God, Torah, Self: Accepting the Yoke of Heaven in the Writings of Rav Shagar

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Levi Morrow

Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (1949-2007), more popularly known as Rav Shagar was a revolutionary thinker within Israel’s Dati Le’umi community. His public presence has increased substantially in the wake of his death in 2007, due to the posthumous publication of his writings by the Institute for the Writings of Rav Shagar (מכון כתבי הרב שג״ר). Nevertheless, his teachings are still not widely known within Israel, and are all but completely unknown among Diaspora Jews. This essay it aimed at making some of the various aspects of Shagar’s writings more accessible to the English-speaking world.

The phrase “accepting the yoke of Heaven” (קבלת עול מלכות שמים) is a weighty one in Jewish tradition. The Mishnah (m. Berakhot 2:2) applies the term in connection with the twice daily recitation of the Shema, a biblical obligation (b. Berakhot 2a). As Shagar says, accepting the yoke of Heaven is “that act around which the life of a Jew is organized.”[1] This central role that accepting the yoke of Heaven plays in Jewish life makes it incredibly important to determine the exact meaning of the phrase, and different thinkers have interpreted it in various ways. This essay examines two different, and seemingly contradictory, ways that Shagar uses the phrase in his writings.

The Classical Approach: Self-Construction

In a discussion of freedom and slavery in a sermon for the holiday of Pesaḥ, Shagar discusses the meaning of “accepting the yoke of Heaven,” taking what might be considered the classical approach of consciously submitting to the Torah and mitzvot. In this sermon, Shagar argues that this act of submission is actually a necessary step in enabling freedom, rather than its own form of enslavement:

קבלת עול היא ברית ויצירת זהות היוצרת טבע, ורק מתוכה החירות אפשרית. בכך הברית נעשית תנאי לחירות. הסיבה לדבר ברורה: חירות כפי שהגדירוה כמה מחשובי ההוגים היהודים וכמה מהפילוסופים הגדולים, היא פעילות לפי טבע עצמילהיות מה שאני באמת. אך הבעיה כאן היא, שחירות זו מחייבת ׳אני׳ וטבע עצמי שמכוחם האדם פועל. ואכן ההגות הפוסטמודרנית רואה את האדם כנטול ׳אני׳, ולפיכך החירות שלה היא למעשה שעבוד, היות שהיא אינה מכירה בזהות עצמית ואף לא באפשרות ליצירת זהות יציבה שכזאת. […] לכן יש צורך בברית ובקבלת עול מקדימות כדי לכונן עצמיות ו׳אני׳ מובהק. […] הברית היא יצירה של זהות עצמית וטבע, היות שמשמעותה היא עזיבה מוחלטת, החלטה המפקיעה את הדבר ממשא ומתן. זו לא רק החלטה על הדבר, אלא החלטה לא להעלותו שוב לדיון; הפיכתו לאקסיומה ולמובן מאליו שאינני שואל עליו. בכך נפתח האדם לאפשרות ליצור ולאפשרות לחירות של פעילות על פי טבע שכעת הוא פנימי אצלו.

“Accepting the yoke” is a covenant; it is the creation of an identity that creates a person’s nature, and only from this is freedom possible. As such, the covenant is a necessary condition for freedom. The reason for this is obvious: freedom, as defined by many important Jewish thinkers and many great philosophers, is acting according to my inner naturebeing who I truly am. The problem with this is that this sort of freedom requires an “I” and an inner nature upon which I act. Postmodern thought, in contrast, sees a person as lacking any “I.” This freedom is therefore actually enslavement, as Postmodernism does not recognize any personal identity, nor even the possibility of creating any sort of stable identity. […] This is why there is a need for covenant and accepting a yoke, in order to engender a self and a strong “I.” […] The covenant is the creation of personal identity and nature, as its practical meaning is absolute abandonment [of alternative identities and possibilities], a decision that removes the issue from the realm of discussion. This is not just making a decision about something; it is rather a decision to not even raise the issue for discussion; turning it into an unquestionable axiom and self-evident fact. In this a person opens up to the possibility to create and the possibility of freedom as acting according to a personal nature that is currently within him.[2]

Accepting the yoke of Heaven, in this context, means binding oneself so tightly and strongly to Torah and mitzvot that they cannot be questioned. This approach echoes alongside understandings of accepting the yoke of Heaven that connect it to being martyred for the sake of Judaism or Torah.[3] The Torah is elevated to the point of absolute supremacy in a person’s life, worth more than her life itself. Such a person has accepted the burden of divine authority absolutely.

