Orthodoxy, Unorthodoxy, and Paradox: Review of “Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age,” by Rav Shagar

Like so many American Orthodox Jews, I had scarcely heard of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, or “Rav Shagar,” until relatively recently, despite having spent two years learning in a hesder yeshiva. In fact, I had never heard of him at all while in Israel, but began to slowly take notice as, over the past several years, there has been a steady stream of his essays being translated into English on various Orthodox blogs.[1] The fact that so many of these translations have been done by those who are actively involved in Jewish education, either as teachers or principals, implies that my earlier ignorance of Rav Shagar’s work is not due to his lack of educational influence or importance; indeed, many current intellectual trends among Israeli young adults in particular can be traced back to Rav Shagar. The publication of Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age[2] is therefore a very welcome undertaking towards bringing his works to an English-speaking audience, and is likely to leave readers hungry for more. Although this is not the first English publication of Rav Shagar’s writings, this collection is the first one geared to introduce the broader principles of his thought, highlighting the uniqueness of his approach. The essays featured in the collection are devoted to covering essential topics regarding Jewish faith, observance, and thought, and as the title indicates, they do so all while reacting to, and utilizing the vocabulary of postmodernism.

The essays are presented along with various accompanying essays which both contextualize Rav Shagar’s thought, and comment on this collection in particular. The introduction, written by the managing editor of Rav Shagar’s writings, Dr. Zohar Maor, discusses Rav Shagar’s background, and provides a short synopsis of his intellectual biography. Rav Shagar was raised in a traditionally religious home with an “innocent brand of Zionism,” and remained in the world of the “dati leumi” society, learning and then teaching in prominent hesder yeshivot before involving himself with various education institutions, ultimately founding his own yeshiva. Like the two intellectual giants of the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rav Kook, Rav Shagar’s primary intellectual efforts were focused on Talmud study. Rav Shagar was intent on developing a new method of study distinct from the traditional Brisker derekh which was prevalent in the yeshivot of his youth. Unfortunately, this “new method” is not discussed in depth,[3] but instead, Dr. Maor discusses each of the book’s essays, and how they relate to Rav Shagar’s engagement with postmodernism. This engagement is twofold: “Rav Shager took upon himself the task of being the vanguard of an attempt to adopt, albeit critically,”[4] the Western values amplified by postmodernism: individualism, skepticism, and pluralism. Secondly, Rav Shagar employs the tools of postmodernism to tackle age-old problems of theology and religiosity, and sometimes even newly formulated questions of theology, offering solutions based on his understanding of modern and postmodern concepts.

Rav Shagar’s use of postmodernism, in Dr. Moar’s estimation, makes this book, “A trailblazing work that, to our mind, is unique in the landscape of Jewish philosophy and of great importance for Judaism in the twenty-first century,”[5] which can “form a foundation for the new path entailed by the religious and spiritual realities of our generation.”[6] An even greater enthusiasm for the uniqueness of Rav Shagar’s approach and its importance for the modern age is expressed in the Forward written by Aryeh Rubin, who describes Rav Shagar as presenting a “new paradigm of learning and understanding.”[7] Rubin writes that although he feels that his own generation “failed in its mission” to synthesize religiosity and modernity, he hopes that Rav Shagar will pave the way for a new type of modern Jew. Such comments, emphasizing the freshness of Rav Shagar’s thought—while certainly expected from those who are involved in publishing and disseminating his writings—are also made by scholars of modern Jewish thought and culture uninvolved in disseminating Rav Shagar’s writings (on the back cover of the book are quotations to that effect from Professor Alan Brill, Professor Moshe Halbertal, and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks).

