Rav Shagar and Secular Studies: On Translation and Living in Multiple Worlds

What did Rav Shagar think about secular studies? He answers in a twenty page, 7000 word homily on Hanukah On Translation and Living in Multiple Worlds.  – go read the 20 page essay.  I provided a guide to the essay below to be used alongside the original text.I  planned on posting this essay the week for Hanukah already in August, without connection to the recent spate of free floating op-eds about the idea of a Rav Shagar. If you have not grasped his vision yet, this 20 page essay is one of the best places to see what he is trying to achieve.

We have once again to thank Levi Morrow for his translation of the essay. Please let me know of any errors. (For links to our more than 18 prior posts on Rav Shagar,  see herehere. here, here, and here.) As an important side point before you start the essay. If you were looking for an Orthodox postmodern theology, then the Sephardi Algerian thinker Rabbi Professor Marc-Alain Ouaknin wrote such a work twenty years ago, The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud (Princeton University Press, 1998). Rav Shagar is not that; see my excursus on Torah Umadda below.

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On Translation and Living in Multiple Worlds

A Sermon for Hanukkah

Shagar starts his homily as follows. The Chanukah candles are placed in the doorway between one’s home and the outer world, which for Rav Shagar means we cannot retreat into the safety of our homes of just having Torah. In Shagar’s view “we have no choice but to exist in the space between inside and outside, between identity and strangeness.

The homily works with the Chanukah tension between the Hellenistic Greeks and the Jewish world of Torah. Shagar assumes that “to Jew” and “to Greek” are two fundamentally different attitudes to life. His question is: how to bring the two together? He offers (1) Rav Kook’s idea of translation, (2) Rav Nachman’s personal grappling with the evil klipot of the haskalah, in which he distinguishes between idolatrous language and holy speech. and (3) his own view that we are all now Rav Nachman and we are all now required us to decent into klippot.

Rav Shagar claims that the “wisdom of the Torah and the wisdom of Greece, along with the holy language and Greek language, were originally clear and distinctive signifiers.” Over the course of history” they no longer “signify specific languages or books, rather ways of learning and existing. Greek wisdom, therefore, is… able to exist even within the walls of the traditional Jewish study hall.”

The term “Greek wisdom” changed over the course of history to the term “external wisdom” which is knowledge that lacks the intimacy of “being with itself,” and at its source is an objectification of the knowledge. Hence, the conflict [between Torah and Greek Wisdom] does not have to focus on the context of the wisdom or the language used, but on intimacy and personal identity, the intimacy and identity that are the eros of the wisdom.” A distinction between “wisdom that is beautiful and effective, but lacks all passion and intimacy” and “a wisdom overflowing with meaning and intimacy, a revelation of existence and substantive content.” Notice that the term Greek wisdom could just as well apply to Torah, or Torah uMadda, while Torah as the wisdom of existential meaning that touched one’s identity may apply to any wisdom.

Rav Shagar on Secular Studies

I will start with his own opinion before we return to how he used Rav Kook and Rav Nachman. He says Rebbe Naḥman’s guidance toward naiveté and simplicity does not respond to our form of life.” Further,  Rav Shagar applies Rav Kook’s bold statement about spirituality to secular studies: “anyone who does not suffer from spiritual descents has no chance of religious ascent.” There is danger in this decent “but only this descent-endangerment can lead to ascent.” He seeks a decent into secular studies for the sake of religious ascent.

Rav Shagar thinks that we have to accept the inevitable and acknowledge that we live in multiple cultures and not fight it with sectarianism by blocking out the wider world of knowledge. “For better or worse, we are citizen of multiple cultures and we live in more than one world of values. We are not able to deny this situation, nor would we deny it if we could. Denying it would be self-denial, leading to deep, radical injury to our religious faith itself.”

Rav Shagar thinks that the confrontation with the Greek, even in Israel, is not at the university level but already from an early age via the media, literature, and our culture. “We therefore need a substantial religious-spiritual-Jewish alternative.”

