On the Idea of Prayer as Human Nature in Contemporary Israeli Neo-Hasidut

On the Idea of Prayer as Human Nature
in Contemporary Israeli Neo-Hasidut

(Some Preliminary Thoughts)

 

I want to look at some texts from the contemporary Dati Le’umi turn to Hasidic texts in order to examine the theme of prayer as a natural human action. Specifically, I will look at texts from Rav Menahem Froman, Rav Dov Singer, and Yishai Mevorach. However, I will first briefly examine a similar idea from the writings of Rav Soloveitchik, in order to highlight the difference between Soloveitchik’s idea and the Israeli texts.

 

Rav Soloveitchik

In various text, Soloveitchik argues that petitionary prayer is the purest, most authentically Jewish form of prayer. He argues that petition is the aspect of prayer that corresponds to a person’s essential creaturely neediness.[1]

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Prayer as a personal experience, as a creative gesture, is possible only if and when man discovers himself in crisis or in need. That is why the Jewish idea of prayer differs from the mystical idea, insofar as we have emphasized the centrality of the petition, while the mystics have stressed the relevance of the hymn. Since prayer flows from a personality which finds itself in need, despondent and hopeless, its main theme is not praise or adoration, but rather request, demand, supplication. True prayer comes to expression in the act of begging and interceding.[2]

Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with human needs, wants, drives and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs. Prayer tells the individual, as well as the community, what his, or its, genuine needs are, what he should, or should not, petition God about […] In short, through prayer man finds himself. Prayer enlightens man about his needs. It tells man the story of his hidden hopes and expectations. It teaches him how to behold the vision and how to strive in order to realize this vision, when to be satisfied with what one possesses, when to reach out for more. In a word, man finds his need-awareness, himself, in prayer.[3]

Prayer, Soloveitchik says, fits with human nature. Moreover, it actually helps a person recognize her own nature. Petitioning God is both natural, and helps us be natural. However, it is not itself human nature. Additionally, he sees petition as just one part of prayer, if the primary one, and the rest of prayer is not as essentially linked to human nature. The texts from Israeli thinkers that we will see below will differ on these points, from him and each other.

 

Contemporary Israeli Neo-Hasidut

Contemporary Israel thinkers, specifically Dati Le’umi thinkers working off Hasidic texts, have also connected prayer to human nature, but they have done so very differently from Rav Soloveitchik. For example, Rabbi Dov Singer explores the nature of prayer in his book, Tikon Tefilati.

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Various thinkers have given different answers to the philosophical question, which is to a great degree an existential question for humanity, what is man. The most famous answer is that Latin term, “Homo sapiens,” which means “thinking man” or “cognitive man.” Perhaps I could give a different answer: Man is “Homo mitpalelos,” a praying creature, or more specifically, a prayerful creature. The unique ability of the human soul to express prayer from within itself differentiates man from animal even more sharply than his cognitive capabilities. [4]

Singer argues that prayer is the very essence of human nature. This is in contrast to Soloveitchik’s argument neediness and lack are essential to human nature, and that prayer is a natural next step from them. Neither of them embrace the model of man as an essentially cognitive being, though Soloveitchik does not frame that model as prayer’s antagonist. Singer, on the other hand, sees intellectual reflection as an obstacle to prayer, overriding man’s nature.

In defining man as a praying creature, I am trying to free us from the need to explain to ourselves what prayer is, who God is, whether or not prayer works. The primary obstacle to prayer is often the theological, intellectual obstacle, the attempt to delineate and understand exactly how things work. Prayer suggests putting those questions aside for a time, an instance of “We will do and [then] we will understand.” We let the naturalness of prayer act upon us, exactly the way that we breath, without understanding the mechanism of breath entirely.[5]

Singer’s argument is essentially that we need to stop asking question about prayer, stop analyzing it, and just begin to pray. We shouldn’t be looking for a reason for prayer, because it is just who we are. Moreover, analyzing prayer and trying to explain it actually disrupts prayer. The same way breathing consciously and intentionally requires effort and disrupts our natural breathing, trying to be too conscious about prayer can disrupt it. Instead, we have to take prayer as our starting point.

The significance of taking prayer as our starting point receives an added layer in a short paragraph from Rav Froman’s Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh. Froman formulates the idea aphoristically, so he lacks Singer’s systematic approach, but he makes up for it with emotional resonance.

froman

I sometimes think that all theology, all religions, all of the things we say about God are just how we explain that basic, instinctive, human thing we call “prayer.”

A person prays, and he must explain to himself to whom he is praying, why he is praying, and what he is doing, so he calls it “God” and constructs a whole religious understanding of the world around it.

