Shiur: The Funny Thing About Mitsvot – Adar Bet 2019

The Funny Thing About Mitsvot: Humanity, Divinity, and Irony

I. Take life lightly!

2. Rav Menachem Froman, They Make Hasidim Laugh, §27-28

27. Take life lightly! Clap your hands, run, dance! […] Stop being a Jew like me, who recites the Shema and takes the Mishneh Berurah and Shulan Arukh so seriously. Because truth be told, it’s also written that the Shema has to be recited with an intentional heart. And what exactly is an intentional heart? Lightness; it’s when your heart carries you through your Shema!

Let’s stop being like those who bear the cross of the Torah with such gravity! Let’s stop being like those who can’t take the Torah lightly. That’s what leads to heresy. That’s why the majority of the Jewish people no longer keeps the Torah. What is it I need? To dance the Torah, to jump the Torah! What’s missing is Purim. That’s what’s holding back my service of God.

Years ago, I suggested to my wife that we change our last name from Froman to Purim. Instead of saying, “Rabbi Froman will today meet with Arafat, representatives from Hamas, etc.”, they’d say it was Rabbi Purim! It would sound completely different! Then no one would take what I do too seriously…

28. […] In classical Judaism, all of the commandments commemorate the exodus from Egypt, but now we have reached a new era, an era of laughter and freedom. Until now, all the commandments were very serious. Passover is about pathos. The Torah has lots of pathos, it’s very serious. Now, we have a new era, a new Torah, the Torah of the land of Israel, the Torah of the Messiah. All the commandments commemorate the laughter of Purim, not the pathos of Passover.

To be or not to be is a serious, weighty question. However, Shakespeare wrote in the very same play that the whole world is a stage, that everything is a game. Do you hear me asking the most important question there is in life, whether or not to be? This question is just a joke, it’s a game… it’s just a game…

There is something that takes priority over the question of whether or not to be. It even takes priority over saving a life, which is so important that it overrides Shabbat. What is this thing that takes priority over saving a life? Being before God. Before God. Being before God in this world and the world to come, being before God and knowing that everything we have done in our lives is a joke. Life, death, it’s all a joke before God.

II. Do the Mitsvot, But with a Wink

2. Rav Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored, “Living with Nothingness,” 103 n.35
Translated by Elie Leshem, with minor changes.

This spirit of lightness is expressed through the injection of faith with a humorous dimension. As Rabbi Nahman wrote, the power of humor lies in its capacity to illuminate the limitations of our world in relation to the divine infinitude.

 

3. Rav Shagar, Shiurim Al Lekutei Moharan, on Lekutei Moharan I:6

Rebbe Naḥman claims that the very concepts in which we live, concepts of sin and reward and punishment, in a certain sense corporealize God. They lack spirituality in comparison to the infinite, necessitating a “World to Come” teshuvah to make up for the lower, earthly, teshuvah. Rebbe Naḥman essentially demands that we do teshuvah for the forms of religiosity in which we perform the commandment of teshuvah, which he claims is plagued by corporealization of God. A person must act, but he must not turn this action into an ideology, a something, an object. He knows that his teshuvah necessarily fails, and this recognition elevates his repentance.

This means that every significant decision, like the mental (nafshit) act of repentance, must come from an inner silence. This lets a person drawn on his inner life, which cannot be put into words. Despite this, when the spiritual (ruḥanit) act emerges in the world it loses its innerness, requiring “repentance” to turn it into a true spiritual act. What does this mean? Imagine a person who decides to repent. He is forbidden from thinking that this decision expresses the absolute divine truth. If he thinks this, he has corporealized the divine. He must make the decision, but by nature of being an act in the world, it belongs to the category of “kingly honor” (kevod melakhim). It is by definition corporeal, so he must simultaneously repent for his repentance. He thus elevates and spiritualizes the repentance, returning it to its lofty source.

Rebbe Naḥman’s approach recalls how Soren Kierkegaard described the concept of irony. The spiritual character is different, but there is a degree of similarity between the idea of repenting for your repentance and Kierkegaard’s image of the ironic individual, who speaks seriously, but with a wink. This wink does not mean that he is lying, but expresses a dual perspective on reality. He sees with both his eyes at once: one perspective recognizes the seriousness of holiness, while the second, aware of the seriousness of holiness, feels uncomfortable with the inflexibility hidden in this seriousness; spirituality is not a “thing,” it is free and light by definition. This second perspective, the gaze, frees a person from his first perspective on holiness, thereby initiating it anew. The role of irony is to spiritualize human comprehensions of reality. The ironic individual wants to maintain his world while nullifying it (bitulo). He is the believer who takes his life seriously, but understands that sometimes you need a sideways wink in order to look at life seriously.