Rav Shagar is firmly against the bifurcation of religion and secular into compartmentalized identities, like that of Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz who opened “an unbridgeable gap between them; he would never bring them together. Leibowitz lived with a contradiction.” Instead, Rav Shagar wants everything to reach “his subjectivity or personal identity.” In contrast to compartmentalization, Shagar wants the Religious Zionist soul to live “not in one world but in many worlds, which it likely cannot integrate. It does not compartmentalize them -Torah versus labor, faith versus science, religion versus secularism- but rather manages a confusing and often even schizophrenic set of relationships between them.”

In his essay: “My Faith: Faith in a Postmodern World” Rav Shagar suggests that the believer in modernity such as Rav Soloveitchik and Yeshayahu Leibowitz live in what he calls a “two-world approach.” “This approach establishes a boundary between the internal and the external, between one’s faith and the world in which one resides.” He argues that this worldview is  “at its core [it] is an attempt to fend off modernism’s criticism by isolating faith from the world and its values.” Within this modern worldview, “faith is not perceived as a substantive assertion about reality.”

However, in his view this “belief” in knowledge and its bifurcation from faith has collapsed, and in its wake much of what modern Jewish theologians taught, including Rav Kook, has now become “obsolete.” Not obsolete as a subject of study but obsolete as that which can adequately inspire a religiously devotional life today.

I will quote fully a paragraph of what Rav Shagar envisions as way of offering clear contrast to the modernists or Torah uMadda.

A new type of religiosity has therefore developed nowadays, one that cannot be defined by its location on any graph; it is scattered across many different (shonim), you could even call them “strange” (meshunim), centers. This religiosity does not define itself with the regular religious definitions, but enables a weaving of unusual identities, integrating multiple worlds- in a way that is not a way. [Rav Nachman of Breslov] presents a deep personal faith that, in my opinion, carries the potential for religious redemption. Where does this capacity for integrations and combinations come from? Answer: that very same deep personal faith. This faith is not faith in something, rather an act of self-acceptance. It recognizes a deep core of covenantal eros, which enables the freedom to translate and to make integrations, combinations, and connections that our fathers never dreamed of making.

A person accepts their thrown situation of life embracing it fully to make new integrations and connections, however strange or disjoined they seem. It is not located by any one rubric rather similar to Gilles Deleuze’s ideas of rhizome or  chaosmos, it avoids categorization.

To this base, Rav Shagar returns to his core ideas of seeking faith through accepting life in its complexity.

The existence of faith is not dependent on some sort of faithfulness of a given individual, because its roots are much deeper than the consciousness of its bearers. It is present as a fact, and this gives rise to the covenant. Only thus can a person accept his faith and his way of life, a necessary condition for the novel religious phenomenon we are suggesting.

For him, faith is not an assent to doctrine or affirmation of halakhah, nor is faith a Hasidic  or Rav Kookian “essence that a person discovers after removing all the excess, superficial layers around his true, stable identity.” Rather, for him, faith is “a leftover excess that a person cannot remove or digest, which destroys “dichotomies and definitions of identity, readying them for encounter and creation.” Reframing Rav Kook’s essentialism using the Lacanian term of remnant (not in its original meaning) he thinks our innate inner Jewishness still exists despite not having a stable definition or identity.

Compare the milquetoast bifurcated cognitive idea of Torah uMadda to Rav Shagar’s vision below of his ideal as ecstatic, primordial depths, and psychoanalytic.

Ecstatic and multivalent figures are sprouting up before our eyes, and they cannot be located at any one place in society, for their faith comes from a much deeper place, from times gone by. This faith is a remainder, a psycho-theological symptom manifesting as inexplicable stubbornness, as a willingness to be on the losing side of the world simply because “this is who I am and this is who I want to be,” without conscious justification… [It is] the harmony of an individual with who and what he is, without locking himself into a specific identity; he can be who he is, whoever that may be.

