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The Earth-Shattering Faith of Rav Shagar

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Zach Truboff

[Editors’ note: In an article published at Lehrhaus on Yom Ha-atzma’ut, Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky challenged our readers to become more familiar with Israeli thinkers, leaders, and writers. In response we have launched a continuing series of articles designed to do just that. In this essay, Zach Truboff presents this examination of the life and thought of Rav Shagar. Other installments in this series may be found here and here].

To read Rav Shagar is to encounter a thinker unlike any that American, Modern Orthodox Jews are familiar with. His writings seek to address the most pressing intellectual, spiritual, and cultural issues of the day by mining the depths of Hasidut and Kabbalah, along with modern and postmodern philosophy. A new collection of his translated essays, Faith Shattered and Restored, arrives at a good time, as Modern Orthodoxy in America is in the midst of an identity crisis as it struggles to navigate its inner contradictions in the twenty-first century.

Torn between the truths of Torah and contemporary culture, many in Modern Orthodoxy feel the tension can only be resolved by choosing one or the other. In Rav Shagar they will find a teacher who understands this dilemma on a deeply personal and existential level, yet remains committed to authentically living in both worlds. His teachings represent a powerful model of engaging the broader intellectual currents within which one lives while maintaining an unyielding commitment to Torah. Collecting nearly a dozen of his most significant essays, this new book is an excellent effort to make his writings accessible to an English-speaking audience. The book’s subtitle, “Judaism in the Postmodern Age,” evokes the awareness that answers from the past are no longer sufficient to address the challenges of the current moment.

Who was Rav Shagar?

Born one year after the establishment of the State of Israel to Holocaust survivors, Rav Shagar’s world was sharply defined by contradictions. His was the first generation to grow up with the State of Israel as a spiritual reality, and he deeply felt its redemptive possibilities. Nevertheless, as a second generation Holocaust Survivor, the traumas of the Shoah were never far from his spiritual consciousness. He attended prominent religious Zionist schools as a child, followed by Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, the first yeshiva to combine Torah study with army service.

However, as was typical at that time, most of the teachers were haredi. Despite his commitment to Religious Zionism, Rav Shagar would retain a deep appreciation for the love of Torah and religious passion that is characteristic of the haredi world. While still a student in yeshiva, Rav Shagar was called up to fight in the Yom Kippur War. In the early days of combat his tank was hit by Syrian fire, killing two members of his crew and leaving him seriously injured. Despite having been raised on the messianic dreams of Religious Zionism, the pain of the war left its mark on him, teaching him that faith can be neither simple nor absolutely certain. At a young age, he was invited to teach at Yeshivat HaKotel, where he would begin his path of innovative Torah study. Rav Shagar’s efforts centered around methodologies of teaching and learning, which prioritized questions of meaning alongside a serious engagement with Hasidic and academic thought. Feeling constrained by the limits of traditional yeshivot, Rav Shagar would go on to found a series of trailblazing institutions such as the Mekor Hayim yeshiva, Maale beit midrash, and Beit Morasha. Rav Shagar’s dedication to education made him particularly sensitive to the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual challenges of the younger generation, and he saw himself as responsible for addressing their concerns. Each one of his institutions was known for its attempt to combine traditional yeshiva study with disparate elements, including Hasidic spirituality, academic studies, and artistic creativity.

These goals were seen as revolutionary, if not inconceivable, by mainstream Religious Zionist yeshivot. In 1997, ten years before he died, he would found his final institution, Yeshivat Siach Yitzhak. Earlier in his life, Rav Shagar had been drawn to existentialist philosophers, but it was in his later years that he delved most deeply into the dilemmas and opportunities posed by postmodernism. His final years were perhaps his most creative and productive; all the essays in Faith Shattered and Restored come from this period of time.

It’s important to note that Rav Shagar’s writings are not systematic, but explore key religious and philosophical questions from a variety of different perspectives. Many of the essays were adapted from his recorded lectures or edited together from his notes after his death. Consequently, they have a patchwork quality to them, but they also retain the raw power of being in the room with a thinker still in the midst of working out his or her ideas. Each essay within the book is overflowing with insight and even his digressions can be extremely thought provoking.

