Rav Shagar – Shaping Our Religious Language

Any reader of Rav Shagar’s sermons and essays will immediately notice that his language is a veritable pastiche of two things not found in many contemporary Jewish thinkers: Kabbalah/Hasidut and secular philosophy, Postmodernism in particular. Given how unique this feature of Shagar’s writings is, it is worth considering why he spoke and wrote that way. There seem to be a few reasons, some of which Shagar addresses in his introduction to the book of his sermons for Purim that was published in his lifetime:

It is necessary to translate the hasidic sermons to “the language of our times.” One of my goals is to attempt to shape substantial and relevant material for times and holidays that are supposed to be meaningful times of renewal and exploration, as well as to characterize each holiday in it’s own unique light. This is why I have integrated modern ideas into hasidic trains of thought, in order to translate these hasidic ideas for us and our world. […]

Further, I find in “kabbalistic language” great interpretive power and the ability to illuminate many cultural events in our time. Moreover, in many of the cultural events of our time I see the realization of the “kabbalistic vision” that speaks of the shattering of the vessels and their purification as necessary conditions for redemption, a redemption that is not simply national, but is an ontological shift in the “universal existence” (יש העולמי). (Pur Hu HaGoral, p.8)

Rav Shagar was trying to shape a new religious language, a language for talking about God and religion, for the Dati Le’umi community, with two primary components: 1) Contemporary philosophy. The Dati Le’umi (or Modern Orthodox) individual lives in the modern world, and contemporary philosophy and the social issues of postmodern society are a part of her life. They therefore ought to be a part of her religious language as well. 2) Hasidut and Kabbalah. Shagar was part of a movement that successfully introduced the study of Hasidut and Kabbalah into Dati Le’umi society, and he here gives two reasons for its importance: A) Interpretive power. The language of Hasidut and Kabbalah enabled, for Shagar, a particularly expansive and creative approach to Judaism, fitting with the creative and unbounded way these movements interpreted traditional texts. B) “Illumination of cultural events.” In addition to providing language, Kabbalah provides Shagar with a specific cosmic and historical vision that is ripe for identification with contemporary cultural events – The breakdown of all overarching narratives in postmodernity is the kabbalistic shattering of the vessels. Judaism can thus speak directly to the events of our times.

While that explains why Shagar has opted for the hasidic approach over other forms of Jewish language, it does not explain why he doesn’t simply look outside Judaism for suitable language. He’s already using secular philosophy, so why not use secular language as well? In answer to that, it is important to note that Shagar never tries speak as if he was not Jewish. He is Jewish, and that’s the starting point of his thought. He never questions this or tries to get outside it, and much of his thought philosophically argues for this kind of approach. This fits well with his interest in the thought of Franz Rosenzweig, who had an experience that concretized for him the fact that he was Jewish and that this was his starting point. He consequently became fascinated with Hebrew, in all its eras, and with the language of the traditional liturgy and the Bible. Traditional Jewish language was important to him simply because it is Jewish, and the same is true of Shagar.

 

Midrash Purim 5776 – My Soul Acts Madly For The Lord

מדרש פורים תשע״ו – בא׳ תתהולל נפשי

 

