Thoughts on Creation, Destruction and Messianism

Rav Yair Dreifuss • 2018

Rav Shagar’s Zionism was deeply related to the shadow of the holocaust and the Yom Kippur War. These traumatic events made him strive for a messianic Tikkun. Thoughts for Tammuz and Menachem-Av.

Rav Shagar was a Zionist. But we must consider his Zionist mindset in context, against the background of the trauma of the Holocaust and the Yom Kippur War. He,, saw a world built, destroyed, and built anew.

As any talmid chacham, Rav Shagar concealed and embedded his personal thoughts within his teachings. But the careful observer can glimpse the figure of Rav Shagar - his world and his heart’s expression - peeking out  of his halachic opinions, made visible in his writing about Chazal’s formulation of mourning the Temple’s destruction.

The discussion is presented in Tosefta Sotah 15: 10-15:

Rabbi Yishmael said: Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the law is not to eat meat or drink wine, but a court cannot impose a ruling on the public that [the public] cannot bear. He used to say: If the Torah has been uprooted from among us, then the world is ruled to be desolate: no marriage and no birth, until the seed of Abraham disappears from the Earth. They said to him: it is better for the public to sin by accident than by intention.

Since the destruction of the first Temple, there were many ascetics who did not eat meat or drink wine.

Rabbi Yehoshua happened upon them and asked: My sons, why do you not eat meat?

They said: How can we eat meat, when every day there was a sacrifice on the altar and now it is no longer?

He said: We won’t eat. But why do you not drink wine?”

They said: Will we drink wine, when everyday it was poured upon the altar and now it is no longer?

He said: We will not drink. If so, bread should not be eaten, for it was brought for the Two Loaves and the Bread of the Pnim, nor should water be drunk, because it was poured on the holiday [of Sukkot], nor should figs or grapes be eaten for them were brought as first-born fruits on [Shmini] Atzeret.

[The ascetics] were silent.

He said: My sons, it is not possible to mourn too much, nor is it possible not to mourn at all.

But the Sages said: One coats his house with plaster,but leaves a small part (uncovered) in memory of Jerusalem. One who makes a meal leaves a small part (uneaten) in memory of Jerusalem. If a woman makes jewellery, she leaves a small part in memory of Jerusalem, as it says, ‘If I forget thee oh Jerusalem, may my right hand be forgotten, let my tongue cleave to my palate, if I do not remember you…’. All those who mourn for [Jerusalem] in this world, rejoice with it in the world to come, as it says, ‘Rejoice with Jerusalem, be glad for her, its lovers…’ (Isaiah 66:10)

Rav Shagar struggled with the post-Holocaust question of the reason for existence branded into him by his parents’ history, and by his severe wounds in the Yom Kippur War (which he called ‘the Holocaust of my generation’). In this sense, he was also able to relate to the ascetics. He expressed a type of survivor’s guilt over his own existence - one that does not allow you to continue as though nothing has happened. This was also expressed in his behaviour: he minimized any consumption of meat or wine, except for on Shabbat and holiday meals.

On the other hand, we see another mindset reflected in his interpretation of the Sages’ gentler approach. Whereas the ascetics shrunk life to its minimum, the Sages did the opposite: they institute the most minimal form of mourning via the preservation of a small memory of the Destruction: ‘he leaves a small part.’ Rav Shagar pointed out that this particular kind of remembrance is unique. The ‘memorial’ to the destruction is not a sign that is meant to evoke a particular past event, it is the trace of it - something that was left from the destruction and persists to this day. The Sages chose to save a destroyed segment, leaving it bare. We eternalize loss not through memorializing it, but through stopping short of its full restoration. Even when we build a new house, prepare a meal or design new jewellery for a bride, we must preserve the traces of destruction by leaving a part unfinished.

Rav Shagar saw this halachic position as an existential option. From his point of view, this was his deep existential consciousness: that we live in a flawed, incomplete world, a painful, diasporic sphere. He saw this as a feeling that accompanied every Jew always. This is the reason why he calls upon the individual to live a normal life on the one hand, while leaving space in his awareness for that which is unfinished, unsolved. Indeed, this minimal mourning is all the more present and prominent within a normal life: abnormality imposed upon normality.  We see then that the strategy of minimal mourning has a more intense effect than that of total asceticism. Ascetic habits can turn into a new kind of natural order - thus going from mourning to a daily norm. On the other hand, preserving a small part of mourning brings loss into sharp relief: the thing is ‘almost’ whole, but that ‘almost’ becomes a boundless, inaccessible measure. That which is left-over exposes the flaw - the loss of the ability to achieve wholeness in this world.


At this point, it is possible to distinguish between two types of consciousness and mindset regarding the Destruction.

One approach focuses on the concrete destruction: the destruction of the Temple. The necessary steps towards ‘reconstruction’ are thus seen as historical, occurring in the messianic age as described by Rambam: building the Third Temple.

In the second type of consciousness, the destruction is different. Destruction is an ahistorical event, its source is rooted in the first sin - the expulsion from Eden, in the experience of descending into mourning, in the defective subject spoiled by the serpent’s sin. This is not only mourning over the Temple’s destruction, but also over the condition of man and the world in general. The path towards ‘reconstruction,’ too, is not related to the Third Temple but to the transformation of reality into a world of wonder.

These distinctions can illuminate Rav Shagar’s complicated relationship to the state. The pessimistic consciousness described above has been converted to a doubled yearning. On the one hand, the state is perceived as the beginning of redemption, a historical ‘fix,’ a natural redemption in the spirit of Rav Kook. Rav Shagar was very closely tied with the Zionism of the good, old Land of Israel, to its landscapes. On the other hand, the state also awoke his longing for a new world - a truly messianic sensation - that caused him to not only see it within a political frame, as a site for self-determination, but also as a platform for the transformation of humanity, for the tikkun of mankind.

This multiplicity can also be described in terms of the distinction between a Zionism of materialization (הגשמה) and a Zionism of realization (ממשות). The former belong to the initial, innocent - if naïve - grouping. “Materialization” is a key word in the manifestos of youth movements: it is tied to the values of settlement and security, ingathering of exiles, political liberation, and so on. Their practical application in a real, tangible Israel, ‘with these houses and fences’ - this is materialization.

Zionism of realization has a different, even opposite, meaning. It is not directed towards the concrete but towards the real (ממשי) in the Lacanian and even Chabad sense of the word. Its guiding force is not the spirit of returning to the land, to social and cultural normalcy. The spirit that pushes this type of Zionism forward is a messianic, mystical one: “The breath of our life - the anointed of God” (Lamentations 4:20). The purpose is not a national, societal ‘state’ but a platform for the idea of “the foundation of God’s throne in the world,” as Rav Kook used to say.  The end-goal is the tikkun of mankind, manifesting a vision of social justice in its widest, universal sense. Every person - all of humanity - participates in this tikkun, and its purpose is to do away with estrangement and restore the covenant.

ישיבת שיח יצחק גבעת הדגן - אפרת, מיקוד: 90435