Rav Shagar and Postmodernism

The term postmodernism is one of the most debated and confusing to emerge in recent decades. Associated with French thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jean-François Lyotard, it is accused of everything from obscurantism to nihilistic relativism. Without wading into the thicket of academic debate on the issue, it is perhaps most constructive to utilize the definition offered by Rav Shagar. He explains that postmodernism “is, at bottom, not so much a philosophical theory as a mode of life and a state of consciousness—a cultural situation some would even say. At its root is a loss of faith in grand narrative, in metaphysical goals, and in comprehensive theories” (85).

Postmodernism, however, did not limit its critique only to political and economic ideologies, but in fact sought to prove that the construction of all knowledge was subject to unseen biases and prejudices that rendered the idea of objective truth a fallacy. In Rav Shagar’s words, postmodernism rejects the absolute certainty of modernity and brings about the sense that, “There is no truth, certainly not with a capital T. In such a word, truth is a cultural product or artifact. Every truth hinges on specific cultural contexts and is perceived as something that benefits specific interests” (106).

Rav Shagar’s engagement with postmodernism can best be understood in light of broader developments within Israeli society over the last few decades. (See Baruch Kahana’s survey of the response to postmodernism in Israeli religious thought.) While postmodernism has perhaps had a more limited influence on American culture, its impact has been strongly felt in Israel. This is a direct result of modern Israel having been built upon one of the most successful Jewish grand narratives of the twentieth century, namely Zionism. For decades, the story Israel told itself was one of pioneering, heroism, and faith in the superiority of the Jewish state and its institutions.

The miraculous victory of the Six Day War seemed like the ultimate confirmation of this narrative; yet, it would begin to unravel just a few years later with the failures of the Yom Kippur War and the collapse of secular Ashkenazi political and cultural dominance. It was further challenged by the New Historians of the 1980s and 1990s, who produced research claiming that perhaps Israel was not as righteous as it had perceived itself during its half century long conflict with the Palestinians. There is no question that the effects of postmodernism can be felt across Israeli society today. Israel has become significantly more fragmented and many have come to question the underpinnings of Zionism long taken for granted. Some have even argued that Israel has entered a period of post-Zionism.

Postmodernism’s criticism of grand narratives and objective truth presents a particularly strong challenge to Orthodox Judaism. The instinctive response from a traditional religious perspective is to view postmodernism as kefira, heresy, of the highest order; nevertheless, Rav Shagar explains that this was not an option for him. He writes “I do not intend to sanctify Postmodernism, and I do not wish to hide from its problems. However, the Postmodernism position is not at all marginal; it exerts its influence throughout society. We must come to terms with it.” In his engagement with postmodernism, he saw himself as following in the footsteps of Rav Kook who was able to redeem the holy sparks found in the heresies of modernity, “Walking the path of Hasidim and Rabbi Kook, I will be able to identify the divine in all things, without devaluing my own faith, but rather reinforcing it” (117).

Rav Shagar did not have any formal academic training and was instead self-taught. He does not approach postmodern thought with the eyes of an expert scholar, which serves to liberate him from the dogmatic thinking one sometime finds in academia. The chapters directly engaging with the most challenging ideas of postmodernism are “Living with Nothingness,” “Justice and Ethics in a Postmodern World,” and “Mysticism, Postmodernism, and the New Age.”

Rav Shagar argues that it is postmodernism’s denial of objective truth that allows for new religious opportunities. Instead of leading to meaninglessness, the loss of absolute certainty can open one up to a mystical perspective. Rav Shagar explains that “In kabbalistic and hasidic terms, postmodernism reveals the ayin, or nothingness: Truth has no metaphysical mooring in heaven above, no bedrock to bear it upon the earth below” (92). In Kabbalah, the concept of ayin is used to describe God’s infinite nature, which transcends human comprehension and functions as the very beginning of the sefirot. In the words of Daniel Matt, “Everything emerges from the depths of ayin and everything eventually returns there … Since God’s being is incomprehensible and ineffable, the least offensive and most accurate description one can offer is, paradoxically speaking, nothing.” Postmodernism enables us to grasp this mystical concept in ways unappreciated before. “Stacked up against the divine infinitude, everything is absolutely equal—not equally valuable, but equally paltry. The innovation of postmodernism lies in turning the godly perspective into a human one” (96).

