The story of the tangled relation of Rav Shagar to the publication of his writings. a chapter from the book ‘Touching the heart’.
The tangled, painful discourse of Rav Shagar and his writings takes me back to the summer of 1999.
Though I was very close to him, I couldn’t have imagined the magnitude of the literary treasure that had been both saved on his computer and recorded in his notebooks and journals from before the digital age. It was a tremendous investment of decades of study, creativity and writing. It was clear to me that I’d have to appeal to Rav Shagar to share a portion – however small – of his writings. I knew that he was deeply resistant towards releasing his work into the public domain. Perhaps this was due to a lack of confidence; perhaps he wished to preserve his state as an anonymous, humble student in a far-off place; or perhaps he was aware of the divisions and chaos in his work, and feared the effects of its dissemination. Maybe he suspected that the time or the generation for his work had not yet arrived. Maybe he struggled as the Amoraim had done with the proper response: “Let [the Messiah] come, but let me not see him,” or “Let me sit in the shadow of his donkey’s excrement” (BT Massekhet Sanhedrin 98b).
And perhaps these same tormenting doubts, “the choking distress of the Messiah king,” brought his death closer.
In hindsight, it is hard for me to say why he assented to my requests. Nevertheless, in Tammuz of 1998 he responded by handing me his drafts, and asked that I begin to work on them. I labored over these papers day and night in those summer months, and by Elul of that same year we published the first edition of his composition, Return, My Soul – Grace or Freedom. His sister Edna has since told us that this was his favorite book. I remember very well his fear over the book’s public release but also his satisfaction when he learned of the strong resonance it had for others. I was touched to hear Miriam say the following about me at his first yartzheit at Binyanei HaUma: “You shook up the vial of persimmon [oil]…you spread his nature in the world.”
Not long before his death, Rav Shagar revealed how greatly his self-confidence had grown. It was a kind of final stop in his personal journey from doubt to certainty and to trusting himself. I remember my great surprise at hearing the dramatic letter he’d asked to have read at the gathering to pray for his health on the eve of Shavuot in 2006. He opened by discussing the momentous value of his works – he saw them not only as forms of personal and social tikkun but as a basis for a fully national tikkun. He wrote:
“For many years, following in the paths of Chassidic teachings, I primarily devoted myself to developing the existential, personal discourse. Though it is inherently turned to the particular – and may often be in tension with approaching a tikkun of society – personal tikkun must bring about societal tikkun as well. Therefore, I wish to develop Jewish, Torah-inclusive alternative that draws upon the traditions of Israel, one that can be received in the wider – and even secular- circles of Israel.
Moreover, I wished to create a genuine Torah statement within the communal Religious-Zionist framework, one that could provide an appropriate response to our generation’s religious and existential desires and serve as a substantial alternative to the other movements in our society. I would do this in the context of the crises and contradictions that affect the society I belong to and live in, having written and addressed these issues before. I believe that my writing expresses these efforts. I have progressed on the path towards a hoped-for solution, even though what I have written is far from complete…”
After the gathering, he said that his Torah was not only a significant, real Torah but a true one; he said this matter-of-factly, without explanation. It was hard to believe that Rav Shagar himself would say such a thing. Here was a bit of nachas (satisfaction) in his life’s work – a recognition made only towards the very end of his life.
In the early winter of 2007, Rav Shagar was suffering from pain. He was sent from doctor to doctor, unable to receive a diagnosis. This situation continued on for several months, and though he was as consistent as possible in giving shiurim, things were not the same. At a certain point, he seemed to return to his old self – and it was that very week that the problem was made clear.
On the morning that the test results arrived, I called him. My heart foretold the worse. He was very troubled and said, “I have pancreatic cancer. I have only a few months left to live.” Immediately, he added: “I ask that you take care of my writings.”
Ten days later, we met in the yeshiva and he gave me the laptop with all of the writings. It was a heartbreaking meeting, and we both wept terribly. Then he exited the caravan next to the yeshiva, looked at the door and cried. He knew that he would not return.
Together we founded a committee for the publication of his papers. He appointed his student, Rabbi Shimon Deutsch, to head the committee, then he dealt with details and practical logistics. For me, those moments were a symbolic act of transmission, of inheritance: the details were less important. For him, this was also an act of cleansing, of disengagement, as a condition for healing. He had parted from the writings that were the essence of his life, the object of his zealous protection. Now he laid them in my hands and said: “Here, take them.” Several days later, he recorded the following:
I gave Yair the materials and the writings on the laptop. I had zealously guarded them until today. He saw [in this act] an expression of trust. Even a will, and an appointment, and an inheritance. There is such an element.
But the act itself was a purification, a release. A freedom from a cleansing of the past, cleansing as a condition for healing. There is something terrifying in the idea that a small metal disc can contain an entire life: countless hours of thoughts, struggles, creativity and suffering. Through the medium of the computer, the signs turn to letters. Through the reader’s consciousness, the letters turn to life, and also return to the past – to the years, to the long hours that have passed and inscribed themselves forever in the disk.
In that heartbreaking moment, he not only parted with his writings – he also departed from the world.
Thus ends this tragic, noble tale.