God, Otherness, and the End of Utility: Rav Shagar on Korbanot

Rav Shagar combines George Bataille and Rudolf Otto with Biblical texts and Hasidic commentators for a challenging theology of sacrifices.

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In honor of this week’s parashah, Vayikra, I have translated some excerpts from “Candle and Sacrifice” (see original Hebrew here), a sermon given by Rav Shagar for Shabbat Hanukkah and published in “LeHa’ir Et HaPetahim.” The sermon focuses on two parallel dichotomies, the first between the services of the Menorah and the sacrifices in the Temple, and the second between the Shabbat candles and the Hanukkah candles in the home (I have discussed this dichotomy here). The candles of the Menorah and Shabbat represent light and warmth, comfort and familiarity, while the fires of the sacrifices and the Hanukkah candles represent death, destruction, and otherness.

In the excerpts below, focusing on the sacrifices, Shagar quotes from George Bataille, a French thinker who theorized about religion in context of production and human nature. Bataille argued that the world exists in an “immanent” state, like “water in water,” with no differentiation between any of the different aspects. Each aspect of the world of itself and for itself, at a given moment.. An animal that kills another animal is not qualitatively different from it. Differentiation, according to Bataille, develops out of human consciousness. Humans specify previously undifferentiated aspects of the world and objectify them. This is because humans look at things as tools which have specific purposes; they don’t exist for themselves at a given moment but for the sake of accomplishing a goal in the future. This leads to “the world of things,” the “profane” human world, in contrast to the “divine” realm, the world as it is outside human perception. The transition from the natural state of the world to the world of things happens automatically, while transitioning back requires the rededication of a tool towards unproductive ends. Bataille’s examples range from the unproductive consumption of alcohol to human sacrifice. In the middle is animal sacrifice, where animals that could be used for a range of productive purposes, in their life and in death, are dedicated to the divine on the altar, and thus will fulfill none of their potential purposes. In this moment, the tool reverts to being an animal, a part of the world, and the human who made it a tool becomes, to a degree, a part of that world as well.

Shagar also references “The Idea of the Holy,” by Rudolf Otto, which is a book length exposition of the idea that a significant aspect of religious experience cannot be captured by language. Otto explores this “numinous” aspect, which he calls “the holy,” and shows how it is always experienced as entirely other and foreign to human existence. Because of this, a significant aspect of the holy is its destructiveness and its amoral character; the rigid framework of human life and morality is entirely foreign to it. The idea of the morality of God results from the aspects of religious experience that can be put into rational, human, language. The moral and rational aspects of God become more dominant in more developed religions, but the destructive otherness of the holy can never be removed from religion entirely, not should it (for more on this, see this quote from Paul Tillich’s “The Dynamics of Faith”).

It is against the background of these two thinkers that Shagar explores the meaning of korbanot, and through the lens of Jewish texts, from Tanakh through to Hasidic thinkers, with Levinas and Derrida briefly mentioned for good measure. Melding these disparate elements together in the crucible of the derashah, the classic form of the rabbinic sermon, Shagar looks at what meaning the Temple sacrifices present for the religious life of a contemporary individual, as I will briefly explore after the excerpts.

 

Life and Death

[…]

Lighting the candles of the Menorah is one of the priestly services in the temple – “Speak to Aaron and say, “In lighting the candles toward the face of the menorah, light seven candles” (Bemidbar 8:2). The nature of this service emerges more clearly in contrast to a different procedure, that of bringing a sacrifice: the sacrifice returns the “thing,” the object-animal, to nothingness via its destruction and ending. This is most clearly expressed by the Olah sacrifice that is burnt up entirely on the altar: “the priest shall offer up and turn the whole into smoke on the altar. It is an olah, an offering by fire, a pleasing aroma for God” (Vayikra 1:13). However, we need to be precise: “The principle of sacrifice is destruction, but though it sometimes goes so far as to destroy completely (as in a holocaust [a burnt offering ~LM]), the destruction that sacrifice is intended to bring about is not annihilation. The thing – only the thing – is what sacrifice means to destroy in the victim.” In other words, the sacrificial act is the returning of the objectness (the thing-object) to the intimacy of existence, to a state where everything is enveloped in everything else, like “water in water.” The sacrifice is therefore not elimination and absence but “returning to nothingness,” a return from existence, from a world characterized by functional and instrumental distinctions that tear things from the deep intimacy of the divine world, which there is no accounting. On the one hand, the death of the sacrifice is the concept of limitation; it is death from the perspective of life; it is an approach to the end and to the differentiation of the world of things. The idea of limitation grants a thing itself, its existence, because limitation is necessary for existence. On the other hand, death grants existence its unity with itself; the disintegration of distinguished things. Existence is liberated from thingness and ascends to nothingness, and envelopes itself.