With all this talk of postmodernism and the postmodern age,[8] perhaps it would be best to start with the fifth chapter of this book, “Living with Nothingness.” This chapter specifically takes up the definition and use of postmodernism as its central topic. Quoting the influential articulation of the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, Rav Shagar identifies postmodernism as both the intellectual and cultural movement which “at its root is a loss of faith in grand narratives, in metaphysical goals, and in comprehensive theories.”[9] Rav Shagar explains that postmodernism is perhaps better understood as a condition of disillusionment rather than an as an ideology. Postmodernism rebels against intellectual and moral certitude, as well as any concept of “truth” other than one arising from an individual’s own subjective experience. In a brief few pages, the roots of postmodernism are traced from Kant, through Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and others,[10] culminating in a loss of faith in language as being able to represent anything meaningful at all. At the heart of existence is absolute nothingness, which Rav Shagar identifies with the Kabbalistic concept of ayin. The question for the postmodern individual is not “why” or even “what,” but rather how one reacts to the world’s indifferent nothingness. Here, Rav Shagar differentiates between what he calls “hard” and “soft” postmodernism: Camus, as an example of a “soft” postmodernist, “wished to celebrate nothingness,”[11] while the “hard postmodernists” felt that the only appropriate response to the world’s meaninglessness is a parallel indifference, recognizing one’s own meaninglessness as a part of the world, “ruling out entirely the subject’s unity.”[12] The chapter concludes by associating these responses with various terms borrowed from Kabbalistic (really, Chabad) terminology; identifying “hard postmodernism” with the “husk of Amalek,” which seeks to nullify absolutely everything, and “soft postmodernism,” with the ultimate service of God: the bittul (or “nullification” of the self and the material world) which allows for directly experiencing the yesh that is God.

In true postmodernist fashion, Rav Shagar appears not to be interested at all in whether or not the philosophical tenants of postmodernism are correct in any sense, but rather is only interested in whether or not they are useful. Rav Shagar even implies that his use of postmodern terminology and methods are, so to speak, more be-diavad than le-chathilah, explaining that “we must come to terms with it” only because “the Postmodernism position is not at all marginal; it exerts its influence throughout society.” For Rav Shagar, it would seem that postmodernism’s most useful tool is its embrace of paradox as a way to understand religious or ethical dilemmas; Rav Shagar consistently solves such dilemmas by insisting that its two horns are to be engaged on separate planes. For example, while we are obligated to pray as if our prayers are effective, and believe that events in our lives are Divinely orchestrated, we know that there is a scientific cause and effect, and with enough knowledge about the environment, statistics dictates how often people injure themselves, get hired for jobs, etc. How does one resolve this paradox? Rav Shagar “favor[s] a two-world approach:” while ordinary experienced life progresses according to scientific principles, prayer is effective in the realm of the “Real,” the Lacanian pre-linguistic realm. Regarding believers such as himself, Rav Shagar writes, “They do not ignore the contradictions; that would constitute willful ignorance. Rather, they resolve to remain in both contradictory worlds: that of reality, and that of faith.”[13] For someone not steeped in the language of postmodernist philosophy, this does not seem to be a solution at all, and is just as much an avoidance of the problem as the approach that Rav Shagar identifies as the Haredi approach, which is to simply ignore the issue. Rav Shagar explains that once the distinction between the subjective and objective is dissolved, and one accepts that different levels of experience are no more “true” than any other, then as long as one perceives the surrounding world in a context of faith, that faith is true.

A similar device is utilized by Rav Shagar to explain how we can accept the halakhic rulings of a posek despite awareness of the historical contexts of the stages of the halakhic process. He writes, “Do we acknowledge the historicity of halakha? Indeed, we do. Yet for us, the history is performed rather than stated. It is not a parameter that emerges explicitly in our deliberations, but rather a stance that must remain implicit if it is to enable us to play the halakhic game.”[14] In other words, while we remain aware of the historical context for development of halakha, we engage in making halakhic decisions as if we were not—another acceptance of two alternate (and mutually exclusive) ways of thinking. The difference between the Orthodox and Conservative movements for Rav Shagar is not found in their respective dogmas, but in the fact that only the Orthodox relegates halakha’s historical aspects to a different realm than the operational one.[15] Elsewhere, Rav Shagar returns to the topic of fealty to the halakhic system as a construct of faith, but not necessary leading to, or emanating from faith; He writes, “The test of halakha is not its truth, but its ability to maintain the integrity of its character as a practical linguistic system.” This approach towards halakha has practical ramifications in that it can be sustained only in a community that retains its essential Jewish rootedness, a community in which halakha truly is the lived experience beyond its theoretical constructs. “Language is meaningful only within the framework of codes that are extant in a lifestyle… religion retains meaning within the bounds of the religious lifestyle, but not beyond it,”[16] and therefore requires at least some measure of communal seclusion from the secular world, as in the Haredi lifestyle.

