In conversation

Israel’s paradoxical man of faith, deconstructed

Rav Shagar, an audacious rabbi and mystic who sought to remake Orthodoxy with the aid of postmodern theory, makes a posthumous bid for the minds of US Jews

Elie Leshem is deputy editor of The Times of Israel.

Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, or Rav Shagar, as he is better known (Hugh Gordon)
Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, or Rav Shagar, as he is better known (Hugh Gordon)

Well before he died at only 57, Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, better known by the acronym Shagar, had gained a certain notoriety, a contrarian sheen that set him apart from other National Religious yeshiva heads. Not only did he subject the Talmud to literary analysis, diverging from study methods honed over centuries, but with a brazen concoction of Kabbalah and psychoanalysis, Hasidism and postmodern theory, he set about forging a new Orthodox personality, one that could remain firmly rooted in tradition, even when buffeted by the gales of secularism and modernity.

He was a peddler of paradoxes, an alchemist who casually synthesized sacred and profane, and his potent ideas were little understood, and often perceived as a threat, by a religious establishment whose horizons had been constricted by a fierce battle to keep its children on the path of faith.

Shagar spent the final years of his life — until pancreatic cancer got the better of him in June 2007 — teaching at the hesder yeshiva he founded in the settlement of Efrat, surrounded by rolling hills and a ragtag, no-nonsense flock of scholars and spiritual seekers. The name of his yeshiva, Siach, is Hebrew for “discourse,” perhaps the quintessential postmodernist term, connoting the realization that there are many truths, that those truths are constructed, and that the language that constructs them tends to obfuscate more than it illuminates.

Throughout his decades as an educator, Shagar was highly influential, yet he only became popular in the years leading up to his death. He was a rabbi’s rabbi, and when his devoted students went on to become prominent educators in their own rights, they adapted his difficult teachings and gradually weaved them into the larger National Religious conversation. His ideas made further inroads as his writings and lectures were published, a project that has continued apace since his death, with almost 20 books out in Hebrew as of this writing.

Last month, Shagar’s popularity, along with his books, was on full display at a conference in Jerusalem in honor of his tenth yahrzeit. Hundreds of enthusiastic followers, many of them in their 20s — young enough to have never met him — turned out to celebrate his thought and debate his legacy in a series of lectures, panels, and group study sessions. Even the Arutz 7 news outlet, which is to the right of the National Religious mainstream, ran a piece about the conference, describing Shagar as a “brilliant, original thinker who reconciled postmodernity and strict halachic observance.”

On a table in the hallway, across from the instant coffee and the fruit baskets, the books were laid out for sale, as Shagar’s widow, Miriam Rosenberg, hovered protectively nearby, greeting old friends as they shuffled between the lecture halls. Tucked among the Hebrew volumes was a small stack of copies of “Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age,” an anthology of his essays in English that had just been released by Koren Publishers. The book, which I was privileged to have translated, is a first systematic attempt to introduce his more philosophical works to the English-reading public (a few years ago my friend Naftali Moses translated two volumes of discourses on the High Holy Days and Purim), among whom he remains virtually unknown, despite being as relevant as ever.

The cover of 'Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Posmodern Age,' by Rabbi Shagar
The cover of ‘Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Posmodern Age,’ by Rabbi Shagar

Among the panelists at the conference was the editor of “Faith Shattered and Restored,” erstwhile Shagar student Dr. Zohar Maor, a Bar Ilan University historian whose research focuses on Jewish philosophers of the early 20th century. Before the conference, I sat down with Maor for a conversation about Shagar’s legacy and the essays selected for the book, which is aimed mostly — though not exclusively — at the Modern Orthodox community in the United States.

We also discussed some of the specifics of Shagar’s thought, including the manner in which he links concepts such as “the Real” — psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s term for the pre-symbolic, undifferentiated order — with kabbalistic ideas, to define his new phenomenology of faith. Shagar also invokes the idea of “language games,” coined by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in order to characterize the mechanisms of halachic discourse and its internal, often-idiosyncratic logic.

Another component of Shagar’s paradoxical philosophy that we discussed was his embrace of the Israeli Haredi mindset as a key element in a new Orthodox personality, which Shagar contends will be capable of assimilating the seemingly contradictory truths of Judaism, science and secular humanism, without allowing one to corrode the other.

