Levi Morrow- Response to Miriam Feldmann-Kaye’s use of Rav Shagar

This is the first in a sequence of responses to the interview with Miriam Feldmann-Kaye about her book Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age. The second response is by Zohar Atkins- here.

The review deals with Feldmann-Kaye’s use of the writings of Rav Shagar. Morrow is pursuing a graduate degree on the writings of Rav Shagar so he has the passion of a graduate student in his vigorous comments. He rejects the ridged division of Rav Shagar into periods (such as “traditional,” “existentialist,” and “postmodern,”  Yet he still works with the division to note that an early homily based on the Maharal should not be used as postmodern, and to note that Rav Shagar has explicit Existential essays in the spirit of Sartre. Morrow points out how the book needed to update its 2002 references since the majority of the writing were published since that date. Finally, Morrow returns us the Israeli sociological meaning of postmodern as post Rav Kook’s religious national project in order to point out that Rav Shagar himself remained in the Yeshiva, taught Torah and was not aiming to be a postmodern, even when he read those works.

Levi Morrow is a Masters student at Tel Aviv University, and is writing his thesis on Rav Shagar and Franz Rosenzweig. He has translated a forthcoming book of Rav Shagar’s holiday derashot, as well as many of the teachings and poems of Rav Shagar’s friend and colleague Rav Menachem Froman. Levi teaches Jewish Philosophy in Jerusalem, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.

A Postmodern Theology from the Writings of Rav Shagar?

Dr. Miriam Feldmann Kaye’s Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age focuses primarily on Rav Shagar and Dr. Tamar Ross. Is it meant to introduce their respective theologies to the reader as examples of postmodern Jewish theology? Or is it meant to use them as resources for the author and readers’ own theologies? A close reading of the book indicates that the latter is more correct, that constructive theology takes precedence to historical scholarship.

Understanding Rav Shagar’s Context

I can’t speak to the depiction of Ross’s theology, but the depiction of Rav Shagar cannot serve to introduce new readers to his theology. The focus on Postmodernism renders it at best partial, and in some cases actually misleading in understanding the thought of Rav Shagar. A few examples will suffice.

In discussing the idea of cultural particularism and the historical conditioning of the subject, Feldmann Kaye quotes from Shagar’s Panekha Avakesh, a collection of derashot on the parashah from when he was interim Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Hakotel in 1982-83. Feldmann Kaye states:

Shagar’s conception of cultural particularism relies on a forceful alienation and negation of the self, which leads to an all-encompassing awareness of the influence of one’s surroundings. He acknowledges the strong parallels between postmodernism and hasidic introspection… With the self utterly nullified, the individual is no longer subject to delusions. She can look into herself as if she were a perfect limpid vessel and finally appreciate who she is and, indeed, the extent to which her identity and character are the result of a host of conditioning factors. (JTPA, 34; emphasis added)

However, the text she references doesn’t mention Postmodernism or Hasidism, and misses the source of the self-negation in the writings of the Maharal. Rav Shagar stresses the importance of negating the active, egoistic self, as well as purifying the self from urges and desires, in favor of a return to the “source” and “root” of the person, which enables recognition of divine truth (Panekha Avakesh, 62-63). There are many types of self-negation, and in some places Rav Shagar does connect it to the historical conditioning of individual identity and character (see, for example, Luhot U’shivrei Luhot, 52). Here, however, he’s talking about a pious duty to cleanse the self of desires and of ego in order to connect to a person’s divine source and gain a divine understanding of truth.

 I’m not of the opinion that his thought can be neatly divided into periods (such as “traditional,” “existentialist,” and “postmodern,” as I’ve heard suggested), but there’s clearly some truth to it. His early texts (and Panekha Avakesh is the earliest of his published teachings!) simply don’t reflect postmodern themes and ideas, which would make some sense as he doesn’t seem to have read them yet. Some of the same concerns may exist throughout, but the changing forms these concerns take is important. Rav Shagar talks about negation of the self, bittul, from his earliest texts to his latest. In the former, this means humility, purification of the self, and connection to the source. In the latter, it means recognizing the divine nature of the self exactly as it is (Luhot U’shivrei Luhot, 419).