From the perspective of the living thing, the sacrifice ends in frustration, as it leads to deadness and elimination. It’s impossible to “destroy the animal as a thing without denying the animal’s objective reality… one cannot at the same time destroy the values that found reality and accept their limits.” At the moment that death manifests, the animal no longer exists from the perspective of life – “the world of things” –   and the sacrifice therefore turns into an existence of emptiness.

 

The absolution annihilation of the sacrifice manifests one of the primordial religious experiences: rejection and nullification of the value of the world. Religiosity inherently bears within it an experience of destruction – “it destroys or nullifies any existence other than the existence of the creator, and and denies any possibility of understanding the creator and encountering him.” Hasidic conceptions of nullifying existence, such as the Habad contemplation of “everything before God is as nothing,” ultimately take part in the nullification of the world. You can see a “record” of the experience of destruction in Hasidut by examining the broad attention given to yearning and the consumption of the soul in hasidic teachings, where they are compared to a sacrifice that burns the pleasures and enjoyments of this world. In Hasidut, the sacrifice represents “the elevation of feminine waters,” a process of love at the center of which is liberation from the “things” and a return to a pantheistic state of simplicity and oneness with existence. Reality receives its spiritualization from death – or from aspects of it, such as commitment to martyrdom upon going to sleep, or when lowering one’s head in prayer, – which deconstructs the differences in existence. This leads to liberation from the ordered laws of existence, but it is bound up in frustration and inner pain, for existence does not experience death and the destruction of existence as liberation. That experience belongs to the intimate nothingness, what a person “sees only at the moment of his death.”

The sacrifice in the temple resonates with the requirement of martyrdom “with all your heart, with all your life, and with all your might” (Devarim 6:5). “With all your life – even if he takes your life.” “With all your might (מאודך)” – “In Rabbi Meir’s torah scroll they found it written: “And behold it was very (מאד) good” (Bereshit 1), And behold death (מות) was good.” A person must commit his whole world to death in order to open up to the divine absolute, as only in the ending of life does there exist the possibility of encounter with the infinite.

[…]

The job of a sacrifice is to bring a person to commitment and a personal ending; to give up on the finite nature of his existence by overcoming himself. This is a different manner of eros [from that of the candle], wherein “strong as death is love, hard as hell is jealousy, and its darts are darts of fire, a blazing flame” (Shir HaShirim 8:6).

 

Two Holies

Generally speaking, bringing a sacrifice and lighting the candles present us with two different types of consciousness regarding the holy: the numinous and the pleasant. This echoes a split found in Tanakh, where the holy sometimes appears as the tremendous, the awe-ful and terrifying, and even the destructive that demands sacrifice, and sometimes – the illuminating good, the replete and the pleasurable.

The holy arouses fear and brings with it the destructive. In the language of Levinas and Derrida the holy represents the “other” and manifests the “gap” and “difference” that cannot be bridged. “Anyone who touches the mountain shall die. no hand shall touch him, but he shall be either stoned or shot; beast or man, he shall not live” (Shemot 19:12-13); “They shall not enter to see the dismantling of the holy, lest they die” (Bemidbar 4:20).

 

In these excerpts, Rav Shagar plays up the destructive aspect of sacrifices, something that is most intensely on display in the olah, the offering that is burnt whole on the altar. This destructive aspect, Shagar argues, is connected to larger religious themes of martyrdom and acosmism, the common thread between these ideas being the negation of the world in favor of the divine other. God is so totally different from human existence that God can only manifest at the expense of human existence. However, this human existence is created by a focus on utility, on the practical ends served by things, and so turning away from practical ends, by sacrifice or by committing your life to God even to the point of martyrdom.

There is something almost terrifying about this sort of theology, as there should be. Moreover, anyone familiar with the religious violence of the 21st century, let alone the rest of human history, should be wary of any theology at all valuing the “ending” or “destruction” of earthly, human, existence (Notably, the above excerpts leave out the more affirmative theological aspects of the sermon). That caveat aside, this theology has great significance in modern discussions of religion.

The key, I think, lies in the citation of Bataille. The citation of Bataille focuses the whole discussion on the issue of utility. Our existence is marked by things being useful. If things don’t have obvious uses, we usually figure one out in short order. This focus on usefulness has us constantly justifying things in terms of other things. Even when an object does not have practical value, we want to know what value it serves to promote. The peak manifestation of this is when God, the ultimate other, that which is theoretically foreign to all aspects of our existence, is justified in terms of our values and the values of our lives. What is the role of religion in our lives? What does it add? What are the reasons for the commandments? These questions all ask us to explain the divine in terms of the human, and there can be great value in that. But there can also be great danger. Explaining religion and the divine in terms of their value in our lives makes our lives the ultimate arbiters of purpose and value. In such a situation, there’s no room for asking what makes our lives valuable? What do we add to the world? What are we for? The world of things demands participation in production, without ever asking what that production is for. Religion challenges that endless process of production, presenting values and commands that cannot, or should not, be justified by their value in our lives. Rav Shagar’s theology of sacrifices sees them as provoking an experience of divine otherness, an otherness which challenges us to ask basic questions about the very value of our lives. Have we been explaining things by the value they add to our lives? If so, by what do we explain the value of our lives?