I will add that self-acceptance opposes attempts by a religious community to enforce observance of yarmulke, prayer, fringes, phylacteries, etc. These attempts makes religiosity forced, cowardly, and alienating, one of the causes of the spiritual superficiality of the religious community. A religion that sees itself as at war for its survival is a religion without depth and roots.

Instead of this religious enforcement, Shagar wants “a religious reality overflowing with eros. “I am who I am, which is the innermost aspect of the highest will.” He associates this eros with a dimension described in Hasidic texts that exists “beyond and in excess of its meaning.” Ḥabad discourse says that this dimension “cannot be named, nor alluded to by any extraneous detail of the conventions of language at all.” He concludes the essay stating that this is about self-revelation. “This is not the type of identification that compares the concrete manifestation of a person to a picture, symbol, or idea that exists “outside,” beyond him, but the revelation of the person as he is, without any “beyond” – this is me.”

I jumped to the last part of the essay first in order to present his view of worldly knowledge. I will now return to the other parts of the essay on Rav Kook and Rav Nachman.

Rav Kook: Greek Language on its Own

I was once at a major Israeli academic conference of Jewish studies that allows open submission of proposals. In one of the sessions devoted to Rav Kook, there were papers on his mystical diaries, his kabbalah, and his rejection of secular studies for his closest followers. There was also a paper by a clueless American frum attorney who presented on Rav Kook’s Torah uMadda. The audience did not receive his paper well.  Afterwards, he complained to me when he returned to his seat about all this misplaced focus on mystical and pietistic nonsense, when we know that Rav Kook was a modern Torah Umadda Jew, as presented by Norman Lamm in his book of that title. The attorney grumbled: how could Rav Kook be against secular studies when that is not the way he is presented in the English works he read?

This is part of a wider misreading of Rav Kook in American Modern Orthodoxy as less haredi than he was, and it certainly does not take into account his explicit instructions to his close students to minimize secular studies. More importantly, it ignores the historical trajectory created by his student Rav Moshe Tzvi Neriah who forged a committed core of Merkaz students already in the 1950’s who avoided secular. And it ignores that the interpretations of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook by his son Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook are totally against Western culture. This view of Rav Kook as anti-secular studies is the approach of Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva is what Rav Shagar is responding to in his talk.

The Rav Kook text that Rav Shagar choose to look at was given at “the inauguration of the Mizrahi movement’s study hall (beit midrash) for teachers, during Hanukkah 1932. In the talk, Rav Kook cautioned against external knowledge but language, even conceptual language, as a means of expressing ideas.

 Greek language on its own and Greek wisdom on its own” (Bavli, Baba Kamma, 83a). We see that the main intent was to distinguish between content and style. Greekness as wisdom, as a worldview – harshly injures holiness, profanes it and defiles it. Greek language, however, the language in terms of its expressive capacity, in terms of how richly it describes things – this is an entirely different matter. In the latter, there is no clash between the contents of frameworks of beliefs and ideas. Rather, only an external improvement, which in and of itself does not make contact with or impinge upon internal matters […]. The content we need not accept other than from our holy Torah […]. This is not the case when it comes to style, to the external beautification of things […].

Rav Shagar presents Rav Kook as delineating a boundary between using the Greek as the content and the container, between the medium and the language. For him, “Greek language on its own and Greek wisdom on its own.” a rabbinic phrase “means that the emptying of the light of Torah into the Greek container cannot damage and change the light of Torah, but it is capable of contributing an external improvement, which does not make contact with or impinge upon internal matters.”

Shagar presents Rav Kook as allowing the tools of Greek culture, meaning Western culture writ large. “These tools are, for examples, the tools of the academy – the reflection of research, philological and historical investigation, philosophical, literary, and linguistic richness, which Rav Kook was not afraid to make use of in writing his inspirations.”

In this statement, Rav Shagar rejects the approach of Rav Tau and the Yeshivot HaKav, a breakoff from Merkaz against all secular influences, including influence of modern educational psychology, historical and philological tools, and modern approaches to the study of the Bible.

