Interview with Yuval Harari- Jewish Magic before the Rise of Kabbalah

The Talmud is chock-full of magic and ways to ward off demons. Rabbi Hai Gaon claimed that the belief in demons was widespread in the Babylonian academy of Sura as a continuity of the ancient magic of Babylonia court of Nebuchadnezzar, a world filled with spirits who inhabited the air, the trees, water, roofs of houses, and privies.

The Talmud taught that are invisible. “If the eye could see them no one could endure them. They surround one on all sides. They are more numerous than humans, each person has a thousand on his left and ten thousand on his right”. Yet, if you want to see them, “bring the tail of a first born black cat, that is the daughter of a first born black cat. Burn it in fire, grind it up, fill your eyes with the ashes and then you will see them.” (Ber. 6a). This topic has not been given the attention it deserves.

Most ignore this topic because Modern Jews feel they have evolved beyond the past and Orthodox Jews ignore it because they cherry pick this material out as folklore or the ideas of the common people irrelevant to the their reading of the halakhic project. Historians, however, seek to understand the thought patterns of the past and to comprehend the cultural construction and the discourse on the topic at that time.


Yuval Harari has recently written a tome entitled Jewish Magic before the Rise of Kabbalah, (Wayne State Press, 2017) dealing with this understudied aspect of rabbinic thought.  Harari did his PhD at the Hebrew University under the supervision of Professors Shaul Shaked and Moshe Idel. Currently, he is professor of Jewish Thought and the head of the Program of Folklore Studies at Ben Gurion University. (Not to be confused with the current bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari of Sapiens & Homo Deus).

Yuval Harari’s book appeared a few months ago in English offering an comprehensive overview of the topic. The first part of the book reviews the scholarship on magic, on Rabbinic magic, and on the role of magic in ancient Judaism. Then it presents the types of ancient Jewish magic as various typologies, categories and types of discourse, The book can be the basis for an entire course, almost a Germanic textbook of the field of Jewish magic.  His book focuses on magic in the Second Temple and Rabbinic era as well as Heikhalot literature, Geonim and Karaite writings.

Harari has also translated and annotated Harba de-Moshe the Sword of Moses (2012)a wide-ranging Jewish treatise of magic compiled in Palestine during the third quarter of the first millennium. In addition he has articles on magical love spells, on magic to gain knowledge,  magic to harm and kill people, and magic for economic success. 

Harari is not the only recent book in the field, a similar and complimentary work by Gideon Bohak Ancient Jewish Magic: A History (2011) gives a historian’s perspective. And recently, Naama Vilozny wrote a book on the pictorial representation of demons. Read together, these works will give one a complete overview of the current state of the field. Two basic texts available in translation that would serve as a basic for discussion are the Sefer ha-Razim, which reflects deep influence of contemporary Greco-Roman magic and a typical Jewish celestial hierarchy of firmaments and angelic hosts and Harari’s edition of  Ḥarba de-Moshe, which is contains a long list of magic recipes of Jewish Babylonian origin.

We have some surviving amulets from Jews from the rabbinic era but thousands of magical bowls. – see here and here. The need to warn off demons was a major Jewish concern of both common people and learned rabbis.

Personally, I know an elderly educated Christian who when confronted with the magic in New Testament replies that it is only metaphor or it was folk believe and not really part of New Testament’s binding message. He has no historic sense that they truly believed in it. Many Evangelicals (and Orthodox Jews) take this anti-historic approach, thereby denying that rationality includes historical consciousness. They also do not sense that the term “magic” is problematic, because it has generally been used to describe the religious and ritual practices of people whom the speaker disapproves of their practice. In the sense, that what I do is ritual, but what other people do is magic or idolatry.

Harari seeks to understand the worldview and discourse on ancient Jewish magic that was widespread during this time.  Since magic was part of an entire worldview, he does not draw hard lines between magic and ritual or halakhah. Harari’s book (together with Bohak’s) shows that Jews truly believed in magic.  This is in contrast to the 19th century rationalist Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Chajes or the Talmudic historians Shaul Lieberman and EE Urbach, who made it disappear from significance.

Harari emphasizes that magic is a pre-scientific technology, and does not devote much attention to the other dimensions, the functional and symbolic aspects. Hence, the book does not serve as a detailed reading of individual formula. Hence, it does not discuss the language and structure of magic formula. But he does note that ancient Jewish magic was not to become a wizard in the Harry Potter sense, rather these works offer pragmatic actions for specific practical goals such as healing or as a hex.

He also notes that these works assume that God gave us this power to do magic, just as He gave us the ability to farm or heal as doctors,  and therefore it does not detract from God’s providence.  The power is in the Hebrew alphabet itself, so that Jewish charms are less performances like the enunciation  of hocus-pocus and more an actual power in the language. In the terminology of the philosopher of language, J. L. Austin- the formula are more perlocution than illocution.

We await similar volumes for Jewish magic in medieval and modern times. A book on the the worlds of Jewish astral magic, kabbalistic magic, amulet writing, and baalei shem is a desideratum. The 1939 classic Jewish Magic and Superstition by Teaneck Reform Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg is woefully inadequate at this point.

Harari is beginning to document more recent phenomena, such as his forthcoming article entitled  Three Charms for Killing Adolf Hitler: Practical Kabbalah in WW2. On the older segulot books available in most Israeli book stores, Harari gives a short introduction.

In our own time, magic has returned after a 200 year hiatus.  The scholar of religion Amanda Porterfeld (2001) notes that there was a steady decline and eradication of magic due to the Enlightenment project of rationality from 1780 to 1980’s. Now, we have witness an upswing in magic in which she claims there was more magic in the 1990’s than the prior 200 years. In the Jewish world, there are now many new Haredi works on magic and discussions of how Jewish law permits any form of magic needed for healing.

But now in the 21st century, we do not refer to demons and magical bowls anymore, nor do we generally write amulets the way RabbI Yonatan Eybeshutz did. Rather, we give magical powers to ordinary activities. For example, a local Teaneck Orthodox –distributed for free –throwaway paper this month had an ad for how to cure the medical condition of depression using Psalms. The weekly paper usually presents a colorful gallery of upper middle class educated Orthodox Jews returning to magic including various donations to rabbis who will perform these practices just for you or how donations to a specific cause has magical powers.

Other common example of contemporary magic are the use of dollars given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, visits to Rebbes Ohel, going to Galilee holy trees and graves in order to find a spouse, or the many recent segulot associated with weddings. We call them segulot but they are magic nevertheless.

The academic historian or scholar of religion does not dismiss these phenomena; rather they seek to understand the worldview and discourse of 21st century magic. What functions does it have? and how does it shape their theology? Even the theologically inclined rabbi should ask: What need does the community have for these practices? This would serve as a window into their culture and thinking about theology. What are the critical points of weakness in life that need extra help? Where does the power come from? and what are their views of providence? Conversely, what is the power gained in condemning these practices and are the current condemnations similar to ancient Jewish debates with Christians and pagans saying what I do is religion and what you do is magic?

Harari’s goal is to try and answer these questions of the rabbinic age, late antiquity and the early Islamic period. The interview below gives the reader a good sense of his approach.

(A bowl to bind Ashmodai, King of the demons)

 1) Is sorcery and magic important for Rabbinic discourse?

Magic and sorcery are discussed in rabbinic literature in various contexts and are of great significance for the rabbis’ discourse on ritual power. It is evident that Jewish culture admits the idea of human ritual power and is reluctant to give it up.

Moses and Aaron, Elijah and Elisha are the most prominent biblical figures in this regard. Stories about them, as well as about other biblical and later outstanding figures, teach that God’s agents are capable of backing the truth they promote by means of ritual power which they possess and employ at need.

In antiquity, this kind of power had a major role in the marketing of the truth and in pointing out its possessed real agents. The problem arises when other agents also seem to control such power and to use it for backing other truth so as to undermine both the monopoly of God’s agents on truth and the social order associated with it.

From biblical time to our day, there is an unclear and sketchy borderline, between the prophet (or the rabbi or the ḥasid) and the sorcerer, between miracle and magic, and between prayer and incantation.

Since the insider available evidence of Jewish magic culture is now broad, we are not anymore dependent on the rabbis’ prism for understanding what that culture looked like in their time. The significance of the rabbinical magic discourse on magic is thus found more in the discourse itself than in the magic.

Traditions dealing with ritual power at the hands of the rabbis, accusation of women in performing witchcraft along with stories on conflicts between rabbis and witches and sorcerers (in which the former have, of course, the upper hand), point at the essentially political coping of the sages with the existence of ritual power outside their circles.

2) How is early Jewish magic a cultural system?

Magic is may be considered as pre-scientific technology, a scheme of technical practices founded on the belief in the way reality is run. Given the traditional premises concerning what forces that reality, magic behavior was rational.

Jewish magic is founded on a belief in human aptitude to affect the world by means of rituals, at the heart of which is execution of oral or written formulas. It is not different from Jewish normative religious view, which ascribes actual power to sacrifice, prayer, ritual, and the observance of law. Magic also does not differ from the normative views regarding God’s omnipotence or the involvement of angels and demons in mundane reality. It has elaborated as a system parallel to, and combined with the normative-religious one, a system that seeks to change reality for the benefit of the individual, commonly in order to remove a concrete pain or distress or to fulfill a certain wish or desire.

Books of magic recipes from antiquity as well as from later periods show that magic was pragmatically required in every aspect of life. Magic fantasy of the kind of One Thousand and One Nights or Harry Potter is missing almost all together from recipe books, which usually offers assistance in achieving targets that may be achieved also without magic. According to these Jewish books, magic power can be implemented personally or by an expert. Expert magicians offered their help in choosing and performing the right ritual and in preparing adjuration artifacts and other performative objects, such as amulets of roots and minerals.

Jewish performative artifacts from late antiquity, mainly amulets and incantation bowls, attest to the use of magic techniques for various aims including healing, protection, social and economic success, exorcism, love, sex, and harm. Recipe books also present the elements of the magic ceremony, which includes use of various materials – minerals, plants and animal (or human) organs, gestures on the side of the performer, and execution, either orally or in writing, of an adjuration formula. As noted, the goal of the ceremonial acts is to bring upon a certain result, desired by the beneficiary of the charm.

3) How is your approach different than Lieberman and Urbach and different than Nuesner, Gruenwald and Idel?

When it comes to magic, both Saul Lieberman and Ephraim Urbach seem to have had a pre-perception of the kind of religiosity the Sages had assumed and what could or could not have been part of it. They treated the rabbis as the founding fathers of Orthodox Judaism of the kind they themselves assumed. Their image of the Sages had a significant role in the self-image of these scholars.

It seems to me that in spite of their profound acquaintance with rabbinic literature they found it difficult to admit that rabbis not only believed in the actual power of magic but also carried it out. They both had a view of what real Judaism is and magic had no part in it. Thus, if we find expressions of magic belief and action in Judaism they certainly result from “foreign influence,” alien element that penetrated from the outside and stained it. Surely, there was no room for magic among the true founders of rabbinic Judaism. The problem is that this is not an easy claim to make about Rabbinic literature (Lieberman was actually more flexible than Urbach in this regard). Both scholars, however, made great effort to “clean” the rabbis from real involvement in magic either in thought or practice.

Jacob Neusner, Ithamar Gruenwald, and Moshe Idel presented a different picture. In their mind, there is no chasm between magic and religion, so they did not see a problem in assigning magic to the rabbis. They did not consider magic a superstition that stains the religiosity of those who believe in and practice it. Therefore, unlike Urbach and Lieberman, they did not abstain from pointing exactly at those sources that attest to the existence of magic in rabbinic thought and action.

I myself perceive rabbinic literature as a polyphonic corpus, which from the outset does not reflect monolithic thought, faith or stance. No wonder then that we find in it a prohibition against sorcery together with stories about rabbis who make perfect use of it. I also do not think that Halakha should receive priority over Aggadah in the investigation of the rabbis’ cosmology reflected in this corpus. This was a world where all peoples believed in and practiced magic.

Furthermore, why would ancient Jewry need influence from the outside in order to develop its own magic culture? Could not they do it on their own? Were they not capable or intelligent enough to create their own magic belief and praxis? I’m sure they were.

My own discussion on magic in rabbinic literature (and other ancient treatises from Second Temple and Heikhalot and Merkavah literature) differs from that of the scholars who preceded me because I approach it with a profound acquaintance with Jewish magic culture itself from the early Jewish magical texts.

In my book I aim at introducing the entire evidence of rabbinic magic discourse, or better occult discourse, for I also deal with demonology, divination, dream interpretation and astrology.

4) Why do we have to control demons? How do we do it?

Many peoples in antiquity believed in the existence of demons and Jews were no exception. Jewish cosmology ascribed to demons all kinds of misfortune – from illness and death to personal disasters and failures.

The significant role of demons in Jewish weltanschauung in late antiquity is attested by the many terms used for denoting the various kinds of these hidden entities: zika, mazika, nidra, barukta, tulin, deivin, shedim, lilin and many more. According to that view, demons can infiltrate one’s house, body, thoughts and dreams and cause harm. Exorcistic knowledge is thus required in order to treat illness, troubles and distresses. The Talmud discusses demonological issues and details a few spells against demons. The magic evidence attests to the use of exorcistic objects – amulets and bowls, empowered by spells and holy names that were written on them. These objects and spell had one goal: to prevent demons from harming the beneficiaries named in them and to expel them had they already penetrated into his or her body and life. In a few rabbinic stories, however, demons are domesticated and subordinated by rabbis and sometimes even act in their service.

 5) What are the types of Jewish magical artifacts? Can you give examples of the formula?

Two major types of ancient magic artifacts remained to our day: metal amulets and a few clay tablets from Palestine and its surrounding, which were produced for healing, exorcism, protection, success, and subduing others in order to gain their love or to control them; and Babylonian incantation bowls, which were used mainly for protection against demon and exorcising them (and in rare cases for cursing a rival or for returning evil sorceries upon their sender).

Whereas only a few dozens of amulets have so far been uncovered, the corpus of Jewish incantation bowls includes more than fifteen hundred items. Beside these two types we should note a handful of magic jewels (striking in their relative absence given the popularity of magic gems in the surrounding Greco-Roman world) and the remnants of five human skulls covered with spells.

These objects were mainly produced in the 5th-7th centuries CE. Dozens of hide and paper amulets, mostly from the 10th-13th centuries were found in the Cairo Genizah. All of these objects survived because of the material of which they were made or, in the case of the Genizah, because of the dry climate in their place of storage. Magic recipes from late antiquity and the early Islamic period indicate many other strata, such as leather, cloth, eggs, and leaves for producing written charms and there is no reason to suspect their use by contemporary charm writers. Other objects of performative nature such as roots, knots, bells, a grasshopper egg, a fox tooth and a nail from the crucified, are mentioned in Rabbinic literature.

Performative (magical) artifacts are identified as such by scholars through the linguistic components of the text. Here is an example of an adjuration text from an amulet which was probably produced at the beginning of the 7th century CE. It was written for Yose, son of Zenobia, to rule over the inhabitants of some village and was found in Ḥorvat Marish (near Tel Ḥazor):

“For your mercy and for your truth” (Psalms 115:1; 138:2). In the name of YHWH we shall do and succeed. Strong and mighty God! May your name be blessed and may your kingdom be blessed. Just as you have suppressed the sea by your horses and stamped the earth with your shoe, and as you suppress trees in winter days and the herb of the earth in summer days, so may there be supp[ressed…    ] before Yose son of Zenobia. May my word and my obedience be imposed on them. Just as the sky is suppressed before God, and the earth is suppressed before people, and people are suppressed before death, and death is suppressed before God, so may the people of this town be suppressed and broken and fallen before Yose son of Zenobia. In the name of ḤṬW‘‘ the angel who was sent before Israel I make a sign. Success, Success, Amen Amen, Selah, Hallelujah.

6) Why are you personally interested in magic?

Some ten years ago, when I was sitting in an Oxford coffeehouse and pondering about the book I was about to complete, the following sentence came to my mind: magic is a rather boring matter. I knew immediately that these were going to be its opening words. And indeed, in itself, “magic is a rather boring matter: practical action, supernatural technology. In its simple version, a few words are uttered, some of them meaningless. In more developed versions, some acts are performed and then the words are uttered.”

I’ve studied philosophy, Jewish thought, Early Christianity, Gnosticism, Kabbalah and comparative religion. I encountered profound thinking, ideological systems, myths, ethics and sophisticated means of expression. Magic technology is very far from that. It was like turning to the study of Ritual Engineering. Nevertheless, as I also wrote there, something in it captures the imagination. But there is much more than that.

First, there are people behind the praxis. Magic recipe literature is a broad map of human fears and anxieties, distresses and needs, aspirations and desires. It is a practical literature that, focusing on daily needs of the individual, slips beneath the radar of social supervision and reflects life itself in a fascinating way.

Second, magic is highly democratic. It focuses of the individual and, indifferent to religion, race or gender, takes personal needs of all kinds very seriously. It supports the individual at times of crises and assists him or her in fulfilling personal wishes. Bronislaw Malinowski viewed magic as ritualization of human optimism and I totally agree with him. Belief in magic is an expression of human optimistic decision to act rather than to despair and give up.

Unfortunately, power always involves potential aggression and the promise of magical power also has a destructive facet. Books of magic recipes reflect that facet with instructions of how to harm and abuse the other. Painful as it is, here too magic literature mirrors life itself.

Finally, because of the vague borderline between magic and the power of “true religion,” magic discourse is political by its very nature. It concerns knowledge and power, ideology and hegemony, exclusion and reproduction of social structures.  That is true concerning all times – past and present.

7) Can you explain love charms and how they work? Give examples.

In Jewish magic literature the term “love” denotes a broad spectrum of relationships, from emotional attachment and marriage to sexual loyalty and abuse. In many cases, it is hard to separate these aspects from one another.

Here are a few examples. First, a cloth amulet that was found in the Cairo Genizah, written for arising feeling of love in a man’s heart toward a certain woman: “You, all the holy knots and all the praiseworthy letters, kindle and burn the heart of Tarshekhin son of Amat-Allah (in longing) after Gadb daughter of Tuffaha.”

The second example is a “tested and proven” recipe also from the Genizah. It aims at the same target but through different means:

“For love. Tested and proven. Take an egg and draw out what is in it through a small piercing and when the egg will be empty, take the blood of a man and of a woman and fill the entire egg and seal the hole in the egg with wax and write [on the egg] with the [mixture of the] bloods the names of the man and the name of the woman and bury it in the ground. And immediately there will be great love between them, so they will not be able to separate from one another.”

The third example is from the opening of a recipe in the early magic book entitled Sefer ha-Razim (The Book of Mysteries): “If you wish to turn (to your favor) the heart of a great or wealthy woman, or the heart of a beautiful woman…”

Sexual abuse of a woman is hinted in two close recipes in another old magic book, Ḥarba de-Moshe (The Sword of Moses). The first suggests: “For a woman to follow you.” The aggressive sexual meaning of this title is exposed through the following recipe, “For untying her,” which aims at untying the poor woman of the binding love charm when she is no longer desired.

8) What are the major magical recipe books? Why is Harba de Moshe important?

Two magic books have survived from antiquity: Sefer ha-Razim (The book of Mysteries) and Ḥarba de-Moshe (The Sword of Moses). Both were probably composed in Palestine in the second and third thirds of the first millennium CE respectively.

Sefer ha-Razim reflects deep influence of contemporary Greco-Roman magic, whereas Ḥarba de-Moshe contains a long list of magic recipes of Jewish Babylonian origin. These compilations, in which the recipes are enveloped by a theoretical, cosmological framework, are expressions of an advanced stage in the process of assembling and organizing written magic information.

Sefer ha-Razim is structured according to the seven firmaments and leads the reader from bottom to top. It specifies the names of the ruling angels in each firmament, their character and their area of authority, and guides him or her how to gain control over them and force them to act. Jewish cosmology typical of apocryphal treatises and Hekhaloth literature and (at times Judaized) Greco-Roman magic practices are firmly interwoven in this book.

Ḥarba de-Moshe points at a hierarchy of 13 arch angels who rule endless battalions of angels and who possess the magic sword of holy names as well as the Torah. The book starts with a description of a three-day complicated ritual, which prepares the performer to rule the sword of holy names. It then presents the sword itself and details some 130 recipes which use it (actually parts of it) in various magic rituals that target an array of goals. It is in this book that magic literature first shows itself as a map of human fears and distresses, needs and desires and proposes itself as a systematic solution.

9) What is the theology of these works? Did God give this power to humans? Can humans control angels?

Both treatises, Sefer ha-Razim and Ḥarba de-Moshe tie magic power with human capability to gain control over angels by means of rituals and adjurations and to force them to fulfil their adjurer’s will, and both exclude God from the influence of human magic.

As noted, Sefer ha-Razim is structured according to the seven firmaments. Six of them are described as inhabited by angels who are appointed over various aspect of life: healing, harm, success, love etc. Typically of this cosmology, God is located in the seventh heaven. The “seven heaven” is entirely dedicated to the description of God’s heavenly praise and worship and no recipe is proposed.

The Sword of Moses, which also distances the Lord from the influence of human magic, presents him as the patron of this art. The book opens with an explicit connection between the magical sword and the Torah and echoes the well-known tradition about Moses’ heavenly struggle with the angels and his return to earth with the Torah that God gave him and the heavenly secrets, “names by which the world is run” in the book’s words, which he received from the angels. It tells that God commanded the angels to honor his names, which were reviled to Moses, and to obey him or anyone else who would adjure them by these names.

The author of The Sword of Moses did not think there was a contradiction between God’s omnipotence, in which he faithfully believed, and human magic power, which he enhanced. According to him, performative use of God’s names became possible because God himself enabled it and supported it.

10) Do you believe in magic?

I’m an atheist. I was raised in a non-religious family and in a non-religious community. I do not believe in the existence God, angels, demons, or ghosts, let alone in their intervention in the mundane world. I highly esteem the significance of human rites and ceremonies and their influential power on the individual and society but I do not believe in their power to change the non-human world in a direct cause-affect manner. From this point of view, the distance between Jewish magic and religion shrinks. In many cases it is reduced to social questions of hegemony and margins.

I’m striving though to avoid judgmental attitude toward the many who do believe in magic, segulot, and “practical Kabbalah.” I’m also not part of the campaign against agents of magic and practical Kabbalists who are often accused of being charlatans. A charlatan is a person who pretends to do or to sell something he or she know they cannot supply. In the field of practical Kabbalah services the practitioner’s self-belief is crucial. Those who are in need of the ritual service and seek it undoubtedly believe in its potential value and are willing to give up time and money for it. If the expert also believes so, who are we to denounce this trade?

On the other hand, when it comes to a person who consciously takes advantage of others’ distress and deceives them, is magic service really differs from one through religious prayers, and blessings? I myself would not rely on any of them but who am I to decide for others what is and what is not real in this world.

11) Is magic perlocution according to J.L Austin’s categories?

