The topic of the Yom Iyun is Rav Shagar’s encounters with various figures, with each lecture focusing on one. What follows is my notes on each presentation. They’ve been edited slightly for clarity, but they do remain notes. Any specific issues requiring clarification can be directed to me and I will be happy to oblige. I also took pictures of the source sheets and inserted sources in the relevant points in each presentation, to the best of my ability.
Dr. Eitan Abramovitch – The Rambam
Rav Shagar and the Rambam are very different so it’s not intuitive that their would be a connection between them.
Shagar: Postmodern Religious Zionist is an Unorthodox Orthodox person. (לוש״ל, הצד״פ)
So too the Rambam was trying to connect between two different and opposing worlds.
However, Rav Shagar was changing things under the surface, in the realm of consciousness, without changing anything practically. It makes it a little difficult to interpret sometimes. Rambam was much clearer about what he was doing, much more explicitly changing how we relate to religious language, etc.
Rambam mostly showed up in R. Shagar’s teaching of gemara, rather than in his philosophy
Shagar: Rambam emphasized immanence of divine wisdom in history and nature. (הליכות עולם, נצחיות הסטוריה ואקטואליות).
Rav Shagar shared this sense of willingness to encounter the world as it is, without losing the sense of the Divine in the world, without losing the Tradition and adherence to halakhah.
MN I:71: We have to take the world as is, as opposed to the Kalam who added things from their imaginations.
Taking things as given is not something people do automatically. People always add things.
Meat/Milk is taken as an adaptation of a pagan rite in the MN.
Religious thought typically searches out the eternal, the absolute and inhuman.
Rav Shagar said that both the Rambam and the Kabbalists gave reasons to mitsvot, but the Kabbalists made ordinary things into manifestations or representations of the Divine.
Rav Shagar makes it so man always is on the outside, always beyond. There’s something you can’t understand, and therefore cannot identify with.
This unbreachable gap between man and God is also found in the Rambam.
“These law were made to fight avodah zarah.” – this has its own kind of powerfulness. It’s a very understandable idea.
Just like you have to accept the torah in its historical context, so too yourself.
Shagar: We can’t ignore the historical background behind halakhot. If we made the laws today, they wouldn’t be the same laws. The meaning of the laws is an immanent meaning. (שם)
Rav Shagar didn’t see Rambam as just a rationalist. In Rambam’s thought understanding things leads to identifying with them. Rav Shagar saw Rambam not as simply intellectual, but also as existential. He saw Rambam as seeking out unification, mystical eros through intimate knowledge.
Shagar: Rambam is from the intellectual age, when Freedom was grasped as an intellectual property, a conception and age we are now past. (לוש״ל, חופש וקודש)
Rav Shagar clearly differed from Rambam too, and was not afraid to say so.
Rav Elchanan Nir – Teachings of the East
(all quotations of Rav Shagar from לוש״ל pp.106-135)
“The east” is a really unclear phrase, because it includes all kinds of things. It’s not homogeneous.
Rav Shagar was really wary of dealing with this topic, because it requires serious consideration, and should be allowed to speak for itself. It shouldn’t just be used as something for rabbis to talk about when they want to make a point.
Eastern thought, “The East,” is very popular today. Rav Kook dealt with it by dividing between message and medium, something we don’t necessarily think you can do today. Not only does Postmodernism not divide between them, Eastern doesn’t do it, which means it’s a totally out of place dichotomy to attempt to force onto The East.
Context affects ideas, so it’s impossible to really translate ideas from one context to another. In Western thought there is an emphasis on the difference between the subject and the objective world. Our whole world, even our political consciousness is built on this conception. Eastern ideas take on a new light in this context.
Westerners rarely immerse themselves in and truly take up Eastern thought. More often any engagement is superficial and involves the Westerner taking the surface aspects of Eastern thought that appeal to them.
As opposed to the Western divide between Subject and Object, the East sees us as part of the world.
East is us before sin, West is us after. On a basic physical level we’ve gotten rid of the curses of Adam/Hava. But it hasn’t brought us to spiritual connection.
The new age says there’s meaning in everything, as opposed to Postmodern Relativism which says there’s no meaning in anything.
The turn to the East is part of a messianic urge for Tikkun, a desire for utopia.
Judaism is our home, so it’s ours, without having to be best.
This is the Berit, the covenant, which means we don’t have to prove anything about it.
Halakhah is not theology. Halakha creates our bayit, our home and identity (R’ Shagar on Likutei Moharan 8). You can find holiness in the East, but it’s not ours.
Judaism is material. It happens in the world, which means it isn’t always pretty. But it also means that Judaism is accessible to anyone, for anyone can live according to halakhah.
Judaism is the basis of our identity, and you can introduce the East into that, but it’s there as a guest. There’s a preexisting house that it is being welcomed into, and it can’t be permitted to change the nature of the house.
Bringing the East in can be a phenomenal contribution to our religion. It’s just a question of how.
Rav shagar starts and finishes the essay from an educational perspective.
First thing we have to do is educate our children from a Haredi perspective, initially. That’s how we create berit, identity, etc. Only later should we introduce critical thinking and foreign conceptions.
When Rav shagar was at ITRI and was thinking of moving to Merkaz HaRav, R. Shlomo Fischer, his teacher, told him not to because it’s a hassidic yeshiva. When R. Shagar protested the definition, R. Fischer said that any yeshiva with something besides gemara on the desks is a chassidishe yeshiva. So too, as soon as you add critical thinking, it’s not a haredi education.
The ability to introduce into the Berit external ideas, without destroying the Berit, is the messianic Torah that R. Kook spoke of. Unfortunately, Rav Shagar didn’t clarify how to do this on a practical level.
Rav Uri Lipschitz – The Sefat Emet
Rav Shagar had a lot of Hasidut in his thought, and in his teaching. It’s one of the things he contributed to the world writ large and the the RZ community in particular
Sefat Emet is not the normal kind of chasidut you find in Rav Shagar’s thought and teaching, however. Consequently, he didn’t write enough on the SE in order for a book to be put out on it, as opposed to Rebbe Nahman or Tanya/Habad.
Abbreviated Piece of SE from תרל״א:
Yaakov lived in Egypt without really being present there.
The purpose of life in the world is to draw out the holy aspects, inner life, truth, etc., instead of clinging to worldliness.
This is what Rashi meant when he said Yaakov wanted to reveal the End, he wanted to reveal the the exile is just obscurity, if this was revealed it wouldn’t be an exile anymore.
Zohar says Yaakov revealed in an obscure manner. He revealed that there is an end.
He died, and this revelation ended.
Without Emet, the midah of Yaakov, all we have is Emunah.
The SE is saying you can live in three different experiences: 1. Living thinking this world is the most important thing. This is to fail entirely 2. Shattering the Gap between God and man, subject/object, etc. by way of Emet. By Bittul. By being conscious of the Acosmic truth. This was Yaakov’s approach which ended and therefore failed. 3. Emunah, finding revelation from within obscurity.
Shagar, Existentialism and Hasidut:
Weiss: there is a mystical trend in Hasidut, that seeks out unio mystica. (Habad, and others) There is also a trend of Faith, which doesn’t try to overcome the gap between man/God, Subject/Object, etc. and simply accepts and believes that their is something beyond. The mystical approach is something basically only actionable for unique individuals. When teachings get directed to larger groups they fall, either intentionally or by default, into the second category.
Sefat Emet is not mystical. He’s part of the ‘Faith’ trend.
Unclear if this has survived in Hasidut Ger today.
This approach undoubtedly has Kelipot, negative aspects.
Rav Shagar preferred to be alone in many ways. Felt his students bothered him, didn’t like davening with them because he felt they were staring at him, which they were.
Rav Noam Samet – Maharil Bloch
Not such a known figure in general. He was Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, and learned in Volozhin.
Rav Shagar strongly identified with him. Rosh yeshiva, lamdan, thinker, ethical figure, and mystic. Very methodologically aware and self-aware.
Maharil, quoted by his son:
Everything in this world is from upper worlds.
Therefore we can use this world, in all it’s materialistic manifestations, to understand the Torah.
Continuity of the worlds is a classic litvish approach, perhaps most clearly expressed in Nefesh HaHayyim.
Therefore the understanding of the torah must fit to the nature of the world and the mind of man. It’s not even that you should force them, or that you should create a connection. The connection is logically unavoidable and therefore must be inherent.
A person must find the understandings of Torah within himself.
There’s no difference between Nigleh and Nistar, it’s all one. Therefore you can basically just learn Nigleh. This approach is clearly manifest in yeshivot today, where nistar is basically entirely neglected.
R. Shagar, BeTorato Yehegeh:
Rav Shagar saw the telz method as more important for the RZ community than the Brisker one. The Brisker method is disconnected from the world, it’s mystical, etc. The RZ community is very disconnected from Mysticism, and attempts to be engaged in the world.
This is what makes the learning existential, applicable to reality. Rav Shagar took this from Maharil Bloch.
But Rav Shagar doesn’t use the same background for why you should study existentially. He doesn’t mention the mystical reasons. Rav Shagar himself was mystically oriented, but he didn’t speak that way.
Rav Shagar: “The realistic aspect of the Torah is found in its secularization, not in its mystification.”
Rav Shagar had a deep and intuitive identification with Maharil Bloch, but they spoke in very different languages.
The unification of Kodesh and Hol in the thought of Rav Kook moved Rav Shagar more than the mystical language of Maharil Bloch.
Rav Avishai Schreiber – Leah Goldberg
When learning Pesachim, Rav Shagar skipped right to sugyot about Leil HaSeder. Classes would have 5-6 pages of mekorot.
A person has to take charity, if they need it, to buy four cups of wine that are about freedom. We are forced to participate in a ritual commemorating liberty. When asked about this, Rav Shagar responded by quoting a song by Leah Goldberg about a kabtsan.