Rav Shagar then works with Rav Kook’s text to come closer to his own view of seeking personal meaning. Rav Kook asserted in his book Eder Hayakar that the thinking individual can be trusted in his personal searches for truth.

Any idea or thought that comes from research, investigation and critique in its own right, in its pure freedom, could never come to evil, not in the general faith shared by all straight of heart and knowledgeable people […] nor in the foundation of eternal Israel and its connection to the God of its strength […]. Only an evil heart, a licentious heart […] is what causes all the disturbance. (52)

Rav Shagar says that Rav Kook’s

 thought should be seen against the background of the Hegelian understanding according to which the spirit clarifies itself and advances by way of reflection. The spirit, which is the Jewish jug of oil, clarifies itself by way of Greek language, which examines it from an external perspective, investigates it, gives it definitions and conceptual characteristics, but does not defile it internally. According to his position, the problem of Greekness only appears when we try to import an “idol” into the temple of God, meaning the content itself, attempting to integrate with the wisdom of Greece.

Notice both the historicizing of Rav Kook as seeing the theory as spirit (geist) which is crucial for Rav Shagar’s declaration that in our era is the end of Hegalian thinking and its needing to be replaced.

But Rav Shagar also notes and does not develop that Rav Kook thought that sometimes universal ideas needed to be translated and embedded in Torah. In Rav Kook’s case, he thought the ideas of freedom, nationalism, and universal morality needed to be translated into Torah. For Shagar, there are elements within Existentialism, psychoanalysis, and post-modernism that have to be translated into Torah. But the same way, Rav Kook is not trying to write academic essays about Hegel and Schopenhauer or even worried if he is reading it correctly, Rav Shagar is not concerned with the secular fields of philosophy or psychoanalysis.

Rav Nachman

The second position that Rav Shagar looks at is the anti-intellectual position of Rav Nachman. Notice that Rav Shagar did not choose to consider the more intellectual or more cultural positions about secualr studies of of Maimonides, Vilna Gaon, Hirsch, or Reines. He chooses Rav Nachman because he wants to create a path to a deep relationship with God using the secular.

In contrast to Rav Kook, Rebbe Naḥman of Bratslav identified any external wisdom or Greek knowledge as a deep threat and attacked those who connected the two. “Someone who, God forbid, learns books of research and philosophy introduces doubts and heresy into his heart […] therefore we do not find any person who was made fitting and God-fearing by books of research.”  (Sihot Haran 5) Rav Nachman “exhorted his devoted followers toward naiveté (temimut) as a way of life.” Rebbe Nachman proclaimed:“Fortunate is one who does not know at all from their books [=of research] and only goes naively… It is wisdom and great service to be like an animal,” meaning naiveté and simplicity.”

Rav Nachman limited the study of the world only to the true Zaddik. “In truth there is a great prohibition against being a scholar, God forbid, and against teaching books of wisdom, God forbid. Only the very great tzadik can enter into this.” This entering into heretical ideas is permitted to the Zaddik in order for him to extract the fallen souls that fell there into their traps, due to the knowledge and skepticism of the enlightenment.

[I am skipping over a section in the homily about language in Rav Nachman compared to Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin because Rav Shagar’s views on language deserve their own discussion.]

Rav Shagar turns to Rebbe Naḥman’s book, Likutei Moharan (I:19), where he teaches about three languages: the holy language, idolaters’ language, and the language of translation.  The first language, the holy language is entirely self –referential without any connection to the outside world as its own reality, which

 can be experienced through the practice of Bratslav or Ḥabad-style learning, with their various jargons, intuitions, movements, and deviation. This practice reveals that this is not study that refers to reality but study that itself becomes reality. It does not have an object, but rather exists in itself – existence as a Bratslav world or existence as a Ḥabad world.

