Shiur: The Funny Thing About Mitsvot – Adar Bet 2019

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

I. Take life lightly!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Do the Mitsvot, But with a Wink

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

4. Rav Shagar, Shuvi Nafshi, 27-28

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

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

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

 

5. Rav Shagar, Tsel Ha’Emunah, 57-58

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

 

III. Freeing God from the Mitsvot

6. Yishai Mevorach, Teologiah Shel Heser, 102

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

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

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

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

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

More thesis notes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


Not Yet

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

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

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

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

Objectless Repentance in the Religious Zionist Turn to Hasidic Texts

Introduction

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

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Rav Shagar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rav Froman

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

What is repentance according to Rebbe Naḥman?

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

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

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

Yishai Mevorach

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

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

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

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

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

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Rav Kook

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

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

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

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

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

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.

rav-kook-375

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.

 

rabbi-shagar

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.

Smashing the Aravot to Bits as a Reenactment of Jewish History

Sukkot is, to modern eyes, perhaps the strangest Jewish holiday, and its seventh day is by far the strangest. For the whole week of Sukkot, Orthodox Jews take a four-part floral arrangement and shake it in all directions. On the seventh day, known as “Hoshanah Rabbah,” they take one of the four parts, willow branches, and smash a bundle of them into the ground repeatedly. The original reason behind the ritual is unknown, but it’s energetic alienness demands explanation. While attempts to divine it’s reason abound, none can ever definitively claim to be the original reason. In what follows, I want to do something different, similar to what John Caputo has called a “short-circuit” (See the first few chapters of “The Weakness of God”) – I want to wire together this ritual with several texts that never had each other in mind, because they resonate deeply with each other, and because this short-circuit produces something true and worth saying. By the end of this process, I hope to have arrived not at the meaning of the ritual, but a meaning the ritual may bear today.

Jumping right in, there is a famous rabbinic text comparing the four species of flora use on Sukkot to four different types of Jews, based on their possessing or lacking A. Torah and B. good deeds (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12, which I have previously written about here). The last of the four that the text discusses is the willow: “‘And brook willows’ – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds.” The willow branches, as opposed to the other plants, represent Jews who have nothing specifically Jewish about them. They are characterized neither by Jewish cognitive content, Torah, nor by Jewish actions. In short, they are Jewish in name only.

Being Jewish in name only is a topic that Rav Tsadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin explores in Tsidkat Hatsadik #54 (English translation to come when the time allows):

עיקר היהדות – בקריאת שם ישראל. כמו שנאמר זה יאמר לה’ אני וגו’ ובשם ישראל יכנה. שלא יהיה לו רק מעלה זו שמכונה בשם ישראל די. ומצינו בריש פרק כלל גדול (שבת סח:) גר שנתגייר בין האומות ומביא חטאת על החלב והדם והשבת ועבודה זרה, עיין שם דלא ידע כלל שזה אסורה ואפילו על עבודה זרה ושבת. ונמצא שלא ידע כלל מכל התורה, ובמה הוא גר להתחייב חטאת, רק בקריאת שם ישראל די.

In this first paragraph, Rav Tsadok discusses the Babylonian Talmud’s statement (Shabbat 68b) that a convert who converted among non-Jews has to bring a sacrifice when they join the Jewish community, to atone for sins they may have committed unknowingly. The convert has no knowledge of even Shabbat or idolatry so in what sense have they converted, ask Rav Tsadok. His answer: they are called by the name “Israel” – they are Jewish in name, if only that. This, in fact, is the essence of conversion, for “the essence of Judaism is being called by the name ‘Israel.”

What does it mean to be Jewish in name, and even only in name, that it is so much more significant than having Jewish thoughts or actions? What is the advantage of the willow branches over the other Sukkot plants?

When you have Jewish thoughts or actions, then you have specific Jewish parts of who you are. You do Jewish acts and you think Jewish thoughts, and you may participate in non-Jewish thoughts and actions alongside these. When you are Jewish in name, then all of your thoughts and actions are Jewish by definition, regardless of their content. To be Jewish in name is to be all-pervasively Jewish; every part of you is Jewish simply by definition. It is this Jewish name that characterizes willow branch-Jews, as opposed to all others.

 

What does all of this mean for the Hoshanah Rabbah ritual, wherein the willow branches are smashed against the ground, coming apart with every blow? I would like to explain that in light of a passage from Frank Rosenzweig’s “The Star of Redemption.” In context of a discussion of Jewish chosenness, Rosenzweig states:

Judaism, and it alone in all the world, maintains itself by subtraction, by contraction, by the forma­tion of ever new remnants. This happens quite extensively in the face of the constant external secession. But it is equally true also within Judaism itself. It constantly divests itself of un-Jewish elements in order to produce out of itself ever new remnants of archetypal Jewish elements. Outwardly it constantly assimilates only to be able again and again to set itself apart on the inside. (trans. William Hallo, p. 404)

Whereas other nations and religions maintain themselves by expanding, Rosenzweig says, Judaism maintains itself by contracting. Like other groups, Judaism constantly develops new forms, absorbs new ideas, and generally finds new ways to grow. Unlike other groups, however, Judaism quickly sheds all of these new manifestations, in a constant process of elimination, ever condensing toward a core Jewishness, a Jewishness that has no content, that is Jewish in name only. This core, which Rosenzweig identifies with the prophetic “remnant of Israel” (שארית ישראל), is what persisted throughout Jewish history, as all kinds of specific types of Judaism have  disappeared or broken away. That isn’t to say that Rosenzweig identifies the remnant of Israel with traditional Rabbinic Judaism. Rather, he identifies it with Jews who are Jewish in name, whose whole existence is bound up in being Jewish, so that everything they do and say is Jewish, by definition.

Smashing the willow branches against the ground reenacts Rosenzweig’s vision of Jewish history. The willow branches, representing the in-name-only Jews, the Jews who are Jewish whether or not they know Torah or do mitsvot, are smashed against the ground of history. They slowly come apart, losing bits of leaf with every strike, but the core of the branch remains. So too the core of Judaism, the Jews whose Judaism has defined them inherently, regardless of their thoughts or deeds, has survived the travails of history. When we smash the willow branches into the ground, we may remind ourselves of the necessity of this in-name-only Jewishness. The ritual could challenge us, calling us to be “called by the name ‘Israel.’”

 

[as with many of my recent posts, much of my thinking and interpreting here is owed to influence from Yishai Mevorach, a student of Rav Shagar and an editor of his writings, and an interesting thinker in his own right. An English interview with Prof. Alan Brill about Mevorach’s new book, “A Theology of Absence” can be found here, and Mevorach’s Hebrew lectures on a variety of topics can be found on his youtube channel here.]

Where We Start and How We Continue: Tsidkat HaTsadik #1-2

The first chapter of Tsidkat Hatsadik, by Rav Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin, discusses passages from the first chapter of the talmudic tractate Berakhot from a Hasidic perspective. The first two paragraphs of the book, however, diverge from this commentary-esque character, with the first discussing the Pesaḥ sacrifice and the second discussing Berakhot only in the most abstract sense.

The two paragraphs meditate on the same issues: where do we start and how do we continue (serving God and studying Torah/making blessings, respectively), touching on fundamental issues regarding the respective roles of God and man in the service of God and in life more generally. Below are the passages and their translations, followed by an exploration of the ideas contained therein.

Continue reading “Where We Start and How We Continue: Tsidkat HaTsadik #1-2”