Despite its obvious affinities with the classical approach, much of Shagar’s discussion is, I suspect, rather unique. His starting point is the tension between defining freedom as a person’s actions flowing solely from her inner self and the postmodern claim that there neither is, nor can be, such a thing as the self. Shagar responds to this claim by accepting that there is no such thing as an inherent self, but argues that such a self can be created by the individual. He then goes on to describe accepting the yoke of Heaven as this creation of self. Accepting the yoke of Heaven, says Shagar, is the creation of the basic axioms of an identity, upon which the rest of a person’s decisions can be based. Instead of simply becoming a supreme value, dominant in a person’s life over any other concern and worthy of martyrdom, the Torah becomes the very core of the person. Accepting the yoke of Heaven is therefore a process where a person takes the external Torah and internalizes it, constructing her identity around it.

A Novel Approach: Self-Acceptance

In stark contrast to this internalizing approach, Shagar also describes accepting the yoke of Heaven not as the individual internalizing an external law or value, such as the Torah, but as the individual accepting herself, as he states in context of the integration of faith and academia:

הדברים האמורים מנהירים מהי ׳קבלת עול מלכות שמים׳: אותו אקט שחייו של היהודי מתארגנים סביבו, איננו אלא מחויבות ממשית; קבלה הנעשית מתוך חירות ובאופן מודע: כך אני, כך קיבלתי על עצמי, כך אני רוצה להיות – זאת היא הווייתי. […] הדתיות הממשית אין לה מה להיות מאוימת, היות שאמונתה הנה תולדה של קבלת עול שאיננה אלא קבלה עצמי שדבר לא יערער אותה, ממילא היא פתוחה לכל התרחשות ולכל הוויה.

These ideas illuminate the meaning of “accepting the yoke of Heaven:” that act that the life of a Jew is organized around, which is nothing other than substantial commitment; acceptance that is done out of freedom and in a conscious manner: this is what I am, this is what I took upon myself, this is how I want to be – this is my existence. […] real religiosity has nothing to feel threatened by, since its faith is a result of an “accepting the yoke” that is an unshakeable self-acceptance, and which is therefore open to every occurrence and every existence.[4]

Acceptance of the yoke of Heaven is explicitly understood here as self-acceptance, as the individual’s acceptance of who she is, as opposed to the classical approach which focuses on the acceptance of an external, heteronomous element.

Self-acceptance is an idea that arises numerous times throughout Shagar’s writings. In order to look more closely at its meaning, I wish to turn to a passage discussing self-acceptance as a model of belief:

מתוך כך ניתן להציג לדעתי שני מסלולים מנוגדים המובילים לאמונה הדתית. האחד הוא חזרה לתמימות, שהיא קבלת עצמי. ׳אני מה שאני׳. האמונה נמצאת במקום שבו האדם מקבל את זהותו. בלשון החסידות מכונה תנועה נפשית זו התבטלות. את הצדקתה תמצא, כמאמר הפילוספים האקזיסטוציאליסטים, בהכרה שהושלכנו לעולם, לא בראנו את עצמנו, ורק קבלת עצמנו מאפשרת קיום אותנטי ומפגש עם הממשי.

הכלב הנו כלב, הוא לא יכול היה להיות אחרת, לכן הוא (במובן מסוים) ׳מחויב המציאות׳: מציאותו היא כפי שאלוקים ברא אותו. […] האמונה במובן זה היא קבלת עצמי, כלומר קבלת חיי כחלק מהממשות, מרצון ה׳.

