Torah Study for Contemporary Times: Conservatism or Revolution

Rav Yair Dreifuss • 2009

about Rav Shagar’s attitude towards Torah study, his method of Gemara learning. The epiluge of Rav Shagar’s book ‘Be-Torato Yehegeh: The Study of Talmud as a Quest for God’. This translation was published in Tradition 45:2. 2012.




The late Rav Shagar, in his Be-Torato Yehegeh (In His Torah He Meditates), addresses the crisis surrounding Talmud study in Israel’s Religious Zionist community. The author, who headed the Siach Yitzhak Hesder Yeshiva in Efrat until his passing in 2007, seeks to resolve this painful crisis. He saw the source of this crisis as relating
to the remarkable “Holy Rebellion,” which he and his generation had wrought as Bnei Akiva youths who were free to explore nationalism and the world at large, and nevertheless chose to embrace the world of the yeshiva. This process ultimately yielded a generation of Torah scholars who were also deeply connected to Erets Yisrael - but it came with a heavy price. For one, there were those who were unable to succeed within such a framework of intense intellectual immersion. However, R. Shagar is even more concerned about those who became the so-called “success stories” of the Hesder Yeshivot - those who looked favorably upon their years of study and eventually established Torah homes. Yet, even for these students, the Torah did not become an authentic part of their culture.
Their connection to Torah following their yeshiva studies was lacking, and, at times, a mere rote performance. There was a yawning gap between their everyday lives as professionals, scientists, even educators, and the Torah they
had learned. Although a large Torah community emerged as a result of this revolution, the study of Gemara never became an integral part of its world.
R. Shagar searched for an alternative that would allow for the internalization of traditional yeshiva study within the spiritual and cultural reality in which he and the Hesder Yeshiva community resided. Thus Be-Torato Yehegeh is, in essence, a distilled account of R. Shagar’s journeyinto these conflicting worlds, his attempt to create a vibrant dialogue between them in hopes of creating this alternative. Beyond presenting the journey and the solution proposed in its wake, this work affords us, in a sense, a self-portrait of R. Shagar himself - an exceptional integrator of diverse and even contradictory trends. He was familiar and identifi ed with many different methods of learning, but his greatness was primarily in his ability to bring worlds together and conduct a dialogue between them.



As was his nature, R. Shagar sought to understand the root cause of the contemporary crisis surrounding the study of Gemara. This essay is based on his understanding that four major interrelated factors are involved: The method, motivation, and ideology of study, as well as the lifestyle that this approach to study may engender.

The predicament of Torah study in Religious Zionist yeshivot, for R. Shagar, is due primarily to the gap between the Religious Zionist youths’ lifestyle and the ideology and motivation underlying the Haredi method of Gemara study which is implemented in Religious Zionist yeshiva high schools and Hesder Yeshivot. In R. Shagar’s opinion, it is inconceivable to implement within the Hesder Yeshivot the “classic” or “Brisker” method of Gemara study, since a student’s study method must relate to his being - his spiritual and cultural milieu and the reality in which he lives.

In this context, R. Shagar boldly contends that, despite his deep admiration for the Brisker Method, it cannot be implemented in the Religious Zionist Torah world as it currently stands. The study method and the student’s lifestyle are intertwined, and any attempt to ignore this connection is bound to alienate the student and lead him to self-denial
vis-à-vis his freedom and creative abilities (especially important principles in the best of classic yeshivot). In extreme cases, this alienation can create emotional problems for the yeshiva student and disrupt his spiritual growth, and, in the worst case scenario, can result in provoking feelings of alienation from the yeshiva experience and from religion in general.
For many years R. Shagar argued that, without a real attempt to internalize the classic yeshiva experience into our youths’ complex lifestyle, the distress and confl ict will only deepen as time goes on. However, this attempt demands a radical change both in the yeshiva experience and in our youths’ lifestyles.



The concept of “covenant” lies at the crux of R. Shagar’s arguments. Throughout his life, R. Shagar spoke of the Torah as a “function of the Covenant.” In this context he constantly spoke of feeling at home with the Torah, of yearning for the pleasure, intimacy, and yihud with the Torah.

