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The Orthodox Rabbi Who Set Out to Turn Postmodernism to Jewish Gain

Many view postmodern skepticism as profoundly threatening to religious belief. Rav Shagar saw it as liberating and enriching. Was he right?

Rav Shagar.

Rav Shagar.

Observation
Nov. 15 2017
About the author

Julian Sinclair is an economist in Israel’s clean-technology and renewable-energy sector. An ordained rabbi, he has translated and annotated Abraham Isaac Kook’s 1909 introduction to the laws of the sabbatical year (Hazon, 2014) and is the translator of Micah Goodman’s Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism (Jewish Publication Society).


Many Israeli Jews consider the late Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known by the acronym (Rav) Shagar, to be the most important Jewish religious thinker of the past 40 years. Most non-Israeli Jews, even the well-versed among them, have never heard of him. Thanks to the recent release of Faith Shattered and Restored, the first extensive collection of Rav Shagar’s writings in English, there is now an opportunity not only to become acquainted with this major thinker but also to understand better the rapidly changing culture from which he emerged and upon which he has had a marked influence.

Born in 1949 to Holocaust survivors in Israel, Shagar was raised within the country’s Religious Zionist community—roughly the equivalent of the Modern Orthodox community in the U.S. During the Yom Kippur War, he was pulled, badly burned, from a blazing tank on the Golan Heights and nearly died of his wounds. Afterward, he taught for many years in leading Religious Zionist yeshivas, eventually taking a senior position at Beit Morasha, an innovative study center that combines traditional yeshiva study with academic research and philosophical inquiry. In 1997, pursuing an even less traditional path, he founded his own yeshiva, which he co-headed until his death in 2007.

In Israel, Rav Shagar’s writings have been influential far beyond the Religious Zionist world. Haaretz, the citadel of Israel secularism, has respectfully reviewed his work, though typically with a disclaimer to the effect that the enlightened reader will find little use for Shagar’s Orthodoxy. At the other extreme, one hears anecdotal reports that his books are widely read by Ḥaredim desperate for a more authentic, emotionally fulfilling religious faith that is not strangled by ideological rigidity.

Shagar, however, did not write primarily for either his secular or his ḥaredi compatriots. Rather, he was responding to the dissonance and distress that he increasingly sensed within his own camp.

Religious Zionists understood themselves to be the spiritual inheritors of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), a towering talmudist, mystic, and thinker. Rav Kook was unusual among Orthodox leaders of his time for his warm, cooperative relationships with secular Zionists, whom he perceived as partners in rebuilding the Land of Israel. He taught his students to forge a path that fused traditional Jewish commitment with broad involvement in building, settling, and defending the emerging country.

By the early 1990s, with the Oslo peace process in full swing, this vision was in serious disarray. That the Labor government of Yitzḥak Rabin seemed determined to transfer the biblical heartlands of Judea and Samaria to the PLO was disturbing enough to the beleaguered Religious Zionist camp. Even more disorienting were some of the the strange intellectual currents that propelled or fed into this political program. Generally known as post-Zionism, this set of ideas called into question the justice and coherence of Zionism and proposed that Israel’s now-archaic ethnic particularism was the main obstacle preventing a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

Underpinning post-Zionism was postmodernism, a cluster of positions typically including a deep skepticism about the very existence of truth and the view that knowledge and belief are mere “discourses,” serving the interests, especially the power interests, of their propagators. As a stream of Israeli intellectuals assured their countrymen, Zionism was a “discourse of domination” and Judaism was at best a self-referential game of symbols and at worst an excuse for oppression of the Palestinian “Other.”

In the face of this onslaught, Religious Zionists had little to say. Rav Kook himself had advocated and exemplified a synthesis between the Torah and the best of contemporary thought. Among his followers’ priorities, however, secular education came a distant third behind Torah study and settling the land. Precious few Religious Zionist rabbis could understand arcane postmodernist theories, still less fashion a compelling response to the ideas that shook the territorial and religious ground beneath their feet.

 

Rav Shagar addressed this crisis with astounding intellectual audacity. Citing Kook’s ability to identify the kernel of holiness in the most powerful and seductive ideas of his day, he plunged into postmodern thought, gained an autodidact’s grasp of its main concepts, imbibed much (but not all) of its spirit, and emerged with a philosophical approach aimed at addressing the perplexities of his fellow Religious Zionists, and above all of his students. That approach—deeply informed by postmodernism—unites the essays in Faith Shattered and Restored.