לְדָוִד בְּשַׁנּוֹתוֹ אֶת טַעְמוֹ לִפְנֵי אֲבִימֶלֶךְ וַיְגָרְשֵׁהוּ וַיֵּלַךְ. אין מידת הקב״ה כמידת מלך בשר ודם. מלך בו״ד מגרש את המשנה טעמו ומתהולל ולא מביא אותו לביתו, כמו שכתוב, ״וַיְשַׁנּוֹ אֶת-טַעְמוֹ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּתְהֹלֵל״ (שמואל א כא:יד), וכתוב, ״לָמָּה תָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֵלָי? הֲזֶה יָבוֹא אֶל-בֵּיתִי?״ (שם טו-טז). לא כן הקב״ה, כמו שכתוב, ״טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ כִּי-טוֹב יְ׳הוָה״ (תהילים לד:ט), וכתוב, ״תָּמִיד תְּהִלָּתוֹ בְּפִי בַּי׳הוָה תִּתְהַלֵּל נַפְשִׁי״ (שם ב-ג), אל תקרי תתהלל אלא תתהולל, כי גם בהוללות מתהללים את א׳. ובטעם יין ושכר חוסים בו, כמו שכתוב, ״אשרי הגבר יחסו בו״ (שם ט). וכתוב, ״פֹּדֶה יְ׳הוָה נֶפֶשׁ עֲבָדָיו וְלֹא יֶאְשְׁמוּ כָּל-הַחֹסִים בּוֹ״ (שם כג), כי אין עון ואין אשמה לחוסים בו ולמאמינים בו באמת, ועיין בירמיהו לא. וכתוב, ״שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְ׳הוָה כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְ׳הוָה וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ״ (שם כז:ד). זה המתהולל, כמו שכתוב, ״טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ כִּי-טוֹב יְ׳הוָה,״ וכתוב, ״לוּלֵא הֶאֱמַנְתִּי לִרְאוֹת בְּטוּב-יְ׳הוָה״ (שם יג). רק מי שתהילתו היא הוללות והוללותו היא תהילה, רק הוא מאמין באמת ורק הוא יכול לבוא בבית א׳.

Of David, when he acted madly before Avimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away. א׳’s personality is not like of a human king. A human king expels a mindless person and does now welcome them into his home, as it is written, “ So he changed his behavior before them; he acted madly” (Shmuel Alef 21:14), and it is written, “why then have you brought him to me? Shall this fellow come into my house?” (ibid. 15-16). Not so is א׳, as it is written, “Taste and see that God is good” (Tehillim 34:9), and it is written, “His praise shall continually be in my mouth.  My soul praises for the Lord” (ibid. 2-3), but do not read “praises” (תתהלל), rather “acts madly” (תתהולל), for also through madness we praise א׳. And in the taste of wine and alcohol we take refuge in Him, as it is written, “Fortunate is the man who takes refuge in Him” (ibid. 9). And it is written, “The Lord redeems the soul of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (ibid 23), for there is no sin and no guilt for those who trust in Him and truly believe in Him, and see Yirmiyahu 31. And it is written, “I dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his hall” (ibid. 27:3). This is the one who acts madly, as it is written, “Taste and see that God is good,” and it is written, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord” (ibid. 13). Only he for whom praise is madness and madness is praise, only he truly believes, and only he can be welcomed into the House of א׳.

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

 

Pur Hu HaGoral

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

 

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Between Remembrance and Remembrance – Shabbat and Amalek

1.

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

2.

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

3.

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

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

4.

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

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

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

 

The Knowing That Doesn’t Know

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

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

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

 

Amalek as the Will to Power

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

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

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

 

The Mystery of Disguise

1.

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

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

2.

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

3.

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

4.

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

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

 

They Accepted it Anew in the Days of Aḥashverosh

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

 

The Composition of the Megillah and the Redemption of Purim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sparks of Fire – The Joy of Purim

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

 

Breslav-Style Derashot

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

A Story of Aught and Naught that were Reversed

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

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

 

Epilogue – Faith: Aught or Naught?

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

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

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

 

She’arit Emunah

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

 

The Jest of the Megillah

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

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

Appendix: The Law and the Jew

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

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

 

A Time of Freedom

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

 

“Engraved on the Tablets” – Between Purim and Pesaḥ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parashat Behar 5775 – Shemitah and Yovel: Tension or Continuum?

Parashat Behar 5775 – Shemitah and Yovel: Tension or Continuum?