In my opinion, this enables the presentation of two different and opposing paths that lead to religious faith. The first is a return to innocence, meaning self-acceptance. “I am what I am.” Faith is found in the place where an individual accepts his identity. In the language of Hasidut this psycho-spiritual process is called “self-nullification.” Its justification is found, as the existentialists said, in the recognition that we were thrown into the world, that we did not create ourselves, and only accepting ourselves can enable authentic living and the encounter with reality.

A dog is a dog, it cannot be otherwise, and therefore it is (in a certain sense) “a necessary existent”: its existence is as God created it. […] Faith in this sense is self-acceptance, meaning accepting my life as part of reality, of the will of God.[5]

Without going into what it means for faith, this passage lays out a clear vision for self-acceptance more generally. Self-acceptance means that a person accepts herself exactly as she is. She is who she is, and she does not want or need to be different.[6] 

Moreover, she recognizes that her self is a manifestation not of her choices, but of the will of God. Not only does she not want to be different, she could not be different even if she did so desire. The identification of the individual’s present state with the will of God also eliminates any concept of an ideal that she should be striving to meet; her reality is inherently the ideal. Self-acceptance means recognizing that how you are is exactly how God wants you to be, and you therefore could not and should not be otherwise.

Based on this, it is eminently clear how different self-acceptance is from Shagar’s version of the classical approach of accepting the yoke of Heaven, which, for the purpose of contrasting the two approaches, I will call “self-construction.” Self-acceptance assumes a preexisting self that is taken to be representative of the will of God, whereas self-construction is a response to the lack of a preexisting self. Self-acceptance focuses on the self, whereas self-construction focuses on an (initially) external element. Perhaps most importantly, self-acceptance is a passive process, based on the individual “stepping back from agency” over who she is, recognizing that she could not be otherwise.[7] Self-construction, in contrast, is an active process that the individual consciously chooses to enact, building herself from the ground up. The two processes, each referred to as “accepting the yoke of Heaven,” could not be more opposite.

Important to understanding self-acceptance is the meaning of the term “self” in this context. Throughout most of Shagar’s discussions of self-acceptance, the self is to be understood as the individual as she experiences herself in her daily life. The self is a person’s thoughts and beliefs, feelings and concerns, as they are evident to that person. This is in contrast to the “self” as discussed by thinkers like Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook or Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, which is the inner truth of a person, discoverable only after peeling away the more superficial layers of her personality.[8] But for this difference, these thinkers would serve as excellent precedents for Shagar’s concept of self-acceptance, and he does support his opinion based on their writings.[9] 

A further wrinkle in Shagar’s concept of the “self” in self-acceptance lies in the psychoanalytic turn that occurs in his later writings, under the influence of the thought of Jacque Lacan and his interpreters. Self-acceptance, after this turn, becomes acceptance not of the existence of the individual as she is, but of the symptomatic existence of the Lacanian subject. Practically speaking, this self is experienced as bearing within it a strong sense of alienation and otherness. In this understanding, the “self” is not the conscious mind that thinks and feels and believes, it is the unconscious mind that is known only through its eruptions into the normal functioning of consciousness.[10]

Similarities and Dissimilarities

Looking at the shared aspects of these two understandings can help highlight the ways in which they differ. In a separate passage, Shagar gives a general definition of “accepting the yoke of Heaven” that fits both of the understandings. To accept the yoke of Heaven, he says, is “to submit to, and to absolutely obey, God.”[11] On the face of it, self-acceptance would seem to have little to do with submission to God. However, if we locate the will of God as revealed within the person as they are, then taking that idea seriously means that accepting the self, instead of trying to shape it, is indeed submitting to the will of God. Self-construction, on the other hand, means submitting to the will of God as revealed in the Torah and mitzvot.

That both approaches can be seen as forms of submission to God’s will highlights the different locations of God’s will in the two approaches. Shagar explicitly states that self-acceptance is based on a Hasidic theology of divine immanence, where the divine is to be found in all locations.[12] But even without taking this specific theological stance, the basic idea underlying self-acceptance is that the individual’s self is a direct expression of the divine will. It is this idea that enables the individual to consider herself an expression of the “sovereignty of Heaven” (“מלכות שמים”). Self-construction, on the other hand, locates the divine will within the Torah and the mitzvot. Absolute submission to the divine will is therefore expressed as the individual taking the Torah and mitzvot to be axiomatic, the unquestionable foundations of the new identity she constructs.