4. Rav Shagar, Shuvi Nafshi, 27-28

The religious act is inherently flawed by virtue of being an earthly act. Any religious statement must be nullified as it is being said, simply in order to make it sayable.

In order to give teshuvah the elevation it deserves, we have to do teshuvah while simultaneously doing teshuvah for that act of teshuvah itself. The act of teshuvah is in and of itself a sin in relation to the divine infinitude. It is therefore forbidden to get caught up in the motivation for the teshuvah, seeing it as an absolute motivation. It’s earthliness makes it necessary to do teshuvah for the teshuvah.

This is how Rebbe Naḥman elevates the teshuvah itself to the supernal teshuvah, the teshuvah of the world to come, which not our real world, but the teshuvah of the ideal world that does not yet exist. The doubled gaze enables a person to do teshuvah even if this teshuvah is earthly and insufficient.

 

5. Rav Shagar, Tsel Ha’Emunah, 57-58

The test of religiosity is not keeping the mitsvot, nor even suspending them or not keeping them, but how you relate to their suspension. A person can trust (bitaḥon) in the mitsvot and cast his lot upon them, but he must ask himself what happens when God rejects his performance of the mitsvot. Is the mitsvah itself the goal? What about when it doesn’t receive its light from the will of God? […] God’s laughter reveals the unusual combination of the person who trusts (bitahon) and the God who knocks his trust out from under him. […] This is a comical event, which reveals the total nothingness, the joke, of the person who thinks its so serious and important when he does a mitsvah. It’s as if God “pranked” the person; someone with a sense of humor will laugh along and even enjoy it, but someone who doesn’t will see it as a painful rejection. This necessary humor comes from recognizing the precariousness of human existence, the nothingness of humanity in contrast with the divine infinitude. […] Performing the act as a mitsvah is what makes it divine and absolute, for the mitsvah is what reveals God speaking to a person. […] Doing them any other way, no matter how lofty and important the motivations, remains within the human confines of “reasoned decision,” without connecting to the divine. […] The Jewish person celebrates doing mitsvot because that is where he finds God addressing him.

 

III. Freeing God from the Mitsvot

6. Yishai Mevorach, Teologiah Shel Heser, 102

It’s as if God is bound in the bonds of a person’s religious language and religious way of life. A person’s faith language carries with it a meaning that limits the words of faith – words like “God,” “divinity,” “holiness,” “commandment” – to the narrow sense of their religious form of life. The rabbis expressed this “framing” in homilies (midrashim) that depict God observing the commandments.[1] This congruence between religious life and God’s life creates an intimacy in the relationship of the believer and his god. Additionally, it testifies to the narrowness of the god’s world, constricted within the believer’s way of life.

Only a “secular believer,” sensitive to the enigmatic nature of his language, can encounter the infinite force of the divine, while he is forced to constantly turn his gaze up and down, backward and forward, because the word he speaks lacks any meaning or sense when he says “God.”[2] This understanding opens up a path to secular faith, to faith that encounters religious language and feels how it is full of force exactly by virtue of its lack of meaning.

[1] “Rabbi Avin bar Rav Adda said that Rabbi Yitzḥak said: From where is it derived that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wears phylacteries? As it is stated: “The Lord has sworn by His right hand, and by the arm of His strength” (Isaiah 62:8). Since it is customary to swear upon holy objects, it is understood that His right hand and the arm of His strength are the holy objects upon which God swore.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6a, Koren translation and commentary)

[2] “One may not expound the laws of forbidden sexual relations before three people, nor the account of Creation before two, nor the Divine Chariot before one, unless he is wise and understanding from his own knowledge. Anyone who looks into four things is worthy of not having come into the world: what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after. And anyone who has no consideration for the honor of his Maker would be better off if he had not come into the world.” (Mishnah Hagigah 2:2)

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Rav Shagar Goes Beyond the State: Rosenzweig’s Non-Statist “Jewishness” and the Primordial Torah

Rav Shagar Goes Beyond the State:
Rosenzweig’s Non-Statist “Jewishness” and the Primordial Torah

More thesis notes.

In the last post, I focused on a passage from Rav Shagar entitled “Not Yet,” wherein Rav Shagar said that Religious Zionism has to shift its focus from the state to the community. While not rejecting statist Zionism in toto, Shagar withdraws all Religious value from the state and relocates it within the classical body politic of the Jewish Diaspora, the community.