The second language, the idolaters’ language of “the seventy nations” corrupts the covenant. According to Rav Shagar in his interpretation of Rav Nachman as anti-capitalist, anti-Neoliberalism and anti-instrumental, the language of the idolaters is about  capitalism, profit, and instrumentalism. “The will to conquer and control via the word leads to corrupted sexuality.” This language creates gaps between the self and world, between meaning and activity and between the individual and reality. This type of speech presents itself as beautiful, wise, and refined, but does not get to the core or a person.

Quoting Rav Nachman, Shagar accepts that “this is the language of the demon-scholar (shed-talmid hakham), who uses his linguistic aesthetics and rhetoric to create an impression on the other and dominate him via language:  (LM 1:28:1)”  Much of the cognitive gestures of American Torah uMadda would fall into this category.

In his essay on the disengagement that I posted last year, he followed this line of thinking and proclaimed that secular studies are corrupting and we have to do jihad against secular studies. But he wrote there following the idea of dispute in Rav Nachman combined with Franz Rosenzweig  that in the conclusion of the battle the secular should be integrated into a revitalized religious life.

The Third Langauge: Translation

The third language for Rebbe Naḥman is the language of translation, which is an instance of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that contains both holiness and the impure spiritual entities (kelipot), and between the holy and the idolaters’ languages. This knowledge can go for either good or bad depending on who uses it. One must eat the good of the tree and avoid the bad.  Rav Shagar when following this line of thinking, explicitly rejects the idea of a clean distinction between language and ideas. Language always unavoidably contributes something, so what language you use matters.

Rav Shagar portrays Rebbe Naḥman’s teaching on translation as effecting a change from a concrete language to a signifier of reality used to create holiness. The language of translation is born in the sin of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which is not  the wholesomeness (temimut) of the holy language. Rebbe Naḥman teaches that, from this position, it can turn in one of two ways. “It can make you smarter (maskelet) or it can make you bereaved (meshakelet), knowledge of good or knowledge of evil.”

However, it is important to note that this is not “in a meager instrumental manner, rather the translation “illuminates the letters of the holy language.” A quest for holiness.

Rav Shagar on first thought said “This seems similar to Rav Kook’s Hegelian outlook” of an eternal spirit placed in new vessels. But then, Shagar reverses and says that “Rebbe Naḥman… does more than this. It also transforms the holy language itself, changing its primary sense.”  Making him a paradigm for transforming Judaism by grappling with the ambiguity of the Tree of Knowledge.

The interesting example given by Shagar is Rebbe Naḥman’s telling of fantastic tales “of kings and princesses, fantastic lands and wondrous creatures, including giants, spirits, men of the woods, and a prince made entirely of precious stones.”  For Rav Shagar, “Naḥman’s main purpose with his stories is to translate to transport the listener to a magical, mythical, world “from the days of yore.”  Rebbe Nachman takes stories without a “Jewish or religious characteristics at all” and uses them to serve God by exposing “the listener to a world of experiences, which is entirely disconnected from the religious experience and its normal, accepted, forms in the traditional Jewish world.”

In a lecture Rav Shagar gave in 1987 about Hasidic stories, on which I was asked to speak about this past summer, Shagar pointed out that in the 18th century Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye used a ribald story from the Decameron to teach hasidut through finding a message in a adulterous story. Rav Shagar used the ribald story and its Hasidic retelling as a way to speak about the role of eros, sin, journeys, and confession as a way of meeting God. This is a good example of his idea of secular studies.  We use films, stories, postmodernism, psychoanalysis, and anything else needed to wake people up for the needed teaching of Torah.

The goal is not to discuss secular studies or post-modernism or be intellectual. The contemporary goal of Greek wisdom is for the religious seeker to be exposed to new experiences that are not part of the current religious world- such as music, art, psychology, literature, India, movies, science fiction- and use the non-religious material experience to embrace a richer experience of the divine

Appendix: Excerpt from Lecture on Lekutei Moharan I 19

In the above lecture he quoted his own lectures on Rav NahmanLekutei Moharan I:19. The quote below from Rav Shagar in the hasidic lecture is important for this Chanukah homily.

