Translated by Rabbi Moshe Simkovich, published in the blog kavvanah.wordpress.com. The hebrew version was published in the book ‘Luhot ve Shivrei Luhut’.
Rav Shagar concludes his insights about faith, judaism and jewish education in a postmodern world.
I am concerned that my involvement with Postmodernism may have been unduly delayed, that is, too late to fully realize the opportunity for a real revitalization of our religious world. Passover, the Jewish Festival of Freedom, teaches us not to force matters, but we also must not push matters off. From my perspective, one of the problems of the Torah world is that out of concern for forcing matters, all too often we act too late, and the ramifications are tragic.
I do not intend to sanctify Postmodernism, and I do not wish to hide from its problems. However, the Postmodernism position is not at all marginal; it exerts its influence throughout society. We must come to terms with it. One can observe the influence of Postmodernism even in the relationship of children to their parents and teachers – a small child might contact the police if his father beats him, and if his teacher tells him something he will not hesitate to tell him how he thinks differently. The relativistic mindset is already embedded in the basic personality structures of children.
The influence of Postmodernism is also recognizable in the religious community. It is particularly so in the younger generation, as is readily apparent from the perspective of its popular repercussions. One could argue that the loss of authority, nihilism, and the instability was due to the ideological excesses that characterize Religious Zionism.
True, seminaries and yeshivot hesder thrive and increase, but are most young adults there? How many of the young complete army service, skip through the universities, and remain true to Religious Zionism? What of the phenomena of secularity that apparently is here to stay? And in general, what of the ‘good youth’ who complete yeshiva and enter university? More than once I have heard of students, even those who studied in more ‘open’ yeshivot, who complain: ‘They misled me in yeshiva!’ When they came to university they encountered a different worldview, a secular culture that they testify forced them to totally reconsider the worldview as taught in the yeshiva.
Indeed, there were those who foresaw that the confrontation between Torah and Western Culture would tear the religious community up, splitting it into a Conservative camp, and a Haredi or Haredi-Zionist camps (חרד”ל); one could claim we see that very thing before us now. From my point of view, the problem has not one but two sides, i.e. as evidenced by the Haredi-Zionist phenomena. In some of the yeshivot, there is missed opportunity – a slide of the Religious Zionist perspective towards inflexible fundamentalism. This is at variance from the blend that we aspire to; to be rooted in the land in its deepest and simplest manifestation, while at the same time to be rooted in universalistic-modern values. These Neo-Haredi do not return to the prevailing Haredi stance, which has its own natural flow and whose essence is self-evident to its followers. It is precisely because these Haredim are of the modern rather than the traditionalist world, and yet are taken aback by the ramifications of their ideology, that their strict reverence creates a new sort of Haredi. I must tell you this form of Haredi scares me. It seems dangerous because of the identity it creates, not to mention its impact upon the communal and political levels. I identify this breaking up of Religious Zionism with the impact of Postmodernism. In response to the multi-faceted Postmodernist challenge, some give in to modern culture, and some throw up defenses against it.
In the face of this reality, what I wanted to do is, as Rav Kook said, ‘build a palace of faith beyond apostasy (כפירה)’, i.e. to recognize this situation and not to settle for its mere internalization as is, or its rejection. I would rather see how it can help build a new level of faith based on our reality, whatever the difficulty. I will not hide my conviction that in this situation there are exciting faith options, ones that I believe are superior to classical or modern options.
Moreover, and here I make an audacious leap, I see myself like someone grasping the hems of Rav Kook’s cloak in his coming to terms with the era’s movements. I don’t mean to compare myself to Rav Kook, I am dust under his feet. But if you wish to follow his path you must learn from his example, have the bravery to clarify and come to terms with modern culture and the times, as well as stand up to the critics of your approach.
Truly, one should not forget that the Rav’s ideas also raised serious challenges. More than once critics claimed that his way was appropriate for those on his high level, but not for people at large. For example, the Gerrer Rebbe, the ‘Imrei Emes’, after critiquing Rav Kook, spoke about him in glowing terms, but held that his way was not suited for the general public. Rav Haim Sonnenfeld criticized Rav Kook’s tolerance and opposed his ‘impatience for the end’ (messianic hopes).