Shagar does not give us a full depiction of what this non-statist religious community would look like. However, Shagar often argued that the Religious Zionist community should adopt the Haredi community’s minority posture, wherein they do not define themselves based on the space in which they live or the other groups with whom they interact. In several of these passages, he appeals to Rosenzweig for a philosophical formulation of this mode of existence, and in the derashah “Love and Law,” he describes this as how Judaism looked before the emergence of Rav Kook’s religious Zionism:

What was the spiritual situation before Rav Kook’s teachings? What was that “religious Jewishness” that we mentioned? […]

Rosenzweig taught that Jewishness manifests as commitment and being rooted in the covenant, which are the fundamental acts of Judaism. According to this definition, the Jewish exile is when you create of a sheltered, a-historical, family space, without being concerned for surroundings or engaged in the rules of history. The Jews “lack the passionate attachment to the things that constitute the primary… ‘objects’ of other historical peoples and nations, attachments that ultimately constitute their vitality and endurance as peoples and nations: land, territory, and architecture; regional and national languages; laws [=state laws], customs, and institutions.” Their land exists only as a holy land for which they yearn, and their holy language is not their first language, not the language that they speak in their daily lives. Jewishness is bound up and connected only and entirely in itself. “Our life is no longer meshed with anything outside ourselves. We have struck root in ourselves.” “And so, in the final analysis, [the Jewish nation] is not alive in the sense the nations are alive: in a national life manifest on this earth, in a national territory, solidly based and staked out on the soil. It is alive only in that which guarantees it will endure beyond time, in that which pledges it ever lastingness, in drawing its own eternity from the sources of the blood.”

The Jew being connected only in himself, of the nation in its very existence, creates a two-fold relationship with the “outside.” Other nations and cultures, either do not exist from the Jew’s perspective, the “outside” does not enter his horizon at all…”

The Jews are always at home, because they are never in a home; their home is their blood. As Rosenzweig lays it out, the critical distinction between the Jewish people and other peoples is that the Jewish people don’t have a state, or all the laws, customs, and institutions that come with it. Rav Shagar argues that the Religious Zionist community should adopt this sort of posture within the state of Israel. The state should be a geo-political space in which they live but with which they do not identify.

This is the same sort of existence Rav Shagar attributes to Haredism (if not to contemporary Haredi communities, which fail to live up to his idealized “authentic” or “rectified” Haredism). They live in the state but do not attribute religious value to it. Their religious lives are entirely separate from the state, and they follow its laws, speak its language, and participate in its institutions only incidentally. (Notably, Rav Shagar also attributes to them an understanding of holiness as bound up in the past, which he finds philosophically formulated in  [Stephane Moses’s] Walter Benjamin).

Similarly, Religious Zionism needs to reorient itself around the community as the locus of religious life, following the laws of the Torah community, bound up in “the infinite Torah” (seemingly the primordial Torah of the Kabbalah). They need to become, and embrace being, a minority within the state of Israel, defined more by their Jewishness than by their Israeliness. To the degree that they do identify with the state of Israel, this will be in contrast with and perhaps even in contradiction to their religious identities. As Rav Shagar says, being a Religious Zionist means living in multiple worlds, having a split, “schizophrenic” identity, and affirming contradictory values.

Rav Shagar’s Turn to Rosenzweig: Post-Liberalism and the Futurity of Redemption

More thesis notes.

muqataflag1

Part of my thesis focuses on Rav Shagar’s turn to Rosenzweig in context of struggling with the state of Israel’s violent actions, “Violence in the struggle over the land [that] contradicts our tradition in a deep way,” most particularly the Disengagement from Gaza and the northern Shomron. Rosenzweig was famously a non-Zionist (in contrast with the anti-Zionist Benno Jacob) and believed that redemption was something we experience as inherently set in the future, rather than as something achievable in the present. The Jewish people cannot achieve redemption, they must wait for it patiently. In this, Rosenzweig self-consciously rejects the ideas of human progress and of the modern liberal state (note: “liberal” here does not have the same sense as in contemporary politics) as an entity capable of elevating human existence (cf. Yehoshua Arieli, “Modern History as Reinstatement of the Saeculum”). In this sense, Rosenzweig is a “post-liberal” thinker, in that he consciously rejects the liberal, modern framework. He is not ignorant of the possibility that people could redeem themselves, he is aware of it and believes it to be false. It is this post-liberal sensibility that Rav Shagar takes up in the passage I discuss here.

franz1

These two ideas, 1) the futurity of redemption and 2) the inability of people to redeem themselves are obviously connected. From one perspective, people cannot redeem themselves because redemption is a state that exists beyond history. From another, redemption lies beyond human history because people are incapable of achieving it.

Religious Zionism was built on the the idea that Jews can in fact bring the redemption rather than simply “yearning” for it, or “entreating” it, in Rosenzweig’s language. Hence the importance of the religious, redemptive nature of the contemporary state of Israel, because it is already the first step in the process of achieving redemption.

