In December of 2016 I attended a conference on the work of Rebbe Nahman of Breslov at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. In addition to the wonderful papers, the conference was fascinating because of the diverse crowd it attracted. Aside from the obvious scholarly community, many traditional (and less traditional) Breslovers as well as other Hasidim attended, as did many religious younger men and women who live in the settlements. I struck up a conversation with a number of young settlers during one of the breaks and I asked them what they were learning. One said to me, “Rav Kook is what our parents study. We are interested in Rebbe Nahman.”
So why the turn to Rebbe Nahman from Rav Kook? Rebbe Nahman gives these young Israelis a romantic sense of the land without the trappings of politics. He gives them a sense of individuality distinct from the collective. He has become for many of them the patriarch of religious post-Zionism, a love of the land without, or at least separate from, a love of the state.
Religious post-Zionism? Does such a thing exist? Many of the young people I spoke with expressed a sense of alienation from the state, one even saying he won’t join the army, “Why should I become a solider? So I can throw a family out of its home?” (referring I assume to the 2005 Gaza evacuation). “The state has abandoned us,” another said. While the comments I heard at the conference certainly do not represent the majority of young settlers, I think they do point to the changing nature of settler ideology in a generation that grew up with the Gaza evacuation in 2005 as their most formative memory.
Yet most American Jews, certainly most religious ones, will scoff at the term: Post-Zionism is a movement of far-left Israelis who have abandoned the myth of origins of Zionism and have questioned not only the occupation but also the foundations, and nature, of the state itself. Still, unbeknownst to many, there is something similar, yet also quite different, happening among young settlers who have come of age after the Gaza evacuation. While we often think about the political fallout of the evacuation from Gaza, we don’t see how it has severely damaged the settler ideology forged by rabbis like Zvi Yehuda Kook, Hanan Porat, Shlomo Aviner, and others of the 1967 generation. For many young settlers, the state has indeed abandoned them, even as settlement construction continues on the West Bank.
If the return of Sinai and Yamit in 1982 was a disaster, the evacuation of Gaza in 2005 is viewed by many settler youth as an unmitigated catastrophe—the settler Nakba. My conversation with these young men in Jerusalem has led to me to believe that those of us who look primarily to familiar names—from Rav Kook to Rav Lichtenstein and including Meir Kahane and his political disciples—in order to understand contemporary settler ideology are living in the past.
I began reading Rav Shagar’s work some years ago when I purchased his Luhot ve Shivrei Luhot (Tablets and Broken Tablets: Judaism and Postmodernism) in Jerusalem, and I have become an avid reader of his work ever since. Initially I was not expecting much from a Rosh Yeshiva who had no secular education and was not proficient in any language other than Hebrew, but who nevertheless wrote about postmodernism. To be sure, Rav Shagar’s knowledge of the intricacies of postmodern criticism can be thin. What I found, however, is that he seemed to grasp the challenges of postmodernism in relation to Zionism and contemporary religiosity in a manner that is quite creative and often profound. For him, insights from postmodernism serve as a new lens through which he revises, and at times abandons, regnant notions of Judaism and Zionism. It was that fresh view of Israeli society that I believe was being expressed, perhaps somewhat unreflectively, in the young settlers I spoke with at the Van Leer Institute.
Rav Shagar grew up as a religious Zionist. He was a student of R. Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982), fought in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 where he was seriously injured, and later taught in various yeshivot in the West Bank. With his creativity and charismatic personality he quickly gained a following among young yeshiva students. He was later involved in Yeshivat Mekor Hayyim founded by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and then Beit Morasah founded by Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, author of a critically acclaimed book on R. Abraham Isaac Kook. In 1997 Rav Shagar, with R. Yair Dreyfus, cofounded Yeshivat Siah Yizhak, where he taught until his untimely death.
Almost ten years after his passing we are now fortunate to have the first volume of collected essays of Rav Shagar in a felicitous English translation by Elie Leshem. This 2017 work, Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age , introduces Rav Shagar to the English-speaking world. The book contains 11 essays chosen from the numerous volumes of Rav Shagar’s Hebrew writings. It also includes edited lecture notes from various public appearances, some published in settler journals and some never published in any form. It contains a very useful Introduction by Zohar Meor who edits Rav Shagar’s writings and an appreciative yet also critical Afterword by Shalom Carmy, professor of Jewish philosophy and Hebrew Bible at Yeshiva University. It is a wonderful testament to Rav Shagar’s approach to Judaism, Zionism, and the crisis of the present age.