Rav Shagar further develops this idea through the thought of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, one of his rabbinic heroes. Again and again throughout his writings, he returns to Rabbi Nahman’s most famous teaching that there is an unsolvable contradiction at the heart of the existence. Rooted in Lurianic creation myth, Rabbi Nahman explains that an infinite God has no choice but to engage in tzimtzum, self-contraction, in order to make a space for creation. However, the act of tzimtum has a radical consequence. It creates the halal ha-panui, a void that is empty of God. Paradoxically, creation exists both in the void absent of God and yet must be fully part of the Divine, for how can anything exist separate and apart from God? Rav Shagar likens this to our current moment, in which postmodernism shows all truths to be subjective while traditional faith demands that Torah and Judaism are objectively true.

Such a paradox, Rabbi Nahman cautions, cannot be resolved on the intellectual plane, and instead it must be approached with a silence that embodies both humility and faith. It is a silence that requires one to live with contradiction rather than resolution. Though it may be felt as rupture, silence also contains the possibility of transcendent meaning. Through silence, the religious believer “vaults over the paradoxical conundrums of the halal hapanui without obscuring or running from them” (99). As Rav Shagar describes it, a religious believer in the postmodern era “is willing to concede that truth is a human construct, because he knows that human constructs are true creations, manifestations of God in a world that is “filled with His glory,” rather than an empty meaningless game” (116). In the end, “The doubting of faith’s universal absoluteness—postmodernism excels at this—has a balancing, productive role: It does not stifle our capacity to experience and believe in ourselves, but it does generate boundaries. The postmodern believer’s awareness of the contradictions between various faiths, and of the paradoxes inherent in his own world, can stabilize him, rendering him more sensitive, ethical, and humble” (117).

Rebuilding the Shattered Vessels: The Reinterpretation of Tradition

Rav Shagar fervently argues that another key feature of postmodernism is its potential to breathe new life into traditional religious ideas by allowing them to be reinterpreted in new and exciting ways. Citing the Lurianic creation myth of the broken vessels, Rav Shagar explains that postmodern hermeneutics such as deconstruction aim to show that “human creative works are never brought forth ex nihilo, but are always adaptations of elements from earlier works, which is why every such creation can be deconstructed and then reconstructed differently” (128). Instead of seeing such reinterpretations and translations as fundamentally destructive, they must instead be viewed as attempts to take traditional religious concepts and “make them supple, thus opening up new pathways for inspiration and illumination” (128). In affirming this, Rav Shagar is not different from earlier Modern Orthodox thinkers such as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik who reinterpreted traditional concepts of prayer and teshuvah in a modernist tone by demonstrating how they could reflect ideas of self-discovery and self-transformation. Whereas Rabbi Soloveitchik utilized Maimonides along with Neo-Kantianism, phenomenology, and mid-twentieth century existentialism, Rav Shagar turns to kabbalah, Hasidut, and postmodern thinkers. He embraces mystical language because of its inherent flexibility and capacity to render the world according to the contradictions, paradoxes, and ironies that postmodernism reveals. Faith Shattered and Restored demonstrates several examples of this in which Rav Shagar explores issues such as love and marriage, freedom, and the relation between the self and society.

Two essays in particular stand out for their relevance to Modern Orthodox life. “Religious Life in the Modern Age” and “Seventy Bullocks and One Sukkah” grapple with two of the critical issues that have come to define Modern Orthodoxy; its approach to halakhah and the modern State of Israel, both of which have not been without dispute. Unlike those to its left, Modern Orthodoxy maintains a traditional commitment to halakhah and rabbinic authority, and, unlike those to its right, it views the State of Israel as having great religious significance. Rav Shagar argues that postmodernism can help Modern Orthodoxy understand these issues in new and important ways.

In the essay “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” Rav Shagar defends the integrity of halakhah in the face of historical and sociological criticism. His goal is similar to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s defense of halakhah; however, Rav Shagar argues that halakhah need not depend on absolute metaphysical truths. Rather, postmodern thought shows how halakhah is best viewed as a language whose fluency grants one’s life transcendent meaning. (See further discussion of this theme in Tamar Ross’s essay, “Religious Belief in a Postmodern Age.) He quotes Rav Nahman’s description of halakhah as the orderly flow of blood pouring through our veins, and it is this blood flow that provides a living framework for our very existence.

Rav Shagar explains that “We learn from Rabbi Nahman that halakha, the Jewish way of life, constructs a world through which one can come to know God—faith becomes a concrete fact of one’s life … It is an order that elicits thanks—for the fact that it is halakha that provides the world with a framework of life, stability, and meaning and, one might add, an acknowledgement of truth: of the existence of God and the religious way of life” (49). Rav Shagar turns to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language in order to ground this assertion. Wittgenstein claimed that no language is meant to be understood as an absolute representation of reality. Rather, language is a collection of words and symbols which are “derived from the lifestyles of those who employ it, and from their lifestyles it derives its significance” (49). In this sense, language has the ability to shape our very perception of reality. Rav Shagar applies this insight to halakhah, which “Like every language … constructs a world with its own set of laws, establishing meanings and connotations that derive their power from the halakhic lifestyle” (52).

The only difference is that “when it comes to the halakhic language game, these meanings go beyond mere mundane human meanings, establishing a divine ideal—holiness—striven for by human action” (52). To illustrate this point, he offers the following: He once saw a man buy hallah from a bakery in Jerusalem on erev Shabbat. Instead of setting it aside to eat at the Shabbat table, the man shocked Rav Shagar when he immediately tore into it and devoured it right outside the store. To Rav Shagar, “the halla is not merely a loaf of bread; its context turns it into something entirely differenta Shabbat halla, one whose very flavor differs from that of commonplace, weekday bread.” By eating in such a fashion, the man was profaning its potential holiness. Rav Shagar elaborates that the power of halakhic language to shape our perception of reality “is the meaning of the kabbalists’ statements about the words of the Torah raising up and sanctifying physical objects: Language structures the world, and the words of the language of the Torah—the halakhot, blessings, and prayers—sanctify objects, including halla” (52).

Such an approach has significant ramifications for the nature of halachic change. On the one hand, it accounts for the ways in which halakhah evolves over time, “For, like other languages, the halakhic language is dynamic, adapting itself to time and place, enabling a variety of expressions” (54). However, Wittgenstein also argues that each language has its own internal grammar and logic that cannot be judged from the outside. Fluency depends not only on using the proper words but also on internalizing a language’s inner culture. Rav Shagar thus concludes that a group of Jews cannot be considered Orthodox if “they are unwilling to accept and play the halakhic language game as is, instead subjecting it to external criticism and an external values scale, in light of which they update it” (55).

In the essay “Seventy Bullocks and One Sukka,” Rav Shagar attempts to broaden the traditional Religious Zionist narrative and implicitly acknowledges the failure of Religious Zionism to recognize the religious significance of Exile and universalism. Religious Zionism’s exclusive focus on Israel can be traced to the grand narrative of Rav Kook’s teachings, in which the Land of Israel is at the center. However, the dissolution of grand narratives enables Rav Shagar to see a more complex picture in which the Diaspora is also an authentic expression of Jewish existence. In doing so, he offers an interpretation that may be appealing to Religious Zionists who live in America and have no plans to make aliyah. Basing himself on the Maharal, he explains that the Jewish people unquestionably have an essential connection with the Land of Israel, yet the fact that they were able to sustain themselves through two thousand years of dispersion across the world indicates that universalism is also part of their nature. Rav Shagar further explains that, “Indeed, the entire world is their place, they are cosmopolitan, and their state of dispersion is a function of their virtue … Its place is beyond geography, and its identity transcends the constricted boundaries of nationhood” (181). The sukkah is a unique symbol that demonstrates the ways in which Diaspora and the Land of Israel must dwell together along with universalism and nationalism. The sukkah is a symbol of exile because it requires us to leave our secure home and all that is comfortable.

However, it is also a profound symbol of the Land of Israel because it is deeply connected with the agricultural cycle. Rav Shagar writes that, “The insecurity of the Diaspora must deeply inform our confidence as the inheritors of the land. Otherwise, confidence will degenerate into hubris, into the sense that all is due to ‘my power and the might of my hand’” (185). It is essential for nationalism “if it is not to turn rigid and callous, it must be tempered by universalism” (186). The same is also true in reverse for without nationalism, universalism can be dangerous. It can turn into “an abstraction in that it “makes” all human beings identical, effacing the very real differences between people” (186).

