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).

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This is My God, the God of My Father’s Religious Language

As a general rule, Modern Orthodox thinkers have always preferred personal religious experience to objective proofs as a basis for faith.[1] To some degree, this is a function of necessity, as Modern Orthodox thinkers tend to be less than convinced of the viability of objective proofs. As such, it is unsurprising that much has been made of a quote from the Kotzker Rebbe on the topic.

This is my God, and I will glorify Him, the God of my fathers and I will exalt him(Shemot 15:2). First one had to be able to say, this is my God; then one could add, the God of my father.”[2]

The Kotzker puts personal religious experience on a pedestal. Regardless of whether or not objective proof is possible, it is not desirable, at least, not at first. First, a person must have a personal relationship with the Divine, and only then should they worry about how their faith relates to that of their tradition.

The idea that personal experience can tell you about the Divine becomes problematic, however, when held up against 20th century conceptions of the relationship between language and thought. We think and understand in language, a language we absorb from the community around us, and our personal experience of the Divine is therefore inseparable from that community.[3] This was discussed by the Christian mystic and theologian Paul Tillich in his book Dynamics of Faith, though he does not discuss the problems this raises.

The act of faith, like every act in mans spiritual life, is dependent on language and therefore on community. For only in the community of spiritual beings is language alive. Without language there is no act of faith, no religious experience. This refers to language generally and to the special language in every function of mans spiritual life. The religious language, the language of symbol and myth, is created in the community of the believers and cannot be fully understood outside this community. But within it, the religious language enables the act of faith to have a concrete content. Faith needs its language, as does every act of personality; without language it would be blind, not directed toward a content, not conscious of itself. This is the reason for the predominant significance of the community of faith. Only as a member of such a community (even if in isolation or expulsion) can man have a content for his ultimate concern. Only in a community of language can man actualize his faith.[4]

Tillich is concerned with the question of how a personal, individual thing like faith can ever be part of a communal thing like organized religion. Tillich points to the fact that personal experience of the Divine is something we, by force, translate into our own language, a language we get from our community, and thus even personal religiosity has a communal aspect. While this solves Tillichs problem, it alludes to our own. A persons experience of the Divine is mediated through the terms they possess for thinking about the Divine, terms they learned from their tradition and community. How much can our personal experience then tell us about the Divine? It seems like the answer is, perhaps, very little; anything we learn from our experience will have more to do with our language than with something external to us, something objective. The Modern Orthodox believer is thus left in a quandary, challenged and inspired by personal experience of the Divine, but unsure of what to make of it, of exactly what and how much it can really tell them.

The way out of this quandary may be in reversing our expectations, asking not What can my linguistic experience of the Divine tell me about the Divine?but What can my linguistic experience of the Divine tell me about my language?The answer to that question is much clearer. The fact of experiencing the Divine through our language means that the Divine is willing to be, or capable of being, expressed in our language. Thus our language, and the religious tradition it both is born out of and gives birth to, are vehicles through which I can connect to the Divine. Our experiences may not be able to tell us about the Divine, but maybe they dont need to. The Kotzker said that what is really important is not the Divine as it exists beyond us, but rather the Divine as we relate to it. Not whether there is a God, but whether we have a God.

[1] This is in contrast to the approach generally taken by Haredi thinkers. For more on this see the phenomenal chapter on popular theological works in Yoel Finkelmans Strictly Kosher Reading.

[2] AJ Heschel, A Passion For Truth, pg. 188; similar in S. Raz and E. Levin, The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, pg. 12. Also in Rav Shagar, Al Kapot HaManoul (Hebrew).

[3] The degree to which our language shapes our thought is hotly debated, but the fact that we need language to conceptualize abstract ideas, and the corresponding fact that all conceptualization happens in a language, seems inescapable.

[4] Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, pg. 23-24.