 

Parashat Behar focuses largely, though not entirely, on the laws of Shemitah and Yovel, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years respectively[1]. These laws are often seen as a continuum, with one the former flowing naturally into the latter. Shemitah occurs every 7th year, when all of the Jews of the land of Israel must declare their land ownerless and let it lie fallow for a whole year; they may neither sow nor reap in the land. Yovel occurs every 50th year, just after every 7th Shemitah year. In Yovel, all sales of land are nullified and the lands are returned to their owner, and all slaves are set free. Thus Shemitah entails a nullification of dominance over the land, and Yovel entails a revoking of sales and ownership. However, this depiction runs across a critical flaw when it comes to the textual depiction of the return of lands and slaves in Vayikra 25:13, “In this year of Yovel you shall return every man to his portion [of land].” The text does not depict the return of lands as something separate from the freeing of slaves. In fact, it does not describe the return of lands at all. Rather it talks about the return of slaves as free individuals to their ancestral homelands. Thus Shemitah and Yovel are in fact conflicting, not continuous. Shemitah involves people stepping back from the land and their ownership of it, while Yovel requires people coming close to the land of their families. The former creates a sense of distance and otherness from the land, while the latter conditions a sense of familiarity and identity with it.

The tension can be resolved by reformulating the concept of the Yovel in a way that focuses on ownership after all. However, it is in the reverse way of it was formulated before. Instead of Yovel being about whether or not the land belongs to us, it’s about whether or not we belong to the land. Thus the whole of the Yovel/Shemitah passage can be summed up conceptually as, “The land doesn’t belong to us so much as we belong to the land.” Thus Shemitah and Yovel do in fact form a continuum, as we first recognize every 7 years that we do not really own the land, and then in the 50th year we take yet one step further away from ownership and recognize that we, in fact, are creatures of the land we are born on and are in a sense owned by it.

At this point it is worth bringing up a conceptual dichotomy discussed by Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar)[2] regarding the difference between what he calls “earth” (אדמה) and “land” (ארץ). Rav Shagar says that “earth” refers to the elemental reality that all humans are born out of, to what it means to exist as a human being. In contrast, “land” refers to the society people construct, the power-oriented political structures we create. All human have a connection to the earth, and groups of people create their own various lands. In Shemitah we step back from the “land”, renouncing any sense of ultimacy that we attribute to our constructed societies, we recognize that our ownership is anything but absolute. In Yovel, we are still getting back beyond our conditional societies, but the emphasis is not on shattering these false idols, but on getting back to the source, getting back to the basics of what it means to be human. While Yovel is not applicable in our day, Shemitah is made all but negligible by the innovation of the Heter Mekhirah[3], and the number of Jews who live the sort of agrarian lifestyle where these rules are really felt is negligible, it’s important to recognize that these laws still have something to teach us. In our societies, we often become too caught up in the hierarchies and stratifications that we use to categorize and understand the people around us. While these structures are important, we need to step back every now and then and realize that they’re only constructs, and that at the root of it we’re all people. Further, living in these structures causes us to get locked into very particular ways of understanding ourselves, and every now and then we need to get back to our very human essence, and realize that we can choose how we want to define ourselves and our world in the future.

[1] The ideas in this composition are based to some degree on “Father Sky and Mother Earth” by Rav Shagar, found in “On That Day: Sermons and Essays for the holidays of Iyar”, pg. 207-216.

[2] “On That Day”, pg. 37. Note that he also includes a third category, “State” (מדינה), that is absolutely worth reading about but was beyond the scope of this composition.

[3] Literally “Permission of Sale”, wherein land in Israel is sold to a non-jew in order to exempt it from the laws of Shemitah.

Purim 5775 – Purim of Days to Come: A Derashah

This was an attempt to write more in the style of a Hasidic Derashah, and as part of the more associative style of the genre, the ideas and sources sort of flow one into the next. Getting caught up in that, I think the piece got away from me a little bit and is a little more postmodern than I had in mind, but I still think it’s worth sharing. An English translation follows the original Hebrew.

