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”.


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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