Rav Shagar’s interest in modernity and postmodernism is limited to the space each creates for religious faith and devotion. In his essay “My Faith: Faith in a Postmodern World” Rav Shagar suggests that the believer in modernity lives 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 shared by the likes of Rav Soloveitchik and Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and “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.” But 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.
In “Living with Nothingness” Rav Shagar argues that postmodernism entailed the loss of an absolute but also the loss of faith “in man as an entity with a defined cohesive identity.” How, then, can belief and religion survive in such a fragmented world, where even human subjectivity cannot provide a sufficient foundation for truth claims? Rav Shagar’s answer is that the rupture of postmodernity creates an opening for a new kind of mysticism that is not founded on the experience of truth but one whereby the nothingness that emerges from the death of the absolute and the subject creates an opening that enables the individual “to make an independent decision to accept the yoke of heaven.”
Divine absence, and thus loss of faith in the absolute, creates the potential for living with nothingness. “Postmodernism does not attempt to resurrect yesh (the real) through the ayin (the unknowable divine absolute); it leaves the ayin as it is, seeing it as even trying to subsist in its shadow, so as to derive ethical, social, and political conclusions from it… In postmodernism, ayin, is identical to the halal ha-panui, the void.” This void, the place where God is not, and thus where God cannot be revealed, is made famous by Rebbe Nahman who for Rav Shagar is the signpost to Jewish postmodernism.
For Rav Shagar hard postmodernism leaves no room for faith nor a life of devotion even as it accurately describes the present condition. “Soft postmodernism, meanwhile—translates nothingness into equality, freedom, and even merit. … Only postmodernism can produce an individual who acts ethically without invoking assorted grand ideologies—which are doomed by their very absoluteness—to justify its ethicality. … Still soft postmodernism does not deny the absolute absence to which hard postmodernism points.” The relinquishing of absolute truth, and just as important one’s need for it, can be re-framed as a mystical encounter with ayin (nothingness). This notion he refers to as a form of postmodern bitul (nullification), essentially a celebration of nothingness. “To my mind, not only does this stance not contradict faith, it refines it. By denying the idea of truth and the modern ideological system, postmodernism frees faith from the clutches of modernity and the limitations that is imposed on the believer.”
Rav Shragar’s faith amounts to a mystical piety without truth. It is completely subjectified and thus, it is “spiritual.”
What Rav Shagar is suggesting is that the Jewish engagement with postmodernism can be a form of neo-Hasidic or neo-kabbalistic Judaism—a new mysticism that has no absolute ground but expresses itself through the radical subjectivity of the believer to live with the nothingness, the ayin, of creation. The irreconcilable rupture of nothingness also creates the condition of openness to difference, to a celebration of myriad forms of truth as they emerge from the human recognition, and experience, of ayin. This is what I think he means by the celebration of nothingness (ayin).
One cannot say that Rav Shagar’s thinking is not deeply influenced by world of Rav Kook. It is the world he grew up in and he remained in the orbit of Kook’s teachings his entire life. And yet there is also a deep critique of Rav Kook’s worldview as hopelessly modern, and thus irrelevant to the present. In many ways I read Rav Shagar’s project as a corrective to Rav Kook’s belief in an absolute and his focus on the collective. This corrective comes through Rebbe Nahman of Breslov.
In “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” Rav Shagar heuristically frames modernity and Orthodoxy in three figures: Rav Kook, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and R. Soloveitchik. Rav Kook “aspired to sanctify the material world, meaning modernity, thus harmonizing two ostensible opposite worlds.” For Leibowitz religiosity and holiness were neutral categories in modernity, utterly irrelevant to reality. R. Soloveitchik presented a compromise through a dialectic whereby the holy and secular, still separate and held in tension with one another, would eventually yield a harmonic end. Rav Shagar writes, “it is my contention that not a single one of them [Kook, Leibowitz, and Soloveitchik] is still relevant. The present-day problem is not the integration of modernity and Orthodoxy, but rather the fact that in our postmodern world, both have been rendered obsolete.”