Hanukah And The Other

Hanukah And The Other

While the holiday of Hanukah is perhaps the most popular of the jewish holidays among American Jewry (by which I mean to include even the non-Orthodox), it was not always so. Hazal seem to have had a rather ambivalent approach to Hanukah. This is in large part manifest in a general lack of discussion about the holiday. Hanukah is mentioned a total of three times in the entirety of the Mishnah, and while the gemara discusses it somewhat more often, it is still scarce. There is also a notable lack of a ‘Masekhet Hanukah,” while Purim, the other non-biblical holiday, does have its own masekhet. Further ambivalence can be seen in the way Hazal related to the Hashmonaim, the heroes of the Hanukah story. Hazel critiqued the Hashmonaim on a number of issues, such as the unification of the Priesthood and the Kingship, but also for things like the way they wrote contracts. Moreover, the Hashmonaim often took license in their war against the Mityavnim, the Hellenized Jews, from the biblical zealot Pinhas. In midrashic explications of the story of Pinhas, Hazal often criticize Pinhas, or make it clear that his actions were less than desirable. Thus the Hashmonaim were basing themselves off a zealotry that Hazal were already less than thrilled about, even without the problems of the kingship. The largest question this raises, though there are several, is why did Hazal then see fit to include Hanukah in the holidays of the Jewish People? Megillat Ta’anit records a long list of second temple holidays and fast days and the only two that we keep are Purim and Hanukah. Thus the question of why we celebrate Hanukah when it was not particularly popular in Hazal, needs an answer.

Hanukah has only one mitsvah, lighting the candles, and it is through this mitsvah that we can perhaps explain the significance of the inclusion of Hanukah among the Jewish Holidays. In order to properly understand the mitsvah of lighting candles for Hanukah, it is instructive to compare them with another mitsvah of candle-lighting, the candles of Shabbat. Like the candles of Hanukah, the Shabbat candles are a rabbinic command. However, where the Hanukah candles are commemorative in nature, the Shabbat candles are functional. The candles of Shabbat ensure the existence of three specific aspects of Shabbat: Respectfulness (כבוד), Enjoyment (עונג), and Harmony in the house (שלום בית). The candles are there to ensure that there is enough light to see by, whether during meals or just when walking around. The functional nature of the Shabbat candles has halakhic ramifications. If a person is away from home and staying in a place where they have their own room, then she has an obligation to ensure that it is lit well enough to see where they are going. That said, if there is a place where the person does not want the light, such as a bedroom, then there is no obligation to light there. The Shabbat candles are there for the benefit of the people in the house, not as a goal in and of themselves.

The candles of Hanukah are just the opposite. As opposed to the raw functionality of the Shabbat candles, “these candles are holy, and we have no permission to use them beyond looking at them.” Where the whole purpose of the Shabbat candles is for our use, we are forbidden to make any use of the Hanukah candles. They are holy, and they burn just to burn. Moreover, the one purpose they might seem to have, publicizing the miracle of Hanukah, is intended in an opposite manner from the purpose of the Shabbat candle. The Shabbat candles are intended to illuminate the house for the benefit of the people inside it. The publication of the miracle of Hanukah is primarily intended not for the people in the house but for the people outside of it, to the point where the ideal placement of the chanukiah is not inside the house at all, but rather just outside the door. The Hanukah candles are not about those lighting them, nor about improving their lives. Whereas the Shabbat candles increase and improve our sense of comfort and homeyness, the Hanukah candles create a sense of estrangement and otherness.

The Hanukah candles represent a celebration of otherness, of the fact that not everything needs to fit into our lives and our patterns in order for it to be included, and this is exactly what is  happening with the inclusion of Hanukah in the system of Jewish Holidays. Hazal took a holiday that they would not necessarily have created on their own, and brought it within the system of Jewish Holidays, and then they made sure it’s main ritual would demonstrate what they had done. Their willingness to accept that which is other, that which doesn’t work exactly as they would have it, ought to be an inspiration for us. They didn’t pretend to agree with everything about Hanukah. Before Hazal emphasized the miracle of the oil, all versions of the Hanukah story focus on the military victory or the rededication of the Temple. Hazal decided the focus should be on the miracle of the oil, something they felt more befitting of non-Hashmonaic Judaism. We don’t have to agree with everyone, nor do we even have to pretend to. But that isn’t permission to exclude them and push them away. In light of the otherness of the Hanukah candles, with which we celebrate the grace and presence of ‘א, we can embrace those who are different.