On a practical level, these differences lead to a split where we can categorize self-construction as heteronomous and self-acceptance as autonomous. Heteronomy, in this context, means that an individual’s behavior is expected to conform to an external standard, such as the Torah. Autonomy means that an individual’s behavior flows only from her own will. Self-construction means consciously and intentionally living according to the external standard of the Torah, while Shagar explicitly says that self-acceptance leads to non-conformity and the sort of individualism that is simply unworkable as a community-wide policy.[13] Self-acceptance might be a wonderful tool for the individual in pursuit of religiosity and attachment to the Divine, but its cost is the individual’s connection to her community.

Self-construction, on the other hand, enables a process of identifying with the norms of the community. No matter what their theological underpinnings, the two different understandings of “accepting the yoke of Heaven” orient the individual in entirely opposite ways regarding the guiding principles of her life, and potentially her community. Given these contradictions, we must ask how Shagar understood the phrase “accepting the yoke of Heaven”? When a Jew accepts the yoke of Heaven, what is it that she is doing? What is her intention when she recites the Shema each day? I will now lay out three possible resolutions from within the corpus of Shagar’s writings.

Resolution I: A Dialectical Relationship

In a sermon discussing repentance in advance of the high holidays, Shagar explores the process of self-improvement. In the course of the discussion, Shagar uses “accepting the yoke of Heaven” with a clear meaning of self-construction:

המלכות הינה יכולתו של האדם להחליט, להתחייב ולעמוד בהתחייבותו. באופן פרדוכסלי, התחייבות שהינה קבלת עול, תלויה במלכות. רק מי ששולט בעצמו יכול להתחייב – דהיינו לקבל עול. קבלת עול מלכות שמים שהינה המלכת ד׳ תלויה במלכות האדם. ומלכות האדם – השליטה העצמית שלו – איננה אלא יכולתו לקבל עול, להתחייב.

Sovereignty (malkhut) is a person’s ability to decide, to commit, and to persist in his commitment. Paradoxically, commitment, the accepting of a yoke, is dependent on sovereignty (malkhut). Only a person who is in control of themselves is capable of committing, of accepting a yoke. Accepting the yoke of Heaven, making God sovereign, is dependent on human sovereignty. A person’s sovereignty, his self-control, is none other than his ability to accept a yoke, to commit.[14]

The idea of a person taking control of themselves and committing to something, in this case the Torah, is both accepting the yoke of Heaven and a necessary part of the process of self-construction. However, in the course of discussing this process of deciding to commit to Torah observance, Shagar discusses the necessity of self-acceptance:

אחת הבעיות העיקריות שלנו הינה חוסר היכולת להתמיד ולהתרכז. אנו מפחדיםואף לא מסוגלים – להחליט, ולא מסוגלים להתמיד בהחלטה. מדוע? בעיות הריכוז וההתמקדות, שהן כה שכיחות, נתפסות לפעמים כבעיות של חוסר רצון וכדומה. אך למעשה הן כלל אינן שוליות אלא מבטאות ענין מרכזי. זהו הקושי לקבץ את הניצוצות שנתפזרו בנפש – בלשון אדמו”ר האמצעי. הריכוז הוא תוצאה של מליאות עצמית. היכולת של אדם לשהות בתוך עצמו לאורך זמן בלי לאבד סבלנות, תלויה במידת שלמותו עם עצמו, קבלת עצמו ואף אהבת עצמו.