Covenant is intimacy; it is the ability to attach oneself to a fellow human being and to God. Modern man often fails through pegam ha-berit (breaking the covenant); his ability to connect and create intimacy is inadequate. Thus, it should come as no shock that Gemara study, which by its very nature demands devotion to and trust in the learning material, is in such a poor state. Consequently, Torah study, conceived of as a covenant, implies connecting to the Torah and feeling at home while learning it. Learning becomes a means of connecting with God, and, as it becomes a rhythm of life, the Jew’s spiritual home. The defi ning issue is not what length of time one sits and learns, but whether or not the Torah becomes one’s home, the core of his existence, and the basis of his cultural world.

In order to convey the bond between a Jew and the Torah, R. Shagar drew upon the terminology used to describe the marital covenant. In fact, much similarity exists between the spirit and language of R. Shagar’s wedding sermons concerning the union of man and woman and those concerning the relationship between Jew and Torah. In the realm of family issues, just like in a Jew’s Torah study, R. Shagar saw covenant as the concept that establishes the relationship and its concomitant sanctity.

In addition to the fundamental comparison between Gemara study and the matrimonial relationship, R. Shagar saw a resemblance between the study of Gemara and the study of language. He stressed that the purpose of learning Gemara is not acquiring knowledge but for the student to create a language he knows when and how to use, even before he understands the specific meaning of the words. While learning Gemara a student establishes his religious language.[1]

For this reason, R. Shagar was opposed to the attempts to exchange ahavat Torah for either yirat Shamayim - an external motivation for learning Torah - or an uncompromising insular ideology. In his opinion, Torah study should not be based on yirat Shamayim, at least in the Religious Zionist community, but, rather, on ahavat Torah and the curiosity and creativity inherent in learning. Only thus may the Torah be restored to its former glory as “the Book of the Covenant” between a Jew and his God.



R. Shagar’s endless pursuit for truth was a fundamental part of his being:

…our purpose is continuous innovation, and to that end one must abandon ordinary patterns of thought - encountering reality as is, rather than through old patterns.…[2]

In Be-Torato Yehegeh, R. Shagar demands that one studying Torah create a constant dialogue between Torah study and his world and personality, which are the sources of the spirit and energy that nurture his motivation in learning. Only by studying Torah in an environment of religious freedom and self-awareness may one reap fruitful, creative, and significant results. The central question in Torah study should not be “What is the correct way to learn?” but, rather, “What is God’s message in this sugya?”

However, only an integrated learning experience, combined with a selfawareness of the process taking place within the learner’s soul, may extricate him from rote study and enable him to attain a clear and significant conception, from the very depths of the sugya he is studying.



R. Shagar devotes a signifi cant portion of Be-Torato Yehegeh to describing the evolution of yeshiva methods of study. Through this analysis, R. Shagar reveals the obvious connection between the study methods and the worldview and ideology from which they sprang. His main argument is that every method is grounded in a particular ideological orientation. Furthermore, the motivation and purpose for studying, the types of questions asked in a particular sugya and, primarily, the inventory of legitimate (and illegitimate) tools at the learner’s disposal, greatly influences the method of study and vice versa.

R. Shagar demonstrates how the approach of R. Hayyim of Volozhin serves as the basis for the classic Yeshiva method of study. R. Hayyim argued that the objective of Gemara study is in “adding knowledge and pilpul (casuistry)”;[3] the study of Torah is a goal in and of itself, and it does not need an exterior religious purpose of any sort. R. Shagar explains that, although R. Hayyim himself emphasized that Torah study impacts the spiritual world, its impact is limited to the transcendental plane, but is not connected to the learner’s soul, and, thus, transcendental effect cannot be a motive for Torah study. This led to the opposition in Volozhin to a preoccupation with musar, or with excessively righteous behavior - hit’alut (spiritual elevation) - which Volozhin understood should only be achieved from the study itself.

The Brisker Method follows R. Hayyim of Volozhin inasmuch as it perceives the study of Torah as a “closed circuit.” According to R. Hayyim of Brisk, emphasis should be placed on eliminating any existential motives or searches for meaning from Gemara study. Detachment from a sugya was a pre-condition for understanding it; one must only ask “what” and refrain from asking “why.” This approach of R. Hayyim of Brisk completely rejects the use of external methods not specifi cally pertinent to the sugya - academic or historical studies on the one hand, and existential philosophy on the other. The Brisker scholar’s goal is to expose the metaphysical insights of the Halakha through scholarly brilliance. The relationship between the Brisker Method and the Haredi, closeted lifestyle is evident.

