Monthly Archives: July 2017

Theology of Absence- Interview with Yishai Mevorach, an editor of Rav Shagar’s writings.

The students and colleagues of Rav Shagar each developed different aspects of his thought. Rav Yair Dreyful, his co-founder of Yeshivat Siach Yitzhak emphasizes the emotive and personal existential value of Torah and mizvot. Some of his students, emphasize the need to re-integrate mysticism and meditation, of Rebbe Nachman, Chabad, Zohar, Rav Zadok, and Rebbe  Kalonymus Kalman Shapira. Others prefer intellectual discussions of post-modernity, language games, paradox, and Israeli society. Some of his students learned from him a need to be open and found paths in psychotherapy, poetry writing, film-making, and scholarship. Yishai Mevorach, one of the editors of the Rav Shagar’s writings, looked where he was pointing and went forward into the chaos.

Mevorach recently published a book called Theology of Absence: On Faith after Chaos (Resling Publishing, 2016) 171 pp, [Hebrew] where he is developing a post-secular, post-modern theology from Rav Shagar. (Resling publishes translations of works of literary and philosophic theory.)

מודעה ישי

Yishai Mevorach was born in Gush Etzion and after two years in Yeshivat har Etzion switched to become a devoted follower of Rav Shagar. He teaches in various locations.  Mevorach is in the midst of writing a trilogy about faith after the abyss. This book was the first; the second book will appear next year.  He is also still involved in editing Rav Shagar’s homilies.

Below is an interview with Mevorach based on his Hebrew book. We have to thank the translator Rabbi Josh Bolton, director and Senior Jewish Educator of the Jewish Renaissance Project at Penn Hillel. A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Josh also holds and MFA in poetry from UMass, Amherst. His new book, 100 Suggestions for Seekers and Spiritual Activists, Alternadox Press (forthcoming).

The most exciting part of this book is that it is a reflection of what is considered legitimate discussion and free exchange of ideas in the world of Rav Shgaar’s students and within certain parts, albeit rarified and narrow, of the religious Zionist world.  Mevorach has a really good collection of lectures and shiurim on Youtube, they are worth listening to, including one on Rav Shagar’s views about the first and second Temples. In the shiur, the First Temple represents certainty and the cherubs on the Ark behind the curtain, while in the Second Temple there is nothing behind the curtain, grasping toward the unknown.

Mevorach follows his teacher Rav Shagar in looking for new modes of study and new juxtapositions in Torah and new methods of study beyond what he considers the spiritual dryness of the Yeshivat Har Etzion method. He is original in formulating this as post-secular, in that the secular has already won. We now live a faith that bears both deep Godliness and simultaneously deep acknowledgement of the post-secular condition. Mevorach uses models of Torah after the destruction, Torah from the abyss, and Torah as post-Holocaust. Those who want to deny this condition are psychologically seeking a fundamentalism even if they live a modern life. At one point in the interview, he sees this need for Orthodoxy as the castration anxiety from the fear of losing the guarded object.

What is Torah in this new era? Mevorach gives theme and variations ranging from considering Torah as our linguistic discourse, to our existential commitment of love, to our surplus enjoyment and jouissance, in the language of Slavoj Zizek and Jacques Lacan.

Other points, he frames this attachment in more minimal terms of the sign of circumcision, our naming ourselves Jews or the remnant that remains after everything, the way Freud identified with Judaism. Rav Shagar himself played with these ideas, in claiming that Jewish  nationalism  is  a  world  unto  itself –based on a citation from Zizek that the  Jews  “have  no  place  in  the  order  of  nations,” which for Shagar meant represents  the remnant, the sheerit, a particularistic,  of  attachment  to  the Jewish people and the  land. (Shagar, BeTzel  HaEmunah 126, edited by Mevorach).

Mevorach’s book is short, only 177 pages total, and a quick and enjoyable read. But only for those comfotable with Lacan, Derrida, Zizek, and Rosenzweig as well as the requisite knowledge of Talmud, Rav Zadok of Lublin and Rebbe Nachman. The first chapter jumps right into his thesis of a post-secular condition and the third chapter deals with the premises of the thesis surrounding Torah as described in this interview. When I asked Mevorach why he did not place chapter three first, he said that in an earlier draft it was first. You may want to skim it before the first chapter, and then read it in its current sequence. The second chapter was its own post-secular homily on love in Torah. The last part of the book on prayer as a simple necessity as a surplus of being was a good application of current theology to Torah. The book returns a humanism and an engagement with critical thought that many of the interpreters of Rav Shagar lack. Overall, Mevorach is quite optimistic and passionate about his project and its positive potential for a meaningful and energized Torah.

The book received a glowing review as a “celebration” and  “true and direct interpretation,” yet another review claimed he misread Rav Shagar and Rav Zadok but the review spends most of the review arguing about his application of Zizek. But notice, how telling is it that we now have a group of teachers of Torah that get  into public disputes over Zizek. As one comment on the review asked: “Who are the intended readers of such a review and this discussion?”

For those not familiar, here a few technical words that will help one in this interview. One should properly study these thinkers, but as a help to reading the article here are a few points as used in the interview. Bear in mind that Rav Shagar read Eric Santner’s  On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life (2001), which put Franz Rosenzweig in dialogue with Jacques  Lacan connecting two thinkers who originally had no intrinsic connection. (Free free to skip the next few paragraphs and get right to the interview if you wish.)

Loosely based on Franz Rosenzweig: Existence means the true existence of the subject confronting his or her human condition directly. It does not mean as it often does in the Jewish world, the deep points of experience or connection found in prayer or human life. Rather, we are being who have to confront our finite existence and the horizons, in this case post secular, in which we live.  For example, Rosenzweig created an institution of adult education, a lehrhaus, where the goal is not to start with expertise or erudition but with a confrontation of the human condition, including finitude and secularism.  “A learning, no longer out of the Torah into life, but out of life, out of a world that does not know about the law, back into the Torah.” For Mevorach, we are creating Torah out of the depths of the post-secular condition.

The second concept needed for this interview are the 1970’s ideas of the French psychoanalyst Jacques  Lacan in which we use pieces of language and culture as a signifier, which is a sign without any referent. It does not refer to anything; rather absence is its fundamental feature.

Lacan thinks we recognize a signifier by reference to its place among other signifiers. For example, if we take a signifying system such as the Dewey decimal system in a library, I know that a book should be at a certain place on a shelf even if that place is empty and the book is not there. What Lacan calls here “the place where it has been effaced” remains even if the book itself is missing. For Mevorach, our Torah study is like the system by which we understand everything.

The third term needed for this interview is the concept of surplus and excess as well as the concept of remnant, as found in the thought of Lacan and Zizek.  The former term is what Mevorach seeks in religion and the remnant is what Mevorach thinks we have. For Lacan a surplus is always produced of jouissance-, an enjoyment that has no value but exists merely for the sake of the enjoyment. The remnant is what is left over after our signifiers, a residue, or remnant of the symbolization process.For example, when looking at an old photograph we are being touched by the remnant of the self, and this left over remnant.

Žižek talks about excess as surplus enjoyment, or what Lacan called jouissance. For Zizak, excess always corresponds with some lack, which creates a fetish as a substitute for something missing that saves us from having to confront the full impact of it’s absence. The power of any ideological structuring of reality lies in it’s ability to transform the source of its weakness, whatever is lacking, into a source of strength, its “excess”.

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Interview with Yishai Mevorach

Translated by Rabbi Josh Bolton, revised and edited by Alan Brill

  1. What was your vision in editing Rav Shagar’s lectures?

This is actually a difficult question for me because I don’t know to what extent I had a clear vision at the start of the whole project. The work was done with a lot of uncertainty. Uncertainty as to whether I would edit it correctly, and an even greater uncertainty as to its reception and even whom its readership would be – a readership not even really “born” as I edited the books.

I can say that my original motivation was to be in touch with that important moment in my life in which I met Rav Shagar.  The editing the books was a type of havruta with Rav Shagar.

While he was still alive, I merited to sit and listen to his Torah. After his passing, fulfilling his request that his writings be published, a number of us were brought in to do this work. I was given the opportunity to create new juxtapositions (tzerufim hadashim) with Rav Shagar – even after he had passed. This task was something different from just editing. It was a type of cleaving (devekut) between two souls. To a certain degree, it was an experience of spiritual conception and I don’t possess an adequate enough perspective to describe its meaning for me – and for him.

As I worked, the words of Rav Shagar stood before my spirit: “It is impossible to grasp religion without its mystical core. Not mysticism in the sense of a “mystical experience” – but a mysticism that overwhelms one’s entire existential reality”. A type of “solid point” as he would say, which necessitates religious existence.