Most of the time when Rav Shagar appeals to Rosenzweig in context of Zionism, he presents Rosenzweig’s non-Zionism as one extreme, with Rav Abraham Isaac Kook on the other, enabling him to choose a middle position that he identifies with Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav. However, in an essay entitled “We did not Win in Amona” (Nekudah 288 (Adar 2006), 34-37; Nahalekh Baragesh, 330) he seems to embrace Rosenzweig’s position more whole-heartedly. He still does not propose moving out of Israel or anything, but he does talk about adopting an exilic existence within Israel (something for which he argues in a variety of contexts, and which his student, Yishai Mevorach, develops dramatically in his book, Yehudi Shel Haketsei). Moreover, he embraces the interlocking Rosenzweigian elements of 1) the futurity of redemption and 2) the post-liberal sense that people cannot redeem themselves. While Rav Shagar does not go so far as to say that redemption cannot be achieved by people, he does delay the religious nature of the state, seemingly indefinitely. Strikingly, the relevant section of the aforementioned essay is entitled “Not Yet,” the phrase Rosenzweig uses to denote the futurity of redemption.

In this text, liberal vs. post-liberal ideologies of redemption and progress are framed in terms of bitahon, a word referring both to the religious sense of trust in God and the secular self-confidence of human-driven progress and security. Rav Shagar criticizes the Religious Zionist community for replacing the former, religious meaning with the latter, secular one. Religious Zionists are too liberal (again, not in the sense of contemporary political discourse), believing too strongly in their capacity to create a redemptive state (cf. Dov Schwartz, “Religious Zionism and the Idea of the New Man” [Heb], Yisrael 16 (2009):143-164). They ought to reject this modernist ideology and “throw their lot upon the Lord.” While the appeal to Psalms and Haredi ideology might seem to echo pre-modern, pre-liberal ways of thinking, it is the conscious adoption of these approaches against modern, liberal ideology that makes Rav Shagar post-liberal.

Notably, this text also presents us with Shagar pretty clearly identifying Rosenzweig (and Cohen) with what the Haredi community, something he does in other contexts as well. Ultra-Orthodox, Haredi Judaism is an intensive, minority culture which does not identify with the state of Israel in any religious sense, nor does it believe in human-driven redemption. While explicitly calling for Religious Zionism to remain Religious Zionism, rather than turning toward Haredi Judaism, Rav Shagar still critiques these elements that make Religious Zionism what it is, and argues for the adoption of a more Haredi/Rosenzweigian cultural posture. This leads him to a messianism that exists as dreams, and a Zionism that is most certainly not their fulfillment.

 

The final section of “We did not Win in Amona,” entitled “Not Yet,” is translated in full below.


Not Yet

We have to be faithful to our path; that is the meaning of covenant today. We must adhere to the Religious Zionist path, even in a world of betraying and being betrayed. I call upon us to be Haredim for our path; in my opinion, this is the correct meaning of being “National Religious Haredi” (hardaliyut). It’s not about moving away from the original Religious Zionist Torah, which takes the path of “Tiferet,” the path of combinations, integrations, and shades. Zionism, higher education, social sensitivity, modesty, and faithfulness. Our becoming-Haredi needs to be a becoming-Haredi into religious Zionism. Abandoning this path is itself corrupting the covenant (pegam habrit). Violence in the struggle over the land contradicts our tradition in a deep way. Moreover, a violent struggle just invites the next struggle. Hate nourishes hate. They make us evil, and we make them evil. The holy “Shlah” interpreted the verse “The Egyptians mistreated (vayare’u) us” to mean that the primary sin of the Egyptians was making us evil (ra’im). In my opinion, the only to change direction and start a revolution is the opposite approach. In war, everyone loses, while mercy and patience win even when they lose. In the present situation, any other fight ceases to be a religious fight, and is nothing other than a gross internalization of the crude aspect of the secular Zionist ethos.

We must build Judea, but as a community, not a state. We will remain faithful to the state, and as such to the nation of Israel, but while pointedly maintaining our unique approach and thus our distinctiveness. We will see in isolating ourselves (to a degree) in our community an exile in the midst of redemption, exile within the land of Israel. “After the Disengagement,” said one of the rabbis of Judea, Samaria, and the area around Gaza, “we will go out to exile with a book of kinot in our hands.” However, it is an exile of yearnings, of what is “not yet.” It is an exile that means recognizing the dream that is not yet realized, and that we are not willing to give up on it. This is as opposed to an exile of alienation and estrangement, alienation that comes from an inability to accept the fact that the dream cannot be realized here and now. Like relationships between the sexes, wherein the laws of modesty require us to maintain boundaries (mehitsot), which are sometimes thin and even transparent but always firm and tangible, so two we must maintain the boundary between secularism and religiosity. It will not lead to alienation and rejection of the covenant, but will preserve the “not yet.”