Following is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.


Elie Leshem: Tell me about the thought process that went into choosing the essays. It’s clear that you and the other editors were aiming mostly at readers in the US, and I wonder which ideas you thought were important for them to be exposed to.

Zohar Maor: Generally speaking, there used to be two categories: Israel’s National Religious and the Modern Orthodox in America, and on the face of it, there was no connection between them. But I think that as time passes, academics who study the religious community in Israel are realizing there is a connection. And it’s interesting that Rav Shagar predicted, already at a relatively early stage, in one of the essays included in this book, that more and more characteristics of the Modern Orthodox community in the US would seep into the religious community in Israel. Still, we looked for essays that focus on the frontier of modernity, rather than on questions like Israeli democracy and the Land of Israel. Six of the essays were taken from the anthology “Tablets and Broken Tablets,” which came out after his death, and are meant to present the basics of his take on postmodernism.

In addition, since this is the first major book in English, we wanted to include a few discourses that he published in his lifetime. One essay we selected, about Sukkot, deals with universalism, the question of the Jewish people within the world, which is of concern to people who don’t live in Israel. Here in Israel, the question of the relation between the Jewish people and the nations, of interfaith dialogue, almost never comes up.

Leshem: Beyond Modern Orthodoxy, how does the book relate to the various denominations in the US?

Maor: The essay that touches upon this in the most direct way is the one about halacha, “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” where Shagar talks about Reform and Conservative Judaism. You could perhaps say he wrote it more for an American audience, although I think he says things there about fidelity to halacha and halachic logic that are very relevant to Israelis as well. I think that essay was one of his more important contributions, in that it comes to grips with the individualization and subjectivization of religion, with the sense that the emphasis shifts to “me,” that I’m the one who decides at the end of the day, which of course gives rise to the question of religion and morality.

But, Elie, how do you imagine the reception of the book? What will its audience be?

Leshem: I think its audience in the US will be fairly similar to its audience in Israel, in the sense that here, too, its appeal isn’t very broad. Among the general public, most people won’t relate to it; those who do will be seekers, and there’s the fact that you need to know a certain language in order to even approach it.

Maor: That leads me to another question: As someone who translated Shagar, I think, it’s no coincidence that you chose to have this conversation in Hebrew, because it’s not only about speaking correct Hebrew or English. He created a new language in Hebrew, and the question is how successful one can be translating that language into English.

Dr. Zohar Maor addresses a conference in memory of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar) in Jerusalem on June 15, 2017 (screen capture: YouTube)
Dr. Zohar Maor addresses a conference in memory of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar) in Jerusalem on June 15, 2017 (screen capture: YouTube)

Leshem: That may not be a question to ask me. I did my best, of course, and I think it’s possible. I think that, on the face of it, it’s hard to compare the experience of a Hebrew-language reader to that of someone who reads Shagar in English. This is the case both because they come from different worlds and because the English-language reader is encountering a different text. But in Hebrew, too, some of the essays underwent heavy editing, which is also a form of translation — you take a recorded lecture and augment it with this or that written material.

Maor: You’re right. Shagar has a very important essay that centers on Torah 19 in Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s “Likutey Moharan,” which is about translation. The essay is interweaved with a lot of the contemporary discourse about translation — Walter Benjamin and others — and is very beautiful, because it really is a window into his world. For him, to translate is to take out of context, but in a positive way. Translation also secularizes — that’s how he saw it.

Leshem: You could say that language itself involves a process akin to secularization, in that it expropriates something from the intimacy of the self and enables a plurality of interpretations, of translations. You could say that’s also part of the definition of Torah: When people look at it, everyone sees something different, but as long as they remain within the bounds of what the text enables, their reading is legitimate, their translation is legitimate.

To go back to your first question: I do think that there will be an audience for the book in the US. There’s a large community of Modern Orthodox people, and I think those who have a bit of background in Judaism, maybe some academic training, will be able to approach it. I also hope it won’t be limited to the Orthodox. There’s an element to the book that can also be interesting to other denominations.

Maor: I think so, too. In fact I wonder if the Reform won’t be the ones who really get into him.

Leshem: It’s possible they’ll be a little annoyed by the essay on halacha, which doesn’t go easy on them.