But the very core of it all is prayer.[6]

Froman claims that not only do we not need to explain prayer, prayer can in fact explain all of religion! While man comes up with the rest of religion in order to explain religion, the actual causal order is the reverse. Prayer is “instinctive” and “human,” and thus cannot be explained other than by saying it is human nature. There’s no room for any more analysis than that, and trying to insert such analysis, trying to explain why we pray, would be putting the cart before the horse.

            Singer and Froman both frame prayer as part or all of human nature, and they both seem to see this as a good thing. However, that’s not the only form this idea has to take. Yishai Mevorach, in the process of shaping a Jewish theology heavily influenced by Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, describes prayer as if it were a symptom from which a person suffers.

mevorach

Just as a troubling thought does not exist independent of its manifestation in the troubled person, so too prayer does not exist independent of its manifestation in the praying person. The troubled thought, and prayer like it, is an integral element in the troubled-praying person, even though it is a perversion. […] The fact that prayer is “natural” does not mean that it is correct or good or successful. Obsession, anxiety, and depression are all natural and primordial parts of a person, but this does not mean that they are correct or good for him. They’re just there.[7]

Mevorach compares prayer to psychological conditions like depression and anxiety. These conditions naturally occur within a person, Mevorach says, and so too prayer naturally occurs within a person. With all of these, the goal isn’t to analyze them to determine if they’re good or correct or if they serve some sort of purpose. We have to accept that they exist, and then figure out how to work with them, how the individual person can tolerate them. Much like Singer and Froman, Mevorach places prayer within the realm of human nature and before any reflective analysis, moving away from questions of its function and efficacy. Unlike them, however, he does not speak of prayer and human nature in grandiose terms, but in the clinical language of psychoanalysis. As part of this, he makes no essentialist claims about the nature of all human beings, only about himself and those for whom his description rings true (much of the chapter from which the above quote is taken is written in first person language). He therefore also does not say that prayer is the defining characteristic of human nature, only a part of it, taking him back in the direction of Soloveitchik’s ideas. This is as opposed to Singer, while Froman’s unsystematic statement is silent on the issue. The three thus all take prayer as its own starting point, not to be explained by other factors, and an essential part of human nature.

 

The Maggid of Mezritch and Rav Kook

Having established this common theme, I want to take an aside to look at two texts that I hope will help sharpen this theme. I will argue that the first, from the Maggid of Mezritch, is only superficially similar, while actually differing in important ways. Meanwhile the second piece, from Rav Kook, is significantly similar to our theme, despite the ways it differs.

            In a famous passage, the Maggid of Mezritch denigrates any prayer where the individual praying seeks her own benefit.

“Don’t make your prayers set,” meaning that you should not pray for your business endeavors, only mercy and supplication before the Lord (makom), meaning for the sake of the Shekhinah, which is called “makom. So too the Zohar refers to brazen dogs who bark, “Woof! Woof!” etc., and this is the meaning of the verse, “I asked for one things,” which finishes “ I sought you,” meaning for the sake of the Shekhinah, as discussed above.[8]

Much like the Israeli thinkers quotes above, the Maggid is not interested in questions about what prayer accomplishes, whether it works, etc. However, he is not pushing for non-reflective prayer, prayer as human nature, taking prayer as its own starting place, or any of the other formulations I used above. Instead, he is trying to shift us from a human-focused to a divine-focused understanding of prayer, with assumed divine-centric answers to those questions. Thus he differs significantly from the Israeli thinkers I discussed above.

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Rav Kook, on the other hand, is surprisingly similar to them. I say “surprisingly” because Kook was heavily involved in analyzing prayer, throughout his writings. However, in the very first passage in the introduction to Olat Re’iyah, the collection of his writings organized as a commentary on the siddur, he says that prayer is not something a person does, but a function of their soul.

The constant prayer of the soul constantly attempts to move from concealment to revelation, to extend to all the forces of life of all the spirit and the soul and all the life forces of the whole body. It also yearns to reveal its nature and the force of its action on everything around it, on the whole world and all of life. For this we need the accounting-of-the-world that we arrive at through Torah and wisdom. We therefore see that the entire work of the Torah and its wisdom is the constant revelation of the prayer hidden within the soul. “The soul of all life blesses your name, the Lord our God.”[9]

While none of the Israeli thinkers I discussed used this metaphysical framing, Rav Kook arrives at a similar idea by locating prayer within the soul.[10] He makes prayer into an essential aspect of human nature, so that all that remains for the individual is to stop fighting her nature and just pray.