Still and all, these were classic attacks, resisting all who had breakthroughs. Whenever we have to consider change, we are filled with doubts and fears. The new portends destruction of the old, and forces us to separate from old good familiar ways. But if we wish to contend with the questions raised by changing times – modern in Rav Kook’s times, postmodern in ours – we have no alternative. Even if we don’t want to confront the times, we are forced to do so. Thus, as Rav Nachman [of Breslov] says, we must adopt a position based on the power of holiness and must say things heretofore deemed unacceptable, even though it contradicts earlier approaches.
Postmodernism does not have a standard definition, and many have written about this. Many Postmodernists themselves resist a clear definition of their perspective, as in principle they oppose definitions. For the sake of our discussions Postmodernism can be characterized as a position that holds truth to be a function of societal cultural constructs, and thus denies that certitude is possible, Post-modernism can also be characterized as a radical striving for freedom, i.e. the freedom of the individual to establish himself and his values.
There are educators, perhaps the majority, who denigrate Postmodernism as absolutely worthless, seeing in it dissolution, nihilism, and the breakdown of societal framework. Others can accept limited aspects – as a critique that awakens us to the falsity and limitations under which we exist, or as it expands the pluralistic horizons of our education- not as negative phenomena, but as an in-house inner critique. Yet, I believe there is a more radical critique here.
I am of the opinion that postmodernism and deconstructionism constitute a ‘shattering of the vessels’ (שבירת הכלים). Yet this very shattering grants us wide ranging freedom, and as far as religion goes – freedom to believe, even without absolute proofs and evidence.
The Hassidim understood the departure from Egypt not just as an historic event, but rather as a paradigm for every generation; a leaving of restraints behind, a breaking of the world’s boundaries and oppression. In this sense postmodernism is a departure from these limitations in its most radical sense.
In relationship to this conception I would like to emphasize a few points.
My friend Rabbi Yehuda Brandes opposes the classical and widespread trend to base Jewish Philosophy curricula on the assumption that faith can be rationally demonstrated. His opposition is based on the premise that a young student who is not philosophically adept, in the framework of the spiritual cultural world in which he exists, will not incorporate these proofs.
In its place he recommends a Hassidic Existentialist position – to attempt to show the student a point which he too can believe in – assuming no one to be a total nihilist. It is our job to clarify, or to help the student clarify, that point of absolute truth which he too believes. Once this entry point to belief has been brought to light, one can move on, perhaps expand his domain of belief, and make a place there for additional beliefs.
The reader should be careful not to misunderstand this exposition as a call to no longer attempt philosophical proofs that support faith; the mood of our times must come to terms with any suggested change along these lines. Just as a philosophical or historical proof will hold little interest for our youth, similarly an existential proof will likely not be accepted. Why? Because faith, by definition, cannot be conclusively proven. The very pursuit of a sturdy viewpoint, with reliable support for faith, undermines it.
I attempted to demonstrate this very point in my book “Kelim Nishbarim” (Broken Vessels). We must free ourselves from seeing discussions of faith as providing reliable support, something to hang on to. Faith is its own category – I can pray to God, I can be part of the faith, I can identify myself as a believer – but once someone brings ‘proof’ for faith, I am no longer a ‘believer’. Proof and faith are mutually exclusive. Bringing a proof to me does not make me a believer. A proof of that sort is like a gun pointed at my head, and it cannot influence my inner being.
Here is where I see the constructive role of Postmodernism. Postmodernism typically leads down the road to nihilism, relativism, to a loss of a point of reference, to no longer being able to validate faith; yet it can lead us to discussions of faith (rather than just about faith), and free us to pray.