Maor: Right. You know, in Israel, Shagar also has a growing Haredi readership who identify with him.

Leshem: That’s interesting, because, alongside Israeli traditionalism — which to me links up with his take on Lacan’s idea of the Real, of something intrinsic that we aren’t aware of but that motivates us — he talks about “authentic Haredism” as a solution for Orthodoxy.

Maor: He also sees Haredism as something intrinsic, which is funny, because he was very opposed to idealizations. He would rail at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva crowd for describing secular Israelis in idealized terms, but he did something very similar for Haredi society — he constructed it as non-ideological. He came from a classic National Religious home, and the world of hesder and high school yeshivas at the time was steeped in Haredi educators. Plus, he lived in Jerusalem, so he was well-acquainted with Haredim. Yet, he saw them in a very idealized way, which, again, is funny. He truly didn’t look at them through a sociological lens, as opposed to other communities that he observed with a penetrating eye. They were his utopia.

Leshem: A utopia is also what the Haredim themselves are trying to establish, I think — although maybe in recent years less so. How would you phrase the importance of the Haredi model to him as opposed to other streams of Orthodoxy? I mean, there’s the compartmentalization there of disparate worlds under a single roof.

He didn’t want the National Religious to be a bridge between nationalism and religion but rather to embody a clash

Maor: It’s very interesting. On the one hand, the compartmentalization problem really bothered him; on the other, the bottom line is he thought there was no better solution. He spoke about “holy compartmentalization,” which is a postmodernist hybridization, as a model — to produce a person who is able to contain contradictions. It has a split-personality element that he considered more exalted than the attempt to create something harmonious, but watered down. He didn’t want the National Religious to be a bridge between nationalism and religion, but rather to embody a clash, for the hyphen to separate rather than connect. In that context, he saw Haredism as an arena where religiosity is natural. That’s another contradiction embedded in the world of contradictions that he sought to create. He wanted to give rise to this new National Religious, or Modern Orthodox (Orthodox in the sense of being deeply rooted in tradition) personality that’s idyllic in that it’s informed by Haredism as a way of life, by a flow that’s non-ideological.

Leshem: The Haredism he idealizes is not the Haredism we know. It’s a Haredism that isn’t a reaction to modernity. Did it ever really exist?

Maor: I think it’s a utopia that he builds, perhaps unwittingly, which is also why it breaks down. It’s why he never succeeded in implementing this kind of model. There was a school that was inspired by him, Beit Shulamit, in Ramot, a Hardal (National Haredi) school, whose goal was to provide both a rigorous Jewish rootedness and openness to Nitzsche and all that. The first element happened; the second, not so much. The school caters to American ultra-Orthodox immigrants. But it didn’t really succeed. Neither did the yeshivas that he started.

It’s a problem, because I think reality shows that there’s a limit to how much you can accommodate contradictions — to be at once very frum and a free thinker who reads all the secular sources, which was what he was on a personal level. Perhaps under certain conditions, in a certain place, it can come to be. Perhaps there are Haredim who can live like that. I don’t know. History teaches us that, often, ideas take root in places where no one imagined they would.

Leshem: It seems like such solutions were a reaction more to modernism than to postmodernism.

Maor: I think Shagar uses postmodernism to heal the damage wrought by modernism. On a certain level, paradoxically, he wasn’t drawn to postmodernism only because he was radical; he was drawn to postmodernism because he thought that it could be a salve. The halachic personality that he describes was impossible in a modern world that’s very existentialist and self-aware and reflexive. But postmodernism, with its criticism of reflexivity, and the way it enables language games and difference — for Shagar, that opens up the possibility for a faith that is both very innocent and very exalted.

Leshem: Speaking of the halachic personality, when I read between the lines, I see something that’s perhaps radical in terms of Shagar’s approach to pesika, the extraction of the law. Put simply, he says halacha is continuous revelation, and that if a posek is a believer and, by extension, connected to God, they are a conduit and can theoretically make very significant changes to halacha — as long as they adhere to the hermeneutical rules of pesika — changes that most rabbis today say they don’t have broad enough shoulders to enact.