Again in his words, “To understand oneself in a radical way”. That is to say, there is no possibility of grasping religion without its radical core. It is impossible to engage religion without tapping into the radical foundation that enables and necessitates the mystical engagement. Religious engagement is a radical act, connected to the religious situation of “the surplus or excess.”

All this was included in my intentions as I edited the work – to implant Shagar’s radical foundation into the Religious Zionist world, with the understanding that this may be the only possibility for its revival.

  1. Can you tell the story of how you left Har Etzion and came to Rav Dreifus?

I had begun studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion where I learned for two years, completely immersing myself in a life of Torah. Nevertheless, during that whole period and especially after my entering the army, I felt like the Torah I was learning had become secondary or incidental to my life.

I’ll be more specific. The Torah offers great assurances for this life. Rebbe Nachman describes this “double portion” (pi shenayim) in several teachings. However, the musar and religious books (seforim) that I was studying did contain the elevation and tension as promised in the texts that I was beginning to explore, but it was not being taught to me.

I felt emptiness and disappointment. It made no difference how hard I attempted to learn Torah, even with a totality akin to the manner of Hasidut (in its original sense), I still never tasted that “God is Good”(Psalm 34:9). I want to emphasize that I have never sought any type of spiritual experience. I have only sought an elevation in my life of faith, such that the Torah would be a catalyst to challenge my religious life through unexpected magnitude and elevation.

During my army service, began to feel like very little stood between me and pursuing a life outside the Torah world. Truthfully, it made me very sad. So when I finished my service, I really didn’t know what direction to take. Back to Har Etzion? Somewhere else? My sense at the time was that there were no other places for me outside Har Etzion, so I had resigned to return there and basically to wait for the flickering flame of Torah to die out.

Yet. three years earlier, I had been present for one single shiur of Rav Shagar’s – a fact that changed everything for me. I didn’t understand a single word he had said and actually his lack of charisma left me with a sense of discomfort. Nevertheless, for some reason as I sat in this shiur I knew with certainty that I was going to be his student. It’s that experience that brought me three years later to stand at the doorway of Yeshivat Siach, the yeshiva of Rav Shagar and Rav Yair Dreifus.

Rav Dreifus greeted me, sitting me down for a conversation that I remain grateful for until this day. As we spoke, I described to him my feelings of emptiness and disappointment with my studies until then. That I had not found my place in the Beit Midrash. Rav Dreifus lowered his gaze and told me how he completely understood all the things I was describing. However, he asked that I try Yeshivat Siach for one month. If it did not work, then he would give me a blessing to pursue a life outside of the Torah. Nevertheless, he was certain, so he claimed, that Rav Shagar would change my life – which is indeed, what happened.

In retrospect, I believe that what changed my life was encountering the radical core, which Rav Shagar made possible. Not a radicalism in the sense of radical content like the Torah of Ishbitz or Rebbe Nachman. Rather, the radical quality of religious existence. A quality found in the teachings of Rav Shagar.

  1. Why is the passage from Rav Shagar’s, “Remnant of Faith (Shaarit HaEmunah)” describing faith as “excess” or “surplus” so important in his thinking and in yours? 

This question is at the foundation of my entire book and touches on something essential in the thought of Rav Shagar. I contend that our faith today exists in a modality of “what remains”, or surplus.

Various scholars describe our period as “post-secular”; a period in which religion and religious faith have found their way back to the center of the stage after the secularism of modernity. Nevertheless, this faith comes after secularism. It is not the same religion and knowledge that once was dominant in the world, taken for granted, and at the core of human identity. Rather, what we are talking about today is a religiosity that has appeared in the world even though God had already died in – a religion that has appeared as a ghost.

The post-secular age does not mean that people who were discrediting religion and scorning faith are now suddenly donning tefillin, observing Shabbat, and praying for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Rather, post-secular means that people are sobering up to the reality that for some reason the project of secularism did not necessarily succeed. What was thought to be a reliable solution, ended up leading to the stubborn return of a repressed religiosity.  After science and technology completely dominated the reality of life, and after the smoke of the chimneys of Auschwitz and Maidanek, religious faith should have faded into nothingness – and in some ways it did. Nevertheless, we find that it constantly remains, though in a different form.

Today, accord to Rav Shagar, faith is present as “a psycho-theological symptom of unexplainable stubbornness”. It is in this spirit that one can read the works of Rav Shagar. They were written in the state of being of the Tribe of Dan, the tribe that according to tradition was comprised of the stragglers who traveled toward the rear in the journey from Egypt to the Land of Canaan. The rabbis of the Talmud teach that the tribe of Dan collected all the stragglers and all the lost items of the tribes that proceeded them in the journey. One might say, the tribe existed in a modality of “what remained”; of “remnants” – a “remnant of faith”.

  1. What does it mean to be “Orthodox but not Orthodox”

This expression “Orthodox but not Orthodox” is an expression of Rav Shagar’s from his essays, “On Translation,” “Multiple Worlds,” and “In the Doorway of Academia”.

In these essays, Rav Shagar tries to conceive of a religious existence that is not wrapped up in the attempt to guard an object of faith as an object. For just as one tries to guard that object it slips from the hands of the believer for any variety of reasons: outside influences, the evil inclination, secularism, and other various forces.

Rav Shagar attempted to describe a believer who does not guard against anything. He wrote, “[This religiosity] is in tension with the impulse within religious society to “guard [or keep]” the [observance of the] kippah, prayer, tzitzit, tefillin, etc. – an attempt to change religiosity into something artificial, lacking a spine and independence, which is one of the reasons for spiritual superficiality within the religious community. Religion that conceives itself as a manager in a battle for survival is a religion that lacks roots and depth”.

If this is true, then who is the believer who does not guard against the object and objects of faith? Rav Shagar envisioned a believer who regards these deeply imbedded objects as a type of “remnant”. That is, they are not elements added to the believer’s life, but rather are elements that are impossible to erase from his experience. No matter what he becomes, they remain within him. This is a believer who sees faith and the commandments as a surplus of his being, and as such, they are constantly present, wherever he goes. Therefore, the verse states, “For what great nation is there that has a God so close at hand as is Hashem our God whenever we call upon Him?” (Deut 4:7).

Even when the believer passes through experiential contexts (outer and inner) that reject religion, he remains entirely religious. He is not a particular type of religious person – he and the religious experience are one.  As Talmud Kiddushin speaks about a scholar for whom the Torah is “his Torah” – that is to say, there is no space between him and Torah/Faith.

Here Franz Rosenzweig’s idea comes to mind: “The word believing does not here mean a dogmatic self-commitment, but a total obligation embracing the entire person. In this sense, the heretic too can be a believer, and the Orthodox an unbeliever.” (Letter to Rosenheim)  The nearness of the subject to faith causes faith to include also its negation in the lack of faith, though faith remains ultimately inerasable. Elsewhere, Rosenzweig portrays the authentic religious person as both “disbelieving child of the world and believing child of God in one” (Star of Redemption 297.)

If this is so, a religious existence stands before us that is gripped by faith and the commandments, but does not grasp them. This is the difference between the Orthodox and the “Orthodox but not Orthodox.” The Orthodox grasp the objects of faith as objects, while the “Orthodox but not Orthodox” are gripped by them, and they do not release him.

Parenthetically, from a psychoanalytic perspective, this religious existence is in opposition to the usual tune of religious believers, the tune of persistent fear of loss of the object of faith.  Think of it as a fear of a castration (one formulated by Freud, the father of secularism) of the guarded object: faith. This fear of castration emerges because this religious perspective conceives of faith as just another object to be grasped. There is a fear of losing the additional object, which in reality does not belong to the individual in the first place.

Rebbe Nachman would refer to this relationship between this kind of believer and the object of faith as “another thing”. Faith becomes another thing, another object, which I grasp very tightly so that it does not slip away or disappear. I must present a claim of ownership. From this perspective, religion falls into an uncompromising and violent fundamentalism. Opposed to that relationship, Rav Shagar suggests another possibility in which faith exists as “a bit more” – an excess. Not as another object but rather as something extra in my being. This is a faith that does not work to guard itself because, in any event, it exists.

The difference between an existence that grips and an existence that is gripped seems at face value to be small and insignificant. The generational struggles between the various Jewish denominations – liberals and conservatives – have left us with the mistaken perspective that the place of meaning from a religious perspective is in political questions of “yes mechitza” or “no mechitza”, the position of women (yes or no), and many other things that distract us from questions of greater significance.

Definitely, there will be a political difference between the Orthodox and the “Orthodox but not Orthodox”. But this difference is less important than the essence of their different points of relationship to the world in general and to the religious world in particular.

  1. How is the Torah a doorway to God in the postmodern age? How does Rav Zadok haKohen fit in?

From a certain perspective, I think this question might be leading us in the wrong direction. The basic assumption of the question is that the Jew requires a doorway in order to enter towards God. This assumption is founded on a particular theological conception and I would go so far as to suggest that the Jew has no need for a doorway because he is already there with God. In this sense, the Torah is not a doorway, rather it is something else that sustains our religious existence. The question is whether this “something else” is unique to the Torah or not. I don’t think that Torah is the only doorway – but for me it is the most meaningful one, and in that sense it is singular.

I will explain, having already arrived at a postmodern perspective. An individual is not a singular coherent existent or being, developing from the inside out. Rather, being is decentralized and begins from without.

The individual and the world are composed of many “letter permutations” (according to the language of Hasidut) of a symbolic order. These permutations create a system of identity for the innerness of the subject. [AB- Lacan argues that the subject is “the subject of the signifier”.] The individual is a creation of discourses and utterances, which compose who he is. In connection to our subject, we can say that faith in God is not born from the recognition or experience of the subject, but rather comes about as a result of the discourses and realities from which a person is composed.

As Jews the matter is clear to us because first of all, God has a name and he is identified with this name. Secondly, faith as a name is engraved into our bodies – through circumcision; and even more so, through our origin. As the verse states, “My people, upon whom My name is called” (Chronicles II 7:14).

Faith, the divine encounter, is within the very letters that sustain our being as Jews. This is the deep essence of Hazal’s statement, “Israel – Even if he sins, he is still Israel”. God and faith in God are not concepts – Name and names are engraved in the Jews existence.

The Torah for me is not a doorway, it is a language, a discourse – the words and names that are bound to my body. As Levinas’ writes concerning this point, the Torah is “the first words, spoken, words that had to be spoken in order to give meaning to human existence, and these words were spoken in a form open for interpreters to reveal their deeper dimensions”(Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo by Emmanuel Levinas). What is the meaning of Levinas’ statement here? What does it mean that the Holy Scriptures are “the first words”? Is this a historical statement akin to “the Torah proceeded the world”? Or let us ask further: Levinas states that the Torah is what imbues life with meaning. Does he mean essentially that the Torah is the reason for the creation of the world? Anyone who is familiar with Levinas would know that is not what he means to suggest. What he means is that consciousness in the religious dimension anticipates reality from an analytical and not an historical perspective. The religious dimension is ascribed a priority over reality, over “what occurs”. As Jews, the religious dimension is placed before our own existence. It is engraved within our origin.

This is addressed in the second part of your question concerning Rav Zadok. He is one of the thinkers who reflects deeply on this issue of faith as “name”. For example, his beautiful statement in Tzidkat Hatzaddik: “The essence of Judaism is in the calling of the name Israel”. It is a radical statement. The essence of Judaism is the very naming of a person as Israel. Judaism is not keeping the commandments, or faith, or beliefs. Rather, only my being “ba’al shem”, having the name of Israel.

  1. What are “tzerufim chadashim” —new letter permutations?

“New letter permutations” is a concept that Rebbe Nachman (and following him Rav Shagar) dealt with at great length. Rav Shagar believed that religious language has the capacity to change its permutations, the way letters can be rearranged. Primarily, these permutations can interweave themselves and jumble themselves, creating new permutations and fashioning new vessels for the divine presence in this world.

And so sometimes language that is misconstrued as flawed or confused may in actuality be a new type of vessel, one conveying a different divine presence in reality. In his writings about these emerging permutations, Rav Shagar spoke about new and provocative religious images, ones that cause us to reconsider the assumptions we hold with regard to what we consider religious or not. In the same vein, Rav Shagar also experimented by integrating philosophical and scholarly modalities into his own Torah study, which he shared with his students.

“Letter permutations” is a concept from classical Kabbalah teaching that the individual and entire world are composed of letters. In the words of Rebbe Nachman, “Everything contains various permutations of letters through which everything comes into being”. The Kabbalah scholar Yosef Avivi claims that one of the Besht’s main innovations to Lurianic Kabblah was that while Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) spoke of divine sparks of light that are scattered throughout existence bringing everything to life, the Besht spoke of scattered letters.

For example, the Admor Ha’Zaken (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady) writes in Sha’ar Yichud Ve’haEmunah concerning the verse in Psalms (119: 89), “Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens”. He cites the Besht who explains the verse as, “The words that you spoke.”   Is the “heaven in the midst of the water” (Genesis). The words and the letters of the Torah stand firm in the heavens and are forever enclothed in all the heavens giving them vitality.

Unlike sparks of light, every letter is different. A reversal of their order can cause changes in meaning and bring about dissonance. When the inner order of the letters is arranged optimally the inner life force corresponds. But when that order is flawed, then, in the words of Rebbe Nachman, “they are mixed up into alternative permutations”. That is to say, the words create a different unique type of life force, thereby forming the matter into something different. This is important to note because I think we are wrestling with something of great depth.

In the classical Kabbalistic concept of sparks of light, the flow (shefa) of divine light remains identical in every moment and place. Only the garment changes. That is to say, the sparks bring life both to the world of holiness as well as to the world of impure shells (klipot). A spark forever remains a spark, for light is light. The divine flow (shefa) of letters is essentially different. Not only can the letters change, the life force itself can also change. If a flaw is present in letter permutations causing them to be mixed up and disrupted, then we have a damaged divine flow (shefa). There remains the divine flow (shefa), but it is damaged. The dichotomy between perfect divine light and damaged shells (klippot) is shattered. After the innovation of the Besht, the divine life force itself can function flawed, mixed up and disordered.

If we push this just a bit more, we can see that before us is an analysis of religious language more generally. Religious language can exist in a flawed way, yet nevertheless function as a religious language. According to Rebbe Nachman, it still conveys divine flow, but of “shattered letters”.

We can apply these concepts in describing the religious subject as composed of permutations of letters, only now the letters are creating an “identity fusion” making the person one with them.  The subject’s own permutations of letters may create a sense of disorder and confusion, yet do not fully prevent the person from being a vessel for the religious divine flow. Perhaps this the situation for the “Orthodox-non-Orthodox”, who knows?

  1. How does the Torah have infinite deconstructive meanings? What are we looking for when we create new Torah?

There is a letter attributed to Nahmanides entitled, “Discourse on the Inner Meaning of the Torah”, in which he responds to a student’s question: What is the inner essence of the Torah?The Ramban’s answer is surprising. We would think that a kabbalist like the Ramban would answer that the inner essence of the Torah was some type of mystical experience. But the Ramban chooses a different path.

For him, the inner essence of the Torah is the fact that it is without vowels, for, “if the Sefer Torah included vowels it would have a limit and a measure (like things of matter have known forms) and it would not be possible to interpret it except according to the particular vocalization of a word. But because the Sefer Torah includes multiple possibilities of meaning and because in each and every word there is an abundance of connotation, it was composed without vowels, permitting its maximum interpretation”. That is to say, the essence of the Torah is that it is composed without vowels, creating the need to return to interpret and to bestow meaning.

Afterwards he comments: “Always pursue her, and be concerned over what you do not understand and happy with what you do understand. For thus it is written, ‘It is no empty thing for you’ (Deut. 32:47). The Torah is not empty beyond its simple meaning. The Torah has a soul that God breathed into it, and this soul is its essence. If you find emptiness in the Torah it is only on account of your own short comings, as the verse states, ‘It is no empty thing for you”.  As the rabbis have interpreted, if it is empty, it is on account of you.”

In other words, the essence of the Torah and what defines its soul is its constant shedding of signified reading of the signs. Therefore, this essence, that which is the “root and essence of faith,” according to the Ramban, is not some specific content but rather its structure of linguistic dynamism.

For the Torah commentator, Rabbi Bahye ben Asher, this issue is even more pointed:

The Sefer Torah is composed without any vowels in order to allow each individual to interpret in a way that he desires. Letters without vowels can carry multiple intentionality and be divided into several sparks of light. Thus, we do not vowelize the Torah, for the meaning of any word with vowels is limited to a single matter, but without vowels, many wondrous and awesome things can be inferred.

The Torah as an unvoweled text invites a multiplicity of interpretations, issues, intentionality, and differentiations. To vowelize and punctuate the Torah would constitute a type of violence against the text, constricting it in the direction of particular understandings and definitions. Vocalization reveals itself as an attempt to domesticate and tame the savage creativity hidden within the restless text of the Torah.

Another Kabbalistic-Hasidic tradition related to the vocalization of the Torah describes the Torah as initially composed of a “mound of unarranged letters” (“tel shel otiot”); Or, in the language of the Ba’al Shem Tov, “All the words of our holy Torah were jumbled in a mixture.” Only later was the Torah separated into words when it came to earth: “The meaning of its order – according to the ways of the world”. This description of the Torah as being founded on a mixture of letters (or, more intensely, a “ruins of letters”, which is what tel actually means), suggests that there is something within the Torah that stands in tension with the meaning we ascribe to the Torah; in tension with its meaning and understanding. In other words, the heart of the Torah is [in the language of Lacan] an enigmatic signifier, a “mound of letters”.

The truth is that these traditions that touch upon the text of the Torah are related to the questions you asked previously. When I speak about the “name Israel” or about the names and syntactical elements that are engraved in my being, I can understand it two ways. Either as a signified particular verbal definition, which one could refer to as a Haredi perspective: a perspective that suggests that it possesses the specific understanding of the substance of the “name Israel” already with assigned vowels and vocalization.

Or, and in contrast, in the spirit of the esoteric sages I referenced, it’s possible to see that the name “Israel” does not in fact possess assigned vowels and vocalization. The name requires every individual to come and give it vocalization and meaning – a vocalization and meaning that the name constantly shakes off because the Torah does not permit itself to be ensnared by specific meaning. The Torah constantly creates tension with regards to the existing vocalization. That is to say, the name Israel creates a type of fundamental tension that demands a solution.

Of course, a more radical possibility exists, in which this name that appears as a “mound of letters” may also be a destructive foundation that has played out in the lives of Jews– both religious and secular – destroying all frameworks, destroying all that one thought he or she understood about this life.

The non-esoteric Torah considers anything that rejects or challenges its immutability as a something bad that a believer must guard against and resist.  However, the Kabbalist, person of secrets, internalizes that the Torah enforces itself, even the elements of destruction within it. The mixture and jumble are present in the very heart and structure of the Torah.

In one of the chapters of my book dealing with the Torah as an unvocalized text, I cite Freud in the introduction to the Hebrew edition of “Totem and Taboo”:

Anyone reading this book cannot easily place himself in the spiritual position of the author, who doesn’t understand Hebrew and is totally alienated from the religion of his forefathers…but who nevertheless never denied his belonging to his people and felt that his essence was Jewish and never sought it to be otherwise. Were they to ask him: What yet remains Jewish within this, considering you have given up on connection with your people? He would answer: A great deal remains, apparently – the essence.

Freud has no connection at all to the religion of his fathers, he is alienated from the national ideals, and nevertheless he feels that the essence of Judaism is within him. He is unable to know what it is and he is incapable of explaining it – but he is a Jew. He is a Jew even though his Judaism completely contradicts his identity: the identity of a Viennese scholar without religious (or any particular context), a man of the entire world.

Freud’s Judaism is nothing other than a disorder – a mound of letters – rejecting his identity.

He embodies what we could call “The Non Jewish Jew”. Judaism is present as a subversive foreignness within the Not Jewish. Therefore, it is understandable why Freud wrote his introduction in the third person. It was impossible for him to have written it in the first person because it attends to the stranger in his world. Following the emergence of a “remnant of Judaism”, he becomes a stranger in relation to his own self.

  1. Why is Franz Rosenzweig so important for today?

Rosenzweig’s personal story, out from which his ideas emerge, enables us to build anew the religious world as “what remains”. Rosenzweig lived within an assimilated family, far from Judaism and actually quite close to the Christianity of his friends’ lives. And yet through the arch of his life, he experienced a return to Judaism.

What is so interesting about this return is that it never erased his perspective as an assimilationist. He had returned to a Judaism that had dissipated and yet nevertheless remained. Rosenzweig was never a returnee (hozer ba’teshuvah) who gave up on the fundamental experience of his life without Judaism. In some sense he never gave up on the “death of Judaism” all the while returning to it. He possessed a “remnant of faith” (as discussed in question 3). He never disregarded the “Death of God” even while God penetrates into his life. This dimension in Rosenzweig’s thought, found primarily in his letters, contains great contributions for those of us trying to sustain a religious, post-secular experience.

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Rabbi Eliezer Sadan (Rav Eli Sadan) – His Hands Remained Steady

There is a trend of Americans rabbis going to Israel for a few weeks and upon return exclaiming: “how come we don’t have a Rav Shagar world here? Think of what our educational institutes would look like.” They imagine that Religious Zionist institutions, rabbis and youth are following Rav Shagar. It is somewhat akin to an Israel visiting Drisha, Mechon Hadar, and the 92nd St Y, then proclaiming that the lectures he heard are what is being preached by the RCA-OU.  In actually, one of the leading intellectual influence of the Religious Zionist world is Rabbi Eli (Eliezer) Sadan (b. 1948) the architect of the religious military preparatory programs, Bnai David, which in turn became a model for the others. There are many other important figures including the heads of the yeshivot. I am offering this blog post as somewhat of corrective. (I will correct any errors as they are pointed out.)

Eli Sadan

In 1988 , Rabbi Eli Sadan together with Rabbi Yigal Levinstein set up the first pre-military preparatory program, Bnei David  in the community of Eli Shvat Shomron , which encouraging them to serve in combat units and officers. Rather than studying Talmud at a Hesder Yeshiva or going straight to the army, the yearlong program in the preparatory program get the the HS graduates for success in the army and a religious Zionism world view.

Sadan was a paratrooper and then studied for 15 years at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva , where he studied for 15 years under Zvi Yehuda Kook and Rabbi Zvi Israel Tau. His worldview is basically part of the world of the Yeshivot Hakav, that avoid secular culture, avoid academics, and would reject everything the liberal Orthodoxy of Israel represents. This yeshiva world has been aggressive in the placement of their graduates and the average school principal or teacher is a product of his worldview.

More significantly, the graduates of the preparatory programs have entered in large numbers the military and command echelons of the Israeli government including the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad Intelligence Agency, the ISA (Israel Security Agency – Shin Bet) and the State Prosecutor’s Office. This ideology has become part and parcel of the current Israeli leadership

Rabbi Eli Sadan major work is His Hands Remained Steady (2001, reprinted in a new edition 2013) [Hebrew] is an essential book to understand todays religious Zionist work. A translation is a desideratum. His work is easy to digest and quite lucid.

I am summarizing the book to let my American readers understand the backdrop against which Rav Shagar and all the New Religious Zionists are working. I am not interested in discussing the political implications of this work, which are more significant than can be imagined. Please do not start sending me emails of your political views. I am interested in his view of Judaism.

The main purpose of Sadan’s preparatory program and of his teaching is to mediate the tension between the ideal Torah view and the requirements of the State, the government and the army (described here in a prior post by Elisheva Rosman-Stollman). To do this, Sadan invests the government and the army with messianic import as the realistic arm by which God’s providence takes place, similar to the kings in the Bible. The two other related goals is to apply the messianic teachings of Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook to the politics of the last 25 years as well as decrying the there media, liberals, the arts, and academic as entirely false and the enemy of religious Zionism.

In his vision, there is never a heresy in the authority of the state. Religion and Torah scholars define democracy. Unlike like Rabbi Tau who teaches that one can disobey orders. for Rav Sadan, one is not to disobey orders.  In Rav Sadan’s conceptualiztion, the basic values of secularism and non-Merkaz Torah are the individualism of self-realization and fulfillment of personal desires. (This would condemn Rav Shagar.) In contrast, the ideal Religious Zionist knows they are part of a collective messianic destiny.

The approach has come into the news recently with their condemnation of the LGBT community, his attacks on accuses the army’s Education Corps as trying to “re-educate” religious soldiers, and with Rabbi Yigal Levinstein’s condemnation of women in the army.  On a broader level, some critics feel that his disciples are attempting to create a religious army and establish a halachic state.

Rav Dreyfus, the head of Yeshivat Siah Yitzhak carrying on Rav Shagar’s legacy, stated in an offhand biting comment that most Religious Zionist Jews are only interested in the ideas of Minister of Education Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) and not those of Rav Shagar. In 2016, Bennett awarded Rav Eli Sadan the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievements. The summary of the book below will explain his importance and the connections.

The most important chapter is chapter four where he defines democracy as the collective work of the Jewish people to realize the messianic vision. He is against any form of minority rights, civil rights or liberal democratic principles. Additionally, since the government is like the kings of ancient Israel, he affirms Divine right of Prime Minister and he thinks the military police advance humanity. The message is that the current state is the Divine presence on earth and we have to study the current events through Torah eyes. This is a very strong exceptionalism outside of all secular and liberal understandings of politics and in which everything in the world and in Israel revolves around religious Zionism.

It is worth comparing this pre-millennial dispensation model to the Evangelical versions in the United States  or the anti-liberal democratic Muslim thinkers. How does this compare to American dominionists like pastor Hagee or Islamic democrats like  Yusef Al-Qaradawi. My own interest is what does this make of the Jewish religion? Torah study, prayer, ethics, and mizvot take a back burner to realizing the millinarian vision. One should compare this Torah to other recent formulations of Torah, either spiritual or intellectual conceptual.

eli sadan

His Hands Remained Steady

Rabbi Eli Sadan major work is His Hands Remained Steady (2001, reprinted in a new edition 2013) is a ten-chapter book that includes his own ideas, expositions of the classic positions of Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook and Rav Tau, and question and answers on contemporary issues. One can hear in the background the original setting as lectures to eighteen year olds. One should note that the Hebrew word Emunah is translated as steadiness (as in Exodus 17:12), not faith, belief, or trustworthiness.  The goal is to remain steady in the messianic vision. I acknowledge again that this book is quite political but my interest is in its pre-millennial dispensations of current event and its vision of Torah. I apologize in advance to all those will offended by reading this ideology, but it should be better known.

Chapter One is an educational vision on the importance of understanding our Messianic age; we need to study inner process of history as known through the writing of Rabbbi Zvi Yehudah Kook, Maharal, and the forged Kol HaTor ascribed to the students of the Vilna Gaon. We have to devote ourselves to studying this order of redemption and then to actually sense it in our lives. We also need to see where current events fit into this pre-millennial dispensation scheme. Once we know the meaning of history, then we respond without vigilante actions or personal overstepping of the state, we respond with nerves of steel, and with a self-sacrifice for the entire people of Israel.  You will notice how far this agenda is from those of the past that stressed Talmud, halakhah or Jewish thought.

Chapter Two is on loving every Jew. But there is a strong paternal and judgmental sense of the need to love them even if they go to movies, watch TV, and go to theater, all of which destroy and make their souls impure. The removal of these cultural deviations is as important for our messianic future as settlement and security. Nevertheless, the non-religious are our brothers in building the state even if they are leftists, especially since many of them have left have done good things for the state at earlier points in their lives.

In this chapter, he also sets out that baseless hatred destroyed the Second Temple, it was not destroyed   because the Romans defeated the Jews militarily. Our success today is through all working together- religious and secular. When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai asked for Yavneh and her sages, he was not a pacifist or accepting political realism as often preached, rather he knew the baseless hatred of brothers was going to lead to the downfall of the Temple.

The Religious Zionists are being falsely accused as an act of baseless hatred of killing Prime Minister Rabin, but that was a political, not a religious, act. Besides, Oslo was terrible.

Finally, chapter two brings up a theme that reoccurs often in the book that all Arabs and all Palestinians are terrorists who teach their children to be martyrs. They are entirely outside of the State of Israel, which is only for Jews as their messianic destiny. (For more on this see later chapters, especially on what he calls democracy.) He does acknowledge that we all know fine Arabs who are decent people in the sense of “some of my best workers are wonderful Arabs.” Nevertheless, his negative generalizations stand in his mind.

The Third Chapter is on the ideological battle his students will face. For Sadan, there is no freedom of thought in Israel because the left controls everything. Liberal pluralism is entirely wrong and nonsense. We need truth and justice of the Torah to be stressed in the public sphere. Pluralism is not tolerance but against truth and the Torah. For example, didn’t Bibi Netanyahu’s  “Terrorism: How the West Can Win”  1986  already prove that all Palestinians are terrorists but this truth does not matter to the Israeli pluralists and the media who ignore the truth.  Bibi’s book becomes part of the secrets of the redemption.

Chapter Four is the major innovation of the book and the most theoretical chapter offering his view of politics and democracy. I would assign this chapter to a class to understand his views. For Sadan, democracy means partnership (shutafut), a partnership of Jews only. For him, the original meaning of democracy of the Greeks was only a polis of Greek citizens they excluded others. Fpr Sadan, Jewish Israelis don’t and should not accept the liberal democracy of minority rights at all. Nor any other Western ideas of democracy. Rather for us, democracy means that since the coming to be of the Jews as a political nation in 1948, we are to work as one nation, a partnership of all Jews and we will agree to work out of differences by political means despite our differences.  We are the nation of Jews as a state and no longer just the Jewish people.

This is where Sadan makes effective use of questions and answers.

Question: But isn’t much of our agenda religious coercion?

Answer: Absolutely not! Coercion is only when you throw rocks at car on Shabbat but if we decide as a people that a law is needed as a nation for the nation then it is not coercion. Liberals think that there should be civil marriage to avoid coercion but it would break up the nation with potential mamzerim and non-Jews.  Hence, is not coercion because the law is needed or else it would break up the nation, the partnership. Even though the Knesset has atheists and anti-religious members they are all nevertheless working for the Jewish people and we listen.

The liberal world would claim such a law is not moral because it violates individual rights to make decisions but we as Religious Zionists have no interest or concern with being an American style democracy. We are a democracy only in the sense that we collectively work out the destiny of the Jewish people as a collective.

In fact, Western democracy is really religious coercion because I am put upon and have to tolerate decisions against my beliefs. In contrast, our democracy is working out the best for the people and they should be strong and accept it.

Question: Should we have a king? Answer: This is a debate of Maimonides and Abarbanel, but we restore a king only if and when the people want it and they do not want it yet.

There is no objective media. They are biased against religious Zionism. The left stirs up the other nations against us. The media supports our worst enemies.  Their ideas are dead. They are like the woman in the book of Kings whose baby died and claims the others baby as her own.

Question: What do we do if the Torah contradicts the state? Answer: The ethics of the Torah comes first, that is why the prophets often rebuked the king.

Chapter Five is on the need to learn Emunah meaning steadiness. We need to see clearly the stages of the unfolding of redemption from the 16th century to today, and how our politics is miraculous.

Question: Aren’t we mixing religious mysticism with topics that should be approached rationally and as human events? Saying the “dawn of the messianic age” make me worry!

Answer: The concept “dawn of the messianic age” is not mystical or nebulous but is exactly defined. It is the removal of our subjugation and living as a free people. It started as a miracle in 1948 but is now a natural process. We follow a natural political process. When we say that this is the dawn of the messianic age it is to not evaluate the state now as a messianic state, rather it is on steady on how it will be in the future. You cannot call the prophets of Herzl mystical. They were rational and so is our vision.  (150)

Chapter Six is on the holiness of the State. The building of the state is a mizvah of Torah. The centrality of inheriting the land is the pillar of the Torah. Statements in the Bible such as being a “nation of priests”  or “one nation” and all other statements are about nation building. The whole Torah and its very essence is about state building.  The State of Israel is God’s presence on earth.

State building is a supernal holiness in the eyes of all the nations. It is also a rebuke to the Christians who stole our scripture and gave it a different meaning based on the claim that God left the Jews.  Everyone in the world will see how God keeps his promise to return the Jews to the land.  There is an inner sublime holiness to the state guided by the spirit of God. Yet we still see its human faults.

Question: But isn’t Israel a secular state with secular leaders, how is it divine? How do we work with secular if our goal is holiness and the presence of God’s spirit?

Answer: It still has Torah values, since (1) Most even secular Jews want Jewish values (He quotes newspaper surveys to prove this.) (2) We are confident that in time everyone will return to religious observance (3) Their inner soul and their decisions are part of the divine plan for the coming to be of the state even if they don’t consciously know it.

Question: But arent security, economics, health, transportation and other governmental departments secular realms and you make them sacred? Maybe we should separate the holy from the secular?

Answer: This is true about every other nation but Israel, which is not to be treated like other nations like France or the USA.  We are not a state in the Western liberal sense. We are a holy nation and a kingdom of priests living according to a divine promise. We don’t want to rule others either by Jihad or religious mission, like other nations, but we just want the fulfillment of the biblical promise to the patriarchs. We are the unfolding of the messianic age. I even dress for a religious holiday on election day because I rejoice in our becoming a nation.

Chapter Seven is the importance of honoring the State in all its branches as fulfilling the Biblical promise. Responsibility toward maintaining the public sphere is holiness. “The military police advance humanity” because they create a presence of the state. Providence is shown in through the natural workings of government.

Chapter Eight is on the possibility of tensions between religious Zionism and the State. He answers that there are not any tensions if everyone is working for the collective. The Prime minister should be treated as an angel of God; he is like a king of ancient Israel given by God. There is a divine right of prime Ministers as God’s chosen leader. We are not to change what most people want.  We need to pray for the success of the Prime Minister.

Chapter Nine presents the need for protest when governments go against God’s will and the need for rabbis to act as prophets to stand up to the Prime Minister the way the prophets stood up to the Biblical Kings. Sadan does not go into details.

Chapter Ten is the capstone of the book on how redemption is making itself manifest. He considers the use of rationalism as limited to what is now seen in the country, but emunah –steadfastness is the firm knowledge of the future, an optimism that the vision will be realized.. We believe in evolution not just in the physical realm but also in the realm of the spirit and the meaning of life. For us the evolution is the Jewish national revival to create a Jewish state. The state building is an inner redemption by natural means.

All of humanity will be raised by means of the Jewish nation. We are approaching the end of history when  God will be revealed to the world in the nation of Israel.

We should not hasten the redemption and take it into our own hands by individual action outside the government. The Jewish underground in the 1980’s of Gush Emunim did not fully recognize the importance of the State. One should not go against the state because (1) It is easier to break than to build, the state army and the concept of citizenship cannot be broken. (2) When you break things, you also destroy the positive forces. (3) You are not truly grappling with the problematic and impure when you destroy rather than raising it.  (4) We don’t want anarchy.

Redemption is a natural process, arising from free will. When we do what is right, God will help us.

Question: Is Zionism faith or rational?

Answer: The authors Amnon Rubinstein, Gadi Taub, and long ago Yehoshafat Harkavi all wrote books about the Settler’s movement and Gush Emunim  in which they each portrayed religious Zionism as irrational dreamers and a religious faith. They all wrote that the settlements are against rationality, against security and against what the state needs. They presented the settlers as chasing an illusion of messianic mysticism.

However, everything they say is complete nonsense. The Settlers are entirely rational. The country was founded with Divine guidance and miracles. We are destroyed as a nation if we do not see this country as an unfolding of redemption.

Question: Doesn’t the messianic vision make us do immoral acts and then legitimates these actions in the name of a higher holiness. Aren’t we like radical Islam?

Answer: This is also nonsense. This question is only from a lack of understanding. Yigal Amir was political and Baruch Goldstein was worried about attacks against Jews. You cant compare us to other religions, in that, we are all ethics, love, compassion, justice and uprightness. They In contrast are crusades, inquisition, programs, and Holocaust. The entire process of redemption is the victory of the good over the bad.

Interview about Reb Dovid Din with Rabbi Eliezer Shore

At the end of the 1970’s and start of the 1980’s there was a moment of Neo- Chassidic counter culture in NYC. The list included Reb Shlomo Carlebach, Reb Zalman, Reb Meir Fund and the Flatbush Minyan, Reb Aryeh Kaplan was teaching at his home in Kensington, and Reb Dovid Zeller formed the Network of Conscious Judaism. There were Ruach Seminar retreats, the Caldron restaurant by Marty Schloss was a frequent hangout, and Rabbi Meir Nissim (Michel) Abehsera gave classes on Torah and macrobiotic diet.  There was also Jeff Obler who had a weekly radio show Yedid Nefesh & a Center for Young Jewish Artists trying to bring all this to a wider audience. Lex Hixon, the universal Sufi of Tribeca ran a  universal Mosque and had a radio show featuring many of the aforementioned teachers on his show. One of the unique teachers of the period was Reb Dovid Din offer of classes in Manhattan & Brooklyn who died at the age of 46 in 1988. (Bear in mind that for other seekers, this era was the NYC of CBGB’s, Patty Smith and the Ramones.)

ruach-din
(Reb Dovid Din)

According to Eliezer Shore, Reb Dovid Din himself had come to Judaism late in life. At first, he had been a student of R. Shlomo Carlebach, living for a while in the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco. Afterward, he studied at Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld’s yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv in Far Rockaway. He was also a student and friend of Rabbi Zalman Schachter, though he differed with Reb Zalman regarding Orthodox practice and commitment. After leaving Sh’or Yoshuv, he moved to Boro Park and gathered a small cadre of talmidim around him. There are almost no essays of his that remain. There were, at one point, hundreds or recorded lectures. (A number of his students are attempting to track down any remaining tapes and digitalize them. If anyone has tapes of R. Dovid, they should please be in touch Reb Shore.

Rabbi Eliezer Shore was one of his closest students whose life was transformed by Reb Dovid. Eliezer Shore narrates his life as having grown up in a secular, Jewish home in Great Neck, NY, and attended Sarah Lawrence College majoring in religious studies, and minored in music and the performing arts.  He engaged in an intense spiritual search, which took him to England and Scotland, over mountains and into Zen monasteries, and eventually, to a small cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. In 1982, he met Rabbi Dovid Din and became one of R. Din’s closest students for the next four years. Shore obtained Rabbinic Ordination and a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from Bar-Ilan University with a thesis on language  in the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Since then, Shore has taught at numerous institutions around Israel. Most notably, the Rothberg School at Hebrew University.

For many years, Shore wrote articles for Parabola, published by The Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition a not-for-profit organization devoted to spiritual quest and the dissemination and exploration of materials relating to the myths, symbols, rituals, and art of the world’s religious traditions.  Recently, he  collected the best of these pieces, as well as a number of stories that he wrote — both original and retellings — and personally republished them in a single volume, called The Face of the Waters: Chasidic Teachings and Stories for the 21st century.  Available on Amazon and Createspace (20% discount with Code:  TVASZVMW.)

For those who want a few more sample pieces of Shore’s writing, then see his writings page and especially this short account of his spiritual quest and his application of the writings of Rav Zadok Hakohen of Lublin to education. If you like his writings, then buy his book or better yet, hire him as a freelancer for your journal (dont offer less than .40-.50 a word.)

This account of the relationship of Reb Dovid Din and Reb Eliezer Shore is quite a story of spiritual quest and devotion to Reb Din as a saint and Chassidic Zaddik. Shore recounts how Reb Din taught him that “Torah is a spiritual discipline. It is a practice that requires intensity and concentration no less than any other practice or meditation. I saw how he put avodas Hashem over everything; his money, his time, his health. Rather, these other things simply did not take up any authentic space in his life.” Din also taught Shore how to relate to the Haredi world:

Don’t ask from them more than they can give, and don’t give them more than they can take.” In other words, appreciate what the haredi world has to offer in terms of commitment and piety, but don’t ask them to discuss Buddhist philosophy with you! And don’t offer them that either, since they do not necessarily have the tools or interest to deal with it. In other words, don’t lose yourself there, either. Be true to that other part of yourself, and keep it separate

The psychologist Erich Neumann called the Zaddik, following Carl Jung’s terminology, a mana-personality, the archetype of the ideal integrated saint. Yet, Shore’s account shows that Reb Din was not integrated as much as single focused. Reb Din’s mystical fasting is worth comparing to the literature of holy fasting of mystics starting with  the two 1987 books on the topic: Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast as well as Rudolph M. Bell’s Holy Anorexia.

For those who want to know more about Reb Din, there was a 1984 interview with Reb Din himself by Howard Jay Rubin On the cover is a picture of Reb Dovid together with Reb Eliezer. More recently, there was an article by Shaul Magid of his own reminiscences of Reb Dovid Din, which is definitely worth comparing to this account There are also radio interviews with Reb Dovid Din from the Lex Hixon Show In the Spirit available for purchase.

Reb Dovid’s yarhzeit is next week 25 Tammuz. In commemoration, Reb Eliezer will give an online class: “The Fluid Soul: Everyday encounters as a setting for enlightenment. A class on Hasidut in memory of Rabbi Dovid Din”. The class will be this Sunday, at 12pm EST. They can watch it on Facebook Live: https://www.facebook.com/eliezershore or participate by signing into Zoom by computer or by phone. Here is the link info: https://zoom.us/j/176930764
Or iPhone one-tap (US Toll): +16465588656,800218559#

I never met Reb Dovid Din nor attended any of his teachings, although I knew he was teaching since he came up in conversations. However, Reb Din was studying mysticism at Fordham University at the time of his death. When I arrived at Fordham the following year form my doctoral studies, the other students in the mysticism program asked: Am I also like the Rabbi Dovid not looking at women by staring at the floor instead? According to them, he was working on a dissertation connecting esoteric Christianity to Kabbalah as having a common essence.

(Update- Yes, Reb Dovid’s son is Shulem Deen. It does not play a role in this blog post. So, I originally left it out. However, I am compelled to add the connection in this updated note since a swarming number of people, more than I thought, felt an urgent need to contact me in their belief that they were informing me about that point.)

One final note before the spiritual journey of this interview. Notice that during those years the goal of outreach Judaism was to give spiritually and compete with the other spiritual teachers. Unlike later decades, where the goal was to offer a good lifestyle, family values and communal heritage. The goal was for ultimate meaning in life, not conservative moral order. This was looking for a path of spiritual discipline, not the current self-indulgence and isolationism of American Neo-Chassidus. For those who want more first person accounts of the era, see David Zeller’s The Soul of the Story: Meetings With Remarkable People  who presents a story that includes his meetings with Gurus and Swamis, and the classic Ellen Willis essay about her brother, Next Year in Jerusalem.

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(Front row of teachers from right to left: Dovid Din, David Zeller, Shlomo Carelbach, Meir Fund. Back row, man without jacket behind Fund is Eliezer Shore.)

Interview with Rabbi Eliezer Shore about Reb Dovid Din

  1. How did you met Reb Dovid?

I met R. Dovid in the spring of 1982. I was a senior at Sarah Lawrence College, in New York, taking a course in Philosophy of Religion. I was at that point majoring in Eastern Religions. Throughout the semester, we met various religious figures – Buddhists, Christian Monks, Sufis. One night, we traveled into Manhattan to hear a famous Rabbi speak at a synagogue in New York. It turned out to be R. Zalman Schachter. I had never heard of R. Zalman before, or even had any particular interest in Judaism as a spiritual path. My parents are both Jewish – my mother is a Holocaust survivor – but they both abandoned any religious affiliation they had after moving to America, and my connection to Judaism was little more than nominal. I had been searching for spirituality for several years – since I was twenty – and practiced Buddhist meditation, martial arts, wilderness survival. I was studying Japanese and had plans on traveling to Japan or entering an American Buddhist monastery after graduation.  However, it was also around this time that I felt an unusual stirring in me toward a relationship-based form of spirituality, what I understand today as a shift from a non-theistic to a theistic view of G-d.All of this was still very latent, and it was actually R. Zalman that evening who opened the first door.

I don’t recall the details of his lecture, but I believe he was speaking about the importance of approaching prayer as a personal expression. He illustrated this with an exercise. He told the entire audience to rise and put their feet together “as if” they believed in G-d. Then he told us to hold our hands “as if” we believed in G-d. And then he said to us “Now, if you believed in G-d, what would you say.” At that moment, I found myself praying for the very first time. It was a powerful experience. However, as much as I appreciated the exercise, I wasn’t particularly drawn to R. Zalman’s form of presentation, which was a bit to showy for me.

After R. Zalman finished, another Rabbi stood up. He was tall and thin, had long peyot, wore a long hasidic coat and a round flat hat, in the style of Yerushalmi hasidim. But when he spoke, it was with an Oxford English. He eloquently explained why he disagreed with R. Zalman, why prayer is not merely a matter of self-expression, but a discipline that one must follow, like any spiritual practice. That the words of prayer in the prayerbook pull a person out of themselves and put the focus elsewhere – on G-d, not on the self. His voice was rich and sonorous, he gestured gracefully as he spoke, and there was an air of holiness around him. This was Rabbi Dovid Din, and meeting him that night was certainly one of the turning points in my life.

There is a saying among spiritual seekers: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears,” and I do not think it could have been more true. I was in total shock when I saw him; for I heard from him everything I had been looking for in Eastern religions, though in the garb of an Orthodox Jew, with G-d at the center of presentation. I was mesmerized.

After the lecture, I went up to him to ask him a question, and from close up, he was even more frightening. R. Dovid was a true ascetic, and it reflected in his gaunt face, his threadbare clothing, his unkempt peyot. At the same time, the light that emanated from his face and eyes was astounding. I was certainly not the first to be drawn to him. R. Dovid was a magnet for spiritually seeking young men and women. Thus, when I approached him my question, he knew that he had a “live one” on the hook, and was not going to let me get away so easily. Even when he turned to address someone else, he made sure that he kept his hand on my shoulder, so that I didn’t run away. (I should note that over the next year, as I slowly became observant, I wanted to run away many times, but was unable.) Afterward, he invited me to his weekly class on 21st Street in Manhattan.

Actually, I did not reconnect with him until the next Fall – he went to Israel for the summer, and I continued on my Buddhist trajectory, working as a camp counselor at Japanese summer camp in the Catskills. Actually, even when I started attending his classes, I was still investigating various Buddhist monasteries around the States. It was not until things came to a critical turning point that I changed my direction. But that is another story.

2) How did you become his student?

It is an interesting story how I became his student. As I mentioned previously, I first met him on a class trip. I took his phone number and even called him for a meeting some weeks afterward. However, he was not available then, and soon after, he and his family traveled to Israel for the summer, so he wasn’t available at all.

Even though I was very impressed by him and wanted to keep up the contact, I was still deeply involved in Eastern religions, both in terms of practice and study. In fact, in the month after I graduated college, I spent the first week doing sesshin (an eight-hour a day meditation retreat) at the Zen Community of New York , run by Bernie Glassman Roshi. Afterward, I spent a week in Washington DC at a martial arts center practicing Kung Fu), and then a week learning wilderness survival in the New Jersey pine barrens, with Tom Brown – a famous survivalist. After that, I worked the entire summer as a camp counselor in a camp for Japanese children in the Catskills. I was studying Japanese at the time, and was one of the only American counselors there.

It was during that summer that I decided that I would enter a Buddhist monastery full time when summer was over. When I returned to my parents’ house, I contacted several Buddhist monasteries around the US. At the same time, I started attending R. Dovid’s weekly classes, and speaking with him privately. One day, in early autumn, I received a letter from the Zen Mountain Monastery in Woodstock, NY, inviting me to join their program. I could meditate half a day, work in their food shop in Woodstock half a day, get room and board and even $100 a month. Paradise! What more could I ask for?

The same day I received that letter, I went to R. Dovid’s class. After class, he called me over: “Eliezer,” he said. “I know that you want to get out of your parents’ house and immerse yourself in a fully spiritual environment. Well, we are opening an outreach center in Manhattan, called ‘Sha’arei Orah: Gates of Light,” where we will be giving weekly classes, communal meals, etc. We need someone to live there and be the caretaker. Maybe you would like to do it.”

I was in shock. In one day, I received two invitations to deepen my spiritual practice and commitment. One, from the path I had been following for several years, and the other, from a new path offered to me by R. Dovid. I didn’t know what to do. I went up to the monastery for a couple of days and found it a beautiful place, but when all was said and done, I realized that I couldn’t follow that path, that I had to return to New York to become Reb Dovid’s disciple. I even discussed it with the monastery head – John Daido Roshi – and he was very encouraging. “Follow the path of your heart,” he told me.

Reb Dovid knew of my visit to the monastery, and when I returned to New York and told him that I had decided to commit myself to being his student, he gave a knowing smile. I imagine he knew that he had me the entire time.

Ironically, the offer to live in the New York Center never materialized. Soon after, we learned that it was forbidden for anyone to live in the building – which was an old synagogue – due to zoning laws. So that offer never actually panned out. However, at that point, I had already decided on my path, and wasn’t going to change it.

I should also point that I didn’t automatically become Torah observant at this point. The prospect actually terrified me, and I fought it fiercely. I rented an apartment in Queens, and maintained some distance from Reb Dovid’s community. Many times, I felt that I had to run away, though I never could. There was a deeper force pulling me in, which I could not deny. Eventually, after about half a year of struggle, I took on Torah observance and moved into the apartment next to the Din family, and became Reb Dovid’s secretary and assistant. I lived there for the next three years, until I moved to Israel.

3)  What did you learn about the Spiritual Path from him?

This is a difficult question. On the one hand, he changed my life in myriad, unthinkable way. On the other hand, it was a long time ago, and much of what I learned has now become integrated in my life in a way that I am no longer as aware of it as when it was new. It’s also become combined with things I have subsequently learned, so that I’m not sure what comes from him, and what I added on my own later. In addition, I am no longer the same person I was back then. My drive for spirituality and devekut has mellowed. I’m not on fire for it, as I once was, and as I remember R. Dovid to be.

But let me find something… The obvious thing is that he brought me close to Judaism, to Torah observance, “under the wings of the Shechinah.”

More specifically, I learned from him that the Torah is a spiritual discipline. It is a practice that requires intensity and concentration no less than any other practice or meditation. I saw this in R. Dovid’s own life, and, like many other things I learned from him, it wasn’t only a verbal communication, but the result of real teacher-student apprenticeship. I saw how he put avodas Hashem over everything; his money, his time, his health. And yet, it wasn’t like there was a contest between these things, or any tension. Rather, these other things simply did not take up any authentic space in his life. I’ll mention something that Shaul Magid, who was a student of his before I came around, experienced (and wrote about in an article). He was traveling with Reb Dovid somewhere by plane. Dovid used to pray for a very long time. It turned out that because of Reb Dovid’s lengthy prayers, they missed the plane. However, Dovid didn’t flinch at all. He didn’t even show any regret. It was like nothing had happened. Because, after all, how could one compare catching a plane to praying to G-d. The latter expresses one’s commitment to ultimate reality, while the former is just a transient event. On another occasion, I once saw Reb Dovid put himself in a life-threatening situation, all in order not to transgress a Jewish custom – not even a halacha! This is how he approached every religious act – Torah study, charity, mitzvot. It’s the idea that serving G-d is more important than everything – than life itself. Obviously, this wasn’t always so easy for his family, but it was extremely inspiring for his students.