For Rav Kook, this human nature is explained by its context within broader national, human, and cosmic selves, but prayer inheres on all those levels as well. The contemporary Dati Le’umi thinkers don’t make that turn, starting from and staying at the level of the individual human. Starting from prayer as an aspect of human nature keeps them from reflecting on the purpose and function of prayer (in a way that theo-centric prayer wouldn’t), though it didn’t need to do so. This doesn’t mean that Kook’s idea led them to this idea, but it’s worth considering the way their texts reflect him. Dati Le’umi thinkers, whether they affirm, reject, or ignore Rav Kook’s thought, write in a context built entirely on his thought, and their writing can reflect this. They may even reflect Rav Kook more than the Hasidic texts toward which they turn.

 

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Rav Shagar

Another important thinker to mention in this context is Rav Shagar, as all three of the Israeli thinkers I mentioned were either students or close friends of his, or both. Rav Shagar does not identify prayer with human nature in any text of which I am aware, but he does push for a non-reflective approach to prayer, something that Dr. Smadar Cherlow has described as the primary innovation of his “Postmodern” approach to Judaism.[11]

[1] In addition to the sources below, see Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Three Leaves Press, 2006), 54.

[2] Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition (Jersey City: Ktav Publishing House, 2003), 161.

[3] Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,” in Tradition Magazine 17, no. 2 (Spring 1978), 65-66.

[4] Rabbi Dov Singer, Tikon Tefilati: Matkonei Tefilah (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2014), 13.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Rav Menachem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh (Jerusalem: Hai Shalom, 2016) §179, p. 160.

[7] Yishai Mevorach, Teologiah Shel Heser (Tel Aviv: Resling Books, 2016), 157

[8] Rabbi Dov Ber of Metzritch, Ohr Torah, §502.

[9] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Olat Re’iyah (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook), Introduction §1.

[10] Singer does use the term “soul” (nefesh), but he uses it in the way that contemporary Israelis use it, where it means something more like “the self,” and has connotations as much mental as metaphysical. He therefore may not mean “soul” in any strong sense. Regardless, he is certainly essentialist in his approach, and that is certainly similar to Rav Kook.

[11] See also the second chapter of her Mi Heziz Et HaYahadut Sheli?, pp. 71-88.

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The Practice and Possibility of Prayer: Rabbi Dov Singer’s “Tikon Tefilati”

In an article entitled “Towards an Understanding of Halakhah,” later incorporated into his book on prayer, Man’s Quest for God, R. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel sets up a dichotomy between prayer and philosophy.[1]

The duty to worship stood as a thought of ineffable meaning; doubt, the voice of disbelief, was ready to challenge it. But where should the engagement take place? In an act of reflection the duty to worship is a mere thought, timid, frail, a mere shadow of reality, while the voice of disbelief is a power, well-armed with the weight of inertia and the preference for abstention. In such an engagement prayer would be fought in abstentia, and the issue would be decided without actually joining the battle. It was fair, therefore, to give the weaker rival a chance: to pray first, to fight later.

I realized that just as you cannot study philosophy through praying, you cannot study prayer through philosophizing.[2]

Prayer, as Heschel argues extensively throughout the book, is not a primarily cognitive or reflective activity. The reflective stance of philosophy, he argues, actually obstructs prayer rather than aiding it. There is no degree of philosophizing, even about prayer, that will lead a person to prayer. You have to just start praying, and let that show you why you should pray.

Perhaps ironically, Heschel’s words are set within a broader work reflecting on the meaning and nature of prayer. Man’s Quest for God simultaneously tries to give the reader a broader understanding of prayer, and tells them to stop trying to understand prayer and just pray. To some degree, this calls into question the value not just of Heschel’s book on prayer, but of any book on prayer. Books would seem to be an inherently reflective medium, so how can a book be anything other than an obstacle to prayer?

Enter Rabbi Dov Singer’s Tikon Tefilati: Matkonei Tefilah (Maggid Books, Jerusalem, 2014. English title, May My Prayer Be Pleasing: Recipes for Prayer).

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Singer begins the book with a short introduction where he lays out the same problem that Heschel describes. Thinking about prayer, he says, is an obstacle to actually praying. Moreover, he adds, prayer is more essential to humanity than thinking is. Homo Sapiens (“thinking person”) would be better described as Homo Mitpalelos (“praying person”). We pray by our very natures, so all we need to do is get out of our own way and pray. Why, then, did he write a book on prayer? For the same reason that people write cookbooks. Cookbooks don’t explain to people why they should cook, or how cooking functions. They give practical instructions on how to cook for people who already want to cook, and so too with Tikon Tefilati and prayer.

