Rav Shagar’s Kookian Critique of Kookian Religious Zionism

Rav Shagar’s Kookian Critique of Kookian Religious Zionism

As I write my MA thesis over the next 8-12 months or so, I will probably post short notes here, mostly as a place to work out and write down my own thoughts.

 

So part of my thesis focuses on Rav Shagar’s critique of the mainstream Religious Zionist approach to the state of Israel. In this context, it is notable that he critiques Religious Zionism, which builds its redemptive political theology off the writings of the Rabbis Kook, by returning to some of the foundational redemptive and political texts of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

In context of the state’s direct or indirect contribution to violence, Rav Shagar references this piece from Orot:

Orot, Orot HaMilhamah §3

(Translation by Betzalel Naor)

We left world politics due to a compulsion that contained an inner will, until a fortunate time will come, when it will be possible to conduct a nation without wickedness and barbarism – this is the time we hope for. It is understood that in order to achieve this, we must awaken with all of our powers to use all the media that time makes available – all is conducted by the hand of God, Creator of all worlds. However, the delay is a necessary one; we were repulsed by the awful sins of conducting a nation in an evil time. Behold, the time is approaching, the world will be invigorated and we can already prepare ourselves, for it will already be possible for us to conduct our nation by principles of good, wisdom, rectitude, and clear divine enlightenment. ‘Jacob sent to Esau the royal purple.” Let my master pass before his servant. It is not worthwhile for Jacob to engage in statecraft when it must be full of blood, when it requires an ability for wickedness. We received but the foundation, enough to found a people, but once the trunk was established, we were deposed, strewn among the nations, planted in the depths of the earth, until the time of song arrives and the voice of the turtledove will be heard in our land.

This piece from Orot essentially suggests that violence was necessary to originally establish the Jewish people (hence the conquest of Canaan), but as soon as it was no longer necessary, the Jewish people were forced into a powerless, inherently non-violent position in exile. This forcing, however, was inherently desirable because of the way it removed any need for the Jewish people to be violent. This enables them to wait out the violent period of history, after which they will be able to return to power and history without being violent.

This passage notably frames politics as either violent or non-violent, and the Jewish people have to strive to have their state be non-violent; otherwise, exile would be preferable.

 

The second passage is the source of the loftiest framing of the redemptive state as “the foundation of the throne of the God in the world.” However, it also makes broad statements about the state as a political entity and the Jewish state in specific.

Orot, Orot Yisrael §7

(Translation from The Jewish Political Tradition, vol. 1, 480)

The state is not the supreme happiness of man. This [denial is true] of an ordinary state that amounts to no more than a large insurance company, where the myriad ideas that are the crown of human vitality remain hovering above, not touching it. [But] this is not the case regarding a state that is ideal in its foundation, in whose being is engraved the . . . ideal content that is, truly, the greatest happiness of the individual. This state is truly supreme in the scale of happiness, and this state is our state, the state of Israel, the foundation of God’s throne in the world.13 Its entire aim is that ‘‘God be one and His name one’’ (Zech. 14:9). For this is, truly, the supreme happiness.

Of course, this sublime happiness is in need of extended elaboration so as to shine in [these] days of darkness. But it does not on that account fail to be the supreme happiness.

So the state as a political entity, Rav Kook says, has functional value but cannot help humanity achieve its ideals. It’s essentially neutral. This is in contrast to the Jewish state, which is meant to achieve these human ideals, and thus embody “the foundation of the throne of the God in the world.”

While that depiction is of course deeply redemptive, it’s worth noting that it’s not essentialistic. Thus when Rav Shagar says that the contemporary state of Israel is being violent, he’s not going against this piece so much as using this piece to criticize the actual state of Israel (and how Religious Zionists view it). This piece proposes the redemptive nature of the state of Israel as a realistic concept that the actual state of Israel can, and according to Shagar does, fail to achieve.

However, this is only true if we ignore the last two lines, which Rav Shagar notably does not quote. They’re incredibly essentialistic, and Rav Shagar is only able to root his critique in Rav Kook’s words by leaving these specific words out. There is thus a subversive element to his use of Rav Kook here.