On another note, I also learned from him how to navigate in the haredi world. On the one hand, he taught us to deeply appreciate the haredi world for its strong points. We prayed each Shabbat at a Hungarian synagogue – Krasna hasidim – sort of an offshoot of Satmar. The congregation were simple, pious and deeply committed Jews. This appreciation of the average haredi individual, whether they are hasidim or litvaks, working people or learners, has stayed with me until today. There was never any criticism of “Oh, well, they are too religious, or not worldly enough, or too backward.” I think that this also connects to the earlier point – of putting G-d in the center. When serving G-d is at the center, then one doesn’t fault other individuals for not being worldly. Worldliness is one path to serving G-d, appropriate for some people, but simple faith is a path that everyone can travel, and should be appreciated.

At the same time, he taught me not to forget myself. Not to try to fit in or reduce my own past and values to some rather constricted haredi model, as I have seen many ba’alei teshuva try to do – at least at the beginning, until it usually backfires on them. (The truth is, I did this too, but much later, in a different context.) I recall R. Dovid telling me a statement that kept me in good stay for many years. When I first started going to yeshiva in Israel, he said: “Don’t ask from them more than they can give, and don’t give them more than they can handle.” In other words, appreciate what the haredi world has to offer in terms of commitment and piety, but don’t ask them to discuss Buddhist philosophy with you! And don’t offer them that either, since they do not necessarily have the tools or interest to deal with it. In other words, don’t lose yourself there, either. Be true to that other part of yourself, and keep it separate.

I think that above and beyond any of these things, the main thing I learned from him was not in the realm of content – one teaching or another – but of context. What it’s like being in a deep, loving relationship with a spiritual mentor – the idea that two souls can join in absolute commitment to the pursuit of something that transcends both of them. I know that in other religious traditions, Christian monasticism, for instance, total devotion to the spiritual mentor becomes an avenue to the total devotion to G-d, and I felt something like that here. I can imagine that people get scared when they hear the terms “total devotion” and “selfless service” of another individual. It sounds like a cult, and I’m sure that cult leaders can manipulate these feelings. But when it works, as I felt that it did for me, one’s life become framed within a context of humility, service, love, giving and selflessness.

I learned many things from R. Dovid. The path to G-d through silence, introspection, honesty, compassion, deep listening to oneself and others, selfless service, love, giving, patience. All of these things have made me who I am today.

4) Can you describe one of his classes?

  1. Dovid’s classes were brilliant. He was a masterful teacher. His oratory style was slow, clear, delivered in an Oxford English and with a rich vocabulary. At the same time, he told personal stories and humorous anecdotes. He was a keen perceiver of human foibles, and would often jokingly discuss traits and actions we all take that are less than enlightened – always including himself in the description. I recall that he would weave myriad points into his classes, discussing an issue philosophically, psychologically, historically, and ultimately, he would tie it all together by showing the Kabbalistic root of the issue, which brought the discussion to an entirely new depth and shed light on all the previous elements together.
  2. Dovid gave several weekly classes – as well as occasional lectures here and there in different forums. When I first started attending, he was giving one class a week at a synagogue on 21st Street in Manhattan. Soon afterward, he opened an outreach center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, called Sha’arei Orah – Gates of Light, where he taught several nights a week, and hosted all sorts of events. That lasted for about two years, until the center closed down. Afterward, he began teaching in the Village, downtown. His classes were attended by spiritual seekers of every religion, and not just Jews – people of all ages and denominations.

He had, however, a core group of close students, such as myself, who lived near him in Brooklyn. Several of us rented an apartment right next door to his, in Boro Park. These were young men and women who had committed themselves to Orthodox practice. At one point, he started giving us private classes on a deeper level than what he was teaching in public. Many of these classes, as best as I remember them, were deep analysis of fundamental issues in life and Judaism: What is the enlightened consciousness, what is the deepest purpose of the Torah, what is a human being? I remember coming out of these classes totally blown-away.

I don’t recall any specific path of study appointed by Reb Dovid. I learned a lot of hasidut, went to yeshiva half a day and studied Talmud. In addition, I worked my way through all the mainstream seforim – Chumash, Tanach, Midrashim, etc. Reb Dovid was always studying, which was a big inspiration to us. Reb Dovid studied a lot of Breslov hasidut. He wasn’t a Breslover, but was very close to R. Nachman (in personality too, it seems). If people needed to label him, he would say he was a Breslover, but it was only nominal.

5) What did you discuss with him?

One of the most powerful things that drew me to Reb Dovid, and which I remember vividly until today, was the fact that he was a genuine mystic – in the sense of someone who is having a direct, experience of G-d. It was simply awe inspiring to be around him, especially when he prayed. He would go into a sort of trance. His eyes would roll up into his head half-way and go completely blank, losing all light and life, as though his consciousness had retreated from the empirical world and was totally absorbed inwardly, in some immense and mysterious space. In Hasidic terms, he was in a state of total self-annulment. Then, when he would come out of prayer, there would be a sparkling light emanating from his eyes, as though he had just emerged like water from a crystal-clear spring. Furthermore, he was not only a master of entering deep states of self-annihilation, he was brilliant enough to understand and explain what such states of consciousness meant – for the individual, and for the cosmos, for G-d.

I have met and seen many holy people and tzaddikim since being a student of R. Dovid’s, and I have seen some examples of ecstatic prayer — I once saw the Amshinover Rebbe pray the Amidah, and his entire body shook like electricity was pulsing through it. However, I have never seen anyone who seems to go to that place where R. Dovid used to go to.  He used to tell us that when one learns how to enter these states of consciousness, it could be done as easily as flicking a switch. When I once asked him, “What are you doing when you go to that other place?” he replied, “I’m removing the distinction between me and G-d.”

In the four years I was with him, I accompanied him to several interfaith gatherings, where there were teachers from other religious traditions, as well as recognized and accomplished mystics (Christian contemplatives, Buddhist teachers). None of them seemed to come close to R. Dovid in the depth of his experience, not to mention his brilliance and piety, his eloquence and his poetry. More than once, I saw spiritual teachers from other traditions approaching him and asking to learn from him. Everyone understood that this was a human being whose consciousness was not rooted in this world, but rooted in G-d, was for me absolutely awe inspiring.

6) How long did you study with him?

Altogether, I studied with Dovid for about four years. When I was 27, I accompanied him to an interfaith conference in France, and from there, to Israel for the summer. The plan was for me to study in a yeshiva for a few months, and then return with him to New York, where we were going to open a Jewish retreat center in the Catskill Mountains. I was going to be the caretaker during the week, and Reb Dovid and his family would come up on weekends to hold meditative and silent retreats. However, it didn’t exactly work out that way. I became enchanted by Jerusalem and extended my stay through the holidays, and then extended it again, and then again. In the end, I remained in Jerusalem for two years straight, and during that time, Reb Dovid became sick and passed away. He was only forty-seven years old.

In retrospect, however, I think it had become time for me to move on. I had actually gained all that I could from Reb Dovid’s teachings, and needed to devote myself to full time yeshiva study. Unfortunately, I never learned those meditative techniques for achieving devekut that he wanted to teach me, but I manage to absorb his overall approach to Torah, which has been with me ever since.

I’ve also had the good fortune to be connected to other great chasidic teachers – R. Yaakov Meir Schechter of Breslov, R. Tzvi Meir Zilbergberg, R. Mordechai Zilber of Stutchin, R. Yochanan Shochet of Lutzk. However, as I mentioned above, I never met anyone like Reb Dovid, nor have I ever since had such an intense teacher-pupil relationship. I imagine that in many ways, I am carrying on his work, trying to bring the teachings of authentic Jewish mysticism out beyond the border of the Orthodox community. When I teach classes in Jewish mysticism to the young people at Hebrew U., I feel like I am speaking to myself forty years ago, and I recall the impression that Reb Dovid made on me back then. It’s very fulfilling.

7) Did you feel that you live up to his teachings?

There are two areas that I do not feel that I have lived up to Reb Dovid’s accomplishments. For instance, his absolute commitment to the smallest iota of halacha and ritual observance – to the point that he was ready to die for it. For the many years that I was single (I married at age 37), I was certainly strict in halacha. However, after marriage, I found it impractical, and did not want to burden my wife and family. I recall making a conscious decision not to be strict with them, which resulted in an overall lenient approach in my life.

The second area is in the contemplative dimension. I have never been able to go to that place of self-annihilation that I believe Reb Dovid went to. That was a unique, and perhaps unparalleled aspect of his soul. I do feel, at times, that I know which side of the room the “light switch” is on, and I have even dimmed the lights a couple of times, but I’ve never learned to flick the switch off completely, as he was able to.

I think of Reb Dovid often, and miss him each time I do. Everyone who ever met him was touched by his personality, and those of us who were fortunate enough to be his students were transformed forever. I am in loose touch with some of his old students, and we speak about his influence over our lives with a freshness that has not been dimmed by the thirty years since his passing. He was truly a unique individual.