One of our essential problems is an inability to persist and to focus. We are afraid, and perhaps even incapable, of deciding, and we cannot endure in our decisions. Why? Problems of focus, which are all too common, are sometimes understood to be caused by a lack of desire or the like. But in practice, they are not incidental but express a primary point. This is the difficulty of gathering the sparks scattered throughout the soul, to use the language of the Mittler Rebbe. Focus is an outgrowth of fullness of the self. A person’s ability to pause internally for a length of time without losing patience is dependent on the degree to which he is in harmony with himself, on self-acceptance, and even on self-love.[15]

הקושי להתחייב למשהו באופן אמין ולטווח רחוק נובע מזה עצמו. קשה לאדם להצטמצם ולומר לעצמו: ׳אני בטוח שזה מה שעלי לעשות׳, ותמיד משאיר את עצמו במרחב נפשי-קיומי של אפשרויות. למשל: הקושי להחליט להתחתן עם פלונית. כדי להחליט החלטה ממשית צריך להימצא במצב של ׳ככות׳ככה זה ולא יתכן אחרת, וזו האשה שאיתה אחיה ואי אפשר שתהיה אשה אחרת. בדרך כלל ישנה חרדה מעמדה כזו, ואדם מעדיף תמיד ׳לשבת על הגדר׳ ולשמור על מרחב לא-מוחלט של אינסוף אפשרויות.

The difficulty of committing to something in a steadfast and long-term way flows directly from this. It is difficult for a person to withdraw and say to himself: “I am certain that this is what I have to do.” He constantly leaves himself in a spiritual-existential realm of options. For example: The difficulty of deciding to marry Jane Doe. In order to make a real decision, he needs to be in a state of “like-so-ness;” like so, and not possibly otherwise, for this is the woman with whom I will live, and there is no other woman possible. There is a general fear of this sort of stance, and people usually prefer “to sit on the fence,” thereby preserving a non-absolute realm of infinite options.[16]

In these passages, Shagar zeroes in on a critical issue involved in self-construction, one that arises both before and after the decisive moment of commitment. Before committing, the individual is confronted by an inability to decide who or what she wants to be. Before she can commit to the Torah, she has to recognize that this is what she wants to do. This requires a person to be in touch with herself to a degree that can only be achieved by way of self-acceptance. There are so many different things a person can be, so many ways she could change herself. Only once a person accepts her current state long enough to decide that she wants to follow the Torah can she really commit to doing so.

This issue, the question of options, arises following the act of committing to the Torah as well. The decision to commit is a momentary event, and maintaining that commitment is in no way guaranteed. The secret to maintaining a commitment, Shagar argues, is to see the decision as inevitable. What at first seemed as a choice among a variety of options is now recognized as the unavoidable embrace of a singular path. To maintain a commitment is to live with the awareness that you could not be otherwise, and to accept that fact.

The decisive act of accepting the yoke of Heaven via self-construction, wherein a person takes the Torah as the fundamental axiom of her life and builds her identity upon it, is thus bounded on both sides by self-acceptance. Before the decision, self-acceptance grants a person the ability to focus and decide what she really wants. After the decision, it enables her to accept her choice and not feel pulled by other possibilities. Self-construction is therefore really a process of oscillation between acceptance and construction as the individual wishes to change herself further.

Accepting of the yoke of Heaven can therefore be seen as a dialectical process, wherein the individual goes back and forth between self-acceptance and self-construction. This resolution resolves the tension between the two understandings of “accepting the yoke of Heaven,” but it is not without its cost, which we will return to after examining another possible resolution to the contradiction: mystical paradox.

Resolution II: Determinist Paradox

A second possible resolution emerges from an idea that Shagar mentions in his discussion of self-acceptance as a form of repentance. Discussing the ways that self-acceptance is built on axioms of divine omnipresence and omnipotence that essentially make human initiative meaningless, Shagar briefly demurs.

אלא שמיצויה של תפיסה זו המלמדת שהכל בידי שמים, איננו מביא בהכרח למסקנה שאין לו לאדם אלא לקבל את עצמו ואת גורלו. הקביעה שכל מה שהאדם עושה נגזר מראש, עשויה גם לשחרר את האדם לפעילות חופשית המקבלת את עוצמתה מאמונה זו דווקא. המאמין בה יכול לפעול באופן חופשי, ולא עוד אלא שהוא סמוך ובטוח שהוא איננו יכול אחרת, ושכך הוא רצון השי״ת. היצירה האנושית חושפת למפרע את מה שהיה מונח בשורש. יש כאן מעגל קיברנטי לפיו העבר נקבע בעתיד.