Avowedly not a systematic philosopher, Shagar, as Zohar Maor puts it in his introduction to this volume, “saw himself as someone who provokes thought, subverts outmoded conventions, and opens new vistas for holiness and divine worship.” Perhaps the closest he came to setting forth his philosophical principles was in the essay “My Faith,” to my mind the most important in this collection.

The essay opens with a devastating description of the “two worlds” approach to religious belief associated with such Modern Orthodox theologians as Yeshayahu Leibovitz and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. In Shagar’s view, these thinkers attempted to insulate the core of Jewish belief from the conclusions of both natural science, which called into question divine providence, and social science, which called into question the motivations of believers. Leibovitz, Soloveitchik, and others rescued religion by distinguishing between the internal and external, between the world of faith, governed by Torah, and the world we live in, where science rules.

Shagar argues, to the contrary, that

the price of this approach is unbearably high. It pulls the rug out from under basic articles of faith—or, at the very least, strips them of their traditional interpretations—such as the belief in providence and in the immortality of the soul, and even in the value of prayer. Since these beliefs contradict the scientific outlook, they are designated as norms of halakhic conduct and nothing more.

Whether or not this characterization does full justice to the ideas of Rabbi Soloveitchik, in particular, it is an incisive diagnosis of religious compartmentalization in both the American and Israeli Orthodox communities.

As an alternative, Shagar turns to postmodernism, which he describes as a “position that holds truth to be a function of societal [and] cultural constructs, and that thus denies that certitude is possible.” While many might view postmodern skepticism as profoundly threatening to religious belief, Shagar saw it as liberating and enriching. As he wrote, “I am of the opinion that postmodernism and deconstructionism constitute a ‘shattering of the vessels’”—the shattering of the vessels being a kabbalistic term indicating a primordial cosmic rupture that allowed for the creation of the natural world. “Yet this very shattering,” he continues, “grants us wide-ranging freedom, and, as far as religion goes, freedom to believe, even without absolute proofs and evidence.”

For Shagar, in other words, the undermining of religious belief based on reason opens up new paths for religious commitment grounded in personal, existential choice, individual searching, and experiential, mystical encounters with religious reality. As he states:

My faith is Orthodox, I believe in halakhah and the halakhic lifestyle. Orthodoxy is a condition for maintaining the Absolute and its representations in our lives, bringing God’s presence, the Sh’khinah, down into the lower realms. . . . Faith must manifest [itself] in one’s day-to-day existence.

Shagar thus justifies his religious belief and halakhic commitment existentially, as conditions for living every day in the presence of God.

As this trenchant declaration of faith might suggest, Rav Shagar did not buy into postmodernism as a whole. Crucially, he rejected postmodern ideas of the death, disintegration, or deconstruction of the self. Shagar argues instead that through struggling with the nothingness, nihilism, confusion, and despair engendered by the postmodern outlook one can emerge with a stronger faith. It is for sentiments like these that the scholar Alan Brill, noting especially the influence on Shagar’s thought of such ḥasidic masters as Naḥman of Bratslav, has perceptively dubbed him a “ḥasidic existentialist.”

 

The limitations of this approach are exposed in the book’s weakest essay, “Justice and Ethics in a Postmodern World.” Here Shagar deals with the conflict between modern liberal societies, with their ideals of tolerance and multiculturalism, and subcultures in their midst that practice female genital mutilation and honor killings.

Drawing on a famous formulation of Rabbi Naḥman, Shagar views such conflicts of values as “conundrums to which there is no solution.” In the case of honor killings, he writes, liberals must affirm their own (necessarily relative) values by attempting to prevent such abhorrent actions “even if after the fact [they] will be hard-pressed to justify the stance that spurred [them] to action, or to prove that it is preferable to the other’s cultural outlook.”

This is surely an inadequate answer to the clash between liberal values and religious ideologies that condone murderous violence against women. While existential choice and the abjuring of reason may be sufficient grounds for personal religious faith, they are of no use in resolving acute intra-societal conflicts of values. Shagar is scant in his references to the philosophers, social scientists, and historians who have developed more plausible approaches to this problem over the past 50 years, but one may point out that where reasoned commensuration, criticism, and dialogue between opposing viewpoints fail, deception and violence fill the void, as a glance at the news will confirm.

This inadequacy points to an aspect of Rav Shagar’s approach to postmodern philosophy and culture that I find especially problematic: he treats them as givens. They may provide starting points for new and fruitful Jewish spiritual paths, but it is not a part of his project to revise postmodern thought or to criticize its foundations. One might well wish he did.