Ultimately, we are unaccustomed to this response. We Religious Zionists committed almost entirely to the Zionist activism of redeeming ourselves under our own power and the ethos of totally rejecting the exile. The confidence (bitahon) of the Religious Zionist is something different, it is the confidence that “he gives you the strength to create wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18). All we must do, they taught us, is believe that it is not our power but divine providence. It is this belief that distinguishes between forceful violence and action that never loses track of the weak and weakness and grace. However, this activist confidence must pass through the confidence of “Cast your burden upon the Lord” (Psalms 55:23), which is the inner ability to relinquish and set aside; it is this confidence to which we are called at this moment. This confidence enables us to give up on victory today. In other words, we are forbidden to forget the exile. The ethos of rejecting the exile, the confidence in the IDF that replaced the confidence in God, is what I think made the state violent and forceful. We must internalize the exile into the state itself. There were and are Haredi Israelis, and non-Orthodox thinkers like Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig, who for this reason opposed the very idea of a Jewish state. They claimed that authentic Jewish existence is exilic existence, and that Jewishness is inherently opposed to history and politics. The answer, they claim, must be establishing a state without rejecting the exile. It should be a dialectical, I would even say Hegelian, process, that internalizes the exilicness into the state and thus elevates it to the next phase of political existence, a state of justice and mercy.

In the past, Religious Zionism has resolved this tension by sheltering beneath the wide-spread wings of the secular Zionist state. This often involved intentional ignorance and self-deception, such as have been laid bare by ongoing events. The problem began when Religious Zionism tried to take the burden on itself. The shelter is broken now, and the tension between spirit and force emerges with full intensity. The current solution, fitting to the spirit of the age, is communalist. It’s a solution within the framework of what they call the citizen society, which involves suspending the identity between religion and state. This does not mean that we’ll stop being Religious Zionists and loyal patriots; Hatikvah will still send a shiver down our spines and connect us to two thousand years. However, alongside this feeling of loyalty we will know that the state cannot now fulfill our dreams. Its is exactly from a place of relinquishment, of separation without alienation, that we will be able to receive much deeper empathy for our path and our dreams.

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.)

Hanukkah 2018 Shiur – Where do we draw the line between Judaism and the Outside World?

 

Sources:

I. The Weather Outside is Frightful – Franz Rosenzweig’s “Apologetic Thinking,”

Translation from “Philosophical and Theological Writings,” eds. and trans. P. Franks and M. Morgan

  1. Judaism in­deed has dogmas, but no dogmatics. […] The community does not wish to be only a spiri­tual community, but wants rather to be what it actually is in contrast to other communities connected by spirit/intellect alone: a natural com­munity, a people.

  2. The Guide of the Perplexed, however, would dis­appoint one who approaches it in the expectation of finding a system. […] The defense is directed against the attacks of philosophy, not or only peripherally against other religions, by which the defense could therefore have been taken over. The apologetic nature of the funda­mental attitude yields the completely unpedantic character, which still today is a fresh breeze for the reader and strikes him as in no way “scholastic”; this thinking has what systematic thinking cannot have so easily: the fascination—and the truthfulness—of thought reacting to the occasion; but therefore a limit is also set for it which only systematic thinking removes: exactly the limit of the occasional; only systematic thinking determines the circle of its objects itself; apologetic thinking remains dependent on the cause, the adversary.

  3. And in this sense Jewish thinking remains apologetic thinking. […] One did not become a Jewish thinker in the undisturbed circle of Judaism. Here, thinking did not become a think­ing about Judaism, which was simply the most self-evident thing of all, more a being than an “ism,” but rather it became a thinking within Judaism, a learning; thus ultimately not a fundamental but rather an or­namental thinking. Anyone who was supposed to reflect on Judaism had somehow, if not psychologically then at least spiritually, to be torn at the border of Judaism. Therefore, however, his thinking was then de­termined by the power which had led him to the border, and the depth horizon of his gaze was determined by the degree to which he had been carried to, on, or across the border. The apologetic is the legitimate force of this thinking but also its dan­ger.

  4. Why is the word “apologetics” particularly afflicted with such a bad odor? In this regard, it is probably similar to the apologetic profession par excellence, that of the lawyer. Against him, too, exists widely the prejudice that considers lying, as it were, his legitimate task. It may be that a certain professional routine appears to justify this prejudice. And yet, defending can be one of the noblest human occupations. Namely, if it goes to the very ground of things and souls and, renouncing the petty devices of a lie, ex-culpates with the truth, nothing but the truth. In this broad sense, literary apologetics can also defend. It would then embellish nothing, still less evade a vulnerable point, but would rather make precisely the most endangered points the basis of the defense. In a word: it would defend the whole, not this or that particular. It would not at all be a defense in the usual sense, but rather a candid exposition, yet not of some cause, but rather of one’s own [self].

