nazir as the Hero of Morality

 

The Law of the Nazir, as it appears in the sixth chapter of Sefer Bamidbar, presents an interesting dilemma. The law is introduced in verse 2, “When a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of separation to the Lord as a Nazir,” and then goes straight into the various details of the law without ever mentioning what might motivate a person to make such a vow. It is even unclear if this is a vow that everyone ought to make at some point in their life, or if it’s just meant for extreme individuals.

Ibn Ezra takes a clear stance regarding these questions in his comment on Bamidbar 6:2.

Yafli – He will separate, or will do wondrous (PL”A) things, for most of the world follows after their physical desires. Neder Nazir – a vow to be a “nazir“, which is a title. And this is from the same root[1] as “Vayinazru” (Vayikra 22:2), “they shall separate themselves”, meaning that he will distance himself from physical desires. He does this for the service of God, for wine destroys conscientiousness and the service of God.

Ibn Ezra is suggesting that while it is not mandatory for everyone to take the vow of a nazir, it is certainly the ideal, as the alternative is to give up on being a conscientious servant of God. Moreover, the nazir may head to one extreme, but this is only because everyone else is heading to the other. The nazir is motivated to serve God in the only way really possible. Given the choice between a life of constantly chasing after lust and desire or a life of godly asceticism, presumably everyone should choose the latter.

Rashi, however, brings a midrash with a very different approach. “Ki Yafli – he will separate. Why was the passage of the Nazir juxtaposed with the passage of the Sotah, the suspected wife? To teach you the anyone who sees the punishment of the Sotah should separate himself from wine, for wine brings a person to adultery.” According to the midrash, only a specific person under a specific set of circumstances should take the vow of the nazir. Specifically, someone who has seen the ultimate consequences of physical indulgence, someone so struck by their experience that they feel the only option is to stay away from all physical pleasure. Everyone else, however, should continue with life as normal, which presumably involves a normal amount of physical pleasure.

William James, in his “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, discusses the religious phenomenon of asceticism, which he relates to what he calls “the sick soul.”

For in its spiritual meaning asceticism stands for nothing less than for the essence of the twice-born philosophy. It symbolizes, lamely enough no doubt, but sincerely, the belief that there is an element of real wrongness in this world, which is neither to be ignored nor evaded, but which must be squarely met and overcome by an appeal to the soul’s heroic resources, and neutralized and cleansed away by suffering.

This is an approach to the world that sees it as inherently broken and evil. The sick soul’s only response is to flee from the world, to stand up against evil. The ascetic is thus a heroic figure, fighting for good by abstaining from that which is inherently evil.

As against this view, the ultra-optimistic form of the once-born philosophy thinks we may treat evil by the method of ignoring. Let a man who, by fortunate health and circumstances, escapes the suffering of any great amount of evil in his own person, also close his eyes to it as it exists in the wider universe outside his private experience, and he will be quit of it altogether, and can sail through life happily on a healthy-minded basis.

This approach sees the world as inherently good, despite the fact that there is some evil in it, and thus a person need only avoid the evil, rather than fight against it.

The nazir of the midrash is James’ ascetic. He has seen that there is evil in the world, that indulgence reigns and that it leads to great suffering, and his only response is to push the world away as forcefully as he can. He struggles on, his life a heroic fight against the flaws of the world he lives in. Everyone else, however, remains blissfully unaware that such a struggle might be necessary, and they can live their lives according to the rest of the laws of the Torah.

What makes the nazir of the midrash different from James’ is what they see as evil, what has led them to separate from worldly experiences. James’ “sick soul” has discovered that there is evil in the world due to its very nature as a physical realm. The nazir of the midrash has seen the moral consequences of physical indulgence. He has seen that over-indulgence has led to the destruction of the bond between individuals, to the humiliation of a person subjected to a ritualistic examination. All of these could be avoided if a person is willing to forgo their physical nature, to assume a more spiritual life. The ascetic flees the world into the welcoming arms of suffering; the nazir steps away from the world and toward its inhabitants, toward a more moral life. While the vow of the nazir is almost unheard of in our day and age, the drive of the nazir should not be. While we won’t decide to abstain from wine and cutting our hair, the passage of the nazir should give us pause to consider our excesses, and the way these excesses affect not only ourselves and our relationship with ‘א, but also the people around us.

[1] Note that this not the only possible etymology. Nazir could also come from the word “nezer”, meaning “crown.” That would explain the odd phrasing of Bamidbar 2:7 and explain the connection between 2:8 and Shemot 28:37 & 39:30. Based on this connection, it might be correct to consider the Nazir as a kohen gadol whose focus is on morality (see the end of this essay)  as opposed to the kohen gadol whose focus is on ritual.