״וְלֹא יְלַמְּדוּ עוֹד אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו לֵאמֹר דְּעוּ אֶת יְ-הוָה כִּי כוּלָּם יֵדְעוּ אוֹתִי לְמִקְטַנָּם וְעַד גְּדוֹלָם נְאֻם יְהוָה כִּי אֶסְלַח לַעֲוֹנָם וּלְחַטָּאתָם לֹא אֶזְכָּר עוֹד״ (ירמיהו לא:לג). זה פורים, שנאמר ״וּמִשְׁלֹחַ מָנוֹת, אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ״ (אסתר ט:יט). פורים הוא חג של אחרית הימים, כמו שכתוב, ״שכל המועדים עתידים בטלים, וימי הפורים אינם בטלים לעולם, שנאמר (אסתר ט כח): “וימי הפורים האלה לא יעברו מתוך היהודים״ (מדרש משלי ט:א), שנאמר, ״לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה״ (אסתר ח:טז) זאת אורה שנגנז לצדיקים לעתיד לבוא (בר״ר יא:ב, חגיגה יב.), שלעתיד לבוא כלנו יראו בו. שלעתיד לבוא כלנו יראו שאין לומר דעו את י-הוה, כי כולם יודעים את י-הוה. אין ללמד, כי בלימוד יש מורה ותלמיד, יודע ואינו-יודע, וכולנו ידעו לכן לא שייך הכפייתיות של לימוד. אבל יש שליחת מנות, שבו אין מורה ותלמיד אלא איש ורעהו, ואין חטאתם הקודמים אלא ידיעת י-הוה. בפורים אנו בדרגה של האדם לפני חטא עץ הדעת, כמו שכתוב, ״עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי״ (מגילה ז:), ואין מקולל או מבורך אלא יודעי י-הוה. בפורים רואים באור ששת ימי בראשית, לפני שהנחש לימד את האדם לחטוא, לפני שבחרנו לדעת טוב ורע במקום לדעת את י-הוה.

“And no more shall every man teach his friend, and every man his brother, saying: ‘Know ‘א’; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says ‘א; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more ” (Yirmiyahu 31:33). This is a reference to Purim, as it is said, “And sending portions, each man to his friend” (Esther 9:19). Purim is the festival of the End of Days, as it is written, “For all of the holidays with be nullified in the future, but the days of Purim will not be nullified, as it is said, ‘and these days of Purim will not pass from among the Jews’ (Esther 9:28).” (Midrash Mishlei 9:1), as it is said, “The Jew had light” (Esther 8:16), this is the light that was hidden for the Righteous of the future (Bereishit Rabbah 11:2, Bavli Hagiga 12a), that in the future everyone will see with. In the future, everyone will see that we shouldn’t say, “Know ‘א,” for everyone will know ‘א. We should not teach, because teaching requires a teacher and a student, now who knows and one who does not, and everyone will know. Therefore the imposition of teaching is irrelevant. However, one should send portions, for in this there is no “teacher” and “student,” just each man and his friend, and there is no previous sin, only the Knowledge of ‘א.  On Purim we are on the level of Man before the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, as it is written, “until you do not know [how to differentiate] between ‘Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” (Bavli Megillah 7b), so there is no “cursed” or “blessed”, only knowers of ‘א. On Purim we see with the light of the six days of Creation, before the snake taught Man to sin, before we chose knowing good and evil over knowing ‘א.

Sukkot 5775 – Getting Out Of Our Narratives

כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

 

The mitsvah to dwell in sukkot for seven days comes Vayikra 23:42, part of the greater description of the holiday of Sukkot in verses 33-43, probably the largest description of Sukkot in the Torah. It’s also the only such description that includes a reason for the mitsvah to dwell in sukkot. “In order that your generations will know that I caused Bnei Yisrael to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Vayikra 23:43). Bnei Yisrael are commanded to dwell in sukkot in order to mimic and recreate the experience of Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness. This experience that is characterized mainly by two trends, Bnei Yisrael complaining about not suffering due to their not being in Egypt any more, and ‘א providing Bnei Yisrael with sustenance throughout their journeys in the wilderness.