Notably, the twin themes of non-reflective prayer and prayer as part of human nature can be found in two Singer’s three teachers that he mentions in his introduction, Rabbis Shagar, Froman, and Steinzaltz. While I am not familiar with the works of Rav Steinzaltz, Rav Shagar compares praying to the ability to enter into a story while reading it, rather than standing outside the story and reflecting upon it.[3] Rav Froman boldly suggests that all of religion, God included, may be humanity’s attempt to “explain that basic, instinctive, human thing called ‘prayer.’”[4] These two themes come together in Singer’s brief introduction, which then explains that, because of these two themes, the rest of the book will be very different.

After that short introduction, the form of the book changes drastically. Each section starts with powerful snippets on prayer from traditional Jewish texts (from the Mishnah to Rambam to Rebbe Naḥman) and from contemporary Israeli poetry. Then it briefly depicts forms of prayer, such as supplication, praise, dialogic encounter, or connecting with nature, and provides practical instructions, “recipes,” for practicing these forms. Some of the “recipes” are meant for individuals, some for pairs, and some for groups. The common thread is that they show the reader how to pray, without trying to explain why to pray or what that even means.

And that, perhaps, is the weakness of the book, and why Heschel’s encouragement of non-reflective prayer is somewhat ironically located in a very reflective book. Tikon Tefilati can tell you how to pray, but it can’t tell you why to pray, or what prayer is. While it serves as an excellent guide for someone who is already praying, it cannot explain to someone who does not pray why they should start. For someone who finds prayer impossible, practical advice on how to pray is useless at best. The book thus carves out a niche audience for itself – those who want to pray, but do not know how – much as as a cookbook serves only those who want to cook, but don’t know what to make.

I would end by noting that the book succeeds in being emotionally impactful on all levels. The quoted texts are powerful, and the graphic design is striking on each and every page. It will be pleasing to those who would pray.

[1] The original article was published in Conservative Judaism and Jewish Law, ed. Seymour Siegel, (New York, 1977).

[2] R. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God (Santa Fe: Aurora Press, 1998), 99-100. Emphasis in original.

[3] Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Shiurim Al Lekutei Moharan (Alon Shevut: Mekhon Kitvei Harav Shagar, 2012), vol. 1, 77-8. An English translation of this text will appear in Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Essential Essays of Rav Shagar (Jerusalem: Urim Press, forthcoming), trans. Levi Morrow, ed. Alan Brill.

Dr. Smadar Cherlow has an excellent treatment of this source in the second chapter of her book on Postmodern Judaism in contemporary Israel. See Smadar Cherlow, Mi Haziz Et Hayahadut Sheli (Tel Aviv: Resling Books, 2016), 71-88.

[4] Rav Menaḥem Froman, Hasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh (Jerusalem: Tsur Ot, 2016), §179, p. 160.

Rav Shagar on Being Religious as Being Weird and Avant Garde, with a Note about Academic Bible Scholarship

So apparently men wearing skirts is getting more and more popular (hold onto your hats, because this essay is going to end up talking about academic Bible scholarship). Just a few years ago, however, it was considered avant garde, meaning that the men doing it were breaking cultural norms, but they were doing so with confidence. That confidence is the key factor in whether breaking cultural norms makes you a weirdo, a loser, or makes you avant garde. If you can pull it off, this confidence often wins the respect of the culture whose norms you are breaking; often, however, the avant garde remain something of a marginalized group.

Any person who defines herself as both modern and religious invariably finds herself in this position. The cultural norms of contemporary western cultures are, to a great degree, secular, and so being religious means breaking those cultural norms. Being religious can therefore require being “weird,” or having the confidence to be avant garde.

Writing in the religious Zionist community in Israel at the turn of the millennium, Rav Shagar strived to create Jews who saw themselves as avant garde. Concluding an essay on love and marriage in the postmodern era, he writes:

I would love to see marriage as the true avant garde of today’s society, marriage as a covenant, in the rite of Moshe and Israel. The true rebellion is the Orthodox rebellion to be a “loser” (freier) in a world where not a single person is willing to be a loser, to commit in a place where everybody runs from commitment. This is intimately bound-up with self-sacrifice, but self-sacrifice in this sense is the very essence of the covenantal relationship. (“Love, Romance, and Covenant,” Nehalekh Beragesh, p. 286)

Finding postmodern sensibilities about romance to be decidedly more “frum” than modern ones, Shagar argued that religious Zionists should take up this postmodern yet very traditional view of marriage, even if it means breaking with the non-committal values of mainstream Israeli society. Notably, Shagar invokes the idea of being a freier, a “loser,” something Israelis are constantly attempting to avoid, and asserts that religious Zionists should embrace that role, being willing to sacrifice for the betterment of others, which is the foundation of a covenantal relationship.

At the very end of an essay on the interplay of education and ideology, Shagar looks to the future of religious Zionist education in Israel and argues that we have to be educating for avant garde-hood.

For what, then, shall we educate? How will we want to see the next generation of religious Zionism? I would prefer to strive to make it an avant garde generation. What do I mean by this? – the stubbornness to hold on to ethics in a world without ethics; to faith in a nihilistic world; to be the “loser” of the world out of a sense that “This is how I am and this is how I want to be.” This is a holy rebellion: the rebellion against the rebellion, a postmodern rebellion against the modern rebellion. Education needs to create complex people, with many aspects and no need to construct ideological unity that will resolve them, by creating a deep and rooted Jewish identity that can connect with and absorb the different direction and oppositions. (“Education and Ideology,” Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, pp. 206-207)

Shagar is pushing for a broad embrace of values in the face of a culture that rejects them. Mainstream Israeli culture, he says, is unethical and nihilistic; we must therefore break with it in being ethical and full of faith. Religious values necessarily set us apart from the broader culture, and we must embrace that gap.

It is critical to note that Rav Shagar is not arguing for the approach taken by Haredi society, which in that same essay about education he calls a “heterotopia” (a term he adopts from Michel Foucault), a society that is so disconnected from all other societies that its boundaries are determined not by where it butts up against other societies but by its own nature. It’s so separate that it doesn’t really even know other societies exist. Shagar admits that this depiction is idealized, not necessarily fitting the reality of contemporary Haredi society, and he therefore calls it “rectified” or “authentic” Haredism (for the latter, see the essay “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” also published in English in the book “Faith Shattered and Restored”). However, real Haredi society is still very separate from mainstream Israeli society, particularly when contrasted with the religious Zionists who, as Shagar says, “live in multiple worlds” (Education and Ideology,” pp. 183-185). This means that Haredim cannot be avant garde; in a sense, you have to be part of the culture in order to be a counter-culture, while Haredim are simply a different culture altogether. Religious Zionists, as well as Modern Orthodox Jews in the US and anyone who finds herself in a similar situation, are fully a part of mainstream, modern, society. This is what makes it significant when we break away from it. Breaking with the norms of our own culture, or perhaps more accurately the norms of the larger culture, marks us as weird and often draws scorn. The trick, however, is to embrace that difference and wear it confidently, thus shifting from “weird” to “avant garde.” We must realize that we’re different, and not expect to fit in perfectly, which means accepting that we will not be embraced by our larger culture one hundred percent of the way.

 

By way of conclusion, and to keep my parenthetical promise from the beginning of this post, I want to apply this model to recent discussions about academic Bible scholarship. This most recent debate was inspired by R. Dr. Joshua Berman’s essay “The Corruption of Biblical Studies” on mosaicmagazine.com, which argued that “conservative” scholars and scholarship are consistently marginalized in the world of academic Bible scholarship. This inspired 4 responses on the site from other scholars, followed by Berman’s rejoinder, as well as other pieces around the internet such as a piece by Prof. Marc Brettler on thetorah.com and one on thelerhaus.com by Dr. Michah Gottlieb. This last piece concludes, based on R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, that “an Orthodox Jew engaged in biblical criticism is knotted in impossible self-contradiction.” This piece, as well as Berman’s first piece, fall prey to some of the problems I mentioned above. R. Hirsch, as portrayed by Gottlieb, seems to fit into the heterotopic-Haredi model, seemingly pushing for Orthodox or conservative scholars to withdraw from biblical scholarship entirely, not recognizing that there are models of Orthodoxy that can embrace some form of historicism (for some of Shagar’s approach to historicism, see “Religious Life in the Modern Age”). Berman, on the other hand, seems to not be accepting that Orthodox and “conservative” scholars are in some ways breaking from the mainstream culture of academic Bible scholarship (I make this point somewhat more tentatively than the previous one). Such scholars will therefore almost unavoidably be marginal figures, and that uncomfortable status ought to be proudly embraced. This doesn’t mean that it is a good thing or that it shouldn’t be pointed out, but it does mean that it’s probably here to stay.

Rav Shagar Comes to America: “Faith Shattered and Restored”

Faith Shattered and Restored” is the first major English publication of writings of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known more colloquially as “Rav Shagar.” Rav Shagar (1950-2007) was a Religious Zionist thinker, teacher, and rosh yeshivah who was known for incorporation Hasidut and Postmodernism into his understanding of Judaism. This was part of his effort to shape a religious language for the Jews of our time, one that would resonate with our tradition and our daily lives (for more on that linguistic project, see my post on it and the conclusion to my longer essay on his understanding of “accepting the yoke of Heaven”). Such a language would feel like home to contemporary Jews, or at least the ones Shagar had in mind. Significantly, this suggests that if Rav Shagar’s unique combinations of tradition and philosophy do not speak to you, in translation or otherwise, then you are simply not his intended audience. That said, there is still much to be gained from how Rav Shagar tackles each individual topic (such as pluralism, providence, romance, or doubt), even if his overall project does not speak to you.

Getting to the heart of the matter, the most important thing to understand about this volume is that it was intended for an American Modern Orthodox audience, something that I think helps explain a few issues with the book. First is the selection/inclusion of the first essay in the book, “Uncertainty as the Trial of the Akedah.” Based on my own experience, and backed up by numerous conversations with other readers, the essay is hard to follow, and at the end it’s not entirely clear what Rav Shagar wanted to convey to his audience. This is not a problem with the translation, however, as the reading experience of the original Hebrew is just the same, begging the question why it was selected for inclusion in the translation. While the essay deals with important ideas, the real answer, I think, lies in the fact that in this essay Rav Shagar explicitly puts himself in dialogue the thought of Rav Soloveitchik, exemplar of American Modern Orthodoxy. The essay thus enables readers to begin to locate Rav Shagar in relation to Rav Soloveitchik’s thought, with which they are likely more familiar.

A second issue this helps explain is Rav Shalom Carmy’s afterword. The afterword is striking in that it is clear that Rav Carmy bears no particular love for Rav Shagar, and is perhaps more interested in how Rav Shagar can be used to critique the progressive end of Orthodoxy. While neither of these aspects is necessarily problematic, one might have expected a more sympathetic afterword from the first major publication of Rav Shagar’s writings in English. What explains this afterword (the reader will have to decide for herself if this justifies it) is that Rav Carmy is one of the people best acquainted with both Rav Shagar’s writings and the state of American Modern Orthodoxy. Most of the afterword is dedicated to showing how Rav Shagar’s thought fits in (or doesn’t) with more familiar works and thinkers, an effort that the average reader will no doubt appreciate.

A final issue that needs to be understood in this light is a paragraph from the essay “Religious Life in the Modern Age” which is troubling due to its absence from the original Hebrew version of the essay:

I should add that in discussing Modern Orthodoxy I refer not only to the American scene. For decades, Modern Orthodoxy in the United States and national religious Judaism in Israel constituted two distinct movements. However, with the rise in the standard of living in Israel, and as the country is swept by Western cultural influences, I predict that the differences between the two groups will erode, along with the differences between the challenges they both face. (Faith Shattered and Restored, p.43-44)

When I asked the translator about the appearance of this paragraph in the English essay, he said that it was a footnote the editors decided needed to be in the body of the essay itself, and it’s easy to see why. Rav Shagar did not speak, or even read, English, and he did not ever travel to America. Absent a specific statement to the contrary, it would be perfectly sensible to assume that his sociological statements were specific to Israeli Jewry, and that no extrapolations to American Jewry could or should be made. Since this book is intended for an American audience, it was worth the slight change to emphasize that Rav Shagar’s statements apply to both communities, and Rav Shagar’s citations of Rav Soloveitchik in this context would seem to bear this out. Notably, I have not yet been able to locate this footnote in the original Hebrew text (published as “Halakhah, Halikhah, ve-Emunah” in the collection of Hanukkah Sermons, “Le-Ha’ir Et ha-Petahim”), and if anyone locates it I would greatly appreciate the reference.

The fact that the book is aimed at an American Modern Orthodox audience does not just solve issues, it also raised a few of its own. By way of example, there were two translations that struck me as being very problematic (against the background of an otherwise excellent and readable translation throughout). The first essay translates the word “רציונליות,” in context of the practice of putting non-verbal experience into words, as “rationalism” when it should be “rationality.” What makes this worth pointing out is that “rationalism” has specific connotations in the American Modern Orthodox community where “rationalism” immediately recalls “rationalist judaism” and specific positions on issues of Torah and science. Whether “רציונליות” should be translated as “rationalism” or “rationality” might be debatable in the abstract, but for this audience it becomes obvious and important to translate it as “rationality.”

A second translation issue is the translation of the word freier (פראייר) as “gull.” The word freier, roughly referring to a person who lets themselves get taken advantage of, is so central in Israeli culture that it has its own Hebrew wikipedia page. The word “gull” (the noun form of “gullible”), on the other hand, peaked in popularity in 1922 and has been in steady decline since 1963, to the point where I had to look it up when I read it. While the best translation of the word could be debated (I like “loser”), translating a culturally important term with one that is culturally non-existent is incredibly problematic (it’s worth noting that this seems to have been a change made by a later editor rather than the original translator).

 

This handful of critiques should not overshadow how grateful I am that Maggid decided to publish this translation. I’ve spent the last few years deeply immersed in the writings of Rav Shagar, and I think they have a lot to offer the English speaking world of American Jewry. The selection of essays in Faith Shattered and Restored is broad, and touches on many of Rav Shagar’s most unique ideas, including his head-on tackling of relativism and his embrace of science-fiction literature as a new mythology that provides a mystical, almost messianic, reading experience. It includes his unique understanding of bitahon as a sense of security that in reality secures nothing (for more on this, see my translation of one of his Purim derashot), and a fascinating proposal regarding the role of the Jews in the global order of nations. It does not include his extensive discussions and critiques of Zionism and the modern state of Israel, but that is understandable for a book aimed at an American audience. Taken as a whole, the book is not perfect, but it is a good start, and I hope to see more translated volumes of Rav Shagar’s writings in the future.

On Themes of Tradition, Authenticity, and Chosen Identity in Moana, with Continual Reference to Rav Shagar

 

This short piece is in lieu of a much larger essay that I don’t have time to write exploring the topic of tradition, authenticity, and chosen identity in Disney’s “Moana,” by way of reference to ideas from the writings of Rav Shagar (even when I do not mention him explicitly). As such I will assume the reader’s basic familiarity with the film, and I will write briefly, without necessarily providing quotes or references.

The three terms I have mentioned are explored in two different arcs in the plot of the film, each fleshed out by three characters. Moana’s story is about the tension between authenticity and tradition, represented by her grandmother (Tala) and her father (Tui), respectively. The theme of chosen identity, on the other hand, is explored through the contrast between the giant crab, Tamatoa, on the one hand, and Maui and Tafiti/Te Ka, on the other. Notably, these two themes are roughly the two ways Rav Shagar understands the term “Accepting the Yoke of Heaven,” regarding which I have an essay forthcoming.
rabbi-shagar

 

Arc #1 – Tui, Tala and Moana: Tradition and Authenticity

Starting at the beginning, the first song in the movie, “Where you are,” sets up the basic tension between Moana’s father and grandmother. The majority of the song is Tui talking about their island society and how everyone has their place in it, in an attempt to convince Moana to accept her life and role there. The basic message is that the answer to “who am I?” can and should be answered like recognizing your place in your society and tradition. If you’re a fisherman then you’re a fisherman, and if you’re a chief then you’re a chief. The song’s title, “where you are,” shows up a few times denoting how a person’s location in the space of the tradition and society is what defines who they are. Near the end of the song, however, Tala cuts in, identifying herself as the village crazy person who drifts too far outside the traditional social framework (and, notably, we always see her by the shore, on the physical fringe of the society), and arguing that who you are is actually a function of a voice within you, not your positioning in relation to those outside you. For Moana, as Tala herself, this voice seems to call her toward the ocean, in contrast to the tradition’s aversion to straying into open waters. Moana is thus caught between being authentic to the voice within her and filling her role as chief for which she has been designated by tradition and society, and her personal arc in the movie is about her learning to resolve the tension.. This topic was already discussed by Sarah Rindner in a relatively excellent article on thelehrhaus.com, but I don’t think it quite reached all the details of this theme, particularly when it comes to how exactly Moana resolves the tension.

A first watershed moment for Moana is discovering that her ancestors had once been sea voyagers. This enables her to challenge her tradition and is part of her being able to eventually strike out on her own. A second is when, in the process of learning to pilot a ship, she learns that in order to know where you are you have to know where you’ve come from. Perhaps tradition is not to be rejected entirely. The two come together when Tala returns in ghostly form during the song “I am Moana (Song of the Ancestors).” In this song, Moana identifies herself with the island, her father, and her future role as chief, as well as with the sea and her voyaging ancestors. She is staying true to to her inner voice, while still identifying with her tradition.

It is worth taking a second to note the specific manner in which she has done that. The voyaging ancestors provide a nexus where the sea and the island meet, where the voice of tradition and the voice of authenticity say the same thing. Moana essentially explored her tradition and found a previously unknown aspect that matched her inner voice. She found a space for herself within the tradition, which is more expansive that she had previously suspected. In traditional Orthodox language, she found her portion in Torah. This is significant because of what the other options could have been. What if Moana had never found the boats? She might have identified with her role as chief and still struck out on the waters in order to save her people. In doing so she would have added something new to the tradition, taking something from outside and introducing it into the tradition by virtue of her identification with it. This is the road not taken in Moana,where the emphasis is on finding one’s own place within their tradition. Moana remains entirely faithful to the pre-existing tradition, but it is broader than previously thought.

For reference, see “The Name of the Father” (על שם האב), a derashah for Pesah and Shavuot , published in שארית האמונה, where Rav Shagar confronts and works with the thought of Alain Badiou, and identifies Pesah with approach to resolution that Moana takes and Shavuot with the other possibility that I outlined here.

Bonus reference: see the earlier published essay “The Hearts of Fathers with their Sons” (לב אבות על בנים) from the book זמן של חירות, many sections of which were republished in “The Name of the Father,” and which gives a slightly different angle on the topic.

 

Arc #2 – Tamatoa, Maui, and Tafiti/Te Ka: Chosen Identity

There is a second thematic arc in Moana that directly contrasts to, and to some degree, undermines the first arc. It thus makes sense that the theme is expressed by Tamatoa, who is a villain, and Te Ka, who is certainly something like a villain, but it is also expressed in the story of Maui, one of the heroes. This is the theme of choosing, or perhaps constructing, your identity, as opposed to accepting an identity that you find within yourself or that your society defines for you, were there to be such a thing.

Tamatoa, the giant crab who has Maui’s hook, sings a song called “Shiny” about how he used to be drab and boring but now is shiny and glamorous. In the process he specifically mentions that Moana’s grandmother said to listen to your heart, to who you are on the inside, and that in this her grandmother lied. But in place of an inner identity the crab suggests not conforming to societal expectations but shininess, making yourself into who you want to be on the outside. In a fantastic lyric, he says that he has made himself shiny like treasure from a sunken pirate ship, and then says that the deck of the ship, the visible outer surface, should be swabbed until it is shiny; there is no treasure, but the outside is made to look like treasure. Tamatoa is arguing for the importance of the identity that you can create for yourself, that any sort of pre-existing essence is a lie (rav Shagar associates this model both with Sartre and Postmodernism).

Te Ka/Tafiti and Maui both express this theme via basically the same movement in their personal story arcs, if the former somewhat more subtly. At a glance, both arcs would seem to affirm the existence of a pre-existing self, namely, Maui’s hook and Tafiti’s heart, but a more comprehensive reading of each indicates otherwise. Maui starts off as someone who assumes his self is synonymous with his hook, and his whole arc is about unlearning this idea. He has to be ok with not having his hook, not having a specific pre-existing self, before he can achieve a new self, represented by the new hook he receives in the end. Only by recognizing that his hook is not his self, and letting it be destroyed, is he able to get a new hook to build his life around.

The same basic story holds true for Te Ka/Tafiti. The nature goddess Tafiti loses her heart and, as we discover at the end of the film, thus becomes the fire demon Te Ka. It would seem to be hard to have a clearer metaphor for a pre-existing self than a small rock called your heart, and thus it makes some sense that Te Ka is continuously upset about not being able to get her heart back, being landlocked on a tiny island. Te Ka’s violent frustration at being separated from her self is what causes the toxic seepage that Moana’s journey is meant to rectify. When she gets her heart back, she returns to her natural state as Tafiti, which would seem to argue for the “self as pre-existing” model. However, in the scene immediately before the restoration of Tafiti, Moana realizes who Te Ka really is and walks toward her singing the short song “Know Who You Are.” In this song, Moana recounts how Tafiti/Te Ka’s heart was stolen, but then says that this does not define Te Ka; Te Ka is not “Tafiti minus her heart.” Upon hearing this, Te Ka immediately calms down, and she and Moana rest their foreheads against each other. This moment is the resolution of the peak tension in the movie, the drama of the violent demon Te Ka, rather than the moment when she turns back into Tafiti. Then Te Ka takes up the identity of Tafiti out of calm choice, and the motion of face-to-face reconciliation is repeated. The story arcs of both Maui and Te Ka/Tafiti thus express the idea that you choose who you are and what your identity is, and that a key step in this process is accepting that whatever you thought your identity is, it is not inherent to you. Only once you accept this fact, the fact that Tamatoa was essentially correct, can you consciously choose to take up a new identity.

For reference, see Rav Shagar’s discussion of Rebbe Nahman’s story about the poor man and the diamond in “Self (?): A Study of One of Rebbe Nahman’s Stories” (עצמיות (?): עיון באחת מסיפורי רבי נחמן), published in נהלך ברג״ש.

Bonus reference: See the essay “Redemption and Accepting the Yoke of Heaven” (גאולה וקבלת עול מלכות שמים) in זמן של חירות and “Freedom and Holiness” (חופש וקודש) in לוחות ושברי לוחות.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Life and Death

[…]

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

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

 

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

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

[…]

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

 

Two Holies

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

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

 

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

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

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

Rav Shagar – Shaping Our Religious Language

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

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

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

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

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