Where Rav Shagar goes beyond Rav Kook is his statement (based on Eric Santner, who is working off Karl Schmidt, Walter Benjamin, and others) that the modern sovereign nation state is inherently violent, and therefore the state of Israel is as well. Whereas Rav Kook here posited the state as a neutral entity and the Jewish state as a positive entity, Rav Shagar posits the state and the Jewish state as unavoidably negative. Thus Rav Kook’s redemptive vision is inherently unachievable, and we must look for a different model of collective redemption. If the first piece we looked at dreamed of an end to violent world politics, Shagar seems to be skeptical of that possibility.

(The Rav Shagar pieces referenced here are all in the derashot “חוק ואהבה” and “מלכות שלעתיד לבא” in the book ביום ההוא.)

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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).

Objectless Repentance in the Religious Zionist Turn to Hasidic Texts

Introduction

When we talk about teshuvah, about repentance, what do we mean? Is it a process of reviewing our sins and determining how to make up for them? Is it about feeling bad about the things we’ve done wrong? While this is a fairly typical way of describing the process of repentance, thinkers from Religious Zionism’s turn toward Hasidic texts would have us think otherwise. Rav Shagar and Rav Froman critique this model of repentance, and each suggest their own alternative. Rav Shagar wants us to focus on the future, on living up to our ideals in a broad sense, in making the world the way it ought to be. Rav Froman wants us to open up ourselves rather than examine our actions, and express ourselves before God. This is in line with Rav Froman and Rav Shagar’s broader critiques of “religious materialism” and religion that is focused on checking boxes and acquiring religious achievements. Yishai Mevorach does not discuss repentance specifically, but he aims the same critique at faith in general, arguing that only giving up on an object-based faith can save religion from fundamentalism.

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Rav Shagar

In a small book of Rosh Hashanah derashot called Zikaron Leyom Rishon, Rav Shagar challenged the way people often talk about repentance. In a derashah called “Sin, Guilt, and Covenant” (1990), he says:

We review our personal history (ḥeshbon hanefesh); here is where we made mistakes, this is where we transgressed, etc. We accept upon ourselves to be better. Do we stop reviewing at that point? Is that the extent of sin and repentance? (36-37)

Is that really sufficient? Does the simple process of “I did X, I regret it, I commit to not doing it again” exhaust the process of repentance? Some of what is at stake here, as we shall see throughout this post, is the nature of religion. Is religion about more than just actions? If it is, then a word as fundamental as “repentance” has to be about more than just actions as well.

Without going as broad as that, however, Rav Shagar raises another issue with this form of repentance. In a derashah called “Repentance and the World to Come” (1989), he differentiates between “this world” and “the world to come.” “This world” is characterized by that at which we can point; if you can put your finger on it, it’s part of this world. “The world to come,” in contrast, “is not what exists, but what could exist” (29); “the world to come” (which Rav Shagar follows the Zohar in understanding as “the world that is always coming”) is about the potential of a better future. In this context, Rav Shagar raises the problem of the sincerity and finality of repentance.

Someone could claim: Do any of us really think that it’s possible to become different? That we might merit forgiveness (seliḥah) on the complicated personal level or the confused and conflicted national level? Perhaps this is all just self-deception. Will any of us really merit forgiveness (meḥilah)? “This” is “this,” hard and unchangeable! […] The world is indeed “this world.” However, it is possible to live it as “what is coming” rather than “this,” to gaze upon the possible rather than the already existing. This is actually no less real a reality. Even as something as of yet unrealized, as something that is not yet “this,” it is decisively important that we connect to it at least as “what is coming.” (30-31)

The anxiety of repentance, permeating the months of Elul and Tishrei, questions where we can ever really be sincere in our desire to be better. And even if we can be sincere, who is to say that it will last? What if we change ourselves only to rapidly fall back into our old ways. While he does want us to acknowledge that real, lasting change does happen (31), Rav Shagar thinks we should shift away from these questions. They are “this world” questions, they’re concerned only with the actions we have or have not performed. Instead, we should look to the future, to the world we want to create and how we want to live. Instead of a critical repentance wherein we scour and examine ourselves and our actions, Rav Shagar wants us to embrace a creative repentance, where we create ourselves anew.