 

II. But the Fire is So Delightful – Rav Shagar’s “Translation and Living in Multiple Worlds”

Translation by Levi Morrow, forthcoming

  1. For better or worse, we are citizen of multiple cultures and we live in more than one world of values. We are not able to deny this situation, nor would we deny it if we could. Denying it would be self-denial, leading to deep, radical injury to our religious faith itself. Rebbe Naḥman’s approach to translation is therefore not only desirable, but also the only option for elevating the translation that is already happening anyway.
    I see great importance in this characterization because we do not first experience the true problem of the encounter between Torah, religious life, and the Greek language – affecting us through the media, academia, literature, and much more – when we come across this language in our university studies after years of learning in yeshiva. Rather, much earlier, in the religious education that we received, in the foundation of our faith, and in the limited constructs that we make its content. We therefore need a substantial religious-spiritual-Jewish alternative, without which it is impossible to avoid internal contradictions that bear a heavy price.
  2. The multiple, split identity model puts together different worlds without recognizing compartmentalized truth-values or different realms of truth. We should describe the Religious Zionist soul as a soul that lives not in one world but in many worlds, which it likely cannot integrate. It does not compartmentalize them – Torah versus Avodah, faith versus science, religion versus secularism – but rather manages a confusing and often even schizophrenic set of relationships between them.
    A new type of religiosity has therefore developed nowadays, one that cannot be defined by its location on any graph; it is scattered across many different (shonim), you could even call them “strange” (meshunim), centers. This religiosity does not define itself with the regular religious definitions, but enables a weaving of unusual identities, integrating multiple worlds – in a way that is not a way. It presents a deep personal faith that, in my opinion, carries the potential for religious redemption
  3.  As per Rebbe Naḥman, the deep meaning of preserving the covenant (shemirat habrit) is eros. This is the significance of the small jug of oil with the seal of the high priest: the harmony of an individual with who and what he is, without locking himself into a specific identity; he can be who he is, whoever that may be.

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).

Nomadic Mitsvot: Brendan Breed’s Reception Theory and Materialist Reasons for the Commandments

Introduction: By Way of Conclusion

Over the past year or so, I’ve written a series of posts dealing with what I called “materialist” approaches to the reasons for the mitsvot, meaning an approach to the commandments that privileges the embodied acts over the theoretical reasons. I started with looking at how the relationship between software and hardware might shape a different way of thinking about the mitsvot. I then explored how slightly different materialist approaches show up in the writings of three modern Jewish thinkers, two recent, one contemporary: Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Shagar, and Rabbi David Silverstein. By way of conclusion, I thought would talk a little about how I got started thinking about this issue.

Several years ago, I listened to a podcast interview with Brendan Breed about his then-new book, “Nomadic Texts: A Theory of Biblical Reception History.” In the interview, he explained a few of the different aspects of his broad new theory of biblical reception history, the full breadth of which I only understood when I read the book itself earlier this year. Biblical reception history is an an area of academic research that studies not the Bible itself, but how the Bible has been received by various groups over time. While I can’t do justice to the entire book here, in what follows I want to lay out the two main points from his argument that inspired my idea of “materialist” approaches to the commandments.

(This section is going to briefly lay out the relevant section of Breed’s argument. For anyone not interested, feel free to skip to the next section, which should make sense even without this background.)

Let’s Get Technical: Beyond Audience and Intent

As Breed discusses, two of the most popular ways of defining the “meaning” of a text are based on authorial intent and the original audience. The former approach asserts that the text means what an author intended it to mean. Thus, what we really do when we read is extrapolate the author’s intent from the words that she wrote. The author expresses herself in text, and we work backwards from there. The latter approach asserts that the text means what it was understood to mean by its original audience. What we really do when we read, therefore, is determine what the original audience understood from reading the same text. We try and get outside our own context and perspective and adopt the context and perspective of the original audience.

These two approaches can certainly lead to similar, or even identical, understandings of a given text, but they can also lead to different understandings if, for example, an author is misunderstood by her readers. One example of this might be J. R. R. Tolkien, who claimed that his The Lord of the Rings was not a Christian allegory, despite many readers understanding it as exactly that. Of course, there is a huge variety of approaches beyond just these two, as well as approaches that combine them. It can also be hard to separate them to begin with, as presumably the author took her audience and its context into account when writing the text. When it comes to texts we take to be divinely authored, questions of author and audience become more complex.