Efrat's Dagan neighborhood, where the Siach yeshiva is located, January 26, 2017 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Efrat’s Dagan neighborhood, where the Siach yeshiva is located, January 26, 2017 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Maor: Right, but note that there’s a catch. I think that Shagar, at bottom, was also a conservative person — in fact, a very interesting combination of radical and conservative — and he bemoans the fact that the discourse regarding various halachic issues is becoming ideological. As far as he’s concerned, as soon as you participate in that discourse, you’re contaminating halacha — in either direction, whether conservative or ostensibly progressive. For him, halacha has an internal discourse, and the rules of its language game — here, he of course relies heavily on Wittgenstein — are meant to do the job, in either directions. They are what inserts the positive changes — and he was always emphasizing that positive changes are constantly occurring, and that a person like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was a major reformer.

On the other hand, they are also what prevents unhealthy changes from occurring. More than anything, he emphasized that halacha is at bottom conservative, because it’s casuistic. If you adhere to the rules, the mechanism will generate its own brakes. He thought that alongside the aspects of our lives that are revolutionary and radical, we need halacha to provide us with balance. He was also starkly opposed to slogans such as “That which is new is forbidden by the Torah.” To him, that too was untenable.

Leshem: Would you say that as far as he’s concerned, there’s no ideological tinge to the history of halacha, because it remained within the bounds of the rules of pesika?

Maor: That’s a more complex issue that he deals with elsewhere, including in a book that came out recently, “Halichot Olam,” which elaborates on it. I think his main message is that the posek has stances that you can’t disregard, but that they too pass through the casuistic prism. What Shagar shows — very convincingly, I think — is that needs that arise from changing circumstances prompt new interpretations of existing sources to generate necessary rulings, using the accepted talmudic rules. It isn’t that suddenly, boom, the rabbis make things up. The halachic need generates a hermeneutical sensitivity that takes a broad world of possible sources and interpretations into account, and extracts from them a legitimate reading that fulfills the need. And if that reading doesn’t exist, the problem remains unsolved.

Leshem: I noticed that Shagar doesn’t talk much about other avenues of revelation, specifically the individual mystical experience.

Maor: He did deal with these issues, but I think the individual experience didn’t occupy him as much. He was more concerned with the implications of it. There’s something he said once that was used to headline an interview he gave: “You can’t grasp religion without its mystical core.” I think that was an idea that guided him. I assume that he was riffing on Martin Buber’s famous distinction, based on Georg Simmel, between religion and religiosity. He accepts it, but he says that, ideally, the two should be connected, and he addresses that point a lot. For instance, in the final years of his life, he was fascinated by the image of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, especially its messianic aspect. He gave a few talks about the Rebbe’s messianism that haven’t been published yet. The mystical aspect is pivotal to how he understands that messianic surge.

Leshem: Mysticism does seem to be the foundation of Shagar’s philosophy. To him, mysticism manifests via the unconscious, which is where faith resides. Faith — and I think this is a major reversal of our usual conception — is an unconscious thing: As soon as it becomes reflexive, it’s speech about faith. Faith itself is far more fundamental, and we’re not usually exposed to it. He identifies it with Lacan’s idea of the Real, and if I were to take it to a more kabbalistic place, I’d maybe say that it occurs in the Halal Panui, the void. It’s a light that’s drawn from a realm that we cannot see, and that language, due to its limitations, cannot reach.

Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, or Shagar (courtesy)
Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, or Shagar (courtesy)

Maor: That was an issue he dealt with throughout his entire life. Generally speaking, I’d divide his later perspectives in two. One was, like you said, the connection to the Real, which I think was one of his major contributions to theology. It’s interesting that you are reading it as the unconscious, because there’s no doubt that it’s a mystical place. Kabbalistically, he usually associates it with the sephira of Da’at, or Knowledge, not with the Halal Panui. He explained Da’at through the concept of the Real, because what bothered him was that if faith is subjective — an idea that’s very popular in modern thought — then it’s flimsy. On the other hand, if it’s objective, it’s alienated; the way Yeshayahu Leibowitz portrays it, it’s alienated. So, employing the concept of the Real, he tries to connect the two aspects to yield a subjective objectivity or objective subjectivity; meaning, faith is subjective in that it isn’t factual, but it goes beyond the self.