Rav Shagar asks is this activity of translation ideal? And answers that we have no choice today. But he also says that academic language is generally not the language to be used for translated, rather we should seek items something that will help the holy language of Torah bloom.

Is translation less than ideal, only for those who have fallen to low places, or is it an ideal project? This question is irrelevant for us, who have no other option; we have no choice but to translate if we want to turn the Torah we learn into a Torah of life. Every person and student must ask himself what is his place. For example, we cannot study Rebbe Nahman’s writings the same way that Rav Koenig learned them and taught them in his lectures. If we tried to do so, we would just end up with a poor imitation that misses the whole point. On the other hand, it is possible that a Bratslav hasid would not feel the deficiency of staying in the world of the Holy Language. Furthermore, we must note that not all languages external to Torah are fitting to serve as a language of translation. Academic language is not necessarily a language of translation, because it is often superficial, and constrains the Holy Language rather than encouraging it to bloom. Every now and then, there is a flicker, but in general it cannot express the world of holiness.

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Torah Umadda

A few words of his view of Torah uMadda, his relationship to the late 20th century modern Orthodox idea of studying secular studies.

TL:DR Rav Shagar is not Torah uMadda.

Shagar’s approach is not a cognitive gesture of combining contemporary thought with Torah, nor is he just another interesting book to be discussed in a once a week class in Jewish thought. Some have been forcing Rav Shagar into their procrustean bed of the familiar by framing him in American terms as just the latest rabbi in long series of formulations of synthesis of Torah and secular knowledge. He is not.  Rather, he is offering a different approach to the observance of Judaism after being straightjacketed by the ideology of forbidding Western knowledge. Shagar’s approach does not fit the usually categories of a theology of synthesis nor a humanistic model.

Another misreading of Rav Shagar’s thought reads him as a Fundamentalist position of their own device. Some Evangelical Christian theologians, such as Stanley Grenz, claimed that postmodernism supported faith in religion since it destroyed foundationalism and through it denuded the critiques of religion. Therefore, one can be a firm Evangelical believer without worrying about critiques to religion. Therefore I was surprised to see one op-ed treat Rav Shagar the way Evangelicals treat postmodernism, as if Shagar was claiming in a postmodern age we don’t worry about questions and critiques to religion anymore and can just fortify our dogmatic Orthodoxy using postmodernism.

Rav Shagar, however, explicitly said that in our age without fixed answers one has a sharp choice. Either seeks greater certainty like the Hardal in Israel who have Fundamentalist certainty, or one has to be open to new ideas and accept the new paradoxes. The old synthesis approach is not applicable in our age. There is no compartmentalization of Torah and secular.

Another way of denaturing him is to say that just like in the past there has been Torah uMadda with Neo-Kantian categories, Hegelian syntheses, and Kierkegaardian faith, now we apply postmodernism for the cognitive gesture. However, it is not so simple. Unlike Modern Orthodoxy, Rav Shagar followers can, and do, study the Yoga Sutras, Derrida, Spinoza, and Talmud criticism in the beit midrash as part of the Yeshiva seder or they can study film making or critical Bible in the University. They have changed the study hall and the religious life. They have gone places that Modern Orthodoxy never went. They go headlong into the big questions, they just dont worry about answers or resolving contradictions.

If one applied his ideas to a United States day school, then one would change one’s school to go headlong into Hasidut, Agadah, Kafka, yoga, and Franz Rosenzweig for a month instead of Talmud and halakhah. One would also bring in experts to lecture on Biblical and Talmudic scholarship, who are not engaged in apologetics. Then, after that month, return to Talmud but bring questions of 21st century meaning and values to the Talmud study.

Finally, to sum it up clearly. Rav Shagar used worldly knowledge to expand his life not create a text. He is in the person (gavra) and not a text (heftza).

The only recent current English article who understood and had insights into Rav Shagar was by Julian Sinclair, who was able to do because he spent time studying with Rav Shagar.

 

 

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