This postmodernist world, in my humble opinion, opens the door to a much higher level of belief. What drives my thoughts of God is not the idea of God’s great omnipotence, but rather that God is not ‘a thing’; God is the absolute pure, the fulfilled seeking, the infinite; as Maimonides says ‘the Omnipresent but not of the world’. The ‘devekut’ (cleaving or intense spirituality) that this recognition generates flows from our understanding that divinity and belief are not truly accessible to language and objects This understanding releases us from our daily preoccupations, allows us to enter into the world of belief and prayer, and thus brings us to devekut (cleaving to God), deeper faith, and great dedication. Thus, I contend that we should release faith and religiosity from the objective-philosophical domain of facts, as faith is not something that one can really verbally express. In this manner Postmodernism can create faith based on freedom, faith that is based on personal choice, on a decision. Such a freedom is of course terrible and difficult, with a feeling of the earth quaking beneath us. Thus, Sartre spoke about how the individual is condemned to freedom, but we must overcome this ominous predicament, and train ourselves to a radical freedom that entails deciding to accept the heavenly yoke.
This point is particularly important for adherents of the Religious-Zionist movement, so downtrodden by ideological stances. One could characterize the previous generation as the generation of Baalei-Teshuva (returnees to faith). In that generation religion was not a given, deeply rooted, as in the Haredi world. The gap between faith and the Baal-Teshuva was bridged through ideology, which responded to contradictions between traditional Judaism and the values and lifestyle of modern life. However, ideology and faith are not identical; ideology is like a statue, a picture, a hardened structure, and doesn’t have the sense of the infinite that characterizes faith in the divine. The Midrash says that God is truth, because God lives. Belief is found in life, not in ideology or philosophy.
Postmodernism’s sharp opposition to ideologies dispels the Religious-Zionist community’s extreme emphasis on ideology, bringing it back to a Living Torah. From this perspective one can learn from Haredi, which at its best is built from identity and not ideology, which changes the Jewish world into something self-evident. We need an education that fosters accepting Heaven’s yoke in its highest conceptualization, reforming our existing religious world into a world that confidently affirms itself without constantly looking over its shoulder. Ideology often is a sign of estrangement, of an inability to relate to one’s essence and all its ramifications. Thus a sensitive and open pedagogy (that yet maintains certain connections) characteristic of the Haredi world, should be an important central ingredient in our education.
In my opinion, the transition from a ‘Religion of Truth’ to a ‘Religion of Belief’ is the most profound point of Post-Modernism.
From a pedagogical standpoint, instead of speaking about ‘the Truth’, which in the Postmodernist conception has a pejorative connotation, let us speak of ‘accepting the yoke of Heaven’. This is something altogether different. Our truest difficulty is to accept the yoke of Heaven; to accept responsibility. An example from married life: A man could fall in love with a particular woman, but in order to get married he must do something further – he must (mindfully) decide to get married. A person can be married many years without coming to the conclusion that this is the woman with whom he wishes to spend his entire life. It is the same in the domain of faith, and in the domain of values. In all these domains there are needs to make a decisive move to accept the yoke of Heaven. This decision is a paradoxical move. It is not based on arguments and proofs, but rather on the readiness of the person to become obligated, and to trust in the values that due to his decision become obligatory and absolute.
Here a beautiful Chabad teaching is worth consideration. Chabad distinguishes between Passover where the departure from Egypt is at its heart, and the Counting of the Omer. The departure from Egypt is inspirational, redemptive, and filled with love, as expressed in the Song of Songs which we read on Passover. But as usually happens, when we descend back into our mundane routine world, enthusiasm dissipates. An individual cannot base his life on passion, redemption, and inspiration, of the theme of departing Egypt, which Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi indeed recommended to be the anchor for faith. Thus, we need the ritual of Counting the Omer in which we accept the yoke of Heaven – readiness to serve without such illuminations.
One can explain these two stages; illumination and accepting Heaven’s yoke, in a different way.
The emancipation of leaving Egypt is freedom as independence, authenticity, as readiness to be myself; it is the primary freedom. The second freedom, accepting the yoke of Heaven, is the wholehearted acceptance of this independence as a divine fiat, not as chance. In contrast to the first decision, there is no instant of authenticity, and so it is a more difficult freedom.