Sartre and Existentialism

Another example of the value of a closer reading arises in a discussion of freedom. Feldmann Kaye discusses an essay called “Freedom and Holiness” from the book Kelim Shevurim (a lightly edited version appears in the later Luhot U’shivrei Luhot, and it was translated into English in Faith Shattered and Restored), and remarks that

Shagar guides his readers away from the existentialist idea of freedom as individual autonomy. He takes Jean-Paul Sartre to task by arguing that his understanding of the concept leads inevitably to nihilism or fatalism… Shagar takes exception to Sartre’s understanding of the self. The latter lays the burden of freedom on the individual, placing on her shoulders the onus to choose her own essence and thereby devise the ‘project’ that is her existence. Sartre saw the self as the sole arbiter of values. Shagar, however, criticizes such a conception of freedom on the basis that it leads to anarchy, and proposes instead to shift the burden for formulating truth claims onto the community… he qualifies his own version as ‘mystical freedom,’ that is, an inspired freedom derived from ‘the unity of the human and the divine’ which enables the community of Israel to shape its own set of truths ex nihilo (or in mystical terms as yesh me’ayin). (JTPA, 40-41)

The problem here is that Rav Shagar is actually aiming at a version of freedom closer to Sartre than to any other thinker he mentions, a “Sartre Plus” model rather than a rejection of Sartre (this is eminently clear from the essay, but also from similar texts such as Passover derashot on freedom in Zeman Shel Herut, 163-168, 169-178, and an essay on the self in Nahalekh Baragesh, 139-146). In the essay, Rav Shagar catalogues models of freedom, including that of the Tanakh, the Rambam, Rav Kook, and Sartre. Of all of them, Sartre is the only one who believes that freedom means the ability to create values, and this is what Rav Shagar wants to embrace.

Rav Shagar’s problem with Sartre is that Sartre, he says, thinks human creations can never be meaningful because they can never transcend their creator and gain a sense of absoluteness, meaning that a person can never commit to values that she herself created. He solves this by paradoxically identifying human creation with divine revelation. After a person creates their own values, they should paradoxically see them as divine values to which they must commit. Living a life of “covenant” (“berit”), Rav Shagar says, means seeing our freely-made choices as inevitabilities, like a person seeing their freely-chosen spouse as the only person they could possibly have married. This is Rav Shagar’s “Sartre-Plus” model of freedom.

Moreover, the emphasis on community that Feldmann Kaye sees in the essay is almost entirely lacking. The discussion of the concept of freedom in Tanakh mentions that the “subject” with whose freedom Tanakh is concerned is the nation, not the individual, and I can see Feldmann Kaye could construe that toward a postmodern cultural particularism. However, that concept is nowhere to be found in the section on “mystical freedom,” or the passages on Rambam or Rav Kook, for that matter. The emphasis is on the individual and her ability to make creative choices, and the essay concludes with a discussion of how modern man (ha’adam ha’akhshavi, which if I would most accurately translate as “the contemporary individual,” but that begs my conclusion) possesses an image of God on the level of ayin, nothingness, a liberating non-essentialism that allows them the ability to create ex nihilo.

Updating the References

On a more technical note, I want to briefly address the issue of references. JTPA is a revised version of Feldmann Kaye’s 2012 PhD dissertation, and it has been excellently converted by the publisher into a more popularly accessible book. One area that did not receive enough attention in the intervening years, however, was the references to Rav Shagar’s writings. Many volumes of his writings have been published since then, and referencing (nevermind quoting) them would certainly have enriched the book, but they are almost entirely absent (with the exception of She’erit Ha’emunah). Just to give one example, her discussions of both cultural particularlism and linguistic determinism would be greatly enhanced by Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah derashah “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” Faith Shattered and Restored,” 41-65, published in Hebrew as “Halakhah, Halikhah, Ve’emunah,” Le’ha’ir Et HaPetahim, 158-186.