The most ambitious Jewish thinkers not only enriched Judaism through confronting the best of contemporary thought, but also challenged and advanced contemporary thought by subjecting it to criticism from the perspective of Judaism. And such criticism is surely called for today. Can Judaism with its commitment to truth and moral absolutes really make peace with postmodernism? To paraphrase Shagar, would not the price of this approach be unbearably high?

 

But merely examining the essays in this volume does not, in my view, fully do justice to Shagar’s importance. In Israel, his influence on the religious conversation is attributable at least as much to the power of his personality, his impact on generations of students, and his highly original approach to the study of Talmud—the core of those students’ educational curriculum—as to the cogency of his philosophical arguments.

Having been his student, I can testify to this. Rav Shagar was quiet, shy, and introverted, far from charismatic in the conventional sense. He had a horror of falsehood and pretence. When he spoke you sensed him struggling to attune each word precisely to the truth of his inner response to the text being discussed. When he talked about doubt, struggle, suffering, despair, and faith, you knew he was speaking from hard-won wisdom. You can watch online an interview (in Hebrew) that he gave a few weeks before succumbing to cancer in which he discusses Torah with as much lucidity and conviction as ever and expresses acceptance and even optimism in the face of his impending death.

These qualities of humility, piercing honesty, intellectual courage, and responsibility to his students that were so impressive in the flesh come across in Shagar’s Hebrew writings. That they are captured intermittently in the English version is a tribute to the fine work of the translator Elie Leshem and the editor Moshe Simon-Shoshan. My main criticism of the volume is that it includes none of Shagar’s extensive and remarkable writings on Talmud.

In my judgment, his masterpiece is the work on Talmud study and methodology that he completed during the final months of his life. Here he sought to heal the breach between the conceptual, ahistorical method of Talmud study pursued in Religious Zionist institutions and the movement’s own motivating commitment to social and historical realities and participation in the broader society. To Shagar, Religious Zionism had modernized its theology while leaving untouched the central activity of its religious education, which instead remains focused on logical abstractions.

The resulting dissonance, Rav Shagar argued, saps students’ motivation to study Talmud. Furthermore, because yeshiva students experience the centerpiece of their curriculum as a sort of sanctified branch of pure mathematics or civil law, their need for ongoing spiritual nourishment is often left unsatisfied. To address this problem, Shagar advocated legitimating rather than dismissing students’ quest for personal meaning in the talmudic text, paying attention to philosophical and theological questions raised by the Talmud, and integrating traditional approaches with historical methods of analysis.

By way of a brief illustration, take the opening of the talmudic tractate Kiddushin, which deals with betrothal, a binding and strictly regulated halakhic event: “a woman is acquired [i.e., betrothed] in three ways. . . . ” A traditional class might well dive straight into an analysis of the conceptual intricacies of the three “ways,” rarely acknowledging the questions that these words are likely to raise in the minds of young religious men—and women—in the 21st century. Among these elemental questions: what do the words have to do with my own current, imminent, or wished-for marriage? Is the notion of “acquiring” a wife (or being “acquired” by a husband-to-be) remotely relevant to the kind of marriage I hope to have?

 

For Rav Shagar, to ignore or to repress such questions was intellectually dishonest, a betrayal of one’s students, and an offense against the integrity of the text. His lectures on Kiddushin combined sensitivity to those questions with historical erudition and rigorous analysis of the text and its traditional commentaries. Taken together, these reveal an evolution in the halakhic conception of marriage from a transactional model toward one of spiritual partnership.

Though controversial, Shagar’s approach has had a far-reaching impact on how Talmud is taught in many Israeli institutions. Indeed, from my limited experience of teaching in the U.S., Modern Orthodox Jews there, too, are at least as much exercised by the relevance of Talmud study as they are by the effects of postmodernist thought on Jewish faith—and American day-school and yeshiva students are as apt to feel alienated as are their Israeli counterparts. I venture to predict that Shagar’s talmudic and halakhic writings, many of which are still in manuscript, will continue to be read long after the historical moment of postmodernism has passed.

Meanwhile, however, that moment is still very much with us. In grappling with Jewish belief from a postmodern sensibility, Rav Shagar provides a language for religious faith and reflection for many, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, to whom postmodern ways of thinking are as natural as breathing. By bringing his transformative writings to English-speaking Jews—not only the Orthodox—the editors of Faith Shattered and Restored also make an important contribution to bridging the intellectual and spiritual gap between Israeli and Diaspora Judaism.

More about: History & Ideas, Postmodernism, Religion & Holidays