Indeed, from the pedagogical angle it is difficult to create a sensitivity to independence, to the divine point within us. To some of our youth this independence is nothing but chance and relativism. They will claim that they are faithful, but only because they were brought up that way. If they were brought up somewhere else they would have grown into different people, perhaps not faithful. Of course such an attitude weakens the possibility to hand down tradition, to enter into the Torah world empowered and with conviction. This difficulty of having a self-confident identity is an effect of the inability to have confidence in any foundational point outside of oneself.
Besides the claim that Postmodernism can purify and free us to believe, in Broken Vessels I argued that all told, a decision to believe is based on the person himself. Belief in truly begins with us. Accepting the yoke of Heaven begins from the point of the absolute incomprehensible void, and this is difficult since this commitment in itself is prone to be understood as nihilistic. Indeed, it has been said that both the apikorus (non-believer) and faithful refer to the ‘void’, but the believer refers to the ‘holy void’. The ‘unholy void’ of Postmodernism can flip and become the ‘holy void’ which the Kabbalists speak of, and from which they derived their closeness to the divine. The task I set for myself in my book was a description of this phenomena. I think that in this manner, the problem itself is potentially the source of its solution.
Emphatically, I do not take lightly the possibility that Postmodernism can lead to nihilism. It not only disparages the idea of truth and the ability to prove, but also challenges the whole concept of religious norms, values, and ethics, seeing in them societal repression. It identifies those things which we perceive as givens in our reality as social constructs. Yet, in so doing it enables radical freedom, and it is this very freedom that scares religious people. To me, the answer to this fear is the understanding that a construct may be specifically empowered, such as what came into being via the six days of creation, or that descended from Sinai. It all depends upon the ability to accept the yoke, to decide. We must not fear freedom. I am not party to the fear that in a world of unlimited possibilities, a world where belief itself is possible, where a decision – and not logical proof nor society – determines belief, that we will abandon religion. I am not party to the fear that without a campaign built on constraints, pressures, and compulsion, our youth will run away. I myself am not tied into a social network for security – normative or otherwise – in order to fulfill mitzvoth. We need to believe in ourselves and to believe in the Only One.
I was not surprised by the reactions to my book, neither by the opposition to it, nor its popularity, nor by the intensity of the responses. I am not interested in the consensus, and there is no doubt that the critiques and stands expressed in the book are likely to shake many convictions. This was indeed my goal; shaking Religious-Zionist thinking from its dogmatism.
Nevertheless, I was very frustrated because the essential message of the book was missed and misunderstood. This is the mystical option that Postmodernism enables, precisely because of the deconstruction that comes in its wake and its strong critique of the rationalist position. As Rav Kook taught in a multitude of places, mysticism is the seed of religion. Scholars such as Gershom Scholem held the same from their perspectives. Here is real potential for a religiosity of intimacy, of a strong passionate position in regards to the Infinite, the very position searched for by Rav Kook and his students the Nazir and Rav Charlap. This is my religiosity.
From here we move on to an additional basic point, with emphasis on the social context.
Does Postmodernism lead to a passive ethical relativism? I think not. Here too fine distinctions must be made between tolerance and pluralism (I do not think of these words as pejoratives) of the right sort – a sort of openness; and of an improper sort – one might call it dissoluteness. Dissoluteness connotes a direction that holds nothing true, I can accept anything. In contrast, openness can be a higher perspective – absolute commitment to my truth, but with the capacity to recognize other’s truths. I need not think my house is the best; it is enough to know it is my house. The important question, once again, is the question of acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, the question of the integrity of my beliefs, the question of whether I believe absolutely.
Thus, I hold a complex position in regards to distinguishing pluralism from relativism. Even though under certain circumstances I can understand the perspective of one person coming to kill another, I will do what I can to prevent him from sacrificing someone, and if I have no choice I will bring about his death. That is what God wants of me. If someone comes and asks me – ‘Why don’t you figure out what God wants from us?’ – I would answer that it is not my problem. I am not to be held accountable for this question! The question I do ask myself is not about what is universally true, but rather a more intimate question – ‘What does God want from you?’ This question is in the forefront of my awareness in the here and now, and with this there can also be a strong and deep stand based on my values and faith, one that in extreme situations can go the limit, even risking self-sacrifice, or sacrificing another.
