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.