The meeting between Rav Shagar and Amos Oz

Rav Elchanan Nir • 2019

a glance at what Rav Shagar’s said about the meaning of Halakha, in a meeting with Amos Oz.

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On the eve of Shabbat Parashat Shemos, the author Amos Oz passed away. Oz, who enriched Hebrew literature with dozens of novels, non-fiction and philosophical books for many decades; was mentioned many times as a candidate for the Nobel Prize; and was perhaps the most prominent Israeli writer in the fifty years succeeding the Six Day War. He also served as the spokesperson of the liberal-Zionist leftist camp in Israel and dealt extensively with the interfaces between politics and secular-Hebrew identity.

Here I would like to relate briefly to a meeting held in the summer of 1991 between Oz and a group of religious Zionist rabbis, including Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rabbi Menachem Froman, Rabbi Benny Elon and Rav Shagar, and to comment on what Rav Shagar said at this meeting: things that in my opinion are the cornerstones of his Torah, which he will return again and again in his books.

Here is a little of what he said at this meeting:

I say here openly that Halakhah is to us the infinite weight that religion and faith have. It is the hard point of religion, the kernel of faith. And when you try to replace Halakhah with culture, you miss out on the central and basic point. A national-religious Jew without an ultra-Orthodox core ceases to be religious.

In Halakhah, Rav Shagar identifies the religious validity, the point around which everything is formed, the essence of Avodat Hashem. The Halakhic way of life is the Jew’s lifestyle, through which he experiences the domestic and the intimate.

Rav Shagar is not convinced by schools of thought who identify Judaism as a cultural proposal - as Ahad Ha’am saw it, and as many see it in Israel and North America - rather he insists on seeing it as a binding and necessary proposition. It is precisely the absolute, the limitations, and the space of command that serve as a platform for freedom; it is precisely Halakhah, which serves as an obvious space, that is identified with the ultra-Orthodox, that enables a true meeting. For in every deep encounter between two sides of the barricade there is, on the one hand, a danger of fascination and being swallowed up, self-forgetfulness and loss of identity, and on the other hand, there is also a chance of fertility, of an in-depth dialogue that man alone cannot reach.

It is precisely this absolutism that exists in the Halakhic world that enables a basic consciousness that cannot be negotiated or exchanged. Thus, I do not observe Halakha because I have been convinced by a sermon on the subject, rather I observe Halakhah because I observe Halakhah. This is the shape of my world and my way of life. Indeed, this is a closed circleinto which cannot be broken, and it cannot accept arguments coming from outside of itself. But it is precisely because of this that it allows me to feel hard soil beneath my feet, and to rise to the wings of the wind, to walk freely and confidently, without endless internal negotiations about my basic consciousness of existence.

The Halachic world allows me a clear stand that has a tremendous influence - inner peace and the ability to meet with a different person without a sense of threat, because there is a certain way of life to which I belong without doubt or hesitation. Halakhic certainty provides space for creation and encounter from a starting point that is neither threatened nor lacking. (Shiurim on Likutei MoHaran volume 1, pg. 106)

Rootedness in the Halachic world is what enables creativity, innovation in the Torah and the propulsion of the Halachic space, which can only evolve from within its internal rules and tools and from within the halakhic language itself. The nature of Halakha is that “Israel walks through it”, living it as self-evident, and thus, can create real ties with that which is beyond the self-evident to the ever-changing reality before our eyes. Thus, man who is living within the Halakhic space as a binding space can meet truthfully with a distant and different reality.

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