The result of this understanding, which teaches that everything is in the hands of Heaven, does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that a person can do nothing but accept himself and his fate. The idea that everything a person does is predetermined can also liberate a person to free action that receives its independent power from exactly this faith. A believer in this faith can act freely, and he can feel supported and secure in his inability to act otherwise, for this is the Will of God. The human creation retroactively reveals what was already present at its the root. This is a cybernetic circle according to which the future determines the past.[17]

Shagar argues that determinism is not tightly bound to fatalism. The idea that we must give up on the ability to choose our destiny and simply accept our predetermined fate is built upon an opposition between choice and fate, or the divine will, that need not compel us. Instead, we might argue that choice itself falls within scope of predetermination; our choices, whatever they may be, will inevitably reflect the divine will.

If accepting our fate does not necessarily lead to passivity regarding our destiny, then accepting ourselves does not necessarily lead away from self-construction. We can consciously choose the axioms around which we want to construct our identities and can choose to live in accordance with them, all the while confident in the knowledge that we could not have chosen otherwise. This leads to the paradoxical possibility of a process where we create what was always already there to begin with.

According to this resolution, accepting the yoke of Heaven means constructing the self around the axiom of the Torah, while aware of, and bolstered by, the knowledge that this process is predetermined by the divine will. We create ourselves as what we were always predetermined to be, individuals dedicated to the Torah.

We have seen two possible resolutions to Shagar’s two contradictory understandings of accepting the yoke of Heaven, each with a disadvantage. The dialectical resolution absorbs self-acceptance within self-construction. Self-acceptance is reduced to a handmaiden of self-construction, functioning only as a necessary ingredient in the process of remaking the self. It lacks the robust, independent, existence as a form of accepting the yoke of Heaven that we saw above. The paradoxical approach extends the determinist theology of self-acceptance until it includes self-construction, allowing us to apply the name “self-acceptance” to self-construction, but at the cost of the actual process of self-acceptance. Thus these are possible resolutions, but they are far from ideal. In resolving the two different ideas, we have been unfaithful to one. It is perhaps more desirable, then, that we seek out a resolution that does not compromise on either approach.

Resolution III: Embracing the Contradiction

Shagar understood the postmodern condition, a state we all live in now, as being marked by contradiction and plurality.[18] We no longer believe in broad, all-inclusive, narratives that can explain every element of our lives. Instead, we have “local truths,” ideas and understandings that do not pretend to apply universally. Basing himself on the thought of Rav Kook and Rebbe Naḥman of Bratslav, Shagar argued that this fragmented approach to truth and reality is actually a great religious opportunity.[19] We should embrace this multiplicity of truths, recognizing each as a manifestation of the divine truth. The correct resolution might therefore be to acknowledge that there is no resolution. Maybe Shagar simply contradicted himself in his definition of “accepting the yoke of Heaven,” leaving two live options open for himself and his audience. Each understanding could then be chosen as appropriate for a given individual or situation.

This is at work in the passage about self-acceptance and faith quoted above. The passage begins by saying “In my opinion, this enables the presentation of two different and opposing paths that lead to religious faith,” informing the reader that Shagar intends to propose two contradictory forms of faith, without necessarily deciding between them. The passage then describes self-acceptance as a form of faith, as quoted above, before switching gears to talk about self-construction, the ability to make a creative choice to believe:

המסלול השני הפוך. זהו מסלול של הכרעה, של יכולת יצירה. הוא אינו מתחיל מהמקום של הזהות אלא מהמקום של החירות, דוגמת החירות המוסרית שאיננה נשענת על העובדות אלא מכוננת אותן. פועלת היא, כפי שלימד קאנט, על פי הרצוי ולא על פי המצוי. בניגוד לדרך הביטול של להיות מה שאתה, כאן יש לדעתי דרך גבוהה יותר: היא איננה זקוקה להשראה שבביטול, אלא יכולה ליצור את הכלי באמצעות מסירות נפש, בחינת יש מאין. זו תודעה פוסטמודרנית המתכחשת לעצמיות ולאותנטיות שמציגים האקזיסטנציאליסטים. כאן האמונה היא הכרעה במובן הגבוה של המושג; לא קבלת כללי המשחק אלא קביעתם.