Magic language is a performative language. It does not aim at describing the world but at acting in it. Many scholars consider magical speech act an illocutionary act in terms of Austin’s theory—that is, ascribing to the act of speech in itself, if performed in the right circumstances by the right person, the power to make a change in the world—and explain magic language in various cultures, including Judaism, by means of that theory.

I, on the contrary, believe that we should be careful about that. Austin’s theory approaches utterances within a consensual language. All the illocutionary speech acts he points at are dependent for their performative power on social consensus and generate results in the human, interpersonal sphere. Jewish magic, on the contrary, is based on recognition of the inherent power of (Hebrew) language, which can change every aspect of reality, human as well as non-human (God himself created the entire world through speaking!).

Now, can we really mix the two approaches? If we understand a magic incantation as a speech act à la Austin are we also willing to admit its actual performative result in the world?

But if we deprive the magical speech act from its performative results, what is use in explaining it in terms of a modern theory that aims precisely at explaining the performative character of human utterances?

Exorcistic spells and adjurations of angels could have been considered perlocutionay utterances in Austin’s terms—that is, utterances that affect other persons and make them do something—had the incantations themselves attested to their view as such in the eyes of their performers. But rather than driving these entities to act on the basis of a consensual inter-personal consensus, magic formulas aim at compelling them to do so in the same pseudoillocutionary manner in which they impose their performative power on the world in general.

Whereas Austin’s speech act theory does not seem to be productive in the context of Jewish magic, I find Wittgenstein’s view of language and especially his famous concept of “family resemblance” highly beneficial for the theoretical move I develop in the book, a move which I believe leads us to a better understanding of ancient magic and its place in Jewish culture and society.

12) What are your next projects?
—I’m currently working in three main directions:
(a) Jewish dream magic. For example, dream inquiry (she’elat halom), dream divination through the dead, demonic dream divination, harmful magic by means of dreams and so on.
(b) Visual aspects of medieval and early modern Jewish magic manuscripts.
(c) Magic in Modern Israel. This includes an article on Jewish magic used  by Jerusalem Kabbalists during WW2 entitled Three Charms for Killing Adolf Hitler: Practical Kabbalah in WW2.


(A photo gallery of Rabbinic Demons, the sort the Talmud was worried about)

Shavuot – Rav Shagar- Face to Face

We return with yet another Rav Shagar translation, this one for Shavuot (Hebrew here). We have once again to thank Levi Morrow for his translation. For those who want prior posts on Rav Shagar, see herehere. here, here, and here.  (There are at least 16 in total at this point, I know this is becoming a single focus, but please wait for the return of other topics.)  I put this one up quickly, a little less edited, so that everyone can print it out to study on Shavuot, or even to give classes on it. Please let me know of any errors.

This essay on Shavuot is one of the best places to start with Rav Shagar in that it deals with the basic Existential & post-modern issues in a non-technical way along with an immediate application to one’s religious life.  This is the one to judge if you find Rav Shagar meaningful for today.


The basic question is what do we mean by revelation and commitment to Torah in a non-foundational age? The basic answer of the essay is to study Torah as a means for holiness in our lives and to ward off meaninglessness. Torah study is creative and individualistic, in that, anyone can make his or her own meaning in Torah. This Torah study is the empty void (halal panui), described by Rav Nachman, serving as a place to meet the infinite. (Not as a place of doubt.) Torah is the means by which we come to accept oneself and one’s specific condition, which Rav Shagar discusses in many of his other homilies.

The essay opens with the fundamental questions of revelation in our age. Rav Shagar starts by working within a Hasidic framework citing Chabad Hasidism, that Sinai was a direct encounter with God. But going beyond Hasidism, Rav Shagar asks, if revelation is given as a human experience and always processed through human concepts then how is it an infinite experience? For the original Hasidic texts, enthusiasm connects one directly to the infinite. However, in our current view of reality, how is it infinite? Rav Shagar also asks the classic question, of how can we see God Face to Face, yet “a man cannot see my face and live”. The essay has five sections. I am providing guideposts for the five sections on the specific question of revelation.

Section I- Experience of God as a Transcendental Experience of one’s own Existence

Sinai is a revelation of an unmediated knowledge of God’s existence as presented in Maimonides first chapter of the Mishnah Torah, that is, Rav Shagar reads Maimonides as a Hasidic identity with the divine.

But in a non-foundational era along with the traditional statement that we cannot see God face to face, this intimacy and identity with the divine is a non-verbal depiction in the soul. To which Rav Shagar, gives an Existential understanding. “This intimacy created the intimacy of a person with himself, the truth and calm of faith. Encountering the truth of existence grants a believer his own existence.” Meaning that unlike Heschel where one encounter God, here one encounters one’s own self. The answer to the possibility of revelation is that it is a transcendent experience that gives life meaning. He return to this later in the essay.

Section II Revelation as the Receiving of God by the Self in a moment of Love

Maimonides counts faith as a commandment, which for Rav Shagar means commandments should be fulfilled for their own sake, meaning out of love. A commandment is not a law. The command should be understood as the truth of God’s existence turning toward the individual and toward the truth in him, “face to face.” It is an I-Thou moment in which God turns toward man in order for man to receive God’s kingship with love, for man to receive God’s address and thus create man as existence. He uses Franz Rosenzweig’s description that this is the lover’s call, “love me. That simply happens in the present moment of revelation, and therefore it cannot held onto and posited as law. (For Rosenzweig on love as applied to prayer, see this article, Shagar applies it to Torah study.)

Section III Revelation as Inner Reality; Torah as our Inwardness

Rav Shagar moves from his Hasidic reading of Maimonides applied to Rosenzweig to an alternate approach to Sinai found in Sefat Emet (Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905), which focuses on the inner vitality of all things. For the Sefat Emet, speaking face to face means the revelation of this inner vitality. Rav Shagar takes this in an Existential direction. People are trapped in isolation and inauthentic experience.  “In order to be freed from this state a person needs revelation.”  However, the revelation is transitory and returns to concealment amidst ordinary life.

This is the place where Torah study becomes essential for creating the space for holiness and the divine presence. “This is the Jew’s refuge from the alienation and estrangement of the outer world, and it is here that he finds his place and feels at home.”   This form of Torah is available to every Jew and shines alike on each person. Eventually, most things are again concealed in routine and repetition, Revelation is the starting point, the openness to the concealed innerness, renewing the connection from an old-new place.

Revelation is experienced foremost as fear (yirah), which Shagar defines as the terror of the nothingness of existence. “The revelation at Sinai does not grant human ethics support from an absolute and transcendent source” and ”is not evaluated based on an external fact.” In short, Torah is about inwardness and does not depict, represent, or refer to external things.” Yet, it gives great pleasure in its ability to help a person transcend.

Section IV Torah must be studied in Covenant, defined as our Commitment and Personal Meaning

Mount Sinai is about the deference of  “we will understand” by “we will do,” understanding is based on doing. “A Jew finds his Jewish identity in the Torah, and through that his connection to God.” Torah must be studied in love not as an outsider; “anthropologists claim something similar. Can a Western researcher ever understand the culture of tribesmen living in an entirely different existential space?”  Not only do you have to be a participant in the covenant in order to understand the Torah, but also the whole sense of it is just this revelation.

But what is Torah in a non-foundational world? “The Torah is not representation, and does not describe the world of the covenant but creates it…  The Torah in its entirety is a revelation of the “I am,” a speech that reveals reality rather than depicting it.” It is out commitment, our creativity, and our finding meaning in Torah is the revelation. Thereby, blurring “the lines between discovery and creation”  and by extension God and human. In the encounter with Torah, the student  gains the truth of existence, and the inner unity that rests in the declaration “I am who I am.”

Section 5 Revelation as an Outside Transcending Event Shaping Our Lives-Opening us up to Personal Inwardness

What is the place of compulsion (kafiah) in revelation? For Rav Shagar, “If the Torah shapes the Jewish world, then it must be a personal acceptance and not compulsion.  The important new point here is that for Rav Shagar even if the source of revelation is in man’s innerness, it is still experienced as transcending him.” Even in an age of autonomy and even more so an age of non-foundationalism, religion is experienced as an outside revelation even if it comes from within. And because of this he lives a scrupulous religious life. (This is not the same as his Lacan justification elsewhere.)

Revelation is treated as compulsion and externality, but the individual chooses to accept them, in that, he “opens himself to being shaped; gives up his hold on the way things are in order to enable the creation of the plane of holiness.” In addition, the “fear of returning to the primordial chaos, reflects man’s inability to create his own existence, and the fear of our familiar world crumbling away.”

In conclusion, he states, “when inner truth is revealed as an available option, man’s freedom to choose himself, to accept himself as he is… is revealed. Choosing that which is compulsory for him brings a person to inner oneness; it opens him up to the existence that rests within him.”

In this section, he also rejects Rav Kook’s sense of a natural inner nature of the Jew. He also considers apologetics as making “a person stubborn and militantly heroic” and “actually strengthens the nihilism.”

© 2017 Alan Brill and Levi Morrow, all rights reserved.

Face to Face

From Rav Shagar’s teachings for Shavuot 2007. Edited by Eitan Abramowitz in advance of the conference organized for the sake of Rav Shagar’s recovery. Translation by Levi Morrow

“God spoke to you face to face on the mountain from within the fire.” (Deut. 5:4)

What is the meaning of revelation, which stands at the center of the experience at Sinai?The Baal Hatanya (Shneur Zalman of Liady 1745- 1813) sees this question as particularly pressing when it comes to the content of revelation:

The first thing to understand is the meaning of “the giving of the Torah,” for our forefather Abraham fulfilled the whole Torah before it was even given… the verse says, “so that you will command your sons…” meaning that the Torah was something they would receive from their ancestors. Further, you must understand what it means that, during the Ten Commandments, God descended on Mount Sinai with thunder and lightning, and that the people’s souls left their bodies upon hearing each commandment. Further, the commandments say “do not kill, do not commit adultery, etc.” and these are banal matters that are necessitated by human intellect itself.1

What value did the experience of Sinai add, if it only revealed things we already know? It seems that, as opposed to the things that occur in our regular existence, revelation is not evaluated based on the content that it transmits but based on the very fact of revelation, on the disruption of normal existence. According to the verse that we opened with, revelation is a revelation of the face, a direct encounter with God. This makes the question of the relationship between the finite and the infinite quite urgent.

What significance could revelation have if it must always be processed through human concepts and ideas? What connection could revelation create, when the very idea of a connection is a human idea? Furthermore, Moshe was told, “a man cannot see my face and live… you shall see my back but you shall not see my face.” What then was the face that the Israelites saw from within the fire


Maimonides reads the first verse of the revelation as a commandment, and this is how he explains its meaning:

The foundation of foundations and pillar of wisdoms to know that there is a first existent, that brought into existence everything that exists, and everything that exists, the heavens and the earth and everything between them, exists by virtue of the truth of its existence… This is a positive commandment, as per the verse “I am the Lord your God.2

The fundamental term of faith is “the truth of its existence,” and from this true existence, all things receive their existence. The truth of existence is the assertion that God truly exists, while what we think of as existence does not necessarily exist. What we think of as existence is really just a possible, incidental, existence, in contrast to the true existence that is a deeper layer than existence itself. The revelation at Mount Sinai was an encounter with this layer, with the truth of existence that transcends the existence with which we are familiar. This faith gives us our existence, without it we lack substance; our lived existence is flawed and transient. Faith gives a Jew his place – he exists in God.

Already in Maimonides’ depiction of Moshe’s request, he describes knowing the truth of existence as seeing a face:

What did Moshe want to comprehend when he asked: “Please show me Your glory?” He asked to know the truth of God’s existence to the point of internalizing it in his mind, the same way you know a particular person whose face he saw and whose form has been engraved within your mind. This person is distinct within your mind from other men. Similarly, Moshe asked that God’s existence be distinct within his mind from the existence of other entities, to the extent that he would know the truth of God’s existence as it is. God replied to him that a living person, body and soul, does not have the ability to comprehend this matter in its entirety.  God revealed to him that which no man had known before him or would ever know afterward, until he was able to comprehend from the truth of God’s existence distinctly in his mind, as a person is distinguished from other men when one sees his back and knows his body and his clothing. This is alluded to by the verse, “You shall see My back, but you shall not see My face.”3

Knowledge of the face is knowledge of the essence; recognition is unmediated. In contrast, knowledge of the back, such as Moshe merited, is the ability to understanding characteristic movements, how the unique essence is reflected in walking, clothing, or writing. Both of these types of knowledge involve some degree of unmediated contact with the essence. This is what distinguishes between them and the normal ways we talk about God, which connect with neither God’s essence nor its reflection.

To use different language, we might say that unmediated knowledge is a knowledge of direct recognition, distinct from theoretical knowledge, which is indirect knowledge. The difference between them is like the difference between an exact description from a matchmaker and a direct encounter with a partner. An unmediated encounter reveals “the thing itself,” everything that escapes description. A person’s uniqueness is only revealed in such an encounter, while a description can always be applied to another person. According to Maimonides, any descriptions of God in the prophetic books are mediated descriptions; they don’t clarify God’s essence but only teach about God’s existence.4 The revelation at Sinai in this regard – only at Sinai was there knowledge of God’s unmediated presence. Only such knowledge can give faith its certainty, because it touches substance, the divine reality, itself. This is also what gives Mosaic prophecy its absolute quality.

This is the voice that Israel heard, “for hearing the voice without the mediation of an angel is called ‘face to face.”5 Revelation of the face cannot be repeated, as it is not a superficial knowledge but an intimacy (yihud), an illumination, or in Maimonides’s language, “the unity of knower, knowing, and known.” Can we encounter God’s face? Can we know God intimately, to the point of “if I knew God, I would be God?” As we said, already in the biblical text there is a contradiction between the description of the revelation at Sinai and the assertion that “a man cannot see me and live.” The sages said that the souls of Israel left their bodies and they had to be brought back to life.

The commandment of faith that springs from the revelation “is not something expressed verbally, rather it is something depicted in the soul when you believe in it as depicted.”6 Depiction in the soul, rather than intellectual knowledge, gives substance to the faith that God really exists and is present, exists truly and not just possibly. This knowledge is a connection to the thing itself, it is the encounter with the face that Israel saw at Mount Sinai. As is clear from Maimonides’s description of Moshe’s request, experiencing God’s uniqueness is a recognition that distinguishes between the layer of what is common to others and a revelation of what cannot be conceptualized. Uniqueness is not a philosophical assertion to be affirmed but a divine intimacy that is bared before the believer. This intimacy created the intimacy of a person with himself, the truth and calm of faith. Encountering the truth of existence grants a believer his own existence.


As mentioned previously, Maimonides counts faith as a commandment, as opposed to all other early commentators. The statement “I am the Lord your God” should therefore be read not as God’s declaration presenting himself but as a command. However, Maimonides elsewhere taught that the commandments should be fulfilled for their own sake, meaning out of love. A commandment is not a law, enforced by violence, but it is also not a request, made from a position of inferiority. A declaration is not addressed to the listeners present; there is no turn toward them. The command should be understood as the truth of God’s existence turning toward the individual and toward the truth in him, “face to face.”

The command is a distinct type of speech. When a person enters a room and presents himself before those present with the words “I am Reuven,” he is not reporting on or depicting something but creating with his words, with constructive speech. However, such a person is not shouting into empty space. He needs the response of those present, for them to turn toward him in return; he needs their faces. If they turn away from him, he and his address remain incomplete, cut short and rejected. In the statement “I am,” God turns toward man in order for man to receive God’s kingship with love, for man to receive God’s address and thus create man as existence.

The force of a commandment is not a force of violence, it does not use strength, but rather its force comes from its origin. The address comes from the truth of God’s existence, from the depth of God’s intimacy (yihud). Rosenzweig describes this as the lover’s call, “love me.”7 In this address the lover turns toward his beloved with his essence, and it is impossible to ignore. This is an absolute demand that is not attempting to shape the future but simply happens in the present, in the moment of revelation, and therefore it cannot held onto and posited as law. In theory, it can be refused, but on the other hand there is no choice: if you don’t accept it, the world will return to chaos.


In Sefat Emet (Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905) we find another approach to the revelation at Mount Sinai.

For God created the world using the Torah. The inner vitality of all creatures is the primordial force from the Torah… but this innerness (penimiyut) was created hidden. On the day of the revelation of the Torah, however, it was revealed and each thing attached to its root, as depicted in the verse, “face to face God spoke to you”… for then the all-enlivening power of the Torah was revealed… and the primary aspect of receiving the Torah is this revelation.8

We can understand the words of Sefat Emet by using Existentialist concepts. In a person’s initial state they live in concealment and isolation. The vitality and meaning that rests in the world, its “innerness” in the language of “Sefat Emet,” is hidden from him. As a result of this, a person is trapped in inauthentic existence, which is, practically speaking, a lack of existence. In order to be freed from this state a person needs revelation, the disruption of this opaque existence and the revelation of reality. However, since we are talking about revelation and not an intellectual idea, the innerness must return to its concealment, submerged in the world of facts and generalizations.

In order to maintain itself, revelation requires a space within which to occur, a plane which will replace the existing plane. The Torah fills this role, creating the space where reality can be revealed, a space ready for holiness and the divine presence. The words of the Torah and the fulfillment of the commandments shape a world of holiness, the substance of which transcends the day-to-day world of facts. This is the Jew’s refuge from the alienation and estrangement of the outer world, and it is here that he finds his place and feels at home. This is not the holiness of time, space, or any object, but the holiness of speech, where a language itself becomes a holy language.

The revelation of the Torah is not tied to any special insight or deep understanding; it is readily available to every Jew that is involved in Torah for its own sake, conscious of the divine command. He lives in the spoken words, in the open book, in understanding. As opposed to forms of understanding and experience that are an inner light, and therefore vary from person to person, this light is an instance of “surrounding all worlds” (sovev kol almin), beyond the emanated world, and it therefore shines alike on each person.

Sefat Emet describes this revelation as a return to the beginning and as a source of renewal. Initially, you can encounter the substance of a thing clearly and directly. Eventually, most things are again concealed in routine and repetition, interactions dull and faces are no longer revealing, as if after many years of marriage. Revelation is the starting point, the openness to the concealed innerness, renewing the connection from an old-new place. What is revealed and renews is not some external object, but reality itself.

The revelation of reality is experienced first and foremost as fear (yirah), as Baal Hatanya explains in the continuation of the teaching with which we began: “The purpose of the Torah and the commandments is to reveal God’s will within the lower world, as the verse says, “God commanded us to follow all of these laws, to fear God.”9

 The fear that accompanies revelation is not fear of something, but rather a terror that overcomes a person without any clear cause. It flows from the revelation of the nothingness of existence, the laying bare of the substantive reality behind our existence. Existence loses its material quality, its factual concreteness, it is spiritualized and appears as oneness (ahdut) and innerness. This is the response to the Baal Hatanya’s question about the very human nature of the Ten Commandments: the revelation at Sinai does not grant human ethics support from an absolute and transcendent source, but rather ethics itself appears as “nullified” (bevhinat habitul sheyesh bo), as a revelation of the infinite. The revelation is specifically in the banal statements, the superficial words.

This requires changing how we think about the truth of revelation. As the creation of a space wherein reality is revealed, the revelation of the Torah, like the creation of the world, is not evaluated based on an external fact. The Torah is speech that creates, rather than depicting or representing. The words construct their meaning, which is not evaluated based on exacting adherence to existence but rather based on internal coherence, on being substantive and not artificial.

This distinction can be put in terms of the Baal Hatanya’s distinction between greater knowledge (Da’at Elyon) and lesser knowledge (Da’at Tahton): in lesser knowledge, truth is about speech matching reality, and the concrete stability of the fact is an important part of truth. In greater knowledge, truth is about speech corresponding to its own inner reality, the substance that gives it its innerness. The constructive speech of the Torah does not refer to external things; such a speech would duality, on an external existence rooted in the sefirah of Malkhut.

The Torah is a revelation of “I am who I am,” speech that is one with itself and therefore disrupts the familiar frameworks of existence. Of course, identifying the truth and revelation of the Torah is not a function of deep understanding or study. Therefore it is accessible to people beyond just Torah scholars: “there is a bit of this in every Jewish soul… this is what we see practically with every Jew, when he learns any idea regarding God’s immanence or transcendence, or the like… his soul is excited and he becomes entrenched in the idea and pursues it.”10

A Jew has a sense for divinity, for distinguishing between holy and mundane, between full and empty, and sometimes this sense is strongest of all in the simple Jew. The divinity in the Torah gives him great pleasure, not because of the content but transcending it. This pleasure is a manifestation of inner connection, of intimacy with the giver of the Torah who is present in it, of the covenant that is the Torah’s words. 11


The first expression of the covenant at Mount Sinai is the preceding of “we will understand” by “we will do,” an order considered “the mystery used by ministering angels.”12 This mystery is the dependence of understanding on doing, which is [behind] the familiar assertion that no one who is not part of the covenant can understand the Torah. This assertion requires clarification, however: What is the connection between comprehension, covenant, and deed? Why can study not stand on its own?

The sages understood the Torah, first and foremost as God’s covenant with Israel. The primary meaning of Torah study is partaking in that covenant. The Oral Torah, which the sages called “the mystery,” is the intimacy between God and Israel. The sages expressed this in many homilies on their love of the Torah expressed through metaphors taken from marital life. A Jew finds his Jewish identity in the Torah, and through that his connection to God. That is how it was in the days of the Sages, and so it is today. Anyone devoted to the Torah experiences this, whether he is a student in yeshiva or a layman who gets up early to study a daily page of Talmud.

The bottom-line halakhah is therefore that a person can fulfill the requirement of the blessings on the Torah by saying the blessing of “Love,” [the 2nd blessing of the twice daily recitation of the Shema] for both the basis and the content of learning is love. This affects the form Torah study takes. Not every form of study can be covenantal, just as not every student can partake in the covenant. A non-Jew who learns Torah receives the death penalty, not because he lacks the intelligence necessary to understand it but because he does not belong to the covenant and its meaning will not be revealed to him anyway. Even regarding an ignorant person the sages taught, “one who teaches Torah in front of an ignorant person is like someone who has sexual relations with their fiancé in front of an ignoramus,” a sensitivity that reveals but a fraction of the intimacy of the scholar with his bride-Torah.

A number of anthropologists claim something similar. Can a western researcher ever understand the culture of tribesmen living in an entirely different existential space? Simply translating the language and customs into another language is not enough; in order to understand the culture you have to live within it and be a part of it. The sense of texts and actions cannot be abstracted or described objectively; it derives from the cultural context and the way of life that they are rooted in, and therefore must necessarily change in the transition to another culture. This was also the claim of the Musar masters against academic Talmud study, and this lay behind their demand that the study of ethics (musar) precede Torah study.