Additionally, many of the references may have made sense in 2012, but the publishing since then has made them confusing. For example, there are references to “Broken Vessels, vol. 2,” a non-existent second volume of Kelim Shevurim. For someone well versed in the editors’ footnotes to Rav Shagar’s writings from before it was published in 2013, this is clearly Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, which the editors sometimes referenced as a forthcoming, expanded, second edition of Kelim Shevurim. However, for anyone not so versed, the reference is unhelpful (this also means that the correct pagination could have been tracked down, and wasn’t). Similarly, there is the essay “My Faith” which has been published twice, in Hebrew and English (Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, 407-426; Faith Shattered and Restored, 21-39), but which in 2012 was an unpublished file available only to those in the know. Feldmann Kaye’s reference to the text demonstrates just how thorough her PhD was, but the lack of an updated reference, referring to either of the essay’s two versions, is frustrating.

Is Rav Shagar a Postmodern?

By way of conclusion, I would return to more substantive issues Is Rav Shagar a Postmodernist, or a thinker who deals with Postmodernity? ( cf. JTPA, 35) He is certainly the latter; perhaps he is sometimes the former, but he is also so much more than that. It is a shame that so much of the discussion about him revolves solely around his interest in Postmodernism. He was a constructive theologian as a Rosh Yeshiva, deeply in tune with the cultural and religious shifts his community was undergoing, and he marshalled the best of the Jewish tradition and his readings of non-Jewish philosophy to respond appropriately.

As with the first example in this review based on the Maharal, there are of  many more postmodern counterexamples from Rav Shagar’s writings. In one text, he explicitly denies the ability of a person to create ex nihilo, instead celebrating the bricolage of creating something new out of something else (See She’erit Ha’emunah, 24). But that itself is exactly the point. There is so much in the writings of Rav Shagar, which are quite rich and full of theological explorations, that make it reductionist to consider them only from a postmodern perspective. Rav Shagar was a born-and-raised Kookian Religious Zionist, a Post-Kookian Religious Zionist, a brilliant talmudist, a driving force in Religious Zionism’s Hasidic revolution, an existentialist, and yes, a postmodernist as well. Appreciating all of the different voices that emerge from his writings requires care and precision, something I find somewhat lacking in Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age.

Furthermore, the matter of Postmodernism quickly becomes a question of what we, and Rav Shagar, mean by it. Tomer Persico and Alan Brill have  shown how Religious Zionist opponents of “Postmodernism” and Rav Shagar himself define postmodernism as liberal individualism. For all of them, “Postmodernism” is what comes after and/or attacks the ideas of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, a category that can include a lot more than what people typically call “Postmodernism” such as Buber, Sartre, and Rav Nachman.

It’s not incidental that Rav Shagar’s “postmodernism” is shaped by his Jewish theological context. He spent his whole life in the yeshivah system, never attending university, and was not shy about his unfaithful, ahistorical readings of secular philosophical texts: “We aren’t committed to ‘scientific,’ faithful-to-the-original, readings of Western or Eastern philosophy” (Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, 132-133).

On some level, there’s something fundamentally strange about trying to identify Rav Shagar with a given philosophical stream, while he was so self-conscious and explicit about appropriating a variety of such streams for his own theological ends. Understanding Rav Shagar requires paying close attention not to his affiliations but to his appropriations, the way his readings of non-Jewish texts constructively shape both those texts and his understanding of Judaism, “the external light and the internal vessel.”(ibid.).

JTPA is an excellent constructive work, one that attempts to delineate specifically postmodern issues for theology, and then proposes methods for dealing with them through readings of Rav Shagar and Dr. Ross. Feldmann Kaye’s call for a “visionary theology,” one deeply in tune with both Jewish mysticism and the power of religious language, is a call for us to do much the same.

Comments are closed.