The second path is the reverse. This is a path of decision, of capacity to create. It does not start from a place of identity but from a place of freedom, like the moral freedom that does not rely on facts but rather creates them. As per Kant, it functions on the level of the ideal and not of the real. As opposed to the path of nullification to be what you are, this is, in my opinion, a higher level: it does not require inspiration, as nullification does, but rather it creates its vessel by way of passionate commitment, creating Aught from Naught (יש מאין). This is a postmodern mindset that rejects essentialism and authenticity such as presented by the existentialists. Faith here is a decision in the highest sense of the term; not the acceptance of the rules of the game but rather their creation.

Shagar in this passage presents self-acceptance and self-construction as models of faith side by side. In doing so he not only makes no move to resolve the tension between them, he actually emphasizes their contradictory natures. Faith can come from a place where the individual simply believes, her faith is a part of who she is, and she simply accepts that, but faith can also come from a place where the individual chooses to believe, chooses to commit herself to the truth of faith. Shagar here clearly values one approach over the other, saying that self-construction is “a higher level,” but he still maintains them both as valid approaches to belief, despite how they contradict each other on both theoretical and practical levels.

Shagar broaches the issue of contradictory and non-coherent beliefs in a discussion of postmodern relativists who are also social activists, where he suggests that the only response to such a contradiction is a silent “shrug.” Both relativism and the ethical drive to activism are true, and therefore a person should not choose one over the other but simply shrug and accept both truths. Any resolution between the two is something the individual has to navigate in each concrete situation.[20] A similar approach may be the best way of understanding Shagar’s contradictory usage of the phrase “accepting the yoke of Heaven.” In accepting the yoke of Heaven, a Jew submits entirely to the divine will and organizes her life around it, but whether that will is found in the Torah or in the self is not a tension Shagar feels the need to resolve. The individual may resolve it for herself in each instance, deciding at that moment where the divine will is to be found, and consequently how exactly she will accept the yoke of Heaven.


In this essay, I have examined two different and contradictory understandings of “accepting the yoke of Heaven” within the writings of Rav Shagar, and possible ways of resolving them. In the course of the discussion, a variety of themes and concepts arose that are worth dealing with directly in light of their significance in Shagar’s writings more generally.

First, Shagar discusses God in a direct and refreshing, if not necessarily innovative, manner. Drawing on hasidic sources, he brings to the fore an immanent and determinist theology wherein God is present in every aspect of existence, including in the beliefs and choices of the individual. He then integrates this theology in his explanation of religious terms like “accepting the yoke of Heaven,” breathing new life into old language. In doing so, he also enables the individual to identify herself as an expression of God’s will, leading to self-affirmation and, potentially, non-conformity.

Second, the place of the Torah, or perhaps, halakhah, in Shagar’s discussion is, I think, rather unique. Halakhah is often discussed as a heteronomous law, something that exists outside a Jew that she must obey. In Shagar’s presentation, on the other hand, the Torah and the halakhah start outside the person but become the very basis of her identity. In a sense, this approach transforms heteronomy into autonomy. The Torah becomes the basis of who we are, and our freedom to express ourselves becomes our freedom to live according to the Torah. This holds true throughout Shagar’s writings, where Judaism, halakhah, and the Torah are not things to be proven or related to, but are part of a person’s identity.

Third, Shagar has a particular focus on the self that is striking. This is most obvious in his emphasis on self-acceptance, an idea that he applies to accepting the yoke of Heaven, but also to faith, providence, the meaning of life, and more. However, the emphasis is perhaps even more powerful in self-construction, where the classical understanding of accepting the yoke of Heaven has been transformed from submission to an external element to the internalization thereof.