Another method of learning may be found in the works of R. Yisrael Salanter, who was instrumental in shaping the yeshiva world. R. Yisrael searched for the existential motive for learning, which typified his spiritual approach. He saw the Torah as “the soul and spirit of the nation at all times… without the Torah, a Jewish person’s life is void and worthless.”[4] This is an existential explanation, contradicting the tradition of “Torah lishmah” (Torah for its own sake). The profound link between the nation and Torah study became the cornerstone of the yeshiva world.

R. Yisrael did not seek objective truth as did the Vilna Gaon and Netsiv; for this reason the latter opposed pilpul. R. Yisrael, on the other hand, argues that pilpul is the most appropriate mode of study, for, as R. Shagar formulates it, “the creative freedom that characterizes the method of pilpul generates a critical mass of varying meanings… this diversity allows for the discovery of truth.”[5] R. Yisrael argues that, paradoxically, learning Torah “lo lishmah” (for purposes other than its own sake) will eventually bring us to truth, as focus on arguments and pilpul frees the student and engenders creativity, while the direct search for the truth by means of scholarly textual research results in a shallow and externalized text. Rather, personal perspectives allow for the Torah to become his own, creating a space for the learner’s existential being.

Netsiv, as mentioned earlier, had a completely different approach. He continued in the path of the Vilna Gaon, the main teacher of R. Hayyim of Volozhin. As part of his method of uncompromising pursuit of truth, Netsiv was opposed to pilpul, and broadened the horizons of study via various methods (e.g. putting emphasis on textual versions and accurate manuscripts). As opposed to the Brisker Method, Netsiv did not perceive the Torah as an insular world which derives its truth from within. This explains his sympathy towards the Enlightenment and Zionism, and provides an outstanding example of the link between a scholar’s views and their implementation in his study.

Another school of thought is the Telz method (Telzer Derekh). R. Shagar teaches that, according to the Brisker Method, one must avoid at all costs the “why” question, the search for meaning. R. Elya Meir Bloch completely disagreed with this outlook. According to his view, the scholar’s “essence and thought, when directed toward his true being, is in-line with the Torah. Only the Torah’s character, emotions and commandments truly harmonize with one’s inner thought and the more authentic of his soul’s emotions.”[6]

The Telzer Derekh, as presented by R. Shagar, is actually based on a Kabbalistic conception that speaks of our world and the worlds above it as parallel dimensions. This conception is then applied to the Torah: there is a continuum of parallel dimensions in the Torah, ranging from our human understanding of Torah to the sod (hidden) understanding of Torah. Thus, the Telzer Derekh, in contradistinction to the Brisker Derekh, maintains that the human, psychological, explanation of Torah is legitimate since, in their opinion, this does not contradict the hidden reasoning of the Torah. Rather, this human understanding is a step towards the possibility of reaching those hidden reasons, and, therefore, the objective of learning is to penetrate more deeply into the reasoning of the Torah.

As for scholarly learning (lomdut), R. Shimon Shkop implemented these principles in his study methods and in the type of explanations he raised while teaching. His students described his method as follows: “We must bring our minds closer to the ‘mind of Torah’ and bring the ‘mind of Torah’ closer to ours.”[7] He opposed the method of pilpul and set out to analyze the sugya with jurisprudential logic. He maintained that pure analytical logic, removed from feelings of rationality, reality and human emotions, cannot attain the true understanding of Torah; only by utilizing the tools at one’s disposal - the human mind and basic human emotions and feelings - can one reach a genuine understanding of Torah. It is told of R. Shimon Shkop that, while teaching, he attempted to understand “what one feels as he carries out the act of marrying a woman.”[8] This is a function of a covenant - a personal devotion to the hypotheses of study, a method completely rejected by R. Hayyim.

In conclusion, R. Shagar suggests that the Telzer method of Gemara study, rather than the Brisker Method, is much more suitable for the Religious Zionist yeshivot. In addition, he suggests adopting some of the characteristics of the Netsiv’s method.