Throughout their travels in the wilderness, Bnei Yisrael repeatedly complain that they wish they could return to Egypt, or that things were better in Egypt. The first time is just after the splitting of the sea. “If only we had died by the hand of ‘א in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we ate bread to satiation; for you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly through starvation” (Shemot 16:3). This is the first of many times such a complaint occurs due to a lack of food or water. A totally different motivation for such a complaint appears in Bamidbar 16, in the rebellion of Dathan and Aviram. “is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but thou must needs make thyself also a prince over us?” (Bamidbar 16:13). This complaint is not about a lack of food, but about Moshe being unsuitable as a leader. They go so far as to call Egypt “a land flowing with milk and honey,” a phrase otherwise only used to refer to the Land of Israel. Seeing as their experience in Egypt was one of crushing labor and abject slavery, it is difficult to understand why they would desire so strongly to go back to it. However, this becomes a little clearer when understood in light of the post-modern concept of a narrative.

The word “narrative” refers to a story, but in the post-modern sense it refers more particularly to the stories by which people define their lives. These stories give a context within which the events and occurrences of their lives can be understood. It gives people a framework within which to choose what course of action they should pursue. The historical perspective of Tanakh, from the beginning of Creation in Sefer Bereishit to the messianic visions of the prophets, is a narrative within which Bnei Yisrael understand the meaning of the events that happen to them. This is perhaps the greatest function of the prophets, telling Bnei Yisrael that the major events they undergo, such as the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash, are not random event, but are part of a larger story and make sense when viewed as such. One of the most notable effects of the loss of prophecy has been a disconnect from Tanakh’s historical narrative. Without a prophet, Bnei Yisrael had no way of knowing with certainty the significance of any occurrence, but can only try and fit it into the context of Tanakh’s historical vision.

Returning to Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness, their complaints about no longer being in Egypt can be understood in terms of a loss of narrative. In Egypt, they knew what story they were participating in, even if it was an unpleasant one. They knew who was in charge and why, they knew where their food and water came from, and they knew what they were supposed to do when. Then ‘א took them out of Egypt, and they knew none of those things. When they didn’t have food, they complained that they once knew where their food came from, and when they felt they had been lead badly, they challenged the source of the authority of their leader. They had lost their Egypt-Narrative and until they would enter the Land of Israel, they were a little lost.

The second typifier of Bnei Yisrael’s wilderness experience was that they were totally sustained by ‘א. When they needed food, he gave them Manna (Shemot 16:4-5) and Quail (Shemot 16:12-15). Their leadership was sent by ‘א, and when they doubted this, they were reminded via miracles (Bamidbar 16:28; 17:16-26). Their garments were miraculously sustained by ‘א, neither wearing out nor being outgrown (Devarim 8:4). Even their living-spaces were given to them by ‘א (Vayikra 23:43). Bnei Yisrael’s entire wilderness experience was defined by the way they lived their lives cradled in the hand of ‘א.

On sukkot Bnei Yisrael were thrust out of our normal, everyday, narratives and pushed into the wilderness. Every year, as they were gathering in their harvest (Vayikra 23:39; Devarim 16:13), Bnei Yisrael were reminded that they do not survive by their produce alone, but by the word of ‘א (Devarim 8:3). Sukkot is a week where we step out of our normal stories, our routines and procedures, and remember the truth that these stories obscure, that we are not independent, that our stories are conditional and dependent, that the lives we build were built with the power that ‘א gives us (Devarim 8:17-18).

[1] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition.

[2] While they received the Torah long before they entered the Land of Israel, many if not most of the mitsvot apply only when in the Land of Israel (never mind the opinion of Ramban that the mitsvot only apply inside the Land of Israel). Receiving the Torah did help Bnei Yisrael’s mindset somewhat, but that is part of a different discussion.

[3] The exact nature of the “sukkot” that ‘א caused Bnei Yisrael to dwell in is subject to Rabbinic debate, with R’ Eliezer understanding them as booths such as Bnei Yisrael build today, and with R’ Akiva understanding them as the Clouds of Glory. For an excellent discussion of how R’ Akiva’s view fits with peshat, and of the symbolism behind both views, see this essay by R’ Prof. Jeffrey L. Rubinstein.