Further embrace of paradox can be found in Rav Shagar’s approach to the vexing questions of religious and moral action in the face of doubt. How can we truly know what God asks of us, and what the moral imperative calls upon us to do? Regarding religious obligation, Rav Shagar’s discussion centers around the difficult passage of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac. After surveying the major previous interpretations of the passage (with one highly notable exception),[17] Rav Shagar presents various midrashic readings of the narrative which imply that Abraham himself was filled with doubt as to both the veracity and moral validity of the command to slaughter his son. Yet, Abraham proceeds: “It is a paradoxical faith, but one in which Abraham is fully invested.”[18] In a way, Rav Shagar’s reading of the Akeidah is more Kierkegaardian than that of Kierkegaard; according to Rav Shagar, Abraham might even be committing a religious sin by following through with the trial, but was nevertheless willing “to forfeit everything—not just his ethics but even his very religion” to obey what he perceived as the word of God. The trial was only a test inasmuch as Abraham heard the voice of doubt, and nevertheless withstood it. Here, Rav Shagar could have quoted the interpretation of R. Mordecai Yosef Leiner of Izbitz:

Although [God] had said to him, ‘[as numerous as the stars,] so will be your progeny,’ and it was said to him, ‘I will fulfill my covenant with Isaac,’ and now when God said to him, ‘sacrifice him as an offering,’ despite all this [Abraham] still believed in the first matter just as before and did not falter, and this belief is incomprehensible to the human mind. And in truth, Abraham did not even have an explicit word from God that he should slaughter his son… he had only a message through an unclear lens…[19]

Thus, religious obedience for Rav Shagar, for it to be meaningful at all, is also paradoxical: not only despite the doubt, but because of the possibility of doubt, does religious observance express dedication to God.

Rav Shagar takes a similar stance on moral action and social justice when faced with the problem that ethics itself appears to be a social construct which is culture-dependent. “Can I ignore a perspective capable of justifying the world of values that gives rise to such action [as female genital mutilation], which according to my values is a despicable crime?”[20] Rav Shagar here is more illustrative in his answer, which again relies upon acceptance of paradox: we must fight for justice, even while acknowledging that our understanding of justice is only correct within our own cultural context. It is in this chapter where the concept and usefulness of the paradox-solution is more fully explored. Here, Rav Shagar explains this approach by incorporating a passage of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav in which he “detects a contradiction at the very base of human existence,”[21]or really, all existence: God must withdraw from the universe in order to create it, but nothing can exist separate from Him. Rav Shagar explains:

Coping with this contradiction requires the belief that one’s truth is a manifestation of God despite its relativity… True, one can always ask, ‘But don’t other people and other societies have different values?’ But that possibility must not diminish the fact that I, too, have a certainty that I am unwilling to relinquish, a truth to which I will dedicate myself, for which I am willing to die, even kill.[22]

Recognizing the paradox at the heart of existence allows one to “take the ethical game and play it,”[23] even though it may present problems on the levels of other ‘games,’ such as the religious or pluralistic. Throughout this volume, the thorny topics of freedom, Otherness (and Jewish chosenness), and nationalism are treated in similar manners: Rav Shagar either recognizes a paradox at their center, or uses the concept of paradox to be able to appreciate both aspects of the issue, while simultaneously engaging in questions of religious life and observance.