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Rav Froman

Rav Froman’s small book, Ḥasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh, contains many short, aphoristic sayings on a number of topics. In one of them, he addresses the nature of repentance.

What is repentance according to Rebbe Naḥman?

It doesn’t mean sitting with a journal, writing out a personal accounting (ḥeshbon hanefesh) and repairing all your deeds. That’s repentance for Yekkes.

What is repentance for Rebbe Naḥman? You pour out your heart before Hashem. Your heart, like water. (§41, trans. Ben Greenfield.)

As typical of aphoristic works, Hasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh tends to be striking, but often cryptic, and this passage is no exception (what does it mean to pour out your heart before God? Why is the water bit important?). Despite this, we can derive some clear ideas from it. The first is that he shares Rav Shagar’s critique of repentance as reviewing your personal history and actions (ḥeshbon hanefesh). Repentance is not about deeds, about things you can write down in a book (corresponding to Rav Shagar’s image of things at you can point). Instead it’s about personal expression. Whatever exactly he means by pouring out your heart before God, the bigger idea is that who you are exceeds your actions, and you should express who you are within the context of religion. Repentance is thus perhaps a return to who you are, or perhaps a decision to have a more personal relationship with God going forward, more based on who you are rather than on what deeds you do or do not perform.

Yishai Mevorach

Finally, Yishai Mevorach applies the same critique to faith more broadly. Working in a Lacanian, psychoanalytic mode, he provides an interesting reading of Rebbe Naḥman’s popular teaching, Lekutei Moharan §282. The teaching talks about the importance, particularly for someone leading communal prayer, of finding something good in everyone, including yourself. Reading Rebbe Naḥman very close, Mevorach notes that the teaching instructs the reader to search for “another bit more” (od me’at) good in each person, while saying that if they search for “another thing” (od davar) that is good in each person, they will fail. You can always challenge the validity or sincerity of a good thing that you have done, so it can’t hold up to scrutiny. Instead, you have to search for the good in each person, and yourself, that is not a thing or deed, it’s just “another bit more.”

Building off this reading of Rebbe Naḥman, Mevorach discusses the nature of faith and religion more broadly.

The religious person’s castration anxiety comes from how he understands his religion-faith as an object that he holds. this is a possessive, phallic relationship, afraid of losing the additional object, which does not really belong to the individual. In Rebbe Naḥman’s language, the believer’s relationship to the faith object is a relationship of “another thing,” rather than “another bit more“: another thing, another object, and now I hold onto it really tightly so that it doesn’t scatter or disappear. I have to demonstrate ownership. At this point, the religion descends into harsh, violent fundamentalism. In contrast, Rav Shagar proposes a different possibility, wherein faith is present as “another bit more,” as an excess of my being rather than another object. He was talking about faith that does not trying to preserve the thing, because it will persist no matter what. (37-38)

Translating out of his psychoanalytic idiom, Mevorach argues that faith and religion too often become possessions, objects external to us. Religion that is too obsessed with specific actions leads to two problems, he says. First, it loses the self, it becomes about a person’s actions rather than about who they are. It is separate from them, and easily abandoned. Second, and connected to this, is it becomes violent. Because religion is external, in this model, even affirming religion yourself is just imposing it on yourself. At that point, imposing it on others is a difference of degree, rather than kind.

As I hope I have shown at this point, the school of thought embodied by Rav Shagar, Rav Froman, and those around them seems to have maintained an idea (at least by some of them) that repentance and religion not only are not about specific actions, but cannot be about specific actions. Focusing on specific actions is, for various reasons, very problematic. When we approach the high holidays, as we pass through the season of repentance, the focus should not be on our actions, but on our personal capacity for change and for a relationship with God.

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Rav Kook

In this light, it’s worth noting a very similar idea from Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook’s Orot Hateshuvah, albeit with an important difference. The third chapter of Orot Hateshuvah lays out a dichotomy between “detail repentance” (teshuvah peratit) and “unspecified and general repentance” (teshuvah stamit kelalit).