The message he was trying to convey, you didn’t need to convey with a song by Leah Goldberg. There are mishnayot and gemarot that would have done just as well. He chose not to answer as a Lamdan and thus to break the lamdanic language of the shiur and introduce a different language and rhythm.
Rav Shagar was very central at Yeshivat Siach during the Yomim Noraim. He would give lots of speeches, including on the first night of selihot. In one such speech he quoted a song by Leah Goldberg, currently quoted and published in a derashah in Al Kapot HaManoul (Shuvi Nafshi?).
Leah Goldberg and the piece of Rebbe Natan quoted both emphasize the parallel between the end of the year and the end of life. Quoting Leah Goldberg puts it in our language, making it much more powerful than when it’s said by a Baal Mussar, or a Hasid.
Rav Shagar quoted Goldberg, and plenty of other secular writers, to express התעוררות מלמטה, to speak in our language. Rav Shagar dealt in a lot of places with the issue of Mekor and Targum, Original and Translation.
Shagar On Likutei Moharan 18:
Rav Shagar didn’t like using English idiom and the like, even when that was the original. He liked the hebrew versions (Example: he preferred קיומי to אקזיסטנציאליסטי). He never used external sources when he could find it in the Jewish source. It’s all about Translation.
If we heard a hasid in Meah Shearim teaching Rebbe Nachman, it would have nothing to do with out lives. It might feel more authentic, but it would essentially be a tragedy and a failure.
Translation from one language to another, when done right, leaves you with something that transcends all language. The way Rambam switches between languages (historical, philosophical, talmudic, etc.) is more important than what he is saying. Rebbe Nahman spoke the language of Stories in order to convey ideas from his torah above the level of languages.
Rav David Bigman – Rav Shagar and the Empty Space
The point of this class is to look at how Rav Shagar presents Rebbe Nahman, see what is there, see what isn’t, etc.
LM I:64 is one of the strongest discussions of Kefira in Rebbe Nahman
Where/when there’s letters there is Divinity.
The first type of Apikorsut is linguistic, intellectual.
The second type is questions that are beyond language, and seem compelling because there is no argument against them, but that’s really just because they’re beyond language. These are questions that invoke paradox and the like. They shatter binary thinking.
Rav Shagar focused on the binary of Subject/Object, but it’s not the only binary that Rebbe Nahman talks about. RN also talks about the binary of language that is broken by these questions.
Because Rebbe Nahman is speaking about religion and religious language, it’s unclear if he would also say this about other languages, but there are thinkers who would say it.
The normal understanding of the חלל הפנוי is “Empty Space: => No Divinity there => Religious Language does not apply.” Rebbe Nahman twists that; Language doesn’t apply at all.
Rebbe Nahman would often say to his hasidim, “Don’t ask that question, because only a tsadik could understand! And here’s what the tsadik would say…” This introduces a mindset of “we can’t think about this” while simultaneously thinking about it.
Rebbe Nahman goes from the problems of binary language to the leap of faith, and Rav Shagar discusses this extensively, bringing Existentialism into the discussion.
The tsadik davka deals with these questions of the second type of heresy, approaching them from a place that’s neither Sekhel nor Otiot, neither thought nor language.
What does this mean? Multiple possibilities:
- Making Peace with the Questions
‘Emunah Peshuta’ in Breslav is after you know about the ideas of Kefira, out of consciousness that you have chosen this path.
- Dealing with the edges of cognition from time to time brings a person to a sense of his limits and of religious humility, of a sense that their is something transcendent that you cannot grasp.
- The knowledge of our limitedness is something we share with God, and that knowledge is enough.
Example: Dogs don’t understand language, but they do understand intonation. Therefore the dog does not really speak “human.” If a dog was aware of this, they would share with Humanity the knowledge and awareness that “dogs do not speak human.”
- Contemplation of the paradox leads to an experience of Unio Mystica.
Trying to solve a non-binary problem via binary language cause the language to collapse on itself.
The part of our brains responsible for binary thought are also responsible for spatial thought. This is Rav Shagar’s Subject/Object.
Rav Shagar does not really speak about Sod HaShetikah, primarily about the Leap, but he is mostly like #1, a little bit like #2. #3 & #4 don’t show up by Rav Shagar at all.
What Rebbe Nahman is really talking about is meditation that brings to this place, beyond the binary (#4). This is clear because he discusses how the tsadik can bring forth a song from here.
Torah 52 is clearer about discussing mysticism, though it discusses a different type of mysticism.
LM 52 is clearly talking about Unio Mystica, as opposed to LM 64 which is less clear, and Rav Shagar also ignores the unio mystica here too.
It’s possible that Rav Shagar was very bothered by the relationship between universal language and particularly Jewish language. In both torahs Rebbe Nahman emphasizes the mitsvot while also having some הסתייגות from them.
Abramovitch (first speaker): Rav Shagar once went to a seminar on the mind/body connection and didn’t like it, feeling that neuroscience requires reduces a person to an object and thus ignores the real person.