The focus of discussion in R. Shagar’s book concerns the tension between the two most prominent fi gures in the Religious Zionist Torah world - R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik and R. Abraham Isaac ha-Cohen Kook, two great thinkers, Torah scholars, and spiritual leaders who dealt with modernity’s impact upon Torah. R. Shagar also elucidates the Brisker Method through an in-depth explanation of the writings of R. Soloveitchik, concentrating mainly on Ish ha-Halakha (Halakhic Man) and U-Vikkashtem mi-Sham (And From There You Shall Seek). R. Soloveitchik, as well as R. Kook, confronted the formidable diffi culties inherent in the encounter between Torah and modern thought, an encounter that necessitates a dialogue between opposing worlds. This clash may be described as a dichotomy between coercion and freedom, between revelation and authenticity, between an objective and subjective way of thinking, or, in Kabalistic terms, between the or makkif (surrounding light) and the or penimi (internal light).

R. Soloveitchik himself was torn by the tension between coercion and freedom, between revelation - which he understood as normative behavior imposed on man - and the intellectual and creative abilities of the Torah scholar.[9] He was very much aware of this dichotomy inherent in his character.

R. Soloveitchik creates a clear, conscious gap between Halakha as a revelation and the ecstatic revelation of learning. On the one hand, Halakha is a revelation which one cannot question or understand logically, but which one rather must accept without further analysis. In this respect, the Rav continues in the footsteps of his grandfather, R. Hayyim. On the other hand, the Rav described revelation as a source of personal-human inspiration, and even as a source for religious ecstasy. This revelation addresses one’s existential status. An expression of this aspect may be found in the importance of intuition for the scholar, which is in itself an expression of the inherent aspects of Torah study. The resolution of the tension between coercion and identification is through redemption, which R. Soloveitchik defined by adopting two concepts - “affiliation” and “devotion” - from Maimonides. Devotion is reached when one internalizes the revelation into his life. According to the Rav, the coercion and the absoluteness of Halakha (which parallels the insularity of scholarly learning( is what makes it possible to sanctify life, and to imbue it with meaning: “as the nature of the unexplainable law becomes more apparent, so does the experience become more exhilarating.” This degree of devotion that R. Soloveitchik seeks creates an opening for breaching the insularity of study:

Regarding study, this is reflected by integration of human spirit, creativity, and also freedom of thought, into scholarly study. This is also where existential sayings and the use of scientific tools come into use. In And From There You Shall Seek, R. Soloveitchik emphasizes that, while in this degree of devotion, the sharp coercive aspects of Halakha are dulled and, likewise, the understanding of Halakha as an imposition on the world is also dulled. This is where the ‘consciousness of revelation’ and human reasoning may encounter one another, and by this, also academic research may find its way into the discipline of Torah.[10]

At this point, R. Shagar illustrates the gap between R. Soloveitchik and R. Kook. R. Kook solved the problem of duality by identifying Halakha with Jewish nature, with the inner self. There is, of course, a deep connection between his attitude towards Torah study and “the Torah of Erets Yisrael” in its broadest sense. As he perceived it, in Erets Yisrael there is a union of the internal and the external, for the air and soil are those of a land of prophecy and Shekhina (Divine spirit).

R. Shagar emphasizes that R. Soloveitchik and R. Kook went in opposite directions: R. Kook saw immanence, personal subjectivity, and the general existence as Divine revelation. He broadened the confines of theTorah to the infi nite. In this way, he found redemption from the burden of petty discussions concerning Halakhic detail by seeking to elevate them to be part of the constellation of the entirety of Divine radiance in the world; hence his ambitions to bring Halakha, Aggada, and even Kabbala closer together. He even gave legitimacy and encouragement to integrating academic and other methods as part of the search for truth, and saw them as aspects of God’s revelation (and, thus, took the methods of the Vilna Gaon and Netsiv a step further). R. Kook saw nature as a springboard for Torah and holiness. This position could not be accepted by R. Soloveitchik, who argued that only Halakhic heteronomy can mend nature.

R. Shagar argues that, despite the openness usually associated with R. Soloveitchik and his approach, “ultimately his [R. Soloveitchik’s] openness is conditional… and at the end of the day a clear and obvious gap is created between the world of faith and Western values…”[11] Thus, his method of study never freed itself from the sense of coercion and alienation, which originates from what he explained as “the reflective aspects (ha-tsad ha-giluy).” And there is much doubt as to the educational success of his method, both in regard to its defi nition of Halakha and in the acceptance of his method of study.