There is a form of penitence that addresses itself to a particular sin or to many particular sins. The person confronts his sin face to face, and feels remorseful that he fell into the trap of sin. Slowly he struggles to come out of it, until he is liberated from his sinful enslavement and he begins to experience a holy freedom that is most delightful to his weary self…

There is another kind of feeling of penitence, unspecified and general. A person does not conjure up the memory of a past sin or sins, but in a general way he feels terribly depressed. He feels himself pervaded by sin; that the divine light does not shine on him…

Day by day, inspired by this higher level of general penitence, his feeling becomes more firm, clearer, more illumined by reason and more authenticated by the principles of the Torah. His manner becomes increasingly brightened, his anger recedes, a kindly light shines on him, he is filled with vigor, his eyes sparkle with a holy fire, his heart is bathed in rivers of delight, holiness and purity hover over him. His spirit is filled with endless love, his soul thirsts for God, and this very thirst nourishes him like the choicest of foods. (trans. Bentzion Botsker, 46-48)

The former is focused on repenting and making up for specific acts a person may have performed. The latter, is an attempt to fix a general feeling of distance from God. It’s part of the person, and really all of existence, moving towards God, rather than away from specific actions. While Rav Kook does not critique action-focused repentance the way that Rav Shagar and Rav Froman do, in fact he maintains its validity throughout Orot Hateshuvah, it’s notable that he both distinguishes between them and seem to put the broader form of repentance on a higher level. While the later thinkers may not be basing themselves on Rav Kook, at least not explicitly, the resonance with their ideas is striking.

More Than Just “The Zionist Rabbi”: Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz’s “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook”

More than just “The Zionist Rabbi”:
Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz’s “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook”

If you ask most people about Rav Kook’s worldview, they likely won’t know anything about him. If they do, they will probably start talking to you about Zionism. They will tell you about how Herzl was a spark of Mashiach Ben Yosef, and about the critical roles that the nation, land, and state of Israel play in the ongoing process of redemption. For many of Rav Kook’s followers, and likely all of his detractors, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook can be adequately summed up as “the Zionist rabbi.”

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Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz’s new book of translations, collected from across the entire corpus of Rav Kook’s published writings, means to overturn this common misconception. While most translations of Rav Kook have focused on a specific book by him, “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook: The Writings of a Jewish Mystic” organizes hundreds of paragraphs from Rav Kook’s various writings into seventeen chapters, each dedicated to a specific topic. While there is a chapter on Zionism, and it is one of the longer chapters, it is still just one of seventeen. What is more, that chapter contains more pieces discussing the importance of universalism than the importance of the land! While Rav Kook was certainly a Zionist, he was also far more than that.

The other sixteen chapters are where “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook” really shines. Some of the chapters are dedicated to classical topics, like “Prayer” and “Torah.” In these, Schwartz has managed to find and present passages highlighting Rav Kook’s unique ideas. We are forbidden to think that prayer changes God’s mind, says Rav Kook, and we must learn the Torah that inspires us as individuals. Other chapters focus on more surprising topics, like “The Spiritual Importance of Creativity” and “Listening to the Inner Child.” Here it is not just what Rav Kook says that is unique, it is that he is talking about these topics at all. Most rabbis simply don’t talk about the necessity of creative writing, or how important it is to maintain the idealism of our inner child. Before reading “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook,” I didn’t know Rav Kook had anything to say about the inner child at all, let alone a consistent, fleshed-out approach to the topic. Schwartz’s novel categorization means that the book should have something new even for people already familiar with Rav Kook.

Moving from the level of the chapter to the individual text, we find one of the most helpful and unique aspects of Schwartz’s translation. He has given each passage a title summing up its main idea. For some texts the title-summary felt unnecessary, but for others it was a godsend. Schwartz did mighty work turning Rav Kook’s effervescent poetry into lucid prose, but some of his longer passages can still be very difficult to follow. In such cases Schwartz didn’t just give a title to the piece as a whole, he also broke the piece down into smaller paragraphs and gave each of those paragraphs a title as well. The longest passages of the book, spanning three to four pages, thus become much more understandable.