The second perspective, which is more Chabad-like and Wittgensteinian, and which also figures in the essay about halacha, is where he describes faith as a sort of language game. That brings him closer to Leibowitz in that faith is life, it’s a progression. Faith isn’t me saying, “I believe,” but rather, “I believe, therefore I do; I believe in the godly life, and I sow.” In both cases, you’re correct in saying that faith isn’t reflexive.

Leshem: Right. In the second perspective, too, there’s an unconscious element. The language game isn’t only words but also physical gestures — all sorts of things that we’ve internalized. It seems that for Shagar faith is a place of mystical union, where man is identified with God, and there’s something hassidic about it in that it internalizes the kabbalistic system.

Maor: That’s easy to explain in terms of the Real, but harder using the idea of language games. He has an essay about that, called “Faith and Language according to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi,” that I think was very difficult for him to write. The truth is, it isn’t entirely clear how the two approaches can be reconciled — it was never fully elucidated. It’s apparent that when he’s talking about Rabbi Shneur Zalman there’s a pantheistic aspect to it, but it isn’t clear how it works according to Wittgenstein. Maybe there’s someone out there who understands it, but I don’t think I do at the moment.

Sometimes people need trauma in order to open themselves up to the order of the Real, although Shagar, as a teacher, didn’t talk about that

Leshem: I was wondering about him on a personal level. He was badly wounded in the Yom Kippur War, and, obviously, that was a very traumatic experience. Now, when I think about the Real, I think of trauma as something that can rip open a very powerful window into it, creating an intense need to reconcile the experience of the Real with life before the traumatic event.

Are we meant to celebrate the emptiness or fill the void? These are questions that remain unanswered by Shagar

Maor: I agree completely. That’s also why he was attracted to that language, to these ideas — through the idea of trauma — even if it isn’t explicit. According to Lacan, the Real manifests when there’s trauma. Shagar presents it in a manner that’s a lot more mystical, but when you dig deeper, the two things link up. Sometimes people need trauma in order to open themselves up to the order of the Real, although Shagar, as a teacher, didn’t talk about that. As a teacher, I think, he tried to take it to a more creative place, as making room, clearing a space for faith to happen.

Leshem: He attracted a lot of people who had been touched by trauma.

Maor: That’s true, although I’m not one of them. There was something about him that embodied the Kotzker Rebbe’s saying “There’s nothing more whole than a broken heart.” He had that dimension and he radiated it in a very powerful way. Naturally, he drew to him people who were wounded, in pain. I think one of the biggest questions that relate to his inhibition — to borrow another term from Lacan — is, did he take pain to a place of health, or did he take health to a place of pain? Is trauma what there is, or is it something that you’re meant to recover from? Is it the diving board, or is it the pool itself? He had periods like this and periods like that, and consequently he had students like this and students like that. At the end of the day, I believe that his figure is very reminiscent of that of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

Leshem: He did embody a kind of paradox that is also apparent in Rebbe Nachman, when it comes to faith and reflexivity: that while you’re enjoined to be innocent and unsophisticated — and as soon as you become reflexive that’s lost — you’re also meant to be as reflexive as possible, to really excavate your psyche. I connect this — and I think it’s apparent in his writings — to a place of creativity: In order for there to be creativity and vitality, there has to be a sort of dynamic, an oscillation between poles.

Maor: Shagar partook of many of Rebbe Nachman’s paradoxes, for example that cycle of hope and despair, and his ongoing flirtation with a faith based on the sephira of Ayin, or Nothingness, which is also what he found attractive in postmodernism. Then there’s the nihilism that Rebbe Nachman, too, toyed with. The million-dollar question is, what does he do with the Halal Panui? What takes place there? Rebbe Nachman says there’s a niggun, a tune, but what does that mean? Are we meant to celebrate the emptiness or fill the void? These are questions that remain unanswered by Shagar, and it’s clear to me that various students of his are answering them in different ways.

One student, Yishai Mevorach, who just published a book, takes Rav Shagar to an even more radical place, a true place of Ayin, of Halal Panui, which he also identifies as the post-secular space and the post-Holocaust space. His is a very bleak theology, I think. And there are others who, like Rabbi Dov Zinger, take it to a place of perseverance and paradox. What do I mean by paradox? I mean that you cry and laugh at the same time. There are those who try to do away with that paradoxical cycle and stay only with the despair; they celebrate despair and say, “This is all there is.”

Most Popular
read more: