1. Book Reviews:
- Faith shattered and restored: Judaism in the postmodern age
By Rav S. G. Rosenberg (Shagar)
Reviewed by Daniel Rose
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Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (1949-2007), known widely by his acronym Rav Shagar, has recently gained quite some momentum in the consciousness of the English speaking (or more accurately English reading) modern Orthodox world. This has largely been due to the recent publication of a collection of several of his most celebrated essays in English translation by Maggid Books. In their relentless efforts to bring hitherto inaccessible Israeli thinkers to the English speaking world, such as Rabbi Benny Lau and Rabbi Yehuda Amital to name but two, (as well as bringing English speaking thinkers to the Hebrew speaking market, such as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), this latest project has once again proven invaluable in bridging the gap between the two poles of modern orthodoxy, so often distanced from each other, lacking a common language (sometimes literally).
Much has been written recently about Rav Shagar and his thought, (for example here, here, and here) and rather than risk repetition or paraphrasing, I would like to share a more personal approach to the impact of this volume on someone who had no previous experience or knowledge of Rav Shagar or his thought.
Arguably Rav Shagar’s most important contribution to Jewish thought is his approach to postmodernism through the prism of traditional Torah sources and systems of thought. His approach to postmodernism is that of a religious individual rather than an academic, and therefore makes no attempt to provide an exhaustive approach to postmodernism as a philosophical system. Perhaps because of this, he provides a manageable entry into postmodernist thought, and a creative and inspiring integration of postmodernism into a contemporary and relevant Torah hashkafa.
His definition of modernism, the philosophical thought that preceded postmodernism, is a good starting point: “Modernity believed in the existence of an absolute truth. This belief led to a demand for coherency and the resolution of all contradictions in a given language, be it historical, psychological, biological, or religious.” (p.58). Conversely, postmodernism is “not so much a philosophical theory as a mode of life and a state of consciousness—a cultural situation some would even say. At its root is a loss of faith in grand narrative, in metaphysical goals, and in comprehensive theories” (p. 85). Postmodernism, he contends, rejects the absolute certainty of modernity, and instead proposes that “there is no truth, certainly not with a capital T. In such a word, truth is a cultural product or artifact. Every truth hinges on specific cultural contexts and is perceived as something that benefits specific interests” (p. 106).
Even a superficial grasp of Rav Shagar’s biography can give us a sense of how this approach grew out of the narrative of his life, one replete with contradictions. Born in 1949 to Holocaust survivors, he was both a first generation Israeli and second generation Holocaust Survivor, embodying the dichotomy of 20th century Jewish history with its traumas of the Shoah juxtaposed to the redemptive dream for the State of Israel. While growing up in a Religious Zionist framework, and upon graduating high school he attended Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, the first Hesder yeshiva to combine Torah study with army service, most of the teachers were haredi. While still a yeshiva student he began to question the prevailing Brisker method of Talmudic study as well as the ideology of the national religious movement. The trauma he experienced in the Yom Kippur War, losing two members of his tank crew and himself being seriously injured, left a deep mark on him, challenging the faith and dreams of Religious Zionism on which he had been raised. He began his path as an innovative teacher and thinker as a young teacher at Yeshivat HaKotel, becoming renowned for the innovative approaches of existential Talmudic study and Jewish philosophy, the enhancement of Torah learning by academic research, as well as for the study of Hasidic literature. To fully realize these three fields, the existential, academic and Hasidic, he decided he would need to establish his own institutions of learning. These included the Mekor Hayim yeshiva, Maale beit midrash, Beit Morasha, and the Siach Yitzchak yeshiva.
I would like to share a precis of just four chapters from the book that I found particularly inspiring and powerful, and relevant to the world I find myself inhabiting, even some years after they were originally penned.
Rav Shagar’s exploration of issues of faith and morality in chapter 1, “Uncertainty as the Trial of the Akeida”, is a rambunctious start to this collection, as he plays the role of iconoclast, rejecting the approaches of Kierkegaard, Yehuda Leibowitz and Rav Soloveitchik, (God stands above morality), and Rav Kook (God’s command is always harmonious with natural morality). In this essay he introduces us to the quintessential postmodern theme of living with uncertainty. Avraham, in the face of an unethical command, could not be certain on what was expected of him – obedience or rebellion. He was left only with the choice of simultaneous obedience and protest.
In chapter 3, “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” he explores how the Orthodox should respond to non-Orthodox ideologies. The leitmotif of attacking sacred cows continues as Rav Kook’s approach of “universalizing”, by incorporating the Other into an Orthodox narrative, is rejected. While we are committed to our own believes, it is not possible to prove them to others, and therefore Rav Shagar he argues we have to consider them as contingent. He argues against the preoccupation with justifying ourselves to the Other, or in recognizing him in ourselves. This is in effect an end to claims to truth, and the reliance on external frameworks for self-definition, and is the beginning of self-acceptance.
In the challenging chapter 6, “Justice and Ethics in a Postmodern World”, the practical implication of Rav Shagar’s approach to postmodern thought is taken for a test run. He opens the chapter with the ever contemporarily relevant question: if in the postmodern framework there are no absolute values and truth is a cultural product, then “Does the democratic West have the right to preach its own ethics to peoples who, for reasons of religion or tradition, oppose it?” (p.105) and uses widow burning and female genital mutilation as his test cases. He uses Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and his “conundrums without answers” or “conundrums from the void” (kushiyot mehachalal hapanui) as a framework for an approach, and cites the paradox of the kabbalistic tzimtzum as the key to the problem: “one must respect and grant significance to every opinion without diminishing one’s respect for one’s own opinion”. (p.114) He concludes this essay with a proclamation in his belief in a “positive, faith filled pluralism” and through walking in the path of the Hasidim and Rav Kook, “I will be able to identify the divine in all things, without devaluing my own faith, but rather reinforcing it.” (p. 116) In this he diverges from classic postmodernist thought, admitting that “beyond our various cultural differences, there is a universal truth shared by all humans… a shared foundation that is inherent to our very humanity.” (p.118)
The final chapter 10, “Seventy Bullocks and One Sukka: The Land of Israel, Nationalism, and Diaspora,” is a fitting way to conclude a collection of Rav Shagar’s essays in English translation, as it departs from the traditional Religious Zionist position on nationalism, and presents a “’softer’ nationalism, one that makes room for the Other, that does not look down on or disdain other nations” (p.184) or for that matter Jews that live outside of the State of Israel. This is an inspiring approach, presenting an alternative to the mainstream Religious Zionist positions often perceived as fundamentalist compared to its Modern Orthodox cousin from the diaspora, on Israel-diaspora relations and approaches to other nations. Rav Shagar provides us with an alternative path to bridging the gap between these two communities, much in the same way as the publication of this collection aims to do.
In a world where thinking with nuance seems to be a lost art, and where the proliferation of social media and its impact on our lives is in steady incline, and with it that all too familiar feeling of implosion as all sides of every debate seem to decry the other of promulgating only untruths and misinformation, Rav Shagar gives us a blueprint for living in a world of uncertainty that offers no absolutes, encouraging only our own internal faith as a sufficient courage for living in a world that allows room for the Other.
Faith shattered and restored: Judaism in the postmodern age can be purchased at https://www.korenpub.com/maggid_en_usd/faith-shattered-and-restored.html