To be honest, as someone who does not subscribe to the worldview of the postmodernist, many of Rav Shagar’s proposals can sometimes seem incomprehensible, unhelpful, or even counterproductive. Regarding the essential question of faith in God, Rav Shagar adopts Rabbi Nahman’s approach, in which the believer “vaults over the paradoxical conundrums of the halal ha-panui without obscuring or running from them—”[24] but what is the difference, exactly? On the question of Jewish nationalism versus universalism, Rav Shagar consigns Israel to be the ultimate, eternal “Other,” but the meaning of this is, at least to me, obscure.[25] Considering Rav Shagar’s many comments on religious observance, if I, because of my own environment, do not identify with the halakhic lifestyle, who is to say that I am incorrect? I have often joked that students of Rav Lichtenstein’s methodology solve every Talmudic contradiction by waving them away as being “dialectical,” and one gets a similar sense from Rav Shagar’s use of paradox. One of the most informative aspects of the book for me, therefore, was the Afterword by Rabbi Shalom Carmy. As a student of Rabbi Soloveitchik in more ways than one, and with a breadth of knowledge at least as wide as that of Rav Shagar, Rabbi Carmy is in a perfect position to articulate the response to Rav Shagar that is likely to be felt by many of the Anglophone readers whose intellectual upbringing would have consisted of a diet of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Lichtenstein, and the like.

Furthermore, and I hasten to add that this is not meant as a criticism of the book per se, the novelty of Rav Shagar’s thought can easily be overstated. Despite the many approbatory comments of the editors and erudite readers, I got the impression that many of Rav Shagar’s ultimate solutions and insights were comprised of old wine in new flasks, especially with regard to the all-essential question of the nature of religious faith, arguably the lynchpin of religion itself. At its core, Rav Shagar admits that faith is fundamentally incommunicable, but one can make some headway in describing how the relationship one has with God plays out in real life. It is the edifice of halakha which “constructs a world through which one can come to know God,”[26] which is considered true religious faith, not the cognitive faith of philosophers. To readers of contemporary Orthodox thought, this is hardly revolutionary; the novelty here is, instead of leaving this thesis as-is, or appealing to neo-Kantian phenomenology (as did Rabbi Soloveitchik), Rav Shagar speaks in the terms of Wittgensteinian language-games and reality as experience. Regarding the question of faith and doubt, Rav Shagar leans heavily on Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, and therefore cannot offer more of a solution than a suggestion that one learn to live with the paradox.[27]

Having said that, there is still so much to be gained from reading Rav Shagar. First of all, the sheer breadth of material that Rav Shagar utilizes is nothing short of staggering: from literary critics to psychoanalytic thought to pop-culture and science fiction—Rav Shagar’s lack of formal engagement with higher education appears to give him the freedom to draw upon literature from wherever it comes from. His treatment of several issues, especially modern ones, are important in and of themselves; one would be hard-pressed to find a more thorough discussion of the Orthodox view of romantic love, for example, than the essay published in this volume. More importantly, Rav Shagar gives someone with a secular background some tools with which to engage in the study of Hasidism, a trend which has already gained significant momentum, due at least in part to Rav Shagar’s influence.[28] There is no denying that Judaism contains its mystical elements and has an incredibly rich mystical tradition, which the Modern Orthodox too often ignore.[29] Mysticism is perhaps inherently incomprehensible, speaking of worlds beyond and divine cosmic dramas, making it a fitting partner with the postmodern paradoxes of existence and varying realms of experiential existences. Rav Shagar’s readiness to quote not only Rabbi Nahman and Chabad literature, but scholarly writers such as Gershom Scholem, make his readings of Hasidic texts all the more compelling.