Breed attacks both of these approaches, based on a fundamental re-evaluation of what texts are supposed to do, why we even write things to begin with. As Breed compellingly argues, the point of writing something is to enable it to move from the author’s original context to another context. Writing creates permanence whereas spoken words disappear as soon as they are said. Oral conversation happens face-to-face, and it allows the author to express her intent to a specific audience, with a shared context to avoid confusion about the meaning of her words. If she writes a text, however, it will be read by an audience outside her immediate context, who may interpret it radically differently from her intent. Moreover, it could be read by an entirely different audience than the author had in mind; letters can be intercepted in a way that in-person conversation simply cannot. As Breed says,

Written signs are not only repeatable; they are also durable. That is, a written text remains long after its context of production has passed away. Durability has long been noted as a productive feature of writing: writers write things down precisely so that readers can read them outside the situational context of writing. […] In other words, writing is useful precisely because it does not lose its readability when it is transported elsewhere and read at another time, even when it is radically separated from its context of production. (103)

As a result of this, “all texts continue to find new contexts regardless of writerly, readerly, and scholarly attempts to pin them down” (104). This idea challenges the both the authorial intent model and the original audience model for determining a text’s meaning. If the author’s text is going to be read by people outside her immediate context, and potentially by people she couldn’t imagine in contexts she couldn’t imagine, then her intent is going to get garbled along the way, to say the least. Meanwhile, the permanence of a text means that it will almost certainly be read by more than just the one original audience. Both the authorial intent and original audience models may therefore be much less significant than many people think.

In place of these approaches, Breed puts forth his own, novel approach to thinking about the meaning of a text (based significantly on the works of French theorist Gilles Deleuze).

Following Gilles Deleuze’s lead, I propose that biblical texts are not objects but are instead objectiles, object-projectiles, that must be studied as something for which movement and variation is a necessary quality and thus for whom any static identity is an always contingent predicate. (116-117)

Texts, Breed claims, tear through history like bullets. And, like bullets, it matters a lot less why they were set loose than what happens after that point. The shooter’s intent matters a lot less than the actual effect of the shooting. Similarly, an author’s intent matters a lot less than how her text affects the world. J. K. Rowling likely could never have imagined what Harry Potter would mean when she first dreamed it up. Reducing its meaning to her intent would mean missing out on everything that followed.

The picture that Breed develops is one in which “drift is an essential characteristic of text itself” (109, emphasis in the original). Texts are inherently opaque, carrying no meaning of their own. The unique nature of each opaque object will inspire unique meanings and responses in each new context it enters. Thus, “instead of asking what the correct context is in which to read a text, one might ask in what ways a particular context reshapes the reading of the text” (130). We can’t know what the text means inherently, but we can know what it means in each different context. “When we look at how a text produces meaning in various settings it tells us more, not less, about the nature of that text” (131). We can look at all the different meanings a text has in all the different contexts it enters, and see what patterns emerge. This will enable us to map the capacities inherent in the text, the potential meanings it inherently bears. The two ideas that we have seen, the rejection of the author’s intent and the rejection of an original audience, thus combine to make the text what Breed calls “nomadic.”

Nomadic Mitsvot

I haven’t laid out Breed’s argument in full, and I don’t really even want to argue for the small part that I have laid out. What interests me is the value this discussion might have for Judaism. I think that taking these two ideas, the rejection of the author’s intent and the rejection of an original audience, and introducing them into the discourse around taamei hamitsvot, reasons for the commandments, can help solve a critical problem for contemporary Jews.

One of the blights of our era is our historical awareness. We don’t just have a long and colorful history, we are also painfully aware of every step of it. This has many benefits, but it also forces us to confront the contingency of each moment in history; nothing is absolute, because everything is a result of historical conditioning. We can no longer say “Judaism says” with full confidence, because we know that Judaism has said many different things at many different moments in its history. When it comes to the discussion of reasons for the commandments, we are too aware of all the different reasons that have been put forward for any given commandment. Even if we are willing to write off broad swaths of the reasons put forward (for example, anything that does or doesn’t include Kabbalistic ideas), we could never narrow the field to the point where we have exactly the same amount of reasons as we do commandments. Even in just the Torah itself, many commandments have multiple reasons (perhaps most famously, Shabbat has different reasons in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, not to mention in the rest of its biblical appearances). Moreover, the simple fact that so many important figures from the tradition disagreed over the reason for each commandment makes it hard to really confidently affirm any one opinion over any other.