However, R. Shagar does feel that R. Soloveitchik, who internalized both the Enlightenment and modern thought into his Torah personality, may have introduced an approach closer to the hearts of the enlightened modern Torah scholar than that of the R. Kook, whose approach is more mystical in nature. R. Shagar’s conclusion is that in the future R. Soloveitchik’s method may make a “comeback” (if, in fact, it is possible to incorporate his vision of devotion and emulation of the Divine into a method of study). On the other hand, the strong association between the Religious Zionist and R. Kook’s patriotic-romantic spirit mandates that we consider his approach and give it precedence when formulating a suitable method of Torah study for today’s Religious Zionist community.



In formulating a relevant method of study for contemporary times, one must address the issue of academic Talmudic research. Will integrating academic research into Gemara study enable us to redeem the Torah? R. Shagar analyzes the roots of academic Talmudic study, academia’s criticism of the yeshiva mode of study, and the possibility of integrating the academic method into yeshiva study.

Many religious academics contend that the fruit of research is “truth,” and that answering the calling of this truth is a religious obligation. These people criticize the yeshiva method of Torah study, arguing that the conglomeration of prior beliefs and presumptions that the student brings with him to his studies impedes his ability to learn Gemara freely.

R. Shagar’s main criticism of academic Talmudic study is that it does not fulfill the covenant function of Torah study. When perceiving Torah study as a covenant between the learner and God, one cannot observe the material objectively. Doesn’t a “faithful” treatment of the text interfere with its understanding? R. Shagar, using a postmodern criticism of the humanities, argues that even the researcher has a series of preconceived presumptions and expectation from the text.[12] Any position is open to interpretation, and, therefore, there is no basic preference for the scientific approach over the traditional-religious stance.

However, we must be wary of an overly dogmatic approach to study. Academic research may assist us in identifying our religious presumptions, enabling us to analyze them and, through study, ascertain whether or not these beliefs should be modifi ed. Postmodern criticism frees us to adopt, if necessary, a different starting point and varying methods. As we will see later, this is the method R. Shagar proposes.

Notwithstanding this, R. Shagar accepts, to a certain extent, the academic criticism of the yeshiva approach to study for two reasons. First, one who adopts the postmodern method in order to protect the subjectivity of the yeshiva approach runs the risk of distorting common sense, a precondition for the existence of human society.

Moreover, R. Shagar, in his own special way, finds leverage to greater faith specifically in academic criticism. Academic research seeks the historically accurate meaning of the text, and therefore argues that the Amoraim “did not understand the truth of the Tannaim,” and similarly the Rishonim “did not understand Hazal,” etc. R. Shagar does not accept this argument as stated; since the sages throughout the generations were not just commentators, but, primarily, shapers of the Torah, the manner in which an Amora or a Rishon interpreted the Halakha (regardless of the underlying reason for the interpretation), is in itself Torah. Indeed, the advantage of the commentary is that it does not presume to interpret the Gemara in an “objective” manner; thus, the essentiality of the Oral Torah is revealed. Furthermore, as opposed to the academic arguments, R. Shagar sees the development of Halakha as more than a result of external circumstances. R. Shagar demonstrates the profound complexity of connecting the sage’s truths with his historic circumstances. The scholar and the general religious public tend to see the Torah as timeless. However, R. Shagar shows that a higher form of religious faith may develop by seeing the seeming coincidental events leading to the development of Torah, generated against the historical backdrop of time and place, as an expression of Divine Providence.

R. Shagar points to the contemporary widespread position in social research, which does not necessarily demand an external and detached view of the social group under study (which he compares to the studied text). On the other hand, one who views exclusively from within is also disqualified from seeking the truth. The student must, therefore, alternate between both external and internal views, and, according to Gadamer’s Philosophical Hermeneutics, he may then merge his horizon with the text’s. Our limited human existence mandates that there must be an interplay between several different outlooks and methods.



The Religious Zionist community, which sees R. Kook as its spiritual mentor, carries within itself the seeds of redemption and tikkun olam, but also finds itself today entrapped and entangled in contradictions - an obvious consequence of the loss of R. Kook’s inspiration, spirit and courage. During his fi nal days, on Erev Shavuot 5767, R. Shagar wrote:

I wished to form, within the Religious Zionist community, an existential religious statement, one that may provide an appropriate response to this generation’s religious and existential desires, and thus create a real alternative to existing trends. All this, in light of the many crises and contradictions this community - in which I live and belong - has encountered, problems which I’ve dealt with on many occasions… Our guiding teacher [for these matters]… is Rav Kook zt”l, whose light guides us.