I will provide an example that expresses this pluralistic position in regards to the relationship of religion and state. I am not in favor of Reform conversion nor civil marriage. However, when we wish to lead a state, there is a great difference between a personal position and a public stance; and the question of whether to impose one’s faith upon others is inevitable. I do not have to denigrate all other positions in order to promulgate my own. My pluralism allows me sensitivity to diverse cultures. I believe the Messiah will come and that everyone one will return, but from my point of view this conviction is not relevant to the state’s laws. In the same way, I cannot establish the relationship to secular Jews on the basis of the paternalistic principle of ‘tinok shenishba’ (“a captive child” without Jewish connection is given the benefit of the doubt in regards to culpability) – the secular person would not accept such a characterization, and truth be told I do not see him as a ‘tinok shenishba’ in the classical understanding of the term. On the contrary, it seems to me that if we want to retain some measure of religious character in the state, some minimal unifying national force, and no less important – the opening up of the religious community, we must begin with a pluralistic perspective. This approach should be considered in regards to the proposals about the issues above as of late, such as the proposal for couples in regards to civil marriage.
Is it legitimate to bring such complex positions before the public? When we first established Yeshivat Mekor Haim, there were those who said that students should first undergo the regular course of yeshiva studies, and only then should be taught the more complex approaches we were bringing. They claimed: ‘If you present them to a young student, without yeshiva preparation, you will destroy him.’ No doubt, there is some truth to this claim. Certainly a student must be taught in a conducive relatable manner, and it is a challenge to teach a student to grasp matters this way. Pedagogy according to the belief system of the Rishonim, who grasped such matters via metaphysics, gives an initial degree of protection, creates a house. Only after that is taught does it make sense to introduce the approach I am suggesting. Parenthetically, I would like to say that I by no means endorse the Postmodernist claim that one should forego the house, forego being at home. On the contrary! I would like to see how one could build a house in a landless world, how one could come to being at home in a world of (unstructured) freedom.
Withal, I do not think we should hold off the Postmodernist critique for only the mature; beyond any doubt a good pedagogy for youth will enable the building of a home base for him/her along with an independent identity. This indeed is our pedagogical goal; but its basis must be, once again, a basis built on life and not on ideology. Seder night is a model for this; the experiences of seder night are in-depth experiences that create a youth’s identity; augmented by its smells and flavors, by the aura that passes amongst everyone. It is there that the deep foundational structure of religious identity exists. If one does not have that, it is very difficult to build deep and flowing belief.
How you educate a young person determines his/her possibilities later. If you teach him/her like the Griz (הגרי”ז סולובייציק), who stood with his son at the window and pointed at the people who stood in line at the Edison Theater saying: “They are asses, camels…” you cannot impose on such an outlook another outlook that is more pluralistic. Therefore it is all important to continue the discussion of the best education for the young. One might begin with a relatively conservative education, even Haredi in some aspects along the lines which we have discussed, but one must carefully cultivate openness, and build a structure of faith on the basis of identity, of life, of a natural flow, and not on the basis of self-estrangement and ideology. One must start training early towards religious responsibility, towards acceptance of the yoke of Heaven by choice and self-recognition, and not rely on compulsion and authority.
I have not given up. On the contrary, I am enthusiastic. I see something deep and great transpiring now. Amongst the young I see personalities that did not exist when I was young, young men and women with great spiritual devotion, deep religiosity, not empty-headed nor caught in fantasy – rather, individuals who are quite sober, mature, reflective. They have a form of charisma and religious devotion, very real, that didn’t exist when I was their age. Neither I nor others amongst my generation had it. I foresee in the footsteps of Postmodernism and in the ‘New Age Culture’ that comes on its heels, an entry point to a new world, one in which there will occur a real change in human consciousness. This change will also bring societal changes, greater social justice, and much deeper interpersonal relationships. A world where the divine presence will be tangible.