If we affirm Breed’s two principles that I laid out above, if we see the mitsvot as “nomadic,” then I think we can avoid this problem. This is essentially what I have tried to show with my posts on Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Shagar, and Rabbi David Silverstein. In The Halakhic Mind, Rav Soloveitchik argues that the reason for a commandment should not be identified with some idea that came before it, for which it was commanded, but with the subjective experience it inspires in one who performs it. Of course, he seems to suggest that there is one correct subjective effect each command will inspire, so he lacks the second element of my model. For that, I turned to Rav Shagar, whose derashot on Hanukkah both frame the commandments as opaque, meaningless objects and suggest that the reason for any mitsvot should be understood in terms of the meaning of performing the commandment, rather than the reason for the commandment itself. The act of performing is the locus of meaning, rather than the mitsvah itself, and it will necessarily differ from person to person and from historical context to historical context. This could combine with Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to let us talk about the mitsvot as “nomadic,” in Breed’s language. All that is left to do is map out the different possibilities each mitsvah bears within it, as manifested on its journey through history. A bold step in that direction is taken by Rabbi David Silverstein in his Jewish Law as a Journey which discusses the reasons for many commandments by exploring what those commandments have meant throughout history. He never broaches the question of what God’s reason for any given mitsvah might be, instead simply focusing on what different Jewish texts have said about it throughout history. The next step would be highlighting the broad patters in order to map the nomadic paths of various mitsvot, the specific meanings that have repeatedly generated throughout their histories. I can only hope someone will take this project up in the future.

As a Hammer Smashes Rock: Rethinking Divine Intent

Before I bring this concluding post to an end, I should broach more directly a topic I have so far discussed only briefly, in the post on Jewish Law as a Journey: how this approach squares with divine intent. It’s a lot harder to talk about “the death of the author,” about disregarding authorial intent, when that author is God. However, I would argue that this actually presents an opportunity for rethinking divine intent, specifically, for thinking about how divine authorial intent might differ from human authorial intent.

The problem with human authorial intent as I laid it out above is that the author can never predict in advance where their text will go and what it will mean there. She cannot know what her text will mean or to whom it will mean it. Limiting the meaning of the text to her intent is therefore very narrowly restrictive and obscures the reality of the text rather than clarifying it.

Whether or not you accept that argument in the context of a human author, it seems problematic to simply copy-and-paste it into the context of a divine author. The challenge to authorial intent is essentially based on the limits of human knowledge; the human author can never know all the different contexts and meanings of her work. However, with a divine author, there is at least the possibility of omniscience, of the idea that God knows everything, even the future. This is obviously one of the great theological debates, one I don’t intend to resolve here, but the possibility is at the very least available. We could thus claim that the divine authorial intent is not one specific meaning of the Torah text, but each and every meaning that it will pick up throughout its history.

Notably, this seems to be the idea behind one traditional reading of Jeremiah 23:29, “Behold my word is like fire, saith the Lord, like a hammer that shatters rock.” This verse (which has its own history of different meanings and contexts), is taken by many to mean that the divine word, as realized in the scriptural texts of the Jewish canon, can and does bear a multiplicity of meanings (See, for example, Rashi’s comment on Exodus 6:9). The image of the divine word as a hammer shattering a rock is really a phenomenal one for our purposes. The Torah is an opaque “objectile” launched into history, smashing into human contexts, meanings breaking off in every direction. The same way the author composes a text and sets it adrift among her readers, God fixed certain rituals and acts as commandments and loosed them on Jewish history, to generate a whole host of meanings. As Rav Shagar puts it in one essay, the divine wisdom sheds and takes up different forms throughout the course of history (Halikhot Olam, 187). Notably, this would essentially give us a reconceptualization of the Oral Torah as the meanings generated by the Written Torah on its path through history, all intended by the original divine author.

If you’re uncomfortable with that strong sense of divine foreknowledge, but still don’t want to give up on divine authorial intent, we could perhaps appeal to a more general intent. Instead of saying that God intended every meaning that the Torah would generate, we can simply say that God wanted the Jewish people to do their best to understand the Torah, even given that they would understand the Torah differently in different historical contexts. This would give us something like the idea behind the famous “Oven of Akhnai” story from Bavli Bava Metsia 59b, which argues that “the Torah is not in heaven,” and therefore the majority interpretation of the Jewish sages supersedes even the divine understanding of the Torah’s meaning. The meaning of the Torah is thus what the Jewish people thinks it is, rather than what God intended it to be. However, as the conclusion to the story makes clear, God desires this to be the case. God intended that the Torah be understood differently over time, even without intending those specific different understandings.

Conclusion

As I hope I have shown, in this post and in the whole series, thinking about the mitsvot as material objects that generate their meanings both can be and already is a fruitful part of taamei hamitsvot discourse. Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Shagar did it, and Rabbi David Silverstein is doing it now. Given the theological issues it helps us untangle, I hope it can become a bigger part of this discourse in the future. Minimally, I hope this series will help people recognize it when they see it, as it is already a part of our sacred texts and traditions.