Rav Shagar finds insights from the writings of Franz Rosenzweig and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek to help elucidate how Jewish nationalism and universalism can coexist. Rosenzweig speaks about the Jewish people as “she’erit ya’akov,” the remainder of Jacob. Jews inevitably are both rooted and transient in ways unlike other peoples. Rosenzweig writes that the individual Jew “is always somehow one who remains, an inside whose outside was seized by the river of the world and driven off, whilst he himself, that which remains of him, remains standing on the shore” (187). To be a remainder is to be “the extra piece of the puzzle. Mathematically speaking, it is the remainder left without a “place” after division” (187). In the words of Zizek, it is to be “a foreign body within the social texture, in all dimensions” (187). This position of Other is quintessentially Jewish and is a necessary consequence of a Jewish nationalism oriented towards transcendence. Rav Shagar explains that “In cleaving to the Torah, the Jew alienated himself from a world that relies on the natural order, and from the spaces of all nations, thus, by dint of his alienation, becoming Other” (188). The “remainder” therefore acts as a constant reminder of the uniqueness of every individual and stands as a rejection of uniformity.

Sukkot is a holiday that brings all these contradictions together and shows the potential for their resolution. It is both true that the Jews are a nation that dwells apart and that all nations still come to Jerusalem in order to worship God on Sukkot. By dwelling in the sukkah, Jews celebrate both the harvest season of the Land of Israel and the experience of Exile.

Is Rav Shagar Relevant to American Modern Orthodoxy?

Those who dismiss postmodernism as a passing phase will have little patience for Rav Shagar’s writings. Instead, they will retreat into tradition, drifting ever further towards religious fundamentalism. For others, this may not be an option. Postmodernism’s impact can be felt on a variety of levels, and one need look no further than our fractured political discourse to see that objective truth can no longer be taken for granted. The ground is shifting underneath the Jewish community as well. More and more young Jews eschew the idea of denominational labels, viewing them as remnants of a bygone era whose narratives no longer capture their lived experiences.

Modern Orthodoxy can only thrive under such conditions when it sustains an authentic engagement between Torah and contemporary culture. It cannot rely only on models from the past that may no longer be relevant for today’s generation. Rivka Press Schwartz, a scholar and veteran Modern Orthodox educator, recently offered a harsh but correct critique that Modern Orthodoxy “has frozen its conception of religiously permissible Madda at that which the Rav engaged at the University of Berlin in the 1920s (or, perhaps, with that which Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein engaged at Harvard of the 1950s.) In this, it is reminiscent of an aging Albert Einstein, whose comfort with modern physics ended with his Theory of General Relativity but never extended to the indeterminism and seeming senselessness of quantum theory.”

Rav Shagar dedicated his life to showing that the kind of engagement described by Schwartz is not only possible but necessary. In the last letter Rav Shagar wrote to his students before his passing, he explains that “The word “and,” so typical of the national religious movement—yeshiva and military service; yeshiva and academia; Torah and secular studies—does not represent an artificial synthesis, and certainly not, as some have alleged, a sort of idolatry by association. It should be interpreted in the vein of Franz Rosenzweig, who described the “and” as the keystone that supports the entire edifice and imbues it with meaning” (xiii). Now, more than ever, the “and” must be embraced and made a central part of Modern Orthodox identity.

In a beautiful essay on Hanukkah that is not included in this volume, Rav Shagar writes (Leha’ir Et ha-Petahim, 204) that, “For better we are citizens of multiple cultures and live in more than one world of values. We are not able and also we do not want to deny this situation because this denial is a self-falsification that will cause radical and profound damage to religious faith itself.” He further clarifies (Leha’ir Et ha-Petahim, 201-2) that “This is not a double identity in which one is half religious and half secular for the price of a double identity is superficiality or even self-deception. Rather it is an identity that lives the duality as a creative tension and as a religious tension … Each one of the worlds appears in their full essence, and as the distance between them grows so too does the explosive religious power found in the encounter between these two different foundations.” The essays in Faith Shattered and Restored draw the reader into the explosive religious power that Rav Shagar describes. Modern Orthodoxy in America will only benefit from further exposure to his teachings.

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Zach Truboff

Zachary Truboff is rabbi of Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio and an officer of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He received ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Rav Zalman Nehemia Goldberg.