Perhaps most usefully, the book ends with a short biography of Rav Kook, and with a “Spiritual Letter to the Reader,” where Schwartz summarizes each chapter of the book. Importantly, while the letter sums up the book, it does not just do that. The letter aims at inspiring the reader to act based on Rav Kook. Schwartz doesn’t want “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook” to be just another interesting book on the shelf; he wants it to inspire a spiritual revolution for each and every reader. Each chapter offers the reader an opportunity to revolutionize a part of their life, and the letter frames the ideas in exactly that light.

Parashat Va’Et’hanan – The Dual Aspects of Idolatry

אֲשֶׁר חָלַק יְ׳הוָה אֱ׳לֹהֶיךָ אֹתָם לְכֹל הָעַמִּים

 

Parashat VaEt’hanan finishes Moshe’s first great speech of Sefer Devarim and begins his second. In the course of this ending and beginning the Revelation at Sinai is brought up three times, each in order to convey a specific message. The first appears in Devarim 4:9-13, and would seem at first to be simply an explanation of why Idolatry is forbidden, as expounded in verses 14-24. Verse 11 makes it clear that the Revelation at Sinai was not a visual experience, “And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the voice of words, but you saw no form; only a voice,” and then the subsequent section goes through all the forms found in Heaven and on Earth, which by definition of being visible, could not represent ‘א. However, one verse in particular is striking. After rejecting the animals and the birds and the bugs, the Torah rejects the possibility of making idols in the images of the cosmos.

And lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and you see the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven, and you are drawn away and worship them, and serve them, which the Lord your god has allotted to all the nations under the whole heaven. (4:19)

The verse seems bizarre, to say the least, but a deeper look at the verse not only teaches us much about the importance of the Revelation at Sinai, but also a great deal about the nature of the prohibition regarding Idolatry[1].

This verse was explained in a variety of ways by the rishonim. Several suggested[2], based on the gemara, that “the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven” were allotted to the nations in order to provide them with light. This fits with the end of the verse which describes the nations as “under the whole heaven,” which is the area where the light of the stars falls. However, this fails to make sense in context in two ways. Firstly, the larger section is discussing Idolatry, not the providing of light, and second, Israel also receives light from the heavenly bodies, and while this can be fit with the phrase “ all the nations under the whole heaven,” the verse seems to be making a contrast between the nations and Israel, not lumping them together. A second idea is found in the comments of Ibn Ezra and Ramban, who state that all the nations are subject to management by the constellations, in contrast to Bnei Yisrael who are directly managed by ‘א. While not quite as out of context as the first idea, this still fails to fit into the discussion of Idolatry. Sensing the importance of the context, Rashi suggests that this verse is saying that while ‘א will stop the Israelites from worshiping “the host of heaven,” He will not stop the nations of the world from doing so, despite the fact that such actions are a transgression. This fits almost perfectly with the verse. However, the verse itself lacks the implication that the nations are “allowed but not intended” to worship the stars. Rather, as suggested by Rashbam, this verse seems to be stating that the nations are in fact allowed to worship the stars.

This pasuk, then, provides a fascinating model for Idolatry, wherein while it is forbidden for the Nation of Israel, it is permitted for the nations of the world. This is in fact stated explicitly in Shemot Rabbah 15:23[3], which says, “The Holy One, blessed it he, said: I did not warn the idolaters (lit: “star-worshippers”) against idolatry (lit: “worshipping the stars”), [I warned] only you, as it says, ‘do not make for you idols’ (Vayikra 26:1).” The midrash is pretty clear that idolatry is only a problem for Bnei Yisrael. However, this is problematic in terms of the fact that other sources would seem to indicate that the nations of the world are also forbidden to worship idols. Only a few chapters after our verse, the Torah instructs Bnei Yisrael to destroy the objects of idolatry that they find in the Land of Israel (7:5). One of the purposes of the plagues in Egypt was to teach the Egyptians that only ‘א is God[4]. Moreover, the gemara says that there are seven laws incumbent on all descendants of Noah[5], and that the prohibition against Idolatry is amongst them[6]. One method to resolve this difficulty could be saying that the verse says one thing but in practice we don’t follow it[7]. However, instead of simply choosing to reject one source in favor of the other, it is possible to create a synthesis of the two contradictory ideas.