Additionally, Rav Shagar is a keen observer of social phenomenon, and this volume is full of insights on the American Modern Orthodox, Zionistic, Haredi, and non-observant Jewish communities, as well as lengthy pieces on science fiction and contemporary consumerist culture.[30] These cultural remarks are not merely incidental to Rav Shagar’s worldview; as mentioned before, he understands Judaism to be community and culture dependent at least as much as, and perhaps more than, it is a religion of deed and creed. For the Modern Orthodox in particular (which, if it can be described as a movement, is perhaps also more of a cultural than intellectual one), Rav Shagar often speaks to the concerns of those who are interested in engaging the secular world while remaining religiously observant, providing some direction for that community. Especially with regard to education, we would do well to recognize that there is much more to religious disenchantment than theological quandaries, and that combating secularization and assimilation will require engaging them on a cultural as well as intellectual level. Postmodernism, as it is so intent on deconstruction of ideologies, can allow Judaism to flourish as a lived experience instead of as a set of dogmas and strictures.[31] Rav Shagar approvingly quotes another Rosh Yeshiva, “Rabbi Yehudah Amital long claimed that youth who reject the religious lifestyle generally suffer from a deficiency of kneidalach and noodle kugel, or perhaps of the Passover Seder’s aromas and the melodies of the High Holidays.”[32] To be sure, not everyone will find Jewish cultural artifacts so appealing, but the point of Judaism being rooted in its experience is well taken.

Whether or not Rav Shagar’s approaches can serve as the antidote to those disillusioned with the Orthodox Judaism of today, one will rarely encounter a more thought-provoking collection of essays on Judaism, which is all good and well. As stated in the introduction, “Rabbi Shagar did not consider his work the be-all and end-all… He saw himself as someone who provokes thought, subverts outmoded conventions, and opens up new vistas for holiness and divine worship.”[33] Ultimately, this book is extraordinary—not necessarily for its ushering in a new movement of “Postmodern Judaism,” which was either already underway or irrelevant, but for the extraordinary person who shines through its pages. Rav Shagar’s discourses reveal a figure whose inner world is vastly complex but vibrantly effervescent, colorful and profound. Regardless of the newness or relevance of his ideas, his contention that the postmodernist perspective can breathe new life into old religious ideas, “make[ing] them supple, thus opening up new pathways for inspiration and illumination,”[34] is well borne out by his writings. Rav Shagar’s remarks on freedom are just as appropriately applied to his entire approach: “It can also protect the holy from that which would ossify or limit it.”[35]

 

Matt Lubin is a student in RIETS

[1] See the many essay translations collected by Alan Brill, The Book of Doctrines and Opinions: notes on Jewish theology and spirituality, available at www.kavannah.wordpress.com; see also Josh Rosenfeld, “Screen for the Spirit, Garment for the Soul,” the Seforim blog, available at

www.seforim.blogspot.com for some examples. See especially the comment by an unnamed educator quoted at the beginning of Alan Brill’s article, “Rav Shagar-B’Torato Yehageh: The Study of Talmud as a Quest for God Part I,” available at www.kavvanah.wordpress.com.

[2] Shim’on Gershon Rozenberg (Rav Shagar), Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age, transl. by Eli Leshem, ed. by Zohar Maor, (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2017).

[3] On Rav Shagar’s Torah methodology, as well as for some excellent points on Rav Shagar’s philosophy that are not discussed in the volume reviewed here, see Alan Jotkowitz, “’And Now the Child Will Ask’: The Post-Modern Theology of Rav Shagar,” Tradition, 45:2, (2002): 49-66.

[4] Zohar Maor, Introduction to Faith Shattered and Restored, xiv.

[5] Ibid., xxii.

[6] Ibid., xiv.

[7] Ibid., ix.

[8] Despite the title of this entire volume, it should be noted that pigeonholing Rav Shagar as being concerned primarily with postmodernism may be inaccurate; he apparently also identified his approach as “Hasidic existentialism;” see Yair Dreifus, Negiot bi-Sefat ha-Lev (Jerusalem: Yidiot, 2013). In this very chapter on postmodernism, Rav Shagar also has a lengthy discussion of the existentialist search for meaning, and provides an existentialist reading of a passage in Rabbeinu Bahya’s Hovot ha-Levavot.

[9] Rav Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored, 85.