More than all of this, what arises from our discussion is Shagar’s continued involvement in what might be called a linguistic project. He is attempting to shape a way of talking about Judaism, God, and the life of the individual that is simultaneously both the traditional language of Judaism and the language of postmodern life as he saw it.[21] This leads to the analysis and reinterpretation of traditional terminology, such as his clear, everyday explanation of the kabbalistic term “malkhut,” his relocation of the “self” from a mystical inner truth to the conscious thoughts, beliefs, and feelings of the individual, and, of course the whole issue of “accepting the yoke of Heaven” that I have examined here. Shagar connected this linguistic project to Rebbe Naḥman’s idea of “targum,” or translation as a religious practice involving the interplay of Judaism and the rest of the world.[22] This project challenges Shagar’s audience, or any Jewish individual, to ask herself two important questions: 1. Can I explain my traditional religious terminology, to myself as much as anyone else, in the language that I live my life in every day? 2. Can I explain the events of my everyday life, and my place in them, in the language of the Jewish tradition?

[1] Leha’ir Et Ha-Petaḥim,ed. Y. Mevorach (Alon Shevut, 2014), 205. All translations are my own.

[2] Zeman Shel Ḥerut, ed. Y. Mevorach (Alon Shevut 2010), 175-76.

[3] See, for example, b. Berakhot 61b.

[4] Leha’ir Et Ha-Petaḥim, 205-6. Emphasis in original. See also Luḥot ve-Shivrei Luḥot, 44, 438.

[5] Luḥot ve-Shivrei Luḥot,eds. Z. Maor, A. Brenner, N. Samet, and A. Abramovich (Tel Aviv and Alon Shevut 2013), 419-20.

[6] Leha’ir Et Ha-Petaḥim, 184-85.

[7] Translated from the Hebrew “התנערות.” Shuvi Nafshi, ed. Y. Dreyfus (Efrat, 2007), 128.

[8] For Rav Kook, see Orot Ha-Kodesh, vol. III (Jerusalem, 1985), 140-41. For Rav Leiner, see Mei Ha-Shiloaḥ, vol. I (Bnei Brak, 1995), 164.

[9] Shuvi Nafshi, 125-50. This is probably Shagar’s most thorough working through of the various aspects of self-acceptance.

[10] Leha’ir Et Ha-Petaḥim, 206-7.

[11] Ibid., 129.

[12] Shuvi Nafshi, 128.

[13] Leha’ir Et Ha-Petaḥim, 207; Luḥot ve-Shivrei Luḥot, 184. Interestingly, Shagar indicates that this unworkability is a function of the nature of the Dati Le’umi community as opposed to more Haredi communities, but that is a topic for another essay.

[14] Al Kappot HaManul, eds. E. Nir and O. Tsurieli (Efrat 2004), 18.

[15] Al Kappot Ha-Manul, 19.

[16] Al Kappot Ha-Manul, 21.

[17] Shuvi Nafshi, 132. It is possible that this idea should be understood in terms of the Lacanian concept of “retroaction,” but I will not explore that here.

[18] Luḥot ve-Shivrei Luḥot, 39-45.

[19] Ibid., 74-84.

[20] Ibid., 46, 72-78.

[21] See Pur Hu Ha-Goral, ed. O. Tsurieli (Efrat 2007),8. I have discussed this passage on my blog.

[22] See, among other places, Likkutei Moharan I:12, 19, 29. Shagar’s discussion thereof can be found in Shiurim Al Lekutei Moharan vol. I, ed. N. Lederberg (Alon Shevut 2013), as well as in LeHa’ir Et Ha-Petaḥim,147-57, and in She’erit Ha-Emunah, ed. Y. Mevorach (2015), 87-107. I hope to dedicate a future essay to a more expansive explication of this theme.

Levi Morrow
Levi Morrow is studying for a master's in Jewish Philosophy at Tel Aviv University, intending to write his thesis, and potentially a doctorate, on Rav Shagar. He received rabbinic ordination from the Shehebar Sephardic Center and a bachelor's degree in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Philosophy from Herzog Academic College. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and daughter.