The discussion of Idolatry in the 4th chapter of Devarim is put specifically in context of the fact that ‘א took Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt (4:20) and made a covenant with them at Sinai (4:23). They are forbidden to worship idols, b/c those idols could not possibly represent ‘א, who took them out of Egypt in order to be their god (Bamidbar 15:41), and who is a jealous god (Devarim 4:24). The covenant at Sinai is the concretization of a relationship between ‘א and Israel that was started at the Exodus, and Idolatry violates this relationship. Since the nations of the world, on the other hand, do not possess this special relationship[8], this cannot prohibit them from performing Idolatry. However, Idolatry may be forbidden for other reasons. The most obvious reason is that it is false, but it may also be forbidden due to the fact that it not only involves immoral practices, it also encourages a very self-serving mindset[9]. From this perspective Idolatry would be forbidden for all people, not just Bnei Yisrael. It is possible to view these not as two contradictory ideas, but as two aspects of the larger prohibition of Idolatry, a view which has the benefit of enabling us to understand some approaches to Idolatry that have been taken throughout history.

Throughout history, Bnei Yisrael have encountered other nations, requiring a delicate balance of pushing away idolaters, and living in society. This has resulted in unique statements attempting to demonstrate that a certain religion isn’t really Idolatry. The most famous instance of this in the encounter with Christianity. Perhaps the strangest answer to the question of whether or not Christianity is Idolatry is, “It is not Idolatry for them, but it is for us.” This approach essentially says that the Trinity is the splitting of ‘א’s power to multiple entities, known in Hebrew as “שיתוף,” meaning “partnership,” and that this is only considered Idolatry for jews, but not for the nations of the world[10]. While at first it seems odd that one idea could be both idolatrous and non-idolatrous, it makes perfect sense in light of our 2-aspect paradigm of Idolatry. From the perspective of the relationship between ‘א and the Nation of Israel, introducing a second or third divine entity into that relationship would certainly not be ok, but since the nations of the world do not have that relationship it would be fine. Similarly, the Meiri held that Christianity is not Idolatry because he believed that Idolatry is essentially a moral issue, not a theological one[11]. He said that basic issue with Idolatry is that idolatrous societies are barbaric and uncivilized, and thus any religion that creates a moral society instead of encouraging immorality would not be considered Idolatry[12]. While this certainly applies to Christianity, no one would suggest that a Jew could then go and join Christian worship. Once again, this makes perfect sense in light of the two differing aspects of Idolatry as we have outline them.

Judaism never believed that all peoples should be walking the same path. This can be readily seen from the fact that it was never a missionary religion, in fact going so far as to discourage strangers from converting. Not only do the nations of the world not have to follow in the path of Judaism, the Torah even allows them their own religions. In fact some thinkers have even suggested that all religions have something unique to offer the world[13. Not only should Bnei Yisrael not be denigrating other religions for not being “the true path,” Rav Kook even suggests that it is Judaism’s job to bring out the best in all the other religions[14]. Bnei Yisrael are meant to be a “Kingdom of Priests” (Shemot 19:6), and just as the special access of the Kohanim to the Mikdash was only for the purpose of enabling the relationship of ‘א and the people, so too the Nation of Israel’s special relationship with ‘א brings with it the responsibility to value and uplift the Nations of the World.

[1] I am indebted for many of the sources in this essay to Marc Shapiro’s essay, “Of Books and Bans.”

[2] See Rav Saadiah Gaon, Rashi, Rashbam ad loc. However, Rashi and Rashbam seem unsatisfied with this answer, as they each then offer alternatives.

[3] The Hebrew text of the midrash can be found here.

[4] Rav Yoel Bin Nun, of Yeshivat Har Etzion, has an approach to the Exodus narrative wherein the entirety of it is about the negation of Egypt’s gods, to the point that any appearance of the word “רע,” normally translated as evil, is instead considered a reference to the major Egyptian sun-god, Ra.

[5] However, Masekhet Baba Kama 38a and Vayikra Rabbah 13:2 both state that ‘א repealed the Seven Noahide Laws from upon the nations.

[6] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Sanhedrin, 56a.

[7] This is in fact the general approach taken by Rashbam and the GRA, which originates in Masekhet Sotah, 16a.