[10] It is not always clear how Rav Shagar saw in those authors the views that he ascribes to them (especially Wittgenstein). His narrative of the progression of Western thought as culminating in Postmodernism is nevertheless striking.

[11] Rav Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored, 97. In n. 25, the editor remarks that this terminology was coined by Millard J. Erickson in 2002, but this distinction is used by Watson T.J. in his Paper “Speaking Professionally – Soft Postmodernist Thoughts on Some Late Modernist Questions About Work, Occupations, and Markets,” presented at Professions in Late Modernity seminar, Centre for Corporate Strategy and Change, University of Warwick, March 1995. Interestingly, an internet search for uses of the soft versus hard postmodernism distinction shows that it is employed mainly by Christian Evangelicals.

[12] Rav Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored, 98. Whether or not indeed Camus can be categorized as a “soft postmodernist” in the sense employed here is also subject to debate.

[13] Ibid., 29.

[14] Ibid., 55. The invoking of ‘games’ is a reference to Wittgenstein’s philosophy.

[15] The core of the halakhic system is thus a mystical one, and why “only Orthodoxy—not Reform or Conservativism—can safeguard an authentic Jewish mysticism,” (Ibid., 56). In a separate chapter, Rav Shagar approvingly quotes both Rav Kook and Gershom Scholem to the effect that “Judaism is founded on esotericism” (38).

[16]  Rav Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored, 61.

[17] When reading this chapter, I was very surprised that Rav Shagar did not engage with the interpretation of the Akeidah put forth by Abraham Geiger (in which Abraham chooses on his own to listen, quite literally, to the better angels of his nature instead of his perception of the divine command), because Rav Shagar’s either positive or negative response to it would certainly have put his own interpretation into sharper formulation. It could be that this omission was intentional, or that Rav Shagar was not aware it (although it is referred to in both the Hertz Humash, as well as by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary).

[18] Rav Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored,13.

[19] Mei ha-Shiloah Vol. 1, Parashat Va-eira.

[20] Rav Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored, 107.

[21] Ibid., 110-111.

[22] Ibid., 112.

[23] Ibid., 117.

[24] Ibid., 116.

[25] When it comes to the practical aspects of this relationship, Rav Shagar notes that it is of a dual nature, in a manner reminiscent of Rabbi Soloveitchik. See Abraham R. Besdin, Man of Faith in the Modern World: Reflections of the Rav, Vol. 2 (Hoboken New Jersey: Ktav Publishing, 1989), Chapter 8.

[26] Rav Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored, 49.

[27] See Arthur Green, Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1979), especially 285-336.

[28] This was explored in a paper presented at the March 2015 Orthodox Forum by Miriam Feldmann Kaye, “Hasidic Philosophy in the Age of Postmodernism and Relativism: The Case of Rav Shagar.”

[29] In a remarkable comment made by a reviewer of Rav Ahron Lichtenstein’s book on Henry Moore, the reviewer wrote, “Lichtenstein indicates a lack of any real comprehension of, or sympathy with, any aspect of mysticism… his book on Moore reveals a profound defect—a defect in religious understanding of a critical vision.” George Panichas, “Review of ‘Henry More: The Rational Theology of a Cambridge Platonist,’ Aharon Lichtenstein.” The Journal of Religion, 43:3, (1963): 251–253.

[30] Rav Shagar appears to be inconsistent in his appraisals of new cultural phenomena: while he appreciates the imaginative aspects of the fantasy worlds depicted in science fiction, “engendering an ability to gain a new kind of knowledge of reality,” (125), he decries Internet chats and video games as being fake: “such play is not rooted in real life… the realness of a thing is replicated by its simulacra” (92). One could easily have imagined the opposite; indeed, Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, transl. by William Weaver (USA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986) felt that theme parks are more real than the cities that house them.

[31] This point is aptly depicted in Moshe Koppel, “Judaism as a First Language,” Azure 46 (Autumn 2011).

[32] Rav Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored,46.

[33] Ibid., Introduction, xxii.

[34] Ibid., 128.

[35] Ibid., 84.