For Rav Shagar, Orthodoxy has no real roots in Judaism (he writes “Orthodoxy … is foreign to Judaism”); it is a modern phenomenon, necessary in its time, but hopelessly embedded in a synthesis of tradition and modernity (Torah U Madda) that no longer applies. And yet Rav Shagar openly remains committed to Orthodoxy, at least in practice, because he views its continued fidelity and dedication to halakha as the best possible condition for its own overcoming. Yet, for him, if Orthodoxy does not revise its foundations to conform to the postmodern turn, it will become a relic, even if it survives. Rav Shagar notes that “the test of halakha is not its truth, but its ability to maintain the integrity of its character as a linguistic and practical system.” There is no longer any point in turning the secular Jew into a religious one, there is no synthesis of opposites in a romantic monistic universe where all is One.
The savior for Rav Shagar, the one who is postmodern before his time, qs Rebbe Nahman. Why? Because only Rebbe Nahman understood that faith is not a public language, that the collective may exist but the individual is the first tier; and the individual is always in a state of rupture.
In the mid-1980s I had the privilege of studying with Professor David Flusser a scholar of Jewish antiquity and early Christianity at The Hebrew University. Walking him to his taxi one evening after seminar we talked about Jewish thinkers in modernity. “The best one of all, by far” Professor Flusser said, “was Nahman of Breslov.” When I asked why, he said, “Because he was the only one who really understood the crisis of being alive.” “Do you mean the crisis of the individual or the crisis of the collective,” I asked. He looked at me mildly annoyed and barked in exasperation, “For Nahman it is the same thing
Rav Shagar is certainly a Zionist but like his colleague R. Menachem Froman, he presents an immanent critic of Zionism, developing what he calls in his essay on Yom ha-Azma’ut (not included in this volume) “On the Religiosity of Post-Zionism.” In a note to “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” Rav Shagar writes, “the national religious movement’s attempt to resolve the tension between modernity and the religious life through integrations and harmonizations has also yielded a dogmatic approach. Religious Zionism has undertaken to internalize modern secular values, but not by acknowledging their secularity…this approach was implemented without acknowledging that, oftentimes, the ‘sanctification of the secular’ actually constituted a ‘secularization of the sacred.’ This critique of the national religious movement is often voiced in haredi circles.”
For Rav Shagar Religious Post-Zionism is intertwined with his Neo-Haredism, the turn away from the collective as defining the self, the turn to the land in a way that is not always fused with the state, the love and intimacy with tradition that requires no proof or justification. He fully acknowledges the rigidity and doxa of present-day Haredism but “yearns for a different haredism… for these days theology must be founded on alienation and absurdity, among other things.”
Ironically then, for Rav Shagar, Zionism is saved by adopting elements of the haredi critique and thus revising haredi anti-Zionism now refracted through the postmodern lens of Rebbe Nahman’s fragmented world. The celebration of nothingness holds the potential for truth to come from every corner, the Arab and the Jew, the homeland and the Diaspora, Israel and the world. What haredism has is an intimacy with the tradition, an aesthetic lifestyle that Modern Orthodoxy’s “by the book” Judaism lacks.
Religious Zionism is defined by power and sovereignty over the land. Rav Shagar’s Religious Post-Zionism is defined by intimacy with the land. Religious Zionism in Rav Shagar’s view is a product of modernity, a belief in the absolute and unalienable Jewish right to the land. In his Religious Post-Zionism there is no absolute unalienable right. Or alternatively, there are many such rights, and all are expressions of truth that rise from the fragments of a ruptured world. The Realpolitik does not concern him, what concerns him is the soul of the people. And that soul, he argues, is being diminished every time it tries to prove its case or exert its force over the other who also has an experience of intimacy with the land. In some way, Religious Zionism as presently construed is preventing the Judaism he seeks to cultivate in a postmodern era.
The settler youth I spoke with in Jerusalem may be voicing the beginnings of a new phase of Religious Zionism, or perhaps the beginnings of its undoing. In any event, their views are not solely their own but the seedlings of Rav Shagar’s Post-Zionist project coming from deep within the settler community where he lived and taught. Faith Shattered and Restored offers us a window into that world.
You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.