[8] While Amos 9:7 states that other nations may have a relationship with ‘א like that of the Exodus, they still lack the covenant of Sinai.

[9] See the beginning of Rambam’s Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim, where he argues that idol worship is purely a function of what a person can get back from the god, a sort of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” arrangement.

[10] ( פתחי תשובה, יורה דעה, קמז ג (ב

[11] Moshe Halbertal, “Bein Torah le-Hokhmah: Rabbi Menahem ha-Meiri u-Va`alei ha-Halakhah ha-Maimonim be-Provence” (Jerusalem, 2000), ch. 3.

[12] Beit HaBehira, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, p. 39.

[13] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “The Dignity of Difference,” Chapter 3. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Orot, Orot Yisrael, 5:2.

[14]  Op cit.

Parashat Shemini 5774 – “For your sake and for the Sake of the Nation”: The Tension Between Particularism and Universalism in the Inaugural Sacrifices

פרשת שמיני – בעדך ובעד העם

Parashat Shemini opens with the eight day of the inauguration of the Mishkan, the point where the service of the Mishkan, until that point performed by Moshe, began to be performed by Aharon and his sons. This begins a process that would continue until the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash, where the descendants of Aharon brought the korbanot of Bnei Yisrael before ‘א. However, that day was not merely the beginning of this process. Many of the services performed that day would not become part of the regular ritual of the Mishkan or Mikdash. An excellent example of this would be the two sin-offerings that Aharon and his sons bring.

In Vayikra 9:7 Aharon is told, “Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the people’s offering and make expiation for them, as the LoRD has commanded.”[1] The phrase “for yourself and for the people” would seem to be odd. Is Aharon not part of the people? Why would he need a separate atonement? Even stranger, this is not the only time such a formulation is found. In Vayikra 16 Moshe describes the service of Yom HaKippurim, and we find the same basic formulation, of Aharon atoning for himself and the greater unit that he is a part of, four times (verses 6, 11, 17, & 24), with the last mimicking 9:7 almost exactly. “He shall bathe his body in water in the holy precinct and put on his vestments; then he shall come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, making expiation for himself and for the people.” Once again, the strangeness of the phrasing stands out. Is Aharon not a part of the people? Why isn’t their expiation enough?

The first step to understanding this separation is to appreciate its nature.  This isn’t just a matter of redundancy in speech, this is something that was effected in real life. The expiation of Aharon and the People occurs in two stages. Vayikra 9:8 says that “Aaron came forward to the altar and slaughtered his calf of sin offering.” Nothing in this verse, or the ensuing description of the offering process, says anything about the nature of this sin offering. Verse 15, in contrast, is quite clear: “Next he brought forward the people’s offering. He took the goat for the people’s sin offering, and slaughtered it, and presented it as a sin offering like the previous one.” The sin offering brought in verse 15 is that of the people, as opposed to the previous one. That one, therefore, must be a sin offering for Aharon himself. This answers the question of the sufficiency of the national expiation for the expiation of Aharon. Aharon is indeed part of the people and would have been covered by their offering. His offering comes before the national one, when he had still not received expiation.

The problem that remains is the question of why? Why does Aharon have to give a sin offering before that of the people can be given? Some hint of the answer lies in the nature of the occasions regarding which this “for himself and for the people” expression is found, the eight inaugural day of the Mishkan and Yom HaKippurim. Both of these days are about having a clean start for the beginning of a new process, about being spiritually fit to begin serving ‘א anew. This is something that occurs on both the individual and collective levels. However, an individual, as part of a unit, cannot focus on the whole  and the part simultaneously, and the question then would be which should be attended to first. The model of the Mishkan is clear, the individual must cleanse themselves first, before getting to work on the whole. However, it is also clear that Aharon’s expiation is meant to make him ready to being the sin offering of the people. The individual should make themselves ready first, but they should do so for the sake of better serving the whole. The Torah thus delineates a basic model that applies to all aspects of life. A person is always part of a people. A people is always part of the peoples of our world. And the first step to making it a better world is for all persons to be the best persons they can be, in order that all peoples will be the best peoples they can be, and our world will be the best that it can be.

[1] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.