Regarding the Torah the claim is even more far-reaching. Not only is there no Torah without covenant, which, as we have seen, is also true regarding other forms of understanding, but the Torah itself is the language or the speech of the covenant. Not only do you have to be a participant in the covenant in order to understand the Torah, but also the whole sense of it is just this revelation, the creation of the covenant through the learning. Here we return to an idea we mentioned previously about revelation: the Torah is not representation, it does not belong to the dualistic world and its meaning does not transcend it. The Torah does not describe the world of the covenant but creates it. The covenant rests in, and is realized by, learning.

Accepting the yoke of heaven by putting “we will do” before “we will listen” is the only way to escape the external way of looking at things, the stance that evaluates things based on external criteria. Sealing a covenant enables entrance into the world shaped by the Torah, a world that cannot be known before you enter it, a world in which holiness dwells. Some people want to justify the casuistic style of learning (pilpul) based on this. They claim that casuistry is like a work of art: not to be evaluated based on physical or philosophical truth, but also not just intellectual aesthetics.  Freed from practical learning, such as the exactitude of abstract research, which adheres to the words of the text, the imagination can create the vacuous space (halal panui) necessary for divine truth, which is infinite and unbounded.

The covenant creates a different type of learning and understanding, shaping the personality of the student in its image. The Torah in its entirety is a revelation of the “I am,” a speech that reveals reality rather than depicting it. Its truth is measured in its ability to be expressed; speaking Torah constructs it, without any dualism. Torah knowledge is not manifest in the ability to compare it to other areas, to identify similarities between it and some other meaning or value. Torah knowledge is manifest in the ability to speak it from the same place where it originated, in the ability to identify and unite with the intimacy it bears within it. “If I knew him, I would be him,” and the Torah can only be known by “being it.” This is how you understand a sermon, which is independent and constructive speech, by deeply studying the words until you feel that you could have given the sermon yourself. This unity blurs the lines between discovery and creation, and the student understands, interprets, and creates all at the same time.

This changes the position of the student, as Rav Hillel of Paritch taught:

“God spoke all these words to say, I am the Lord your God.” The word “saying” seems redundant, for throughout the Torah the word “saying” is said to Moshe as an instruction to convey the message to the Israelites… at the Ten Commandments all of Israel heard directly from God, so why was the word “to say” added?

This all makes sense in light of “The Giving of the Torah” (matan torah). This does not refer to the giving of the commandments of the Torah specifically, for they were given later at both Mount Sinai and the Tent of Meeting.

Instead, the intent is that the capacity for Torah was given to each and every Israelite, enabling him to create Torah by speaking and reveal “I am who I am” (this refers to God’s essence and nature) by performing the commandments, causing it to dwell within the Israelite… This is the meaning of “and he spoke to say I am,” for he drew these words into the souls of Israel so that each Israelite would be able “to say: I am,” revealing “I am who I am” within his soul.13

 In encountering and uniting with the divine speech that is in the Torah, the student receives its absoluteness, the truth of existence, and the inner unity that rests in the declaration “I am who I am.” The ability to speak the speech of Torah, the word of God, frees a person from the incidental and the possible in existence and enables him to encounter the substantive existent.


Rav Hillel of Paritch’s words raise another point regarding the covenant of “we will do and we will understand.” Much has been written about the tension between the Israelites’ putting “we will do” before “we will understand” and the sages understanding of the revelation at Sinai as “overturning (kafiah) the mountain like a barrel.” What is the place of compulsion (kafiah) in revelation, when at its basis stands the absolute consent of “we will do and we will understand”?

We celebrate the giving of the Torah, and not the receiving of the Torah. However, as we said, the acceptance of the yoke of heaven, as expressed in the declaration “we will do and we will understand,” is critical. Without it, the revelation is just an unconvincing spectacle, a pyrotechnic display. In order to be a convinced, you have to be ready to be convinced.

If the Torah shapes the Jewish world, then there must be a process of contract entering a Jew into this world, where the Jew accepts it as his existence. Compulsory rules do not create a world. Ultimately, however, the flaw in freedom is in subjectivity itself, in its being a possible existent. The Tosafists expressed this distinction in their words about the preference of a person who performs commandments while being commanded over someone who performs commandments without being commanded.

The reason someone who is commanded is preferable seems to be because he is more concerned and distressed about accidentally transgressing than someone who is not commanded, who can simply forget about the commandment if he so chooses [lit., “he already has bread in his basket, so he can put this down if he desires” -LM]. (Kiddushin 31a)14

The greatness of a command is exactly the worry and distress that maintain the duality and the difference between limited human capabilities and the absoluteness of the command. The divine is not revealed to us as part of a natural process or as an inner nature.

Even if the source of revelation is in man’s soul and innerness, it is still experienced as transcending him and his concepts. The duality that we live in does not enable us to understand free will as creating itself outside of any external context. We constantly experience freedom from an external perspective, as a response to the causal frameworks in which we live. This stance creates nihilism, because there is nothing in our existence that contains absolute, non-relative, meaning.

In such a state, the need to justify the unjustifiable, to turn the external into the internal by way of apologetics that deny duality, arises. This process receives its meaning fromthe effort involved, and makes a person stubborn and militantly heroic. It rarely achieves its goal, because its lack of integrity actually strengthens the nihilism. The path to freedom is not in ignoring duality but in accepting it, as the Tosafists taught, for tension that is one with itself ceases to be tension.

Duality requires the compulsion and externality of revelation, but the individual chooses to accept them. The individual opens himself to being shaped; gives up his hold on the way things are in order to enable the creation of the plane of holiness. The compulsion, accompanied by the fear of returning to the primordial chaos, reflects man’s inability to create his own existence, and the fear of our familiar world crumbling away. In the affirmation “we will do and we will understand,” a Jew enters a world he did not create, the rules of which are not tailored just for him, and only there can he feel the holiness and achieve oneness. This is the meaning of the ability to say “I am who I am,” which Rav Hillel of Paritch says was granted by the revelation of the Torah.

When inner truth is revealed as an available option, man’s freedom to choose himself, to accept himself as he is and where he is, is revealed. Choosing that which is compulsory for him brings a person to inner oneness; it opens him up to the existence that rests within him. The “nullification” involved in putting “we will do” before “we will understand” lets a person hear the speech that creates the Torah, the letters whose roots start beyond conscious thought and external significance. The power of hearing creates a space for holiness, inspiration, and revelation.

© 2017 Alan Brill and Levi Morrow, all rights reserved.

  1. Lekutei Torah Bemidbar 12:3.
  2. Maimonides, Laws of the Foundation of the Torah 1:1-6. [Translation taken from org and edited for clarity. ~Levi Morrow].
  3. Ibid, 10.
  4. Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 1:46.
  5. Ibid, 37.
  6. Ibid, 50.
  7. Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, p.209.
  8. Sefat Emet, Bemidbar, Shavuot 5631, p.22.
  9. Lekutei Torah,
  10. Kuntrus Hahitpa’alut of the Mittler Rebbe, p.58.
  11. “Normally if a person takes an object home from the market, has be purchased its owners? But God gave the Torah to Israel and said to them, ‘It’s as if it is me that you are taking,” Shemot Rabbah 33:6.
  12. Bavli Shabbat 88a.
  13. Pelah Harimon, Shemot, p.240.
  14. Bavli Kiddushin 31a.

Love and Law- Rav Shagar on Religious Zionism 2005

One hundred years ago, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the metaphysical seer of Religious Zionism wrote that the land of Israel is the very soul of the Jewish people. Judaism’s diaspora orientation  was displaced by Rav Kook for a messianic vision of the ingathering of all Jews to the land, where they will find a renewal of their souls and a sense of completeness lacking in prior centuries. In his vision, the land will radiate all that is good, and holy. Through the land Jews will attain “unity, collectivity, idealism, holiness in nature, freedom, universalism, and harmony” and from their attainment these ideas would spread to the world with Israel serving as a spiritual beacon. For Rav Kook, Religious Zionism was to be all love and mystic light. But now, how should one relate to the current 21st century State of Israel based on authority, secularism, violence, and rejection of this vision?

Rav Shagar (d. 2007) sought to tackle directly this gap between ideal and reality, what he calls the post-modern breakdown of the Zionist narrative.  My American readers may not agree with his answer, but his questions are unasked by others.

This blog has published many translated essays written by Rav Shagar, nine in total and three posts about him and one TV movie about him. One of our main translators is Levi Morrow, a rabbinical student in Jerusalem, see here and here. As noted before, if anyone else has translations of Rav Shagar, then I will post them. Here are some of the prior ones- here, here, and here. If you have already had enough of Rav Shagar, then be patient for other topics.


In this 2005 essay, Rav Shagar opens his discussion of contemporary Zionism, with the  impending withdrawal of Israel from the Gaza strip. In his eyes, this place called  Gush Katif, one of the most densely populated places on earth was a barren land without a people, if not for the Israeli settlers. To him, this settlement project was the height of showing immense true love of the land. The disengagement was a setback to this Zionist love of the land. (He had no sense of the large native Arab population of 1.8 million or the centuries of Arabic Jews and Mustarab Rabbis who made Gaza their home.)

The forthcoming disengagement leaves him in a state of oscillation between seeing the state as violence due to the government’s evacuation and the original dream of lights and holiness. Does this violence show the end of the dream?  No, we have to continue to love of the state through obedience even if the Israeli government is not what we wanted or expected. Even paying taxes to the government is an act of love.

This dialectic allows the settlement project now to be one of seeking peace and a new liberal Zionism.

For Rav Shagar, the State of Israel remains redemptive and messianic, as well as providentially exceptional compared to other states. The state still draws down lights because the state is not a based on a “historical-factual material process” rather Religious Zionism is a specific transformative spiritual teaching of redemption.

In the middle of the essay, where Rav Shagar discusses how obedience to the State of Israel is one of love, he makes an interesting riff on a famous idea of Franz Rosenzweig. In Rosenzweig’s important essay Die Bauleute (The Builders, 1923), he discusses the attitude of the Jew to the commandments. Unlike the Orthodox Jew, Rosenzweig did not accept all of the commandments, but distinguished between the subjective “commandment” (Gebot), which addresses the lived life of the individual in the present, which he could readily accept, and objective Law (Gesetz), which he could “not yet” accept.  (American Modern Orthodox obedience to an objective law is exactly what Franz Rosenzweig rejected.)

Rosenzweig used this distinction to defend ritual law before the critiques of Buber, now Rav Shagar uses it to defend Religious Zionism and its laws before the disillusion of the disengagement. The laws of the state are not done as law but as an act of love of the law. The relationship to state for Rav Shagar is an “unmediated relation” of love.  We love the state and the traffic rules and income tax as a fulfillment of Rosenzweig’s subjective commandment (gebot).

Franz Rosenzweig paints Judaism as a life of following mizvot as a sheltered a-historic family space immune from history and public life. Rav Shagar quotes Rosezweig and considers Religious Zionism as the reversal of this valence though a renewed attachment to land, territory, state, and architecture.

For Rav Shagar, this new embodied life is not an integration of secular philosophies with Judaism nor is it a Neo-Hasidic raising of sparks because in both of those models the embodied culture remains outside of the Torah. Rather, the embodied Judaism of Religious Zionism is like love where one becomes one with the beloved, Judaism now grounds itself in land and nature.  (He has no sense of cultural theory in which we are all embedded in culture).

Rav Shagar proclaims a new religious Zionist as Israelness, and not just Jewishness. All life in Israel is one of love, even following the secular law.

Is Israel still a utopian vision redemptive light? Has it been reduced to force and violence?

To answer this, he turns to the distinction between the Messiah son of Joseph and the Messiah son of David. The older Zionist forms were the temporary Messiah of Yosef and now in the Post-Zionist age (and Post-Modern age) we are in the era of the Messiah of David.

In conclusion, we should not rebel against the state, rather we should embrace it with abandon, the same complete abandon that is the the essence of Purim. To live a life of abandon is the true messianic option.  He compares himself with the old liberal Meimad approach, which he faults for being benign, here he advocates a renewal of prophecy, messianism, and love- a shattering of the status quo. For him, we need to choose the pleasure of the love relationship over reality.

In other words: How I learned to stop worrying and love the state- with abandon and apocalyptic messianism

Translator’s Introduction-Levi Morrow

This sermon (see here for the Hebrew original), which was given by Rav Shagar around Yom HaAtsma’ut in 2005 during the lead-up to the Disengagement, is of a pair with the last sermon that I translated, given for Purim of that year.

This sermon tackles the problem of the violence inherent in the law. Its starting point is the passionate redemptive love of the land that Rav Kook enshrined into Religious Zionism. Love of the land contrasting with the violence law of the current nation- state forms a tension deep in the heart of Religious Zionism. The Disengagement threatened to tear the movement apart, into those following the state and those the redemptive vision. Shagar attempts to overcome this problem by proposing two complementary reimagined visions of the state and its law as based on love, not violence, one based on Rosenzweig and one on Rav Kook.

In discussing Rosenzweig, Shagar contrasts his understanding of the unique nature of commandments with that of law (as presented by Eric Santner). As opposed to law, which is always ultimately a matter of force, commandments are derived from the revelatory encounter between two individuals, and fulfilling a commandment re-enacts that encounter in the present moment. To perform a commandment, then, is to do something for your lover because you love them.

Shagar extends this logic to the state. What if we regard the state as a lover? Suddenly, filing tax returns becomes an act of love, as does obeying the speed limit and deciding to walk all the way to the cross-walk instead of just crossing in the middle of the street. Lovers don’t have to be perfect, they’re allowed to be flawed. All we really want of our lovers is that they love us back. So too the state does not have to be perfect, it just has to love us back.

Herein lies the crux Shagar’s vision: what happens when your lover kicks you out of your home? Or asks you to help kick out other members of your family? Is there a point where you stop responding with love? Shagar says no. Even though the lover, or the state, has shifted from acts of love to acts of force, you must continue with acts of love.

The second approach renews Rav Kook’s project. First, Shagar argues for a passionate love of the land as an important part of Religious Zionism. This is in contrast to the way Religious Zionism has come to focus largely, perhaps even exclusively, on the political entity of the state. This presents an opportunity for non-Israeli Jews in particular, who often find themselves at odds with the politics of the state to be wildly in love with the land itself.

Second, Shagar tackles the way Israeli Religious Zionism sees the state as the beginning of the process of redemption, yet he state has done much to contradict this understanding. Resolving this tension requires reconceptualizing the process of redemption itself, such that developments like Post-Zionism and the Disengagement do not actually contradict it. Shagar does this by exploring one of the more neglected aspects of Rav Kook’s messianic teachings, the death of Mashiach Ben Yosef as the death of nationalism, and the current Post-Zionist age as Maschiah ben David. Shagar consciously taking up Rav Kook’s project of interpreting history and carries it beyond where Rav Kook even went.

 Law and Love

Between the Love of the Land and the Sovereignty of the State[i]

(Translated by Levi Morrow, edited by Alan Brill)

The Song of Songs

In the writings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, the land of Israel is above all love, and more specifically, falling in love. His sentences of light and splendor are the sentences of a love-drunk lover, repeating himself again and again in almost every paragraph.

“In the land of Israel the letters of our souls expand, they reveal a torrent… the air of the land of Israel manifests the refreshing growth of these letters of life, in their splendorous beauty, with pleasant niceness and joyous power full of the influence of holiness.”[ii]

With his immigration to Israel, the man of God, student of the Volozhin Yeshivah, fell in love with the land and its pioneers. Like a beloved revealing herself to her lover, the land of Israel revealed its secrets to Rav Kook. There the broad expanses that he had never before known in his life in the exile, in the time when he yearned for the land, opened up before him, expanses that became primary aspects of his teachings: the ideas of all-inclusive unity, collectivity, idealism, holiness in nature, freedom, universalism, redemption, harmony, and ascending development – all of these are the love songs of his encounter with the land. The lover and the beloved reveal themselves to each other. “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me” (Song of Songs 7:11).

The lover is illuminated and enveloped in a delightful world of grace. Everything shines, everything is full of radiances and enveloped in wondrous harmony. He feels free and liberated. Not for nothing did mystics of every generation describe their mystical experiences in terms of falling in love, which is an experience of altered consciousness; intense oneness, transparency, grace, and salvation. “How much does the heart yearn to love everything, all beings, all of the works, all of creation.”[iii]

Rav Kook brought this love into the core of Religious Zionism. The love of the Song of  Songs is a fundamental experience in the life of the Religious Zionist; the intimacy between lover and beloved that the Song of Songs projects is the intimacy of two who are connected to their environs, and the setting of the land of Israel is an integral part of this intimacy. The intimacy between lovers occurs in the land’s natural setting, with nature involved in their love. This love has absorbed the vistas of the land and the seasons of its year. The shulamit whose hair “is like a flock of goats streaming down from the Gilead,” whose nose is like “the Tower of Lebanon” looking down on Damascus, whose eyes are “pools in Heshbon,” and whose neck is “like the tower of David, built to talpiyot,” this is the beloved in the land of Israel. Nature, time, the individual, and love all come together in this wondrous song, and this connection is the basis of the spiritual world of Religious Zionism.

The sages who explained this song as a love song between the people of Israel and her lover, God, understood that a different sort of religious language was present in this song. It was not exilic, but was connected to and deeply involved with the land, derived from a relationship with it. Nature itself becomes a different nature, a divine nature; nature that resonates with the song of Hannah Senesh: “My God, may it never end/the sea and the sand/the plash of the water/the brilliance of the sky/the prayer of man.”[iv]

Law Versus Love

 There’s no doubt that Gush Katif is one of the clear manifestations of Rav Kook’s Song of Song’s style love. This desolate piece of land began to bloom after the encounter with its lovers. This is a reciprocal love story, both the loved and the beloved are not distant and aloof. Rather, she reveals her love – the land blooms. This is how one of the lovers put things:

For a generation we have been living in a magnificent settlement project in this beloved strip of land. The project was set up on virgin soil that had known no man since the creation of the world, and yet it miraculously responded to us, as if we were chose, as if it knew how much we loved it.

In the course of a generation, our souls have become connected to this beloved land, and to each other. With great effort and integrity, we have set up beautiful towns and splendid communities… No evil and no impurity, only goodness and grace. Doors that have never been locked and open hearts are our symbols… A place of Jewish and Zionistic pride, a place that is the dream of every proud Jew… The spirit of man is what turned a barren desert into a blooming garden and a band of strangers into the most wondrous of communities.[v]

Against this youthful love full of grace and trust – “I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride… in a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2) – the Disengagement stands like a heavy cloud. The state decreed on this strip of land the decree of the Disengagement, and revealed, painfully, the foundation of sovereignty, the violence that underlies its laws.

What manifests itself as the law’s inner decay is the fact that rule of law is, in the final analysis, without ultimate justification or legitimation, that the very space of juridical reason within which the rule of law obtains is established and sustained by a dimension of force and violence that, as it were, holds the place of those missing foundations.At its foundation, the rule of law is sustained not by reason alone but also by the force/violence of a tautological enunciation—“The law is the law!”[vi]

More than anything, the Disengagement symbolizes the crime of the legislation of the law itself, the violence that it bears within it, the recognition that, in truth, violating the law is less serious than the crime of making the law. The inner decay that exists in the rule of law is expressed in the claim heard constantly in the mouths of those who support the disengagement law: This is the law, and the law is the law! – And therefore, it must be respected. The arbitrariness of its legislation strengthens the tautology of the law. A justifying “judicial wisdom” is entirely lacking. Its justification is simply the legality of the process: the process is legal, it is confirmed and organized in the Knesset.

The law is justified not by ethics or judicial wisdom but by the simple fact that its legislation is the hands of the majority. The violence required to enact this law, removing people from their land, is not the extraneous remainder of the process but the very heart of law: the violent claim that the law is law. This violence, “the fearfulness of the government,”[vii] implanted in the very heart of sovereign existence that justifies itself with brute force, is what motivates the prophet Samuel to rebuke the nation with “the law of the king” that he lays out before them.[viii]

If so, then the love of the land and the sovereign violence of the state are tragically clashing before our very eyes – law versus love. For us, as Religious Zionists, this clash is incredibly harsh. Just as Rav Kook implanted love of the land within Religious Zionism, he similarly implanted it with the understanding and the faith that the state is the greatest manifestation of, and pathway to, redemption. “Our state, the state of Israel, is the foundation of God’s throne in the world.”[ix] According to him, this is a state “that bears within its existence the greatest idealistic content.”[x] He saw the state as a necessary and decisive step in redemption, and his teachings of redemption deal with it and its ongoing at length.

Faced with the Disengagement, it is impossible not to ask: Is the State of Israel really the beginning of redemption? Can it, or any state, really take part in salvation? The threat of exile that hangs over the residents of Gush Katif, the roots of which lie in the forcefulness of the state, present us with the sharp contrast between the “idealistic content” full of light and love from the teachings of Rav Kook, and the opaque and unmoving law of the state.

From Law to Commandment

Rav Kook undoubtedly recognized the violence hidden within the idea of the state, and he even wrote about it;[xi] if so, what led him to teach that the state of Israel “is actually the greatest happiness of man”[xii]? Is there a depiction of the state, “an ideal state,” that does away with sovereign violence? That presents a state where law does not impinge on love? I intend to depict here two possibilities of such a state, one that arises from the thought of Franz Rosenzweig and one that can be derived from the teachings of Rav Kook himself.

What happens when God stands at the top of the pyramid and is the one who justifies the rule of the king or the law? In such a case, the laws turn into commandments. Does this remove their violent sting? According to Rosenzweig – yes, and this in light of his principled distinction between a law and a commandment:

To me as well, God is not a law-giver. He is a commander. Only a person in his laziness devolves the commands… into laws – well ordered… without the urgency of being commanded, without the “I am the Lord.”[xiii]

The imperative of the commandment makes no provision for the future; it can only conceive the immediacy of obedience. If it were to think of a future or a forever, it would be, not commandment nor order, but law. Law reckons with times, with a future, with duration. The commandment knows only the moment; it awaits the result in the very instant of its promul­gation.[xiv]

A commandment is not an instruction or a law. It does not support itself with external force, rather it receives its support from the fact that it itself is a holy act. The “command” aspect is an inherent part of it. For example, just as two objects in space bear a relationship to “the law of gravity” and act according to it, moved as part of their very existence rather than being forced artificially, so too there is an intrinsic, immanent, connection between the commander and the commandment that cannot be severed. This connection is not a function of the past, just as gravity is not a function of the past, rather it is an event that happens in real time.

According to Rosenzweig, a commandment is fundamentally an unmediated relationship between two individuals, and therefore the heart of the commandment is revelation. A person who performs the same actions “without the urgency of being commanded” therefore cannot encounter God through them. “In that moment we only know the moment itself, and we know it with all the greatness of the divine-human substance of the commandment, from which we can say: ‘Blessed are you’… only from the unmediated state of the commandments can we speak to God… a person hears the voice of the commander only within the commandment.”[xv]

That is to say, whereas the law bears no relevance for those under its authority, rather it just attempts to force on the present that which is past, that which is written in a book, a commandment bears within it significant meaning for the commanded – there is an active relationship and encounter between the commander and the commanded. In other words: the commandment is the way the Torah organizes the falling-in-love of revelation. The commandment carries with it the ongoing revelation of the lover, God, to the Jew, and the outcome of this – the statement, “love me”: “No third party can command [love] or extort it. No third party can, but the One can. The commandment to love can only proceed from the mouth of the lover. Only the lover can and does say: love me!”[xvi]

A commanded person experiences the command as directed to him personally, an experience that is lacking in the alienated law that anchors itself in self-referential tautology – the law is the law. The sovereign does not turn towards his servants but rather imposes laws upon them. What, then, would an ideal Jewish state, with commandments rather than laws, look like?

Let me clarify with an example: imagine a driver at an intersection in the dead of night. There are no other drivers on the road, but the traffic light is red. The driver knows that no one is watching him and he could safely cross the intersection, without fear of accident or police. I know many people who even in the middle of the night, with no one watching, would not drive through a red light, because of the religious framing of “governmental law” (“דינא דמלכותא”); from their perspective, crossing the intersection would be “a religious prohibition” (“איסור”). Just as they would never consider eating pig even in a hidden room in the dead of night, so too they would not illegally run a traffic light. The applicability of the divine law come from its divine commander rather than its content, and therefore it applies in all contexts.  The commandment is not a function of content but of relationship. The same person stops at the red light not because of fear of the law but because of inner connection, identification, not with the content of the action but with the action itself – you don’t drive when the light is red.

A state whose laws do not rely on violent power to enforce their fulfillment but are exchanged for commands, will lead, in psychological terms, to “release from the punishing pressures of the superego [that] is a form of grace… a grace internal to those rigorous imperatives… rather than one that suspends the law in its ‘fulfillment.’”[xvii] Thus, for example, a father does not care for his children because of the law but as a manifestation of his intention and his freedom. He is not driven by an external force which compels him but from internal compulsion, from the obligation he finds in the very fact of his being the father of his children, an obligation that is his very freedom.

Similarly, would an ideal state not collect income tax, for example, by compulsion but rather it would be paid as a commandment? Would a person who fills out the assessment for his income tax feel the same feelings that he feels when he gives charity to the needy? A person gives charity as part of his relationship with the need individual, a relationship that is parallel to his relationship with God, who commanded him to give charity; income tax would be paid from the place where a person forms an internal relationship with the state, a relationship that requires the assessment.[xviii]

A State of Falling-In-Love

An in-depth study of Rav Kook’s teachings on redemption, and understanding what is so novel in them, enables us to learn about another possible avenue for sovereignty without violence.

The redemptive teachings (התורה הגואלת) of Rav Kook are not just a depiction of the end of days or of the spiritual greatness of the land of Israel; they are a drawing down (המשכה) of lights. This teaching is itself an act of drawing out the lights of the land of Israel, lights that to a certain degree did not exist in our world before their revelation, and Rav Kook was the one who drew them into the world. Rav Kook’s teachings create a different religious mindset, innovating over everything that preceded them – “religious Israeliness,” and not just “religious Jewishness.”[xix]

Parenthetically, I would say that even with the difficult events that are threatening us and disturbing our Yom HaAtsma’ut (Israeli Independence Day) celebration, we must celebrate this teaching, the teaching of the redemption of the land of Israel, a teaching to which we are bound and that is bound to us.[xx]

In the deepest sense, Rav Kook’s teachings about the drawing of lights did not just identify the process of redemption; they also enabled it. It blazed a path for the Jews from exile to the land of Israel, one that was not simple, and according to many was impossible and undesirable. Redemption is not a historical-factual, material process; rather it is not separate from the specific teaching that lays out and enables the process.[xxi] Without the spirit of its interpreters, a spirit that grants the process its sensibility and its unique “light,” the redemption cannot happen. Hence, the vitality of the teaching, Rav Kook’s teaching, for redemption.

What was the spiritual situation before Rav Kook’s teachings? What was that “religious Jewishness” that we mentioned?

Rabbi Elazar said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And many peoples shall go and say: Go and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths” (Isaiah 2:3)? The Talmud notes that Jacob is the only Patriarch mentioned and asks: Is He the God of Jacob and not the God of Abraham and Isaac?

Rather, the verse specifically mentions Jacob to allude to the fact that the Temple will ultimately be described in the same way that Jacob referred to it. It will not be referred to as Abraham referred to it. It is written of him that when he prayed at the location of the Temple mountain, he called it mount, as it is stated “As it is said on this day: On the mount where the Lord is seen” (Genesis 22:14). And it will not be referred to as Isaac referred to it. It is written of him that he called the location of the Temple field when he prayed there, as it is stated: “And Isaac went out to meditate in the field” (Genesis 24:63). Rather, it will be described as it was referred to by Jacob, who called it house, as it is stated: “And he called the name of that place Beth-El” (Genesis 28:19), which means house of God.[xxii]

Jewish space is not a space connected to the earthly and external, rather it is a space anchored within itself. “The inner point” [described by the author of the book] Sefat Emet [of the Hasidic author Rabbi Yehudah Alter of Gur] is a clear expression of this type of existence. Jewishness is the home (הביתי) – “Jacob who called it a house,” not the mountain or the field of Avraham and Yitzchak, the mountain and field that are integral parts of the Song of Songs. Jewishness resides in the family, in “the children of Jacob” whose “bed was complete.”[xxiii]

Rosenzweig taught that the expressions of Jewishness are commitment and being rooted in the covenant, which are the fundamental acts of Judaism. According to this definition, the Jewish exile is the creation of a sheltered a-historical, family space, without concern for surroundings or engaged in the rules of history.[xxiv]

The Jews “lack the passionate attachment to the things that constitute the primary… ‘objects’ of other historical peoples and nations, attachments that ultimately constitute their vitality and endurance as peoples and nations: land, territory, and architecture; regional and national languages; laws [=state laws], customs, and institutions.”[xxv]

Their land exists only as a holy land for which they yearn, and their holy language is not their first language, not the language that they speak in their daily lives. Jewishness connected only and entirely in itself. “Our life is no longer meshed with anything outside ourselves. We have struck root in ourselves.” “And so, in the final analysis, [the Jewish nation] is not alive in the sense the nations are alive: in a national life manifest on this earth, in a national territory, solidly based and staked out on the soil. It is alive only in that which guarantees it will endure beyond time, in that which pledges it ever­ lastingness, in drawing its own eternity from the sources of the blood.”[xxvi]

The meaning of the Jew being connected only in himself is that the nation in its very being is that the “outside,” other nations and cultures, either do not exist from the Jew’s perspective, the “outside” does not enter his horizon at all, or is brought inwards into the “house” via “hospitality” (“הכנסת אורחים”).[xxvii] For example, the body – it either doesn’t exist, in which case the Jew is not involved or bothered by it, or it is ignored as irrelevant; or it is internalized as a medium for delighting in God, such as in the Hasidic worship via “raising up the sparks.” This is hospitality – the “outside” ceases to play the role of “outside” and behaves like “inside,” as part of the home.

The gaping difference between Jewishness and Israeliness is the difference between the images of the mother and the lover, that same lover depicted in the Israeli love song of the Song of Songs.[xxviii] The primary female image in the world of the Jew is the maternal-familial image; “Happy are all who fear the LORD, who follow His ways… Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons, like olive saplings around your table. So shall the man who fears the LORD be blessed… and live to see your children’s children. May all be well with Israel!” (Psalms 128). This is not the figure of the lover who descends from the hills of Gilead to see the flowering vines. For sure, the vine – a fruitful vine – and the olive saplings are present here, but they are organized around the familial table of the home.

The image of the lover expresses revelation and the happiness of encounter, while the image of the mother expresses the womb, familiarity without encounter; no stranger is, or could be, present in its light. This difference is not simple, and it demonstrates the innovative nature of the Song of Songs in the Jewish world, and the boldness of Rav Kook’s teaching; he returned us to the lover and the beloved, he took us out of the home and into the field, he returned us to history. Not only the lover and the beloved show themselves to each other, but also the land reveals itself to them, they are enveloped in it and it in them, and all of this in strong contrast to the disconnect of the exilic Jew from all external connection to the world.

The teachings of Rav Kook, then, return us to the outside world, to nature, to the land, as an embodied nation. The Jew no longer yearns for the land and grounds himself internally, but reaches the lands and delves into it, into its environment.

Our original question thus returns in full force: Does Rav Kook return us to the violence that is in the outside world, to the forcefulness of the body, to the compulsion of state institutions and the arbitrariness of law?

We could probe further and challenge. Is Rav Kook’s vision of redemption, the vision that returned us to nature and naturalness, the same as the Zionist vision of normalcy, of “the house of Judah like all the other nations” (Ezekiel 25:8) – a nation alongside other nations, a culture alongside other cultures? Is giving up on Jewishness [in favor of Israeliness ~LM] the same as normalcy? Furthermore, does not the lover, caressed by God’s grace, prefer to escape from the world and delight in his love? Does not returning to the world contradict the love that gushes within him,[xxix] and doesn’t Rav Kook, the great lover, return us to this world?

Rav Kook describes an abnormal redemption,[xxx] a redemption of falling in love, of man and nation “sick with love,” a redemption where existence itself shines with a different light. Existence itself shines with the light of falling in love. Rav Kook’s utopia is a miraculous world, a world that shines with the unending light of miracles. In this utopia, existence does not just look different, it is different on an essential level. The state and its institutions ascend and shine with a different light. This is a mystification of material being (היש). Like the kabbalists, Rav Kook thinks that redemption is an ontological shift in existence – the very material of the world will change and be purified. The State of Israel as the foundation of God’s throne in the world is an ideal state that shines. At its center lies not force but light: “through the strength of Israel, their expansion and the revelation of their lives, in whatever form this takes, reveals the light of the highest level of non-being (האין העליון), revealed as tangible existence (יש), and illuminates the whole world with the light of life, sustaining and improving and elevating everything.”[xxxi]

I will attempt to sharpen this idea. The land of Israel, as presented in the Song of Songs, is the living background for the love of the lover and the beloved; it is present in their love, which paints it with blazing colors of beauty and desire. The land simply seems different, aromatic, blossoming, loving, and full of plentiful waters from flowing rivers. Rav Kook’s land is where human life shines with the light of God’s love, with divine vitality behind the growth and pleasure of all things.

The  lenses (כלים) by which the lover grasps reality are different from those of a regular person, and these different vessels grant lenses a different meaning. However, this is not just a matter of understanding. Kabbalah teaches that the lenses (כלים) affect the light itself – enabling it and shaping it;[xxxii] the world of the lover is really a different world.[xxxiii]

Just as a lover eating in the presence of his lover experiences the food differently, seeing the eating itself as a gesture of love and closeness, so too Rav Kook living in the land of Israel lived constantly in shabbat, his weekday meals were shabbat meals. For him, the land of Israel and the state of Israel were lit up with the light of shabbat. A

Imagine a shabbat-style state. I don’t means a state where no one works, where there are no police or banks, but a state where the days of the week shine like shabbat: the cops will smile, the faces of the clerks will beam, and the store-owners will sing… this is a state where love and grace, not force, are at its center.

New Lights

Rav Kook saw great purpose in the land and the Zionist institutions in his lifetime. In the continuing development of the state and its institutions he saw the lofty goal of a shining utopia, of a time when force will disappear, replaced by love, solidarity, and brotherhood. This was how he experienced the beginning of redemption. He identified the Zionist settlement of the land of Israel as part of a process leading to utopia. Without the consciousness that a certain degree of utopia is realized already in the present, creating a feeling that it could come at any moment – that it is coming now, waiting just behind the door. If so, Rav Kook’s utopian redemption would be no different from the faith of every other Jew in an eventual messiah.[xxxiv]

Can we also relate like this to the State of Israel as it is today, without a fundamental change in how we think of utopia? In my opinion, we cannot, and this is the hopeless situation that we are confronted with today and that we cannot deny.B The State of Israel does not scintillate light and love but force and law, so how should we relate to it? Should we shrink away from understanding it to be the beginning of redemption? This understanding as the beginning [of redemption] is what gives the state its meaning, explaining that what is happening is part of a utopian process, and the utopia is already partially realized with the process being well underway.

We have to consider the present reality. We cannot decide in advance our interpretation of events and be caught up in dogmas regarding redemption. It is possible that the events of our time demand of us, as the events of Rav Kook’s time demanded of him, to construct new lenses, to formulate new concepts, in order to be able to properly grasp and understand them. The possibility of taking up Rav Kook’s project, of identifying holiness in historical processes, is in our hands. Rav Kook stood before secular Zionism, knowing how to elevate its holy sparks by formulating new religious concepts through deeply and innovatively interpreting old concepts.

The process of redemption may be different from how Rav Kook foresaw it, and we may not yet understand this process as it should be understood. Perhaps everything happening now can, and should, be understood in light of Rav Kook’s famous words regarding the nullification of nationalism:

With the Mashiach Ben Yosef, the messiah descended from Joseph, the nation of Israel rediscovers its sense of nationalism. However, the ultimate purpose is not isolationist and elitist nationalism but rather the attempt to unite all members of the world into one family, under God… When the world needs to transition from nationalism to universalism, then the things that developed out of a narrow view of nationalism will need to be destroyed, for they demonstrate a corrupted and particularistic love. This is why Mashiach Ben Yosef  is going to be killed, and the true and lasting reign will be that of Mashiach Ben David.[xxxv]

In light of these words, the process of redemptions may not be held up at all, in fact just the reverse, it is happening even faster than Rav Kook could have foreseen or than we normally think. The feeling of not being at home (איבוד ביתיות) that is welling up within us even more forcefully due to the Disengagement Plan flows from the rapid pace of the changes. Perhaps the crude destruction is actually progress, and perhaps Post-Zionism is actually the killing of Mashiach Ben Yosef to make way for Mashiach Ben David.

A person feels comfortable with the world and accustomed to his understanding.  Therefore he feels violently shaken by drastic shifts that happen, or could happen, to him. However, he can see these changes as processes that announce the coming of the messiah. A person feels, rightly, that his old world will be destroyed, and who knows what will be with the new one? What is its nature, and what will it bring with it? To this, Rav Yosef responded in his famous statement: “He will come, but I will not see him.”[xxxvi]

Indeed, the Talmud depicts the “week” wherein the messiah will come as consisting of harsh and terrifying events. “On Friday – disharmonies, on Saturday – wars, – on Saturday night – the arrival of the messiah.”[xxxvii] The Maharal taught that the arrival of a new world, a world of redemption, is bound up with the destruction of the old, and therefore anarchy and war must precede the arrival of the messiah.[xxxviii] The birth pangs of the messiah in our day are opinion wars and cultural revolutions.

Disobedience to Force

In conclusion, I want to say a few words about disobedience (הסרבנות).[xxxix] Disobedience manifests itself specifically in the same place where we find the violent basis of the law. Disobedience is not disobedience to the law but to the forceful element that is its foundation. In this context, justifying disobedience means making peace with the position that says the only response to the fundamental violence of the law is a corresponding act of force. Is that what we want, that force should overpower force? The true rebellion is not force but its abandonment. The ability to abandon the game of force and violence is truly a messianic option. We do not dream of a time when the right power will win out, but for a time when power and might will not make right at all. We seek pleasure (עונג) and not reality (מציאות)[xl] – this is the true messianism.[xli]

The prophet, describing the arrival of the messianic king, used these images: “Rejoice greatly, fair Zion; Raise a shout, fair Jerusalem! Lo, your king is coming to you” (Zekhariah 9:9). As readers of this verse we expected a monarchical appearance full of pathos and strength, but to our surprise all of the shouting is simple over this. “He is victorious and triumphant, yet humble, riding on an ass, on a donkey foaled by a she-ass” (ibid.). The humble man riding on a donkey is the one who destroys the bow of war and speaks peace to the nations unto the ends of the earth. “He shall banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem; the warrior’s bow shall be banished. He shall call the nations to peace; his rule shall extend from sea to sea and from ocean to land’s end” (ibid., 10).

Does the messianic process that we are living in contain the possibility of creating a religious avant garde that is not politically right or center but left, that refuses (מסרב) to grab for power, calling us to rebel against force? Will a non-right religious Zionist political party arise that will truly be a prophetic party? I am not talking about a party like “Meimad,” with its “bourgeoisie” (“בעלבתית”) relaxedness and its unconditional devotion to consensus, but about a party that will shatter the status quo of existing political options and lead us to new territory. Perhaps the path there is already being paved. The claims of the right against the Disengagement are essentially drawn from the humanistic discourse of the Israeli left.

In our situation, force inevitably triggers an opposing force, drawing itself into the constraints of force and wallowing in them. We must break this vicious cycle, as a step toward redemption.C

For he has grown, by His favor, like a tree crown, like a tree trunk out of arid ground. He had no form or beauty, that we should look at him; No charm, that we should find him pleasing. He was despised, shunned by men, a man of suffering, familiar with disease. As one who hid his face from us, he was despised, we held him of no account. Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing, Our suffering that he endured. We accounted him plagued, smitten and afflicted by God; (Isaiah 53:2-4)

Thus he shall judge the poor with equity and decide with justice for the lowly of the land. He shall strike down a land with the rod of his mouth and slay the wicked with the breath of his lips. Justice shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his waist. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid; The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them. (Isaiah 11:4-6)

Appended Notes

A These words remind me of a debate that arose in a class I where I taught Rav Kook’s famous words on the holiness of eating, “the very essence of easting… and all movements and sensations of life are full of light and holiness” (Shemoneh Kevatzim, Collection 2, #65, p.271). One of the students claimed that he wanted to eat an “ordinary steak” and not a “holy steak.” This claim reveals the gap between Rav Kook’s approach and that of Haredi Judaism. Haredism does not seek to replace the outside world. It leaves a neutral world, outside the Jewish home, and even when it is drafted – from time to time – for the sake of holiness, its neutrality remains and the indifference toward it does not change. In contrast, Rav Kook’s Israeli (ארצישראלית) demand is total: he desires to eliminate any neutrality of the outside, and to turn it into holiness despite its being “outside.” How does this happen? Does a beloved who eats “ordinary ice cream” in the company of his beloved feel anomalous because of what the act represents? Is he interested in “ordinary ice cream” or in the act of eating ice cream with her, an act that turns into a deep gesture of love – without overriding its ordinariness?

B There are those who deny and attempt to ignore the chasm above which we are standing. For example, not too long ago I sat at a table at a bar mitzvah with two important Jerusalemite rabbis, a kollel student from “Har HaMor,” and a relative of Haredi appearance. The latter told us all woefully about how he had been a major in the IDF: “For thirty years I faithfully served the state, year in and year out, doing long stints of reserve duty, and here the state has gone and turned into a state like all the nations;” he was referring to the ruling of the High Court on the topic of Reform conversions. He continued, asking: “Can anyone still believe that the state is the beginning of redemption?” The rabbis joined in angrily, lamenting the destruction of the religious councils and the Kashrut system by the Prime Minister’s son. The kollel student did not take long to respond – he spouted the normal line about delays in the process of redemption; the safety net is already spread out in case the Disengagement should actually happen.

C This, too, is a form of battle, because it turns the gaze towards the other and reveals his violence. See also the words of Ami Shaked: “As a community, without innocents and after years of struggle have taken even the good out of us, we are obligated to fight in a way fitting for our way of life, for our nature, for the goodness of our hearts and for our commitments to the fate of our community. Despite this, our destiny commands us to wear our garments white and our heads anointed. We are committed to a painful battle, one that will shake the nation of Israel in its nobility and its uniqueness, its concern for the collective despite the danger to its own project” (above, note 4).

[i] Quotations from Rosenzweig’s “Star of Redemption” and Eric Santner’s “On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life” are taken from English volumes rather than being original translations from the Hebrew sermon. Unbracketed footnotes are Shagar’s, bracketed footnotes are from the original editors of the Hebrew volume, and italicized brackets are mine.

[ii] Orot (Hebrew), Jerusalem 1993, p.12. There is a famous story about Brenner, the elder writer, who joined Rav Kook for the third meal and left quickly, saying: there is too much light there, and I cannot stay.

[iii] Shemoneh Kevatzim (Hebrew), Jerusalem 2004, Collection 3, Paragraph 20, p.366. [Translations of Rav Kook by this author.]

[iv] “Walking to Caesarea,” Diaries, Songs, Testimonies, Tel Aviv 1994, p.221. [Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.]

[v] A. [Ami]  Shaked, Security and Military Coordinator of Gush Katif – [Translation by this author.]

[vi] Eric Santner, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig, Chicago, University of Chicago, 2001, pp.56-57.

[vii] Bavli Avodah Zarah 4a.

[viii] I Samuel 8:11-20.

[ix] Orot HaKodesh (Hebrew), Jerusalem 1985, III, p.191.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Orot, ibid., p.14, #3.

[xii] Orot HaKodesh, III, ibid.

[xiii] Selected Letters and Diary Excerpts [Hebrew], Jerusalem 1987, p.326. [Translations from this text are by this author.]

[xiv] The Star of Redemption, trans. William Hallo, New York Chicago San Francisco 1971, p.177.- zzz not original

[xv] Selected Letters and Diary Excerpts, p.336.

[xvi] The Star of Redemption, p.176.

[xvii] On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig, p.109.

[xviii] Regarding this it is said, “God desired to give merit to Israel, therefore he gave them expansive Torah and commandments” (B. Makkot 23b)…

[xix] We can learn about the difference between Jewishness and Israeliness from the fact that there were sages who wanted to physically hide the Song of Songs which, as we saw, expresses the Israeli (ארצישראלית) relationship, which Rav Kook drew out, between man and God, and attempted to prevent its inclusion in the canon (m. Yadayim 3:5).

[xx] See Bayom Hahu, p.250 and forward.

[xxi] See Bayom Hahu, p.143.

[xxii] B. Pesahim 88a. [Translation from]

[xxiii] Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:17. [The correct citation seems to be 4:7.]

[xxiv] See Bayom Hahu, p.176 and forward.

[xxv] On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig, p.110.

[xxvi] The Star of Redemption, pp.305, 304.

[xxvii]  See On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig, p.116; Shagar, B’Tsel HaEmunah (Hebrew), p.106-11.

[xxviii] For a different understanding of these images, see Bayom Hahu, pp.123-127.

[xxix] See “Mered V’Hesed,” B’Tsel HaEmunah (Hebrew), p.43 and on. Regarding Rav Kook, see “Az Nedaberu Yirei Hashem,” Zeman Shel Heirut (Hebrew), pp.179-186.

[xxx] On the views of the Maharal and the “Sefat Emet,” who greatly influenced Rav Kook, see Bayom Hahu, pp.193-199.

[xxxi] Shemoneh Kevatzim, ibid., Collection 2, #319, p.339. [Translation by this author.] Also see, ibid., #189, p.299. In these words Rav Kook departs from a central theme in the teachings of Hasidut – discovering the divine as the nullification of the world as opposed to its construction.

[xxxii] As we saw regarding Rav Kook’s teachings about redemption.

[xxxiii] [“The world of a happy person and the world of a depressed person are different worlds.” (L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Tel Aviv 1995, paragraph 6.43) -Yeshai Mevorach]

[xxxv] See Bayom Hahu, p.140.

[xxxv] Orot, ibid., p.160, #6. Famously, Rav Kook identified Mashiach Ben Yosef with the Zionists.

[xxxvi] B. Sanhedrin 98b.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 97a.

[xxxviii] Hiddushei Aggadot (Hebrew), 3, Sanhedrin, p.204. See also Bayom Hahu, p.204.

[xxxix] [This is regarding the call by many Religious zionist rabbis for IDF soldiers to disobey orders that have to do with removing settlers in the Disengagement Plan. -Y.M.]

[xl] Ibid., p.150, 160.

[xli] Ibid., pp.138-139.

Infinite Jihad: Rabbi Shagar on the Disengagement

Are Religious Zionists in Israel as fundamentalist and against secular culture in the same way Hezbollah and Islamists are fundamentalists? Rabbi Shagar sees similarities, especially their animus toward the secular. But concludes that Rav Kook shows a way of integrating the challenge of the secular into the religious. Rav Kook integrated nationalism, openness and freedom, none of which was part of the religious tradition, into a new form of Torah called Religious Zionism.  Now, the 2005 disengagement from Gaza shows the need for Religious Zionism be the guiding light for Israeli society by integrating peace and politics.

Once again, Rabbi Josh Rosenfeld of Lincoln Square Synagogue worked on a draft of an essay of Rav Shagar, this time on the disengagement from Gaza.  (For prior posts on Rav Shagar, see some here,  here, and here, ). This is a long essay longer than the others, it can be downloaded as Word – Machloket and Growth – Rav Shagar Translation. This should be my last Rav Shagar post for a while as I return to my regular fare.

shagar photo

Readers are likely to either love or hate this piece. If one identifies with Rav Kook and identifies as a fundamentalist who wants to be an open fundamentalist, an open dos (religious dati- in Israel slang) then this is for you. If the idea of seeing divine causality in the news and providence in political news is your worldview, then you will like this. If this God of the current events is not your theology or you find this a myopic theodicy, you will not like this. If you are a religious humanist engaged in synthesis with the wider culture, such as Maimonides or Levinas then this is also not for you. But if you want to open up Religious Zionist thought to  new questions by the use of Hasidut, then you will find this very meaningful.

Rav Shagar’s essay opens with the famous quote from Bahye ibn Pakuda on the need to fight not just the military battles, but also the greater battle (al-jihad al-aqghar) of fighting the spiritual challenges. As noted by many scholars, Bahye is quoting the 11th century Sufi commentary of Ali Hujwri on the Hadith about spiritual jihad in the Quran (29:69). At the end of the essay, Rav Shagar returns to the importance of spiritual battle by referencing the essay on war by Rav Kook, well known to his audience. In that essay, Rav Kook follows 19th century thinkers, such as Hegel, who envisioned actual war with its carnage and death as good for pruning society and thereby allowing for greater growth the way pruning is good for shrubs.  Rav Shagar puts these two ideas together. Religious Zionism, which in its spiritual vitality is the world historic force carrying civilization forward, needs to engage in battle with secular thought.

But, the innovation of Rav Shagar is to connect Rav Kook’s ideas on actual battle to Rav Nachman’s idea on the need to engage in debate and controversy as a means of growth. Since Shagar’s Purim essay was entitled Infinite Jest, then this piece can be called Infinite Jihad. We need to continuously confront the battle of debate and disagreement as our means of growth.

The start of this process of growth through battle is the religious community feeling in tension with the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza and from secular Israel. Rav Shagar surprisingly compares Religious Zionism to Hezbollah in its critique of the secular realm.  He sees himself as opposed to secular Israel and treats the secular as a foreign culture. He sees the events of the Disengagement and the Lebanon War as causes as a punishment for secular politicians, in that there is a providential force within history guiding current events.

Nevertheless, Rav Shagar, thinks that his community is not really similar to Hezbollah because it can learn from the secular as it’s challenge. (He has no concept that there are Hezbollah and Daesh who say the same thing as they write romantic poetry and quote Existentialism in the name of a sophisticated fundamentalist position.) Rav Kook saw the challenge of nationalism and socialism and integrated them to create a nationalist Torah. Shagar thinks the alienation from the secular will lead to a new integration and growth for Religious Zionism.

Rav Shagar even views Religious Zionism as the spiritual driving force of the country and the key to future peace.

The essay is best when Rav Shagar takes the Lurianic idea of “surrounding light” (or makif) as ideas and understanding that we do not yet possess the cultural and emotional vessels to accept and to live with, with the concurrent exhortation to learn to internalize them to transform our faith. Or his reading of Sukkah as integration and Lulav as the expansion of our inner facilities.

Rabbi Josh Rosenfeld gives his own introduction by answering two questions.

Why did you choose to translate this essay?

The Disengagement and the Lebanon war are important topics for me, personally. I lived in Gush Katif for two months before the Hitnatkut I remember ideological debates in my shiur at the time about what exactly to call the disengagement plan, some simply called it ha-Gerush, the expulsion).

We slept in caravillas, basically prefab cabins without running water or electricity, in Netzer Hazani. We learned in the shul with our Rebbe, and forged relationships with the good people there, what one might describe “salt of the earth”, farmers. I think sugar of the earth describes them better, everyone was so genuine and sweet. The other American student with me there were sort of embraced by the resident Olim in Netzach, the Hilbergs. Their son Yohanan was a commando killed during an IDF operation.

After the living were uprooted, the dead were moved as well, including Yohanan’s kever. At the time, I couldn’t remember crying like I did watching that moment. A teacher I very much respected once told me that in his mind, Messianic Religious Zionism came to an end with the Hitnatkut. This was where one could see miracles on the ground, the biggest tomatoes you ever saw growing right out of beach sand.

Religious and secular communities almost effortlessly coexisting. People in Netzach seemed like real peace-loving people, always talking fondly of the days where they would do Shabbos shopping in the Khan Yunis shuk. To the Teacher’s mind, this was b’davka (specifically) the place that was decreed to be lost, the first dimming of the messianic lights because this is where they shined brightest. Perhaps a humbler, pragmatic Religious Zionism is called for in this era. I don’t know. Those beaches, wow. I keep a picture of the now-destroyed Synagogues of Gush Katif in my Lincoln Square synagogue office. It has a grounding effect on me. I don’t think I’ve come close to fully processing what happened and what that means for my Zionism.

Similarly, I saw the Lebanon war up close – the other central topic Rav Shagar addresses in the essay. I was a Combat Engineer in the IDF for about two years as a ‘lone soldier’, and we made a small knissah (entry) into Lebanon toward the end of the 2006 summer war (my unit was barely out of basic training at the time). Even though we did not engage in direct combat there, I felt the strangeness of the not-quite-victory in the aftermath in an acute way as we spent a month after the war guarding the fences’ rebuilding and wondering what just happened to Tzahal and the country.

 The feeling in Israel at the time was that the whole country was engaged in prolonged debate during the lead up and aftermath of these two major events. From my perspective, 2005-06 will probably be looked back as pivotal years in Israel’s history, with the one-two punch of the Disengagement and the Lebanon War. It was a really intense and tense time. I found this piece very therapeutic.

I’ve been trying recently to address current events in shul without actually mentioning the current events themselves. I don’t know if that makes me a coward, but it helps me feel like I’m doing something. I don’t have nearly enough confidence to speak in an overt way, so I speak and teach about what I feel are the underlying Jewish issues, what I’ve heard some people call prophetic Jewish values.  In this case I had turned to Rav Shagar for language and a way of thinking about machloket, dispute. Rav Shagar found something redemptive in machloket.

What do you like about it?

Rav Shagar’s writings always offer something new, illuminating, and exciting. More importantly, they offer something challenging. This is the same way I felt when I first read his more standard derashot (Torah discourses) in “Panecha Avakesh”. There is something new and to my mind, authentic and authoritative in his oeuvre.

I once started gushing to a person I had met when found out was a close student of Rav Shagar’s. Telling him how into the writings I was, I guess I expected some sort of validation. That person, someone I look up to very much – instead told me with a smile “listen, it wasn’t always such a special kavod to be a student of Rav Shagar.” I had been familiar with the various controversies and differences of opinion Rav Shagar had with leading Rabbinic figures and educators in Israel, but I think I’d been a little naïve. Only later did I fully appreciate how complex and problematic a figure Rav Shagar was for dati leumi (National Religious) society, and to be honest, I think it drew me even deeper into his teachings, even when I personally didn’t like what he was saying.

I admire that Rav Shagar could dive right into the most confusing and fraught issues in Israel, dati leumi society in particular – with near complete freedom of thought and expression. I felt that you could disagree with Rav Shagar but you could not ignore him.

This essay yields more comparisons than contrasts between Hezbollah and the IDF than I am comfortable with, but I trust that Rav Shagar is doing so to help serve his pedagogical point, and not that he somehow thinks there actually are deeper affinities between the two.

I also still don’t know what to make of Rav Shagar’s impressions of the secular world. Especially in this essay, the impression I get is that Rav Shagar approaches secular Israel as a kind of monolithic binary to the Religious Zionist world.

I have used parts of this in a drasha at Lincoln Square Synagogue that I think some received well. My intention was to speak about machloket, dispute and controversy in general terms, relating to the very real ways we are experiencing them as American Jews.  I think Rav Shagar’s usefulness here lies within his ability to fully see the other- secular, Arab and Western- as essential to getting the full picture, even if they’re presented on Rav Shagar’s terms.

Many Orthodox internal debates suffer from a kind of myopia, the narcissism of small differences, with a tendency to get very shrill and intense quite quickly. Sometimes, we can get perspective by considering our internal issues in a larger global context. In this way, debate (machloket), when we let it breathe, can lead to growth.

Dispute & Growth

Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Luhot ve-Shivrei Luhot, pp. 383-404 (Yediot Books, 2013) translation by Josh Rosenfeld,  edited version by Alan Brill

  1. Two Wars

I was asked to speak about growth achieved though the trauma of the war. The war in question that the organizers had in mind is certainly the [Second] Lebanon War. However there is no doubt that their intention is also to discuss another very difficult recent event: the Disengagement.

Bahya ibn Pakuda wrote in Duties of the Heart  (Hovot ha-Levavot), quoting the words of the hasid to the returnees from battle: “you have returned from the minor war…, now prepare yourselves for the great war.”[1] The smaller war has run its course, and now a more significant war has begun – the Jewish people’s internal dispute as revealed by the Disengagement.

One who connects these two events – the Disengagement and the Lebanon War – is correct. The connection is not simply on the military or political sense, but societal. I wish to discuss this in the framework of faith.

The words of Maimonides in the Laws of Fasts are well known:[2]

  • It is a positive Torah commandment to cry out and to sound trumpets in the event of any difficulty that arises which affects the community, as [Numbers 10:9] states: “[When you go out to war… against] an enemy who attacks you and you sound the trumpets….”
  • This practice is one of the paths of repentance, for when a difficulty arises, and the people cry out [to God] and sound the trumpets, everyone will realize that [the difficulty] occurred because of their evil conduct, as [Jeremiah 5:25] states: “Your sins have turned away [the rains and the harvest climate].” This [realization] will cause the removal of this difficulty.
  • Conversely, should the people fail to cry out [to God] and sound the trumpets, and instead say, “What has happened to us is merely a natural phenomenon and this difficulty is merely a chance occurrence,” this is a cruel conception of things, which causes them to remain attached to their wicked deeds. Thus, this time of distress will lead to further distresses.

This is implied by the Torah’s statement [Leviticus 26:27-28]: “If you remain indifferent to Me, I will be indifferent to you with a vengeance.” The implication of the verse is: When I bring difficulties upon you so that you shall repent and you say it is a chance occurrence, I will add to your [punishment] an expression of vengeance for that indifference [to Divine Providence].

According to Maimonides, we are commanded to emulate God’s actions within history, to study difficult events, delve into them, and thus to understand the Divine message that is being communicated to us.

This understanding works for Maimonides on two planes

The first level is the simple understanding of reward and punishment – searching for the mechanical causality between sins of the individual or community and the subsequent punishment.

The second, deeper, level is the understanding of the inner process of history. Maimonides describes this in Moreh Nevukhim as ‘the wisdom of God and his ways’. According to Maimonides, God does not operate in history from afar, rather, He adheres to the internal logic and rules of history. These rules themselves are the Divine providence of this world, giving expression to the inner meaning of reward and punishment![3]

In our scenario – the Lebanon War and the Disengagement – two contradictory messages emerge:

From the perspective of the first level, the simple understanding of reward and punishment, the war was the resulting punishment, as the fate of a number of politicians and military officials in the wake of the Disengagement. There were even public statements to this effect emanating from Haredi society. For example, the Bostoner Rebbe said that the flight of many Haredim from the North during the Second Lebanon War was punishment for Haredi parties’ support of the Disengagement.

However, in my eyes these explanations fall short. This is not because they are necessarily wrong, but because as believers, we should not be intimidated from speaking in the simple terms of reward and punishment. This is especially so when the causality concerning the events that we speak of cry out, plain to see without too deep an analysis.

However, this is not the deeper perspective that Maimonides gestured to. We must ask: what is this deeper connection – as seen from a societal and historical perspective – between the Disengagement and the Lebanon War? The profounder point where these events intersect is the very kernel of Divine providence.

The second perspective raises challenges and confusion, while the first perspective points an accusatory finger mainly toward the architects of the Disengagement. The second and deeper appreciation of the processes raises a substantial question on its victims, namely: our own National-Religious community.

To be sure, from a cultural and spiritual perspective, both the War and the Disengagement revealed deep weaknesses in all of Israeli society. At the same time, they also brought to the fore the inherent paradox’ of the National Religious community, which sees itself as a leading demographic in Israeli society, yet is continuously pushed around by it.

The Lebanon War improved the political standing of the Right, yet it did not change the fundamental positions of Israeli society’s relationship to Religious Zionism. This is despite the wide participation of the National Religious community in the war, and the profound revelations of its heroism.

To my distress, this is true because in the eyes of many, Religious Zionism (or depressingly, the militancy within certain settler factions) is perceived as cut from the same cloth as the fanatics of Hezbollah. We can say what we want about the organizers of the Disengagement, finding them guilty of corruption (and there is truth to these accusations), but we cannot escape the fact that most of Israeli society did not oppose the illegitimate Disengagement, including many present and former members of the so-called Nationalist Camp.

The reason for this is clear: there are deep apprehensions regarding the combination of religious and national fundamentalism. To our dismay, many observers here and abroad draw a direct connection Gush Emunim and Radical Islam, seeing both groups as obstacles to peace with the potential to inflame the whole region.

This is another connection between these two events that we must not ignore: The destruction of Gush Katif, which received wide support in Israel, and the Second Lebanon War, which received widespread legitimacy in the world, were both aimed at the same threat – the connection between religious and nationalistic political extremism.

I will try to illustrate the contradiction in the lessons of the war through a discussion regarding who is our enemy.

The Lebanon War was waged against a religious enemy Nasrallah, the Radical Islamic fundamentalist. In this regard, at least externally, we would agree that religious extremism endangers us, being that the secular Arab governments of Jordan and Egypt have signed peace treaties with us.

Yet, conceptualizing the enemy in this way presents a challenge for us, because, as we’ve mentioned above, in the eyes of many secular people, our religious community, at the very least, parts of it, suffers from the same religious extremism. They hold that the resolution to the conflict lies in a movement of secularization that may allow for tolerance and openness, two prerequisites for peace. In truth, those secular pockets of the Arab world are perceived as more moderate and open to the concept of peace.

From this perspective, the connection between the Disengagement and the Lebanon War is the open and inner struggle against secular Israel, which enjoys the support of the secular west in their perceptions of religious extremism.

Yet, it is not so simple to get the full picture here. To wit, for Nasrallah, the state of Israel does not represent a rival religion, but rather the supremely hated secular, colonialist West. As religious people, where do we locate ourselves in all this?

Do we not identify somewhat with Nasrallah’s critiques?

If true, perhaps our enemy is actually secularism? If this is so, the connection between the Disengagement and the war is different. The war is the punishment for the Disengagement. We may rightly ask here if it was not a kind of secular extremism that employed its systems of power against the settlers of Gush Katif and their faith? We may relate to the perpetrators of the Disengagement as agents of a foreign culture ourselves. For many of us, they evince the feeling of “…and we have been exiled from our land and distanced from its [holy] ground”[4] – whether from a practical (the Disengagement) or metaphysical perspective (secularism).

Surely these mixed feelings are quite confusing, and a crucial question that stands before us now is whether the real battle is external – Iran and its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, or internal – the struggle against the secular left, and those on the right who have been ensnared in its positions. It is possible that this question stands behind the dispute between the statists (mamlachti’im), who say that we should continue to draft without question and are opposed to disobeying military orders, and those objectors (=sarvanim) who refuse to forget what has happened and for whom joining the army in defense of the state is not automatic.[5]

I think that specifically from this great paradox that a tremendous religious blooming may sprout forth. This contradictory situation is such that on one side Nasrallah depicts a negative, cruel, and perverted religious vision, and yet on the other we stand before a totalizing globalization lacking roots and identity (this too yields tragic results, even if they are generally hidden, and in many ways no less cruel than the fruits of radical religious extremism)

This situation must lead us to a third way, a combination of both messages. We must understand both the failings of secular Israeli culture and the failings of one-dimensional religious fundamentalism that has flourished in our world as well. This will bring us to the ability to transmit a new religious message.

In order to cultivate this message, it is incumbent upon us to break down the dichotomy of choice between warmongering religious extremism and westernizing peace-seeking which is built upon forfeiture of identity and roots. Religious must redeem the message of peace. A new kind of religiosity must develop. On the one hand, rooted in values and on the other hand, prepared to achieve real peace.

To me, it is beyond the shadow of a doubt that at the end we will indeed achieve a ‘religious peace’. This is because the left does not found peace upon deep respect for the religious other, but rather upon a total discount of religion, with the claim that it is the source of the war. The paradox here is that in doing so, the left actually intensifies the conflict. It is specifically here that the Muslim feels threatened, because the peaceniks approach him from the perspective of liberalism and globalization. [The Muslim] senses in this a sophisticated attempt to subjugate his values with western values, including the hegemony of their representative in the region – the State of Israel.

Conversely, if the State of Israel were to transmit a message of peace from a truly and deeply Jewish-religious standpoint, it would rearrange the systems of power in our region. It would also change the attitude of the secular world to religion (for now, a negative attitude that stems from a perception of us as warmongers without responsibility), and would create a sea change in religious interactions with the Muslims in our region, who themselves identify ‘peace’ with unstable secularism and loss of identity.

  1. Dispute & Growth

In my estimation, it is from these battles and contradictions themselves that development and growth may arise. We may learn this from the torah of Rebbe Nahman of Breslov, who personally experienced many disputes. As his student, Rebbe Natan wrote:

Once, our people were complaining to him about how they could no longer handle the suffering born of all the disputes and ostracization… He answer them as follows: believe me, I could make peace with the entire world, so much so there would no one who argued with me, but what can I do, as there are many realms and levels impossible to achieve if not for dispute… just as a tree will grow more when water is splashed all around it…[6]

Rebbe Nahman uses a metaphor of watering and growing in connection to dispute to indicate that dispute engenders growth.

“[but] I need there to continually be disputes about me, because I am constantly going from one level to another… If I could know that I am standing now just as I was the previous moment, I would not want to be in this world at all”.[7]

Thus, dispute is the water which allows for growth and flourishing. In order to understand his contention, we must first understand what we mean by growth.

First, and foremost, we are not discussing a growth in number, but rather a qualitative change in development. As the tree grows, it is able to absorb and combine many different raw materials and to turn them into a part of itself. A human being is similar to this. Growth means my ability to encounter places where I have not yet been. For faith and religion to flourish, they must be able to accommodate and integrate points of view that were not traditionally within their purview.

In connection to this, I want to mention the Kabbalistic intentions of the Arizal for the sukkah. According to the Arizal, one should ideally take the lulav in the sukkah itself before hallel prayers, because in Kabbalistic terms, the function of the sukkah is to transform ‘surrounding illumination’ into ‘internal illumination’. ‘Surrounding illumination’ are ideas and understanding that we do not yet possess the cultural and emotional vessels to accept and to live with. We perceive them as something external, but we cannot internalize them. We still lack the ability to transform them into a part of our encompassing faith, our inner identity.

The Arizal explains that the sukkah, called the “canopy of faith” (zela d’mehemnuta) the place where the presence of God dwells and surrounds us. The sukkah immerses us in an unusual world of spiritual illumination. Through the lulav, shaken in all directions toward the heart, we demonstrate our desire to draw these illuminations inward, so that they may become an integral part of who we are. The role of the lulav symbolizes the expansion of our faculties of understanding in such a way that the light of our faith will be more expansive and introspective.[8]

I also believe that this is the main idea of Rav Kook’s teachings, the redemptive Torah  of the Land of Israel. It specifically developed on the backdrop of the controversy regarding secular Zionism, and R. Kook’s own engagement and struggle with it. As religious Zionists, we see in this a flourishing of Torah; a gesture of Torah unleashed which now includes many values that were not traditionally part of it. In essence, this is the great project of R. Kook.

A classic example: R. Kook took the concept of freedom not usually identified as a religious value (as religion was seen to be predicated on commands, the acceptance of a yoke), and located it directly heart of a religious outlook. Despite R. Kook’s battle with the secular world, he drew upon many of its values in a dialectical fashion, incorporating them into the world of faith. In this way, R. Kook enriched and expanded the palace of Torah. [9]

I believe this is what should be occurring in our times. Similar to R. Kook, our spiritual flourishing must develop as a result of the struggle with the secular world of today. However, the contemporary secular world is very different than the one R. Kook faced.

In many respects, the encounter with secularism is today much more problematic. Nowadays, we are up against ideas of critique and negation, and not movements like Socialism and Nationalism that still retained elements of religious pathos. Nevertheless, it is up to us to realize that the depth of the dispute intensifies the potential for growth to arise and the possibility to draw down the Divine presence; a chance for a more real encounter with Godliness. This growth is especially possible through contact with the strange world beyond us.

I will quote once again from Rebbe Nahman:

Know, that dispute is an aspect of the creation of the world. The main part of the world’s creation is through the eternal void, for without that void, everything would be only infinite, without room for our created world to exist. Thus, God contracted the [Divine] light to the margins, leaving a void between, and within this void. All of creation exists – time and God’s manifestations – by way of the Divine word: “by the word of God, the world was created” (Ps. 33).

The concept of dispute is similar, because if all Torah scholars were in unified agreement, there would also not be room for creation. Only through their many disputes, and the divisions between them, each one pulling to their ‘side’ is a kind of void, an empty space created between them – an aspect of the Divine contraction, which the world was created by (Divine) speech…[10]

According to the Arizal, God contracted Himself in order for a world apart from Him to be created. Prior to creation, the Divine light filled every possible space, illuminating all of existence. Rebbe Nahman utilizes and expands upon this as a metaphor for dispute between sages.

It is possible to explain this further through an insight drawn from the philosophy of Leibniz.[11] In general, we perceive the void as a space within which entities are contained. In distinction, Leibniz contends that the void is the space between those entities. That is, the distance between them creates that space, and that space is not the container that preceded those entities, but rather the distance between them itself. This is why we would never be able to describe a space completely devoid of anything. The void is instead actually the result of the entities, which give it structure. If there were ever an absolutely empty space, it would not exist.

Rebbe Nahman explains the concept of dispute in a similar fashion, transforming dispute into a metaphysical concept, which created the world. Dispute is what enables the void in which our world took form. From this perspective, homogeneity is not something positive, because it shrinks the space of existence. So long as there is a multiplicity of divergent opinions, the plane of existence is broad, and in turn, the world makes room for it.

Some have sanctified war because of this view. In war, they saw the possibility for the development and progression of culture. In their opinion, a harmonistic worldview that strives for universal peace ignores the singular, unique, and exceptional qualities possessed by each nation or way of life.

Peace whitewashes all of these with a broad brush, delimiting the possibility of for diversity. Even if such a harmony preserves the individual and the details, it is still under the rubric of a totalizing and encompassing philosophy. According to Rebbe Nahman, the ability to maintain diversity is specifically located within dispute, struggle, and argument.[12]

Even R. Kook himself affirmed this in his essay “On War”.[13]  For him, “wars serve to amplify the unique values of every nation, until their form stands out and all the deep details of [their values] find practical expression… the national nature of ecclesia Israel is revealed…”   This is essentially the same idea we saw from Rebbe Nahman: flourishing in this regard is a product of opposition. Only dispute and struggle create that wider space wherein every perspective can expand and develop.

[1] See Hovot ha-Levavot, Gate 5, ch. 5

[2] Mishnah Torah, Laws of Fasts 1:1-3.

[3] See Moreh Nevukhim, 3:32, and R. Shagar’s essay “History and Messianism According to Maimonides”, Nehalekh be-Regesh, pp. 75-90

[4] From the Festival liturgy.

[5] See R. Shagar’s essay in Nehalekh b’Regesh on לא נשכח ולא נסלח

[6] Hayyei MoHaRaN, 402. See now Likkutei MoHaRaN, 1:161 – “dispute raises and uplifts a person, because ‘man is a tree of the field’ (Deut. 20), and when a tree on the ground cannot raise itself up unless water is poured all over it, it is the water which raises and uplifts the tree, and dispute (=mahloket) is called water, as it is written: “They came round about me like water all the day; They compassed me about together” (Ps. 88:18);

Rebbe Nahman could have picked a much more obvious verse, cited in the Talmudic sugyah about compromise in judgement (b. Sanhedrin 6b): “The beginning of strife is as when one letteth out water; Therefore leave off contention, before the quarrel break out” (Prov. 17:14), however may have opted for a different prooftext because of the more negative valence of dispute in the latter verse, which actually argues for ‘stopping up’ the dispute before it boils over. [JR]

[7] Hayyei MoHaRaN, 401

[8] See R. Hayyim Vital, Peri Etz Hayyim, the gate of lulav no. 2. See further R. Shagar’s discourse on “the hug of the sukkah” in be-Tzel ha-Emunah, pp. 93-94 and “I, too, have praised joy”, ad loc., pp. 139-144.

[9] That is, in the Hegelian understanding, made up of negation, assimilation, and elevation.

[10] Likkutei MoHaRaN, 1:64(4).

[11] See A. Weinrib, From Rationalism to Empiricism: Trends in Philosophy of the 17th and 18th Centuries [Heb.] (Tel Aviv, 1990), pp. 164-170.

[12] See “Peace and Covenant” in R. Shagar’s A Time for Freedom [Heb.], pp. 57-61. There, too, R. Shagar deals with tension between religious faith and peace. See further “A Dispute for the Sake of Heaven”, in The Shadow of Faith [Heb.], pp. 209-225.

[13] See Orot (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1985), pp. 13-18, esp. p. 15, and see Orot ha-Kodesh (Jerusalem: Mossd Harav Kook, 1985), vol. 1, p. 15.

On the Joke of the Megillah by Rav Shagar

Franz Kafka saw the law as an alienating fetishized political practice to which we are disciplined despite our not agreeing to this arrangement. In his novel The Trial, Kafka presents the law as an unwieldy arbitrary force driving us to determinism and absurdity. Rav Shagar treats King Achashverosh as the personification of the law and the Book of Esther as showing the absurdity of the law. In its place, Rav Shagar advocates a releasement to the absurd, which paradoxically does not provide meaning or release us from the absurd predicament.

I just posted an Adar essay of Rav Shagar To Jest for Liberation but Levi Morrow in his earnest quest to devour Rav Shagar delivered another translation to me this morning. I am posting it quicker than usual in order to get it out before the holiday. Levi Morrow is studying for a Bachelor’s degree at Herzog College in Tanakh and Jewish Philosophy as well as for rabbinic ordination at the Shehebar Sephardic Center.  As noted before, if anyone else has translations of Rav Shagar, then I will post them.  I have two more in the pipeline. Here are some of the prior ones- herehere, and here. If you have already had enough of Rav Shagar, then be patient for other topics.


This essay  “On the Joke of the Megillah” by Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar) was published in שארית האמונה (Remainder of Faith), a collection of postmodern sermons for the Jewish holidays of the Jewish calendar. (Original Hebrew text-Rav Shagar – On the Joke of the Megillah)

Rav Shagar offers in this essay a deep critique of the law (hok) as a represented in Israeli law and Israeli government as meaningless and absurd. But the essay also has an undertone of critiquing the law of Jewish law (halakhah), which is further developed in other essays. With echoes of Rav Nachman of Breslov’s ability to reduce civilization to the absurd, Shagar sees all the palace intrigue in the book of Esther as edicts issued solely as legislating the trivial and self-evident. In fact, Shagar points out how the legal minutia in the book stands in contrast to the King’s “caprice and hedonism that appear throughout the megillah.”

“The megillah’s theater of the absurd is life and death leads us to existential anxiety. Where does it lead us to? “To laughter, or perhaps despair.” Rav Shagar preaches that out attitude should be “a sense of security that secures nothing,” Beyond this, he thinks that our serenity of trust in God is only after the dark night of grasping the terror and absurd, then and only then, can we make peace with the trust in the meaninglessness and chance of life.

The joke is fully aware of fate, leading to an ecstasy in which negativity, bitter despair, and suffering are lived as they are. In the extreme experiences of life, a person discovers that there’s no way to deal with the events of life. But there’s also no need to deal with them, since life happens for itself, entirely for itself. Man’s activity as chance

Rav Shagar was speaking about Israeli politics but Americans probably can easily apply it to own unique situation of Presidential elections and capricious policies. Yet, Rav Shagar’s approach does not advocate resistence to immoral executive orders, rather a change in our attitude.

Rav Shagar also compared the absurdity of meaninglessness of the political to the halakhah.

In light of this ironic character, the serious way in which halakhah relates to the megillah is basically a second-order joke. In order to notice this joke, one simply has to look at people sitting in shul, with me among them, reading and listening to the megillah, terrified of missing a single word and thereby failing to fulfill their obligation, for “it is a mitsvah to read all of it” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Megillah, 1:3).

For Shagar, we should maintain irony and not reduce the halakhic regiment to unironic concern.

In typical Rav Shagar style, everything is then connected to a playing out of an infinite Divine and expressed using a Hasidic text. He uses Habad ideas of divine immanence as a manifestation of the unknown infinite Divine Will. “The fickle caprice of this world, the baseless and meaningless rises and falls, merge with the  absolute Divine decree.” Everything should be considered as a Divine decree. Yet, one that does not have “a lofty meaning that is hidden from human eyes” just the decree of the King of the Universe. Habad hasidut says regarding Divine  reason for creating the world:-“you can’t interrogate a desire.

It is interesting to compare Rav Shagar’s moral of the happenstance of life with several other modern readings. For the Malbim, the story is very realistic, similar to Austiran-Hungary Empire. The message is about not assimilating. For many Religious Zionists, the message is that even if the Divine name is not mentioned in the book, the secular story is still a historical unfolding of Divine providence. For liberal thinkers, such as Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the point is the need for an appropriate amount of acculturation and that the assimilated may be our saviors. In a secular age  we have to destiny into our own hands. For several Haredi Yeshivish authors, the message is to listen to Mordechai as a prototypical gadol hador who knows what to do even if it does not make sense to you. For Rav Shagar, in contrast, we have to come to “a trust that does not guarantee anything.”

Political Appendix

The appendix is directly on the disengagement from Gaza as a Religious Zionist disengagement from identity with the Israeli government and the rule of law and politics. Rav Shagar  considered the Israeli policy of disengagement as absurd. Like many in the religious Zionist world, he saw the disengagement as delegitimating the government and an act of violence and as a demonstration of the absurdity of the inner decay of the government.  In this process of delegitimation of the government and disengagement as violence, he finds a deep inner decay. In addiiton, the act goes against the will of the people.

To make his case, Rav Shagar quotes one of his favorite works during these years, Eric Santner, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life. Santer used Lacan to discuss how the decay of our ideals results in violence and force, which remain as the only legitimation of the law. He considers the Israeli government as showing this decay. His students have both right and left wing interpretations of this anti-government position.

What manifests itself as the law’s inner decay is the fact that rule of law is, in the final analysis, without ultimate justification or legitimation, […] At its foundation, the rule of law is sustained not by reason alone but also by the force/violence of a tautological enunciation—‘The law is the law!

To explain Haman’s antisemitic hatred of Mordechai, Rav Shagar  views Jews as an “other” as outside the natural order, as disrupting the normal core of politics. Hence, the extreme need for others to hate the Jews. There is an deep exceptionalism of Jews as an “other” that Haman was compelled to destroy.

In general, we see a profound hollowing out of politics and society, non-humanist or attempting a synthesis of religion and the secular. (I already have another translation being edited where these issues are the central focus.)

Levi Morrow Introduction

1) Shagar’s approach to Tanakh is to look for larger themes, in this case irony and parody. He’s willing to see non-traditional themes in biblical texts, such as irony and parody. He does have an awareness of contemporary Israeli religious articles on the passage.

2) Shagar’s novel understanding of bitaḥon (trust in God) is one of his unique concepts, known among his students as “a trust that does not guarantee anything”. This is the idea that trust in God does not promise or guarantee anything  about the events that will happen to us. In order to capture the paradox inherent in this phrase, I have translated it in the somewhat awkward formulation “a sense of security that secures nothing,” sacrificing the more common English terms “trust” and “guarantee”.

3) Shagar’s struggled with his perception of the disengagement from Gaza as absurdity.  As the original editors note in footnote #1, this sermon was originally composed and given around the holiday of Purim in 2005, when the Israeli Knesset decided to disengage from the Gaza strip and parts of northern Samaria. This sermon is thus one of several of Shagar’s sermons from that period and the two years thereafter that show his struggles with Zionism and the contemporary state of Israel, as well as with issues of government and law more generally.

On the Joke of the Megillah[i]

A Sermon for the Days of Purim

A Sharpened Critique

The megillah is unquestionably a parody. The author shoots the sharp arrows of his irony in every direction.[ii] They are aimed, first and foremost, not at Haman but at Aḥashverosh. There are many examples of this, such as the exaggerated description of Aḥashverosh’s feast that opens the megillah:

At the end of this period, the king gave a banquet for seven days in the court of the king’s palace garden for all the people who lived in the fortress Shushan, high and low alike. [There were hangings of] white cotton and blue wool, caught up by cords of fine linen and purple wool to silver rods and alabaster columns; and there were couches of gold and silver on a pavement of marble, alabaster, mother-of-pearl, and mosaics. Royal wine was served in abundance, as befits a king, in golden beakers, beakers of varied design. And the rule for the drinking was, “No restrictions!” For the king had given orders to every palace steward to comply with each man’s wishes. (Esther, 1:5-8)

The mocking description of the feast reaches its crescendo when the king is not satisfied with “displaying the vast riches of his kingdom and the splendid glory of his majesty for one hundred and eighty days” (1:4), for half a year, no less, and his ostentatious urges lead him to command: “bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal diadem, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials; for she is beautiful” (1:11).

At the center of the megillah’s critique stands the law (חוק), “the procedure (דת) of Shushan the capital,”

This critique first arises in the narrative of Vashti. Drawing on the Purim-esque spirit of the megillah, the event can be described thusly: An urgent cabinet meeting gathered in the palace of Aḥashverosh with the highest legal forum of the seven officers of Persia and Medea, all well-versed in the laws and procedures, in order to determine “what the correct procedure is for dealing with Queen Vashti” (1:15). Aḥashverosh acts, of course, exclusively within the framework of the law. The conclusion of the legal debate is almost too meaningful; “that every man should wield authority in his home and speak the language of his own people” (1:22). Such an important decision, made by such important people and of such great significance, of course had to be distributed via all means of communication available to the empire. “Dispatches were sent to all the provinces of the king, to every province in its own script and to every nation in its own language” (ibid.). The dramatization here is ridiculous and makes fun of itself. They are legislating something so trivial and self-evident. The Persian empire was multi-national, “a hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia” (1:1), such that linguistic pluralism was a present reality, and the time was well before the feminist era.

The author of the megillah mocks and derides Aḥashverosh’s devotion to the law, devotion that stands in total contrast to his caprice and hedonism that appear throughout the megillah. The hedonism of the king, of course, is shown in the ridiculous description of the young women being brought to Shushan and waiting in line, cleansing in “the twelve months’ treatment prescribed for women.  That was the period spent on beautifying them: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and women’s cosmetics” (2:12), and this in order to pleasure the king.[iii]

In the Theater of the Absurd

Exacting in law and acting exclusively via legislation and government, Aḥashverosh enthrones exaggeration, lack of proportion, and kitsch alongside caprice and unrestrained indulgence. The book repeats this depiction throughout the book, this exactingness is combined with the famous Persian bureaucracy, which itself does not escape the irony and joke of the megillah unscathed. The runners and riders of the king’s steeds go to-and-fro, carrying messages from Haman one time and from Mordechai the next; this state is a state of law and “an edict that has been written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be revoked” (8:8).

Only this joke is not at all funny. A deep terror lies at its foundation. Aḥashverosh’s caprice, anchored in law, is lethal to the point of absurdity. The scariest piece of it all is that the different actors in the megillah – Mordechai and Esther, the youths and the gatekeepers – don’t seem to notice how absurd it all is; they think that the law is as serious and as logical as it gets. The megillah’s parodic depiction only ramps up the dread. A story about a feast, an exiled queen, another crowned in her place, and a man who will not bow yields a cost so heavy and disproportionate to the frivolity and mundanity of the story itself: the decree, enshrined in law, “to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women” (3:13).

The joke of the megillah is a response to a deep, bitter, despair over an absurd situation: the author of the megillah discovers that what ought to be serious (the law) is a parody, and the parody, incredibly, makes it all the more funny and absurd. The cost of entry to the megillah’s theater of the absurd is life and death. Where does this lead? To laughter, or perhaps despair.[iv]

So Shall Be Done

On its own, the story that the megillah tells is not at all funny. On the contrary, the threat of genocide inspires fear more than laughter, even if we were ultimately saved. So why does the megillah make all of this into a joke? The danger is tangible and serious; Esther’s fear, Mordechai’s cries, the mourning and the sackcloth, these aren’t nothing. Where did the author get the ability to turn the frightening into the funny? To tear away the mask and reveal the ridiculous in the foolish?

The megillah seems to provide a clear answer.[v] The ability to laugh at all of this comes from the knowledge that the actors are just puppets controlled by a hidden puppeteer, shaping the performance according to his own intentions.

This knowledge does not override the awful human experience of chaotic happenstance and of the total absence of any guiding hand behind events that arises from the megillah. In fact, the reverse is true. Paradoxically, the Divine  decree highlights the human happenstance rather than erasing it.

The story teaches about the incidental and unstable nature of Jewish existence in specific and of human existence in general. For example, regarding Mordechai the Jew who sits at the gate of the king: who is the “man whom the king desires to honor” (6:11), Haman or Mordechai? The clear answer would seem to be Mordechai. He wears the king’s royal clothing, he is led around on a horse, and he is ultimately chosen to be the king’s right hand. However, is he guaranteed a secure and redeemed existence after he rises to greatness? Various verses indicate a parallel between Haman’s position before his fall from grace and Mordechai’s position after his rise, suggesting that he is anything but.

Furthermore, the phrase “So shall be done for the man whom the king desires to honor” (ibid.), describing Mordechai as he rides on the king’s horse, shows up in only one other place in Tanakh[vi]: “his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull the sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and make this declaration: So shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house” (Devarim 25:9). In light of this, should we not read “This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor” as spit in Mordechai’s face?… “Here today, gone the next” as they say; yesterday Haman, today Mordechai, and tomorrow who knows?!

Indeed, Hasidic texts see the phrase “Just so” (ככה) as standing at the center of the megillah. “‘So shall be done for the man whom the king desires to honor’ – the use of “so” is not accidental.”[vii] They further expounded: “The word “so” (ככה) should be read with ‘the holiness of the crown’[viii] in mind – “so” (ככ״ה) is an acronym for “the crown of all crowns (כתר כל הכתרים).”[ix]

The fickle caprice of this world, the baseless and meaningless rises and falls, merge with the absolute Divine  decree. There is no attempt to explain the different steps of the narrative individually, rather the entire story is shifted to a different plane. Human happenstance does not reigns in the story, nor a lofty meaning that is hidden from human eyes, but the decree of the king of the universe: “a king’s command is authoritative, and none can say to him, ‘What are you doing?” (Kohelet 8:4). Why does he do what he does? “Just so” (ככה), because this is what he wants. Citing their founder,[x] Habad hasidut says regarding Divine  meaning of, and reason for, creating the world: “Oyf a tayvah iz kain kashya nit” – you can’t interrogate a desire.[xi]

Opposite the kingdom of Persia, ruled by the capricious Aḥashverosh, stands the kingdom of God. As Rabbi Yoḥanan taught: “anywhere [the megillah] says “king” without clarifying, it is referring to the king of kings.”[xii] The writer of the megillah is not thinking of the happenstance that reigns in the kingdom of Persia but the absolute “just so” of the king of kings.

How does this focus lead to the unrestrained joke about the terrifying situation of the megillah? Isn’t the only laughter possible in this situation the laughter described in the verse, “He who is enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord mocks at them” (Tehillim 2:4)? God sits and laughs, for from heaven the events really are funny. However, “the heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He gave over to man” (Tehillim 115:16), and here on the earth the joke is not at all funny!

For the writer of the megillah, the events happen in a different plane, that of the absolute Divine  decree, and the joke also exists on that level. This is an ecstatic joke, in which our awareness is opened to the possibility of its liberation, and the individual accepts the arbitrary “just so” quality of his life. Deep pessimism leads a person to the ecstasy of liberation from the need for proof, liberation from teleological support for reality. Pessimism can liberate us from dependency, because we have despaired of everything.

The pain in the megillah’s joke is not lessened, for the Divine  decree does not comfort; it does not explain or grant meaning to the events that happened or will happen, and it cannot guarantee (להבטיח) that in the future Haman’s plans will not come pass. The joke is fully aware of fate, leading to an ecstasy in which negativity, bitter despair,  and suffering are lived as they are. In the extreme experiences of life, a person discovers that there’s no way to deal with the events of life. But there’s also no need to deal with them, since life happens for itself, entirely for itself.

If I Am To Perish

The religious feeling of security (בטחון), like the joke, bears within it arbitrariness and dread: Hasidut teaches that this sense of security is the result of passionate commitment (מסירות נפש) and sacrifice. In other words, the sense of security comes after the terror and fear of the incidental and the absurd, not before, it cannot be achieved without them. Moreover, the sense of security is not a support that lends a person strength, turning the whole game into something predetermined; from a certain perspective, this sense of security is the terror itself: “if I am to perish, I shall perish” (4:16), says Esther. What she does not say is “I am certain (בטוחה) of my success;” On the contrary, she expects to die because of her sense of security in her passionate commitment. This sense of security is not free of terror; it is present in the terror itself, since it is open to anything that might happen.[xiii]

Mordechai also does not promise Esther anything. He does not say, “I am certain (בטוח) that you will succeed,” but “who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?” (4:14). He is certain (בטוח) that salvation will come for the Jews from somewhere, but in his and Esther’s personal attempt at salvation he is not at all secure. “Who knows?!” he says, and not, “I know.”

Mordechai and Esther’s responses inspire astonishment, and perhaps even a challenge: should they not have believed fully based on the Divine  providence that they could see before their eyes? Esther, beyond surprisingly, was selected as queen at exactly this moment. Everything that was happening pointed to the fact that God “gives the medicine before the disease” and enthroned her in order for her to save the Jews, and despite this the doubt persists – “who knows?!” This is because “who knows” is the flip side of “just so;” in a place where things happen “just so” persists the “who knows.”

The human response to the Divine  “just so,” the response that provides a sense of security, is the human “just so.” This, in short, is the secret of Purim: passionate commitment without any security that has nothing to rely on is in fact what creates the religious sense of security. The sense of security in God does not come from tangible protection and goodness that he gives. On the contrary, the lack of security that people flee from provides an individual with the opportunity to commit and to feel secure in God in anything that he does.

The midrash says, “Why does everyone flee from the apple tree during a heat wave? Because it does not have any shade in which to sit. Similarly the nations of the world fled from sitting in the shade of God at the time of the revelation of the Torah.”[xiv] The lack of security that comes from the Divine  “just so” is what creates the human ability for passionate commitment, for a sense of security in God that does not give any security regarding the future, nor any sense of meaning or ultimate purpose. This is because the Divine  is beyond human comprehension; not because a person has such a narrow perspective that it cannot encompass the Divine , but because the Divine  Will itself lacks meaning. Correspondingly, security in and devotion to God are illogical processes.

The passionate commitment that life in its arbitrariness invites enables a person to escape the human frameworks that bind him and to cling to the Divine essence. A person who accepts the Divine  “just so” overrides his conceptual, human, consciousness that demands explanation and justification. He accepts his life as it is, in its arbitrariness. Why? Just so!

Appendix: The Law and the Jew

The author of the megillah emphasizes how Mordechai’s position within the space of the narrative is in direction relationship with the law of the procedures of Persia and Medea. For example, the scene that motivates Haman’s genocidal plot:

All the king’s courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king’s order concerning him; but Mordecai would not kneel or bow low. Then the king’s courtiers who were in the palace gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s order?” When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s resolve would prevail; for he had explained to them that he was a Jew. When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel or bow low to him, Haman was filled with rage. (3:2-5)

Why do the king’s servants get involved? If Haman himself did not notice Mordechai’s disobedience, or if he just was not bothered so much by this behavior, why was it so important for the king’s servants to direct his attention to this critical problem? Moreover, if they are motivated by their commitment to the dignity of the king’s decree, then they should turn to the king himself.

The explanation for the servants’ process is explicit in the text: “they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s resolve would prevail; for he had explained to them that he was a Jew.” Mordechai disrupting the order of the kingdom is what bothers them. He tells that that he is a Jew and therefore does not obey and bow, and in this, the Jew functions as one who disrupts the law and the proper order.

Not by accident is the term “Jew” is repeated throughout the megillah; this is the first development of the place of the Jew, his identity and his role in relation to the world. Here we find the roots of anti-semitism. The Jew is the remainder than cannot be accommodated, because by his very appearance, he represents that which does not enter the symbolic order and in this, he destroys and undermines it.[xv] Indeed, why did Mordechai endanger the Jews by refusing to bow? Why didn’t he just leave the king’s gate? Did he have provocative aims? Either way, this is his identity as a Jew, and in this Haman and the king’s servants are correct: Mordechai has a loyalty that precedes his loyalty to the king.[xvi]

To be clear: Mordechai’s disloyalty is a complex disloyalty, and he thus appears as a pure disruption of the order of the kingdom. On the one hand, Mordechai is loyal to the king and reports on Bigtan and Teresh, the two servants of the king that attempted to assassinate Aḥashverosh. On the other hand, Mordechai ultimately has a greater loyalty to his nation and his God, and in this he shatters the law. This is a disloyal loyalty, something that disturbs more than anything else a law and order that attempt to determine “Are you one of us or of our enemies?” (Yehoshua 5:13).

Esther also manifests this sort of existence, validating Haman’s claim to Aḥashverosh “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them” (3:8). She enters the court of the king without receiving the king’s permission. Vashti refused to come, and Esther came uncalled; Vashti is entirely outside, while Esther is simultaneously inside and out.

In general, the Jew who does not bow disrupts the orderly world of “servants of the king,” and Haman chief among them – they are devoted to the law of the kingdom by virtue of it being law. They cannot tolerate the anomaly of Jewish existence; this is actually Haman’s basic claim: difference and lack of obedience threaten and reject the decree of the king.

“That day Haman went out happy and lighthearted. But when Haman saw Mordecai in the palace gate, and Mordecai did not rise or even stir on his account, Haman was filled with rage at him. And Haman controlled himself and went home” (5:9-10). Haman’s serenity is disturbed not because the Jew does not obey but because the Jew rejects the entire principle upon which his happiness is based: the king’s decree. This is why it was not enough to just get rid of Mordechai alone; the problem is the very presence of the Jew – “he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone; having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus” (3:6).

Further, the megillah notes that Haman “controlled himself.” As angry as he was with Mordechai, he did not respond immediately. Why was it important to the writer of the megillah to note this? Was Haman afraid that if he killed Mordechai in anger he would be punished? Seemingly, Haman  knew that if he did that, he would not succeed in freeing himself from the Jew, and Mordechai’s death would chase after him.[xvii] Only if he arranges Mordechai’s destruction in the framework of the law will he succeed in ridding himself of Mordechai and the disruption that he embodies. Law fights by way of the law itself, via legislation. One cannot ignore the violence inherent in legislation. The megillah reveals, in a painful and sarcastic form, the very basis of sovereignty, the violence that founds its laws:

What manifests itself as the law’s inner decay is the fact that rule of law is, in the final analysis, without ultimate justification or legitimation, […] At its foundation, the rule of law is sustained not by reason alone but also by the force/violence of a tautological enunciation—‘The law is the law![xviii]

As far as I am concerned, the mindset of the writer of the megillah lays bare the foundation that underlies the events we will undergo this summer. The disengagement plan symbolizes for me, more than anything else, the crime that is in legislation, the violence subsumed within it; the recognition that the violence of transgressing the law is less than the crime of legislating the law. The inner decay that exists in the rule of law comes to the fore in the claim heard constantly in the mouths of the supporters of the law of the removal: this is the law, and the law is the law! – and therefore it must be respected. The tautology of the law is strengthened by the arbitrariness of its legislation; the “judicial wisdom” that would be able to justify it is entirely lacking, and now its justification is simply the legality of the process: the process is legal, it is confirmed and organized in the Knesset. The law is justified not by ethics or judicial wisdom but by the simple fact of its legislation at the hands of the majority. The violence required to enact this law, removing people from their land, is not the extraneous remainder of the process but the very heart of law: the violent claim that the law is law.

If he was with us today, how would the author of the megillah write the story that we are a part of? Where would he aim the sharp arrows of his irony?

[i] [These words were written in 2005, against the background of the decision of the government, headed by Ariel Sharon, to enact “The Disengagement Plan” from northern Samaria and the Gaza Strip. The plan brought the meaning of law and justice and their validity to the fore of communal debate.]

[ii] In light of this ironic character, the serious way in which halakhah relates to the megillah is basically a second-order joke. In order to notice this joke, one simply has to look at people sitting in shul, with me among them, reading and listening to the megillah, terrified of missing a single word and thereby failing to fulfill their obligation, for “it is a mitsvah to read all of it” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Megillah, 1:3).

[iii] The irony is expressed in the comparison alluded to between the verses of the megillah and their parallels in the Torah. David Henkesheh finds a playful example in the formulation “for that was the full period spent on beautifying them” (2:11), which shows up only one other time in Scripture, in the story of the death of Yaakov in Egypt: “for that was the full period of embalming” (Bereshit 50:3).; The women are embalmed in their perfumes. See David Henkesheh, “Megillat Esther: Literary Disguise” (Hebrew), in Amnon Bazak (ed.), “Hadassah is Esther: Essays on Megillat Esther” (Hebrew), Alon Shevut: Tevunot, 1997, pp.93-106.

[iv] Here we must ask, is it possible to look at the Nazis with a parodic gaze? To turn them into the object of a joke? Is it possible that, despite the terror that wells up within us when we remember them, they are simply ridiculous, and that this ridiculousness heightens the absurd and the terror in their actions?

[v] Particularly after its combination with the holy books that make up the Tanakh.

[vi] This was also noted by Henkesheh.

[vii] Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (The Tzemach Tzedek), Yahel Ohr Al Tehillim (Hebrew), New York: Kehat, 1953, ch.144, p.533.

[viii] [The ‘holiness of the crown’ is a prayer said on Shabbat and holidays by the community as it prays and is considered one of the peaks of prayer. “We will crown you, Lord our God; the angels, the hosts above, with your nation Israel, the masses below.”]

[ix]Said in the name of the Baal Shem Tov. see “Things I Heard from my Teacher,” in “Rabbi Yaakov Yosef HaKohen of Poland, Toldot Yaakov Yosef (Hebrew), Warsaw 1941, p.209.

[x] Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812). Involved in halakhah and kabbalah, founder of Habad Hasidut.

[xi] Quoted in Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (The Lubavitcher Rebbe), Torat Menachem: Hitvaaduyot (Hebrew), 1953, Brooklyn: Otzar HaHasidim, p.31.

[xii] “Anywhere in Megillat Esther where it says “King Aḥashverosh,” the text is referring to Aḥashverosh; anywhere it simply says “king,” the text is referring to the king of kings” (Midrash Aba Gurion [Buber edition], 1, on the verse “like the joy of a king after wine”).

[xiii] If we turn this discussion to the actual situation that crouches by our door, Esther would not have said “I am certain, the “disengagement” definitely won’t come to pass”…

[xiv] Midrash Shir HaShirim, 2:1.

[xv] See also the sermon “On the Remainder and the Exile.”

[xvi] Similarly, Esther remains loyal to Mordechai and follows his commands even after she marries Aḥashverosh.

[xvii] Just like the oedipal killing of the father, that traps the son through guilt.

[xviii] Eric Santner, “On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig,” Chicago, University of Chicago, 2001, pp.56-57. See also Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence” (Hebrew), trans. Danit Dotan, Tel Aviv: Resling, 2006.

Rav Shagar on Adar- Infinite Jest- English Translation

Martin Buber perceptively noted that the early Hasidic masters were no longer theoretical Kabbalists, rather many of them were using the Kabbalah of 250 years prior as the only language they knew in order to express their new ideas of enthusiasm and ecstasy. In a similar manner, 21st century Jews are using Hasidic texts of 250 years prior to discuss the psychology of contemporary religious experience. Rav Shagar uses Hasidism as a language to address 21st century issues of personal meaning and transience. He offers us thoughts on Adar as a discussion of the transience of life using Rav Nachman of Breslov.

The first draft of this translation was done by Levi Morrow, who is studying for a Bachelor’s degree at Herzog College in Tanakh and Jewish Philosophy as well as for rabbinic ordination at the Shehebar Sephardic Center. (I only knew him from Facebook, but in a coincidence, he sat next to me at a weekday morning service.) Levi Morrow has a summery on his blog of several other of Rav Shagar’s Purim homilies; they will help fleshing out the meaning of this one. As noted before, if anyone else has translations of Rav Shagar, then I will post them. I think I have two more in the pipeline. Here are some of the prior ones- here, here, and here. If you have already had enought of Rav shgar, then be patient for other topics.


As we read in a prior post, Rav Shagar considers Chanukah as a chance to see the our lives as a playing out of an infinite meaning, our creating our Real from the details of well-lived life. Purim, in contrast, is when we realize that our in reality the vessels are broken and that all of our plans and projects are naught and empty. During the year we are repaired vessels that embody the beyond, but on Purim we are broken vessels shining the infinite light

Adar is the acknowledgement that the true nature of reality is that the vessels are broken and that we need to have an experience of ecstasy during Adar to give an infinite perspective to the rest of the year.

For Freud, the transience of the everyday lead to a sense of melancholy and the need to make peace with our impending death. Mindlessness causes pain. In contrast, for Rav Shagar the realization that everything in our lives is transient turns it into an ecstasy.  Transience lets us live in the moment, to be free, and to be reach infinite beyond the finite rules of the rest of the year.  It is an infinite love and lack of security that breaks all bonds. In broad definition, akin to Lacan’s ecstatic pleasure (jouissance).

Be Ecstatic, It’s Adar.

The question for the validity of this Adar homily is whether our reactions are closer to those Freud or Rav Shagar? Freud and Rilke had profound sadness on the transience of things, Rav Shagar finds in transience a post-modern ecstasy as beyond our normal concerns.

For Rav Shagar, the destruction of our plans and projects is vital to creating a sense of being at home in the world, so that the home should not become a prison. Like the end of the movie, Zorba the Greek, when his grand project failed, Zorba danced in ecstasy of the moment. Rav Shagar considers Purim as a chance to acknowledge that our plans will simultaneously come to naught and at the same time the plans of our enemies will be negated and come to naught.

Rav Nahman of Breslov dreaded the upcoming loss of the Shabbat as soon as he ushered it in. The yearning from this impending loss allows the attainment of ecstasy. So too the potential loss and death of Purim, leads to a greater jest.

In the language of Kabbalah, the infinite divine has shattered in the destruction of our world and the repair allows us to just point to a divinity beyond, which for Rav Shagar means that “God exists without existing” allowing us to believe without actually believing.

Purim is when we were destined to be destroyed and instead we turned it into a celebration a jest. It is only exile and negation that can reveal what is usually hidden. The lack of security and survival of potential negation brings ecstasy.

During the year, the fullness of our plans and ideals leads to kindness and charity, but on Purim we give indiscriminately to show that it is not kindness but a surrender to the infinite.

Neo-Hasidic Purim Torah of the late 20th century, such as that of Shlomo Carlebach, was about reaching the most menaingful, the deepest or most hidden parts of the soul, which are deeper than my conscious self. The act of being drunk is beyond the conscious mind, lotteries show we are not in rational control, and giving gifts to everyone shows that we are all one. The goal was to reach a deeper point. Here, in Rav Shagar’s homilies we give indiscriminately give gifts to show that we outside of any value, lotteries shows that we all is transient and we accept fate, and being drunk is outside of any meaning. The goal is lightness, joy, and overcoming nihilism, which yield a revelation of the unbounded.  By the double negative of negating the negative forces in life, it is a positive.

However, to return to the opening of this post, on his differing with Freud in an Adar sermon. The concern with Freudian (and Lacanian) transience was not an Adar coincidence. Rather, Rav Shagar read and recommended to his students as a monumental work On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig by Eric Santner (Chicago:2001) available in Hebrew in 2005.

One of the major editors of Rav Shagar’s works, Yishai Mevorach mentions this in the introduction to his own work, Theology of Absence [Hebrew] (Resling, 2016). I will review Mevorach’s book later this season, but I want to point out that Mevorach did not reduce Rav Shagar to a Hasidic Purim homily or a tisch-torah, rather the true student used it as an opening for further reading and study in order to move beyond Hasidism to construct what Mevorach calls a post-secular theology of God’s absence. The question is what is the need for the 18th century Neo-Hasdic language if we can read Lacan and Santner? It seems to be the need to bring it into the synagogue and study hall.

To Jest for Liberation: Talk for Rosh Hodesh Adar – Rabbi Shagar

Translated by Levi Morrow and Alan Brill

The happiness of Purim is an ecstatic happiness, different from the happiness associated with the other Jewish holidays.

Hasidic texts explain that the happiness of the holidays is joy (ששון), the word used many times throughout Tanakh. Those verses make clear that joy is bound up with eros, with the happiness of a bride and groom:

“As a youth espouses a maiden, Your sons shall espouse you; And as a bridegroom rejoices (משוש) over his bride, So will your God rejoice (ישיש) over you” (Isaiah 62:5);

“Who is like a groom coming forth from the chamber, like a hero, eager (ישיש) to run his course” (Psalms 19:6). Similarly, the expression “The sound of joy and the sound of happiness, the sound of a groom and the sound of a bride” that is common throughout the prophecies of Jeremiah, as well as in the context of salvation.

The Mittler Rebbe of Habad differentiated between the happiness of the other holidays and the happiness of Purim as the difference between happiness contained within a vessel and happiness that is beyond and above any vessel (Sha’arei Orah 99).

The happiness of the other holidays is the happiness of commandment, a Jewish happiness that flows from a sense of security in Jewish existence and its value. I am secure in what will happen to me, but also in the value of what I do. A deep happiness that contains fullness and satisfaction, faith and security in the value of my life.

The classic expression of this happiness is in acts of kindness. We are truly happy not when we are receiving but when we are giving. Because giving willingly is a gesture that expresses a deep faith in its own value. Through this giving, we establish our existence as a worthy existence, of infinite value. This satisfaction comes from doing good acts, the faith in Jewish destiny, and the value of his life. The happiness of the holidays is the happiness of commandment and kindness, happiness based on fullness and actuality, a happiness of existence in its very existence and the Jew in his Jewishness.

In contrast, [the joy of Purim,] is ecstatic, which is based on loss (אובדן), “and if I am to perish (אבדתי), I shall perish! (אבדתי)” (Esther 4:16), and on the discovery that within this loss and absence, there is an unlimited presence, even more than in the fullness of presence itself. The source of ecstasy is the foundation of terror that lies at the basis of the jest of the Megillah, the ability to turn this capricious and frightening story into a joke.

Ecstasy is ignited by an encounter. A person is confronted by strong mutual presence, which always appears as a present reality; an experience of “Whom else have I in heaven? And having You, I want no one on earth” (Psalms 73:25).

More than anything else a person desires presence itself. A presence that is an uncontainable intangible now, beyond restraint. He wants to dissolve in love that is as strong as death. The nature of the event is an instantaneous encounter, [illuminating] how today we are here and tomorrow we are not, without a sense of security. In this lack of security, there is an existence much deeper and infinite.

The happiness of the encounter occurs against its fleeting background and its basis in loss. In overcoming these factors as well as accompanying naught (אין) and terror, a person arrives at ecstasy. The discovery of the ability to turn arbitrariness into fate and accept it. This ecstasy reveals the infinite nature of human existence, exactly because of its transient nature and lack of a need to be anchored.

In the writings of the Arizal, Purim is depicted as an exceptional situation, which occurs specifically against the background of the crisis of exile. The word “Megillah” (“מגילה”) alludes to revelation (“התגלות”), the happenings and chance [of the Purim story] enables temporary and transitory revelation of what is generally concealed and hidden.

A happiness of a life that draws on the naught, turning it into joy. A revelation that “we are here,” in the presence of the fleeting moment. After this, when the present turns into the past, joy will turn into your home, into being-with-yourself. However, in the moment of the encounter there is an unlimitedness beyond the home, which, in turn, sanctifies the home. Correspondingly, the ecstasy of the death of Aharon’s sons was the condition for the creation of the Mishkan.

Similarly, Rebbe Nahman wrote regarding the holiness of Shabbat, which is stronger for our awareness of its temporary nature, of the loss that threatens it. “Due the immense pleasure of the extra soul that arrives on Shabbat, we immediately begin to feel pain and yearnings over the loss of the soul with Shabbat’s exit” (Lekutei Moharan I:126)..

Ecstasy reveals in me an ability to be free and independent. The discovery of this very real possibility is enough to ignite us with “darts of fire, a blazing flame” (Song of Songs 8:6), with the rejoicing of a groom over a bride. Overcoming the self by way of the joke is the greatest form of   self-sacrifice, thereby creating a center of lightness not weightiness.

In this manner, the chaotic lights of destruction (tohu) are gathered in the vessel of repair (tikkun), which are not understood as independent entities, rather the [repaired vessels] embody something beyond them. A belief in God without believing, God exists without existing.

This destruction is vital to the creation of a sense of being at home, so the home should not become a prison. Only then will be built a Tabernacle into which the Shekinah could descend, thereby satisfying the desire of He that spoke and there was the world.

The joke of Purim is a joke of negation and nullification, the complete opposite of the affirmative fullness of the rest of the year, which stresses the positive and discussable. Normally, mockery is wickedness and nihilism, and mocking is therefore forbidden (except for the mocking of idolatry, Megillah 25b). On Purim, however, the mockery is turned towards the Amalekite mocker himself, becoming a negation of negation, a joke about Haman’s joke. In overcoming the self and in this double-negation is formed a positivity, a saying yes that takes as its own the strength of the negativity of the naught.

Interview with William Kolbrener- The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik

What would a literary critical approach look like if applied to Orthodox Jewish texts? What if the texts chosen for a critical theory treatment were the writings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-93)? William Kolbrener attempts such a reading in The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition (Indiana UP, 2016), using psychoanalysis, gender, and 17th century literature to read Soloveitchik as a literary text.


William Kolbrener is professor of literature at Bar Ilan University, and was educated at Oxford (MA) and Columbia University (BA, PhD.).  His first book was Milton’s Warring Angels: A Study of Critical Engagements, (Cambridge University Press, 1996). His current work  The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition is an application of his literary studies to a contemporary Jewish thinker. Despite writing on Soloveitchik, his classes at Bar Ilan University are currently populated mainly Arab students, both Muslim and Christian. He has also recently started writing in the public forum at Haaretz on timely topics such as “The Moral Failure of pro-Trump Orthodox Jews” and “The Cartoon God of Israel’s Settler Rabbis.”

In this new volume, Kolbrener paints Soloveitchik as an irreconcilably torn personality and as a complex pluralist.  Soloveitchik writings, in this reading, become texts of pluralism, creativity, modernity, and self-creation, instead of the more popular presentation of his writings as geometric, analytic, and halakhic. Kolbrener admits that his method as a literary critic, allows him to interpret freely outside of Soloveitchik’s original meaning and context. He is certainly not attempting a conventional archival based biography or interviews. Hence, Soloveitchik, using critical theory, becomes a window on contemporary pluralism, gender studies, and psychoanalysis, not the more often used Centrist Orthodox lens of mesorah, submission, and anti-feminism.

Kolbrener deeply admires John Milton’s religious vision, which combines religious commitment and intellectual freedom.  Counted among his other literary heroes are Mary Astell, 18th century author who combined Tory politics, and conservative religion with a proto-feminist vision. He also admires John Donne’s use of comparisons and paradox. Kolbrener finds all of these intense poetics of synthesis and complexity resonating with the writings of Rabbi Soloveitchik.

(For insights into Kolbrener and his method, here is an illustrative Youtube lecture of his on Milton and Milton’s midrash. I would recommend comparing Kolbrener’s synthesis of complexity to the synthesis of “two worlds” of the poet Yehoshua November.)

Kolbrener also draws on recent psychoanalytic authors, Adam Phillips, for example, who writes about ‘voices in the plural,’ to illuminate the sometimes conflicting voices in Soloveitchik. The psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, as another example, points out how melancholy moderns, failure to capture the essence of the Real (associated for her, with the feminine) leads to embracing the compensation of the masculine Law (language, culture, law).

The Last Rabbi focuses on a vignette that Soloveitchik shares in And From There You Shall Seek, in which he recounts that as a child, Soloveitchik was torn between the rational intellectualism of his father and the emotional support offered by his mother. According to Kolbrener, Soloveitchik idealizes the halakhic man who relies exclusively on reason and Talmudic study.

Yet, Soloveitchik cannot fully accept his father’s masculinity and for this reason, he runs into the arms of his consoling mother who provides an outlet for his emotive self. It is with his mother that he finds “sympathy in the presence of the feminine”. The imagery of Soloveitchik running back and forth between his father and mother, according to Kolbrener, reverberates throughout his theological teachings. Soloveitchik confronted a constant psychological need to choose between his father and his mother.

Kolbrener’s own narrative arc moves from secular graduate student to living a haredi life in Israel, and now a tempered modernity writing about Modern Orthodox thinkers.

When he was a graduate student, Kolbrener fell in love with the religious writings of John Milton and Mary Astell, which led him to discover Ultra- Orthodox Judaism as a fulfillment of his religious quest.

Only when I began to study Paradise Lost, John Milton’s epic re-writing of Genesis, did it to occur to me that being religious was not a sign of neurosis or flaky otherworldliness. In graduate school at Oxford and later at Columbia, for me and many of my fellow Jewish students, Milton was a safe way, without the risk of embarrassment, of experiencing the poetry of a religious sensibility. In earnest discussions of Christian redemptive history, the relationship between free will and divine providence, I lived, through Milton, the possibility of religious engagement.

Kolbrener was deeply bothered by the weight of the modern age, which represents a loss of a common set of shared languages, with the growth of individual subjectivity leading to the loss of opportunity for meaningful community. Ultra-Orthodoxy was the rediscovery of a community of a shared language and meaningful community.

But the Haredi world was not the return to John Milton’s world of community. “Over years of living in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods and studying in their institutions, I realized that the fantasy of an isolated community with a single set of impervious languages was just that, a fantasy.  Communities are porous: the Haredi world in many ways is  – whether recognized or not – in conversation with the surrounding secular world.” In addition, Kolbrener was surprised to discover that they lacked the essential need for creativity and self-creation. Instead, they were fundamentalists expecting rigid conformity to social norms and having inability to tolerate complexity thereby reducing knowledge to a single and absolute meaning.

In a subsequent narrative turn, Rabbi Solovetichik and his son-in-law Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein offered Kolbrener his needed creativity and self-creation. They offered a cure for the potential fundamentalism of Orthodoxy, in that they celebrate complexity, pluralism, and self-creation. Nevertheless, here too he discovered that ideals, as Kolbrener understood them, of Torah uMadda were ever receding aspirations.   Kolbroner wrote a piece on Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s ideal of the synthesis of Torah and literature, finding it precarious. Not that Kolbrener was, God forbid, questioning the indispensable need for literature and critical theory, rather that the path of synthesis was not a safe reproducible method.

When I first became religious, I thought that Judaism and literature were incommensurable, their synthesis impossible, in any case, entailing too many risks.   Today, I still think ‘synthesis’ is an overly optimistic goal, but also understand that without taking the ‘risk’ – of reading literature and philosophy – Judaism itself would become, for me, an impoverished thing.

Kolbrener does indeed take this risk of synthesis by reading The Lonely Man of Faith as a confessional diary. His captivating analysis of Soloveitchik’s psyche is projected and speculative, yet it offers a complex synthesis of contemporary critical theory and Torah.  Kolbrener has an uncanny ability for projection of ideas onto a religious system, followed by idealization and personal identity with the object of idealization, and eventual melancholy when it does not live up to his projections.  This fascinating journey merging the personal, the interpretive, and the community offers us not a return to the pre-modern shared language and community, rather a methodology of taking risks to live in a fragmented subjective interpretive age.


1)   What were you hoping for in the study of the Soloveitchik tradition?

I first encountered Soloveitchik’s work in graduate school while working for my PhD in English Literature.  I had never considered taking Judaism seriously – as an intellectual enterprise – until I read Halakhic Man and Halakhic Mind, both written during the 1940s. Soloveitchik’s advocacy of methodological pluralism (or what he describes as different interpretive perspectives) seemed to anticipate so much of the critical theory that I was then studying at Columbia.

Unlike my professors in the academy, and strangely for me, Soloveitchik was able to advocate this pluralism in the context of both belief and commitment.  Pursuing my interest in theories of interpretation, I went on to write several articles on pluralism in the Talmud and in Soloveitchik’s works.  Several years back, I decided to put together a volume on pluralism and interpretation – a composite collection of those early articles.

The book that I found I was not able to write would have reflected the ideals of an earlier integrated self, mirroring the integrated image of Soloveitchik and the tradition of which he was said – especially by his students – to be the foremost modern exemplar.  But re-reading Soloveitchik, instead of dialectic – the word so often invoked by students to describe Soloveitchik’s thought – I found contradiction. Instead of continuity between the Talmudic tradition and Soloveitchik, I saw rupture. My elegiac tone in The Last Rabbi, is for a pluralism not fully pursued.

 2) What is your melancholy or disillusion with the Soloveitchik tradition?

Rabbinic interpretation performs, what I call following Freud, a hermeneutics of mourning, producing, in the face of loss or death, multiple possibilities of meaning. This version of interpretation acknowledges loss, indeed recognizes loss as intrinsic to the process of tradition, always offering partial interpretations in the plural.

Soloveitchik’s mourning, however, resembles more ‘melancholy,’ as Freud described it, where the devastation of loss (for Soloveitchik, personal, historical, existential) leads to a desire for a full compensation for loss. Unlike Talmudic ‘mourning’ which accommodates difference and merely good-enough interpretations, Soloveitchik’s ‘melancholy’ interpretive perspective shows him vacillating between a knowledge imagined as full conquest and the despairing realization that such knowledge is tragically insufficient.

Ironically, Soloveitchik acknowledges multiplicity in his ethics (the multiplicity of different perspectives) and in his conception of repentance (the multiplicity of different psychic voices or agencies); but in his representation of the Talmudic tradition, he usually emphasizes the certainty of a singular voice.

A further irony in his work: while Soloveitchik embraces the innovations of quantum physics to justify methodological pluralism, when it comes to justifying the interpretive perspective of halakhic man, he relies on older Newtonian conceptions of science and scientific truth. The melancholy, but still optimistic, tone of my book is for Soloveitchik’s abandonment of a pluralism that he cultivated in so many other realms, but not in his representations of Talmudic interpretation.

3)    How is Soloveitchik a self-construction but also a failure?

Soloveitchik writes in Halakhic Man of what he considers to be the primary Jewish imperative, for man to ‘create himself.’  From this perspective, Soloveitchik’s philosophical writings serve as a kind of spiritual memoir, the means by which he creates himself through writing.  Halakhic Man, for example, is about his father, his uncle, but also himself, as he at once declares allegiance to his ancestors, but also asserts independence from some of the traditions they represent. Repentance or teshuva is critical for Soloveitchik – throughout his works – as a form of story-telling about the self, one which allows for constant self-critique and continued self-construction.

Recognition of failure plays an important role in Soloveitchik’s emotional journey, and in the stories he tells about himself.  Where in childhood memories, failure is embarrassing even shameful, later in his life, both failure and suffering, are transformed, becoming retroactively a mark of distinction, indeed of existential chosenness.

By contrast, the older halakhic man – from whom he distinguishes himself – does not pursue the emotional life, and only sees failure as devastating loss.  Soloveitchik, however, through with a particular kind of memory – a ‘timeless event memory,’ what he calls both ‘blessing and curse,’ associated with the feminine – pursues his own story of self-creation.  In the end, Soloveitchik emphasizes existential authenticity, failure and suffering, the preconditions for ethical success, and full personal development.

4)    What does your title “last rabbi” mean?

Soloveitchik came to America in the early thirties when many Orthodox leaders in Europe forbade it: if you want to live a religious life, they said, you had better stay put. In this sense, Soloveitchik was one of the first rabbis in 20th century America, certainly the foremost innovator in Jewish thought and practice. To achieve this, Soloveitchik had to embody the traditions that his father represented, but also to create, innovate. In my reading, Soloveitchik has to kill off his father – in a version of his oedipal battle with his forbearers – to become fully himself, that is, a new version of the halakhic man who incorporates within his psyche, the ‘Torah of the heart’ associated not only with Brisk masculinity, but also with the feminine.

Indeed, I call him ‘last rabbi’ because of this self-perceived (and self-represented) failure as a teacher, his ostensible inability to communicate that ‘Torah of the heart.’  While engaging his students intellectually, he was not able, he confesses, to solicit ‘growth on the experiential plane,’ nor to bestow his ‘personal warmth on them.’ That is, Soloveitchik may have emphasized creativity and self-creation to such an extent, become so much the individual that he transformed himself into the last rabbi. Though perhaps Soloveitchik’s representation of his own failure implies as well a disappointment with his students who were unable to receive his personal legacy.

From my literary perspective, Soloveitchik in the Jewish tradition shows an emphasis on subjectivity that I first encountered reading John Milton, the great individualist of the English Renaissance, described by one literary critic as ‘a Church of one, a sect unto himself.’  Milton spent the last days of his life, however, as he writes in Paradise Lost ‘in darkness and solitude.’ Soloveitchik of course defines himself in similar solitary terms towards in his late writings.  Soloveitchik, however traces his ‘lonely and forlorn’ sensibility to the Biblical figure of Moses, who lived out, according to him, in obviously autobiographical terms, ‘the tragedy of the teacher who is too great for his disciples.’

5)      What is the importance of Milton for your thinking?

While still in graduate school, I wrote my first scholarly article on Areopagitica, Milton’s 1644 tract against censorship.  Looking back now, I can see how it anticipates my subsequent research into questions of modernity, community and interpretation.

In Areopagitica, written, at the beginning of the English Civil War against Parliamentary policy to re-institute royalist publication policies, Milton argues against censorship, while also elaborating his ideal for the perfect republic, a commonwealth in which different perspectives and opinions multiply. Milton imagines a community strengthened through discourse, a political ‘discordia concors’ – or discordant harmony – where differences, or what he calls brotherly ‘dissimilitudes’ preserve the whole.

Aharon Lichtenstein, Soloveitchik’s son-in-law, often wrote often about the emotional power of Milton’s poetry. For me, Milton’s Areopagitica has always been most resonant, preparing me to understand a parallel ‘discordia concors’ of rabbinic thinking, where difference – encapsulated in the phrase about rabbinic disputes ‘these and these are the words of the living God’ – is essential to the dynamics of a vibrant interpretive community.

6)      What is the importance of Mary Astell for your thinking?

Mary Astell was an 18th century Tory proto-feminist, a descriptive phrase which might be construed as an oxymoron.  Astell was conservative in both her political and theological thinking: she embraced church ritual and royal authority in a time of dissent, arguing vigorously for older models of government and community. With those commitments, however, she was also among the first writers to articulate a program for education and rights for women – pointing out the corruption of a masculine culture that excluded women from the public sphere.

Astell’s simultaneous emphasis on a conservative theology with an emphasis on individual agency provides an antecedent parallel to Soloveitchik.  But more than that, Astell’s methodology – reading gender as a marker of historical change – provides a methodological precedent for The Last Rabbi.  Astell understands modernity after 1649 in relationship to the impoverishment of masculinity (as well as a concomitant abandonment of the feminine). Soloveitchik’s embodiment of a certain version of the masculine – what I call ‘Brisk masculinity’ – marks him in my readings as a ‘melancholy modern,’ a distinction he shares with others like Freud and Walter Benjamin. From the point of view of psychoanalysis and Astell’s gender-inflected historical analysis, Soloveitchik emerges in my book as a fraught figure with his ambivalent affinities to masculine and feminine (as well as the paternal and maternal) impacting his representation of cognition, interpretation, and tradition.

7)      Why do you think of your book on Soloveitchik – with its emphasis on pluralism, gender, and psychoanalysis – as an outgrowth of your earlier work on Milton, Astell and psychoanalysis?

When, as an undergraduate I began to explore questions of pluralism, interpretation and community, I did so within the context of Western, particularly, Christian thought.  My study of Milton and the discord of the English Revolution – and his version of an idealized commonwealth in Areopagitica – had prepared me to better understand the rabbinic pluralism of the Talmud.

My work on the eighteenth-century proto-feminist Mary Astell – with her emphasis on the relationship between concepts of gender and the modern – allowed me to see the importance of gender roles in Soloveitchik’s family reminiscences, and how they impacted his conceptions of interpretation.  My more recent interest in psychoanalysis has enabled me to see how Soloveitchik’s representation of trauma – both personal and historical – came to inform both his conceptions of interpretation and ethics.  Further, from a psychoanalytic perspective, Soloveitchik’s work was charged, I argue in The Last Rabbi, even from its beginnings, with an anxiety about Freud, and the attempt to distinguish his own ‘halakhic’ project from that of the founder of psychoanalysis.

One plan for my future personal memoir would be structured in relationship to the literary and philosophical texts that most influenced me. Reading Milton marked the personal discovery of the theological languages that were never made compelling to me in the Long Island Hebrew School of the 1970s.  In many ways – and perhaps this is a paradox – my Jewish commitments emerged from my scholarly engagements with Christianity.  Reading Astell, again from a scholarly perspective, marked a personal awakening, to the importance of gender and particularly the feminine (in the world of the Haredi yeshiva, I bracketed, or perhaps even repressed, questions of gender).  Further, Astell showed me, as did Milton, that religious commitment and a commitment to individual freedom are not incommensurable.  My engagement with Freud – and especially the neo-Freudians Jonathan Lear and Adam Phillips – started as a personal inventory that turned into my book Open Minded Torah, but then helped inform the methodology of The Last Rabbi.

I should also add that Soloveitchik would occupy a central chapter in that hypothetical memoir – for only through reading his writings did I realize that Judaism did not have to be watered-down, apologetic and clichéd.  Indeed, reading Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man and Halakhic Mind showed me that Jewish languages could be as nuanced, sophisticated and complex as the languages I was encountering in graduate school.  No matter how critical the methodology of The Last Rabbi, it is largely because of Soloveitchik and his students that I am the person I am today.

8)   Does modern mean Niebuhr, Cassirer, and Dostoevsky which are  Soloveitchik’s own historical canon and context or is it your canon of Adam Adam Philips, H. G. Gadamer, and Quintin Skinner?  

My book takes the risk of placing myself both inside and outside of Soloveitchik’s hermeneutic circle.  There is a part of me, privileged, grateful to be inside the circle that still reveres the figure referred to as ‘the Rav.’ But the literary critic in me, outside of the hermeneutic circle – never exposed to the charismatic brilliance of Soloveitchik’s presence – elicits a different more complicated, even divided, figure.

The hermeneutics of suspicion should never be a starting point for any kind of study of texts, but it can complement different interpretive approaches. Adam Phillips, for example, a British psychoanalyst, who writes about ‘voices in the plural,’ provides an external set of language for reading the sometimes conflicting voices in Soloveitchik, who himself embodies many of the ‘types’ about which he writes: ‘halakhic man,’ ‘lonely man,’ ‘homo religiosus.’  Soloveitchik marshalled dozens (even hundreds) of different voices to explain Jewish thought; I aspire to a similar methodology in reading Soloveitchik’s work.  Moreover, Phillips recent literary biography of Freud, ‘Becoming Freud,’ became a model for The Last Rabbi – which charts Soloveitchik’s own drive towards individuation in relation to his predecessors as he becomes ‘The Rav.’

Hans Georg Gadamer, one of the founders of contemporary hermeneutics, and Quentin Skinner, a leading historian in the Cambridge School, are an odd couple in themselves.  But for me the former, who typically emphasizes the role of subjectivity in interpretation, and the latter, who emphasizes intention and objectivity, provide a productive gloss when read together on Soloveitchik – who throughout his life was interested in breaking down the often rigid distinction between subject and object.

For Soloveitchik the exclusive emphasis on subjectivity led to the extremes of either relativism or fascism. The belief in objectivity, by contrast, for Soloveitchik, was just an illusion, leading to misunderstandings about the nature of both knowledge and interpretation.

Gadamer and Skinner, like Phillips, provide a set of external tools for showing how, for Soloveitchik (like many of the quantum physicists whom he celebrates in Halakhic Mind) subjective perspectives or constructs are indispensable in eliciting the truth of the object.

9)       How can you psychoanalyze Soloveitchik from a vignette? 

The psychotherapist Christopher Bollas writes of ‘small details of the past’ that are resonant with unexplored, even unconsciously unintended, meanings.  Soloveitchik’s reminiscences of his family living room in Pruzhna can be simply appreciated, as some suggest, as a charming account of the family dynamics of Soloveitchik’s extraordinary rabbinic family.  From this perspective, Soloveitchik’s memories of his youthful self simply provide two accounts of his father’s approach to study.  In the first ‘Rabbi Moses’ confronts an interpretive problem raised by Maimonides and solves it; in the second, however, faced with a parallel interpretive problem, he fails.

From the psychoanalytic perspective that I adopt, however, the young Joseph’s response to his father’s interpretive endeavors (as well as his mother’s response) help to elaborate his future representations of both gender and interpretation.  In the first instance, when his father resolves the interpretive crux, he is described, in unambivalent terms as triumphant, a man of conquest (indeed parallel to the description of the typological halakhic man whose knowledge is achieved through a process of acquisition and conquest).

The young Joseph, who conceives himself in these stories as standing apart from the gathering of young men in his grandfather’s study, runs off to his mother’s room, to share the triumph of his father.  In Joseph’s eyes, his victorious father Rabbi Moses rescues ‘Moses ben Maimon,’ and by extension the prophet Moses, an intergenerational conquest, allowing for the continuation of Jewish tradition.

The heroic version of the conquest of Rabbi Moses has its opposite in the account of his father’s interpretive failure – which is treated as a near catastrophe by both Joseph and the gathered men.  Subsequent to this, the young Joseph is figured as sitting on a bed together with Maimonides, together crying, with the boy again running to his mother’s room, but this time for consolation.  She tells Joseph that one day he may surpass his father, but that in the meanwhile, he should learn to live with uncertainty.

Soloveitchik’s later representations of interpretation, in my reading, emerge from out of the reference points established in these earlier stories.  For Soloveitchik, like for his father in his grandfather’s living room, interpretation means either absolute conquest or utter failure, anticipating the vacillation between triumph and melancholy prevalent in his later works.

Only in the feminine realm, outside of the gathering of men and their legal discourse, is the young Joseph able to express uncertainty as well as emotion. Throughout his writings, Soloveitchik’s conceives of interpretation as an all-or-nothing affair – interpretation as total conquest, or completely ineffective in the face of a resistant world. The feminine, by contrast, allows for the expression of uncertainty, and promises comfort outside of the strict and often uncompromising realm of interpretation associated with his ancestors.

Soloveitchik tells his story, not in the traditional terms of autobiography, but often in relationship to the masculine and feminine, and the different, contradictory values that they represent.  Much like Adam Phillips sees Freud in his recent biography, I see Soloveitchik as both ‘scientific thinker’ attached to the rigorous methods of Brisk learning, but also ‘radical skeptic’ as he charts a course away from ‘halakhic men,’ a path only made possible through his detour through his mother’s room and the feminine.

10)  How do you understand midrash or “midrashic poetry” using John Donne, Quentin Skinner and Hans Georg Gadamer?

John Donne helps in understanding the homiletic method of R. Elazar – for both embrace a poetic stance that elicits unexpected resemblances in both world and texts.

Donne went out of fashion for generations because critics like Samuel Johnson felt that the metaphors in Donne’s poems were inappropriate over-the-top, and the forceful yoking together of unconnected realms, such as compasses and lovers or sex and religion. Donne, in suggesting such comparisons, emerges, when read sympathetically, as the great poet of paradox.

Elazar as interpreter elicits the paradoxical poetry of the divine word. When R. Elazar reads a verse from Ecclesiastes – the subject of chapter 2 of my book – he pulls out multiple and seemingly contradictory meanings, where the Torah is compared to both ‘nails’ and ‘flowers,’ inorganic and organic matter, seen as both temporal and eternal. Reading R. Elazar through the lens of Donnean poetry shows the Biblical verse asserting paradox, a metaphysical conceit avante la letter, creating a poetry in which opposites are both asserted and maintained. In my readings, midrash should be read as Wittgenstein conceived of poetry, ‘the highest form of philosophy’ – rendered only in philosophical language as impoverished paraphrase.

Wittgenstein once wrote that poetry is the highest form of philosophy, that poetic insights can only be paraphrased through different – sometimes contrary – philosophical perspectives.

I turn to the Gadamer who emphasizes subjectivity in interpretation, and the historian Quentin Skinner, who by contrast emphasizes original intention to help explain midrash and the poetics of rabbinic dispute. The dual emphasis on objective intention and subjective perspectives – Skinner and Gadamer -help provide a philosophical gloss on the paradoxical divine pronouncement ‘these and these are the words of the living God’ – in which different subjects elicit opposed but still valid perspectives on the divine law. Indeed, a method combining Skinner’s injunction to be receptive to the text, with the Gadamerian emphasis on interpretation as a creative act provides a corollary to R. Elazar’s assumptions about the ideal interpreter, both passive and active, receptive and creative.

11)   How do you use Kristeva and Winnicott to understand Soloveitchik?

Throughout his writings, Soloveitchik writes about loss: for him, even the greatest quantum scientists acknowledge with ‘despair’ that their conceptions only approximate reality, never getting to its essence. The psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva associates this outlook with melancholy moderns, where failure to capture the essence of the Real (associated for her, with the feminine) leads to embracing the compensation of the masculine Law (language, culture, law).

From this perspective, Soloveitchik’s yearning for a full connection with the Real, often associated for him with the comforts of the feminine and the maternal, leads to an always ambivalent embrace of the Law.  Kristeva’s Law for Soloveitchik, the halakha, is only partially satisfying, indeed, manifests itself as opposed to the feminine – impersonal, dry and even punishing. Soloveitchik in the end chooses the Law of his father, quite literally, though he remains ambivalent about the stringencies and exclusions of the law, as well as the feminine and the experience of existential union it offers.

The memory of a pre-linguistic union with the feminine, as the child psychologist D.W. Winnicott explains, lingers in the adult psyche as an echo of a lost feeling of existential wholeness. That echo always remains for Soloveitchik, as a possibility both tempting and potentially dangerous, promising organic unity, but threatening to undermine his agency, and subsume him entirely.

12) How has  repentance (teshuva)  and self-creation been critical in your own life & thinking?

In his poem, ‘The Hollow Men,’ T. S. Eliot laments ‘20 years largely wasted,’ referring perhaps to two decades of an attitude born by a religious pursuit (he became an Anglican in the 1920s) –  which he after came to regret.

My own life narrative – in retrospect – may look like a reverse version of modern Jewish history: where modernity is a progressive narrative of reform and enlightenment, my narrative began in the university, and ended, or perhaps looked like it was going to end, in a kollel in Mea Shearim.

Mine however was not a story that included body-snatching outreach rabbis at the Western Wall, but my decision to be part of the ultra-orthodox world was educated, informed by my readings of Western literature and philosophy.  Not T. S. Eliot’s poetry, but his essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent,’ was a major influence, asserting that being part of a tradition involved, ‘a constant surrender,’ a ‘continual self-sacrifice.’

Gaining entrance to the world of Jewish ‘tradition,’ required, I thought, only an unequivocal and uncompromising immersion in Talmudic languages  At the same time, I was reading the historian of science Thomas Kuhn who wrote about the incommensurability of different worldviews, how religious and enlightenment paradigms were necessarily in conflict with one another.

As a result, coming to Jerusalem in the early 1990s, I saw Western and Jewish worlds as opposed, even antagonistic, and thought the best way to be part of the latter tradition was a kind of surrender to it.

Over years of living in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods and studying in their institutions, I realized that the fantasy of an isolated community with a single set of impervious languages was just that, a fantasy.  Communities are porous: the Haredi world in many ways is  – whether recognized or not – in conversation with the surrounding secular world.

Further though tradition does require receptivity, even surrender of a sort (an obviously over-stated ideal of the ultra-orthodox world in which conformity to social norms is such a powerful force), it also requires, indeed is founded upon, as Soloveitchik always emphasizes, creativity.  The Brisk Haredi world, I found, values the ‘hiddush’ in the Beit Midrash, but there only; for Soloveitchik, by contrast, the highest realization of creativity is the creation of the self.

Part of the challenge of the modern world, I think, is breaking out of the manic oscillation between authority and personal freedom, finding not so much a middle ground, but a balance, however fraught, between the two.

I hope I don’t show the same unhealthy zeal and close-mindedness of an earlier self, I also don’t consider those years ‘wasted,’ no more so than I think the years of skeptical questioning in the university wasted.  Living with modernity, I have come to realize, means combining skepticism and commitment, however difficult that may be.