R. Shagar always maintained that R. Kook’s students and followers continued to uphold only two of the three great revolutions they inherited - Erets Yisrael, and nationalism. However, R. Kook was most radical in his calling to renew the inner Torah, a demand which appears in all of his writings. He called for the redemption of the Torah - the Torah of Erets Yisrael - meaning a Torah of religious freedom, of bringing Halakha and Aggada closer together and even unifying them. This formation of a new religious language to suits the next generation was the vision in which R. Kook saw the seeds of the mashiah and the final redemption.

In eulogizing R. Shagar, one speaker noted that he fulfilled R. Kook’s vision. Indeed, R. Shagar’s book advances this important aspect of the revolution in Torah study which R. Kook first called for. To a certain extent, what R. Kook did for nationalism, R. Shagar did for critical Talmudic research and postmodernism (and, in other contexts, for feminism and other contemporary movements) by acknowledging the spiritual light hidden within them and attempting to integrate it into the realm of the sacred.

R. Shagar saw in the religious youth’s world, and particularly in his own, not a mutation of an authentic tradition, but, rather, an invitation to a renewed dialogue of faith. The many worlds and inner contradictions were, in his eyes, the many hues of Divine revelation of this period - and the pain and distress accompanying the painstaking encounter between the religious subject and Torah is tsa’ar ha-Shekhina (Divine sorrow). Thus, R. Shagar formulated a sort of Hasidic tikkun, facilitating the analysis of the contemporary predicament of Torah study in yeshivot from an objective viewpoint rather than from a position of weakness or inadequacy.



R. Shagar’s new method of learning is based on distinguishing between the different layers of Torah - the written Torah, Midreshei Halakha, the Mishna, the various sayings attributed to Tannaim, and those attributed to the various generations of Amoraim; critical research plays an important role in this regard. However, R. Shagar emphasizes the natural development and the depth of Torah revealed by the distinction between the different Torah views. The method of conceptual yeshiva learning, in light of this distinction, pinpoints the fundamental processes in the sugya. For example, quite often the conceptual method of Tzvei Dinim (that splits one law into two conceptual categories) expresses concepts from different historic periods.

In addition, R. Shagar emphasizes that learning must commence with the question of ‘what interests me in the sugya?’ The connection to one’s world and religious and humanistic questions is the key to gaining a profound understanding of the Gemara. In contrast to the traditional yeshiva approach, learning should not be done within a closed environment, but rather while exposed to the world at large and its hardships.

However, the true revolution in Gemara study which R. Shagar proposed is rooted in the need to abandon the conception of religion as a transcendental revelation, exchanging it with the concept of an immanent revelation, in consonance with the Hasidic approach. This revolutionary change in thought has far-reaching consequences. The first of the two faith-experiences is one of distancing and alienation, as the feelings of sanctity accompanying such a faith are based on experiencing the gap between the Creator and his creations.

In contradistinction, Hasidic faith, which derives from the perception of God’s immanence, is based on the will that “rises up from below” )hitorerut de-leTata) and is expressed through experiencing closeness, devotion, and pleasure. This opens the way for raising questions of relevance and the signifi ance of Halakha, since the Torah is revealed through the freedom of the subject studying Torah.

In countering the opposition of Brisk, R. Shagar follows the teaching of the Mei ha-Shiloah - R. Mordechai Yosef of Izbica - who explained that God’s infi niteness is revealed precisely by fi nite or random situations. The challenge to the monolithic view of the Oral Torah, namely the perception that the Oral Torah developed throughout the ages, seeing a development of historically infl uenced interpretations, would be rejected by the Brisker scholar because of history’s transience and contingency. However, for the followers of the Izbica Rebbe, these approaches may serve as a prelude to exciting insights. The identity of Divine, absolute will with human freedom may, in a certain contexts, be for the best - not in secularizing the holy but, rather, in sanctifying the secular. As is known, this was one of R. Kook’s ideal aspirations.

R. Shagar took this one step further by using postmodern insights as a way of renewing Torah study. Postmodernism challenges the pretense of objectivity, claiming that any cultural concept is a product of cultural structuring and void of any objective absolute value. R. Shagar argues that precisely this heretical argument may afford Halakha mystical freedom. In his opinion, the ability to view Halakha as a structure that has both history and context for every generation can create a new type of religious enthusiasm and holiness. All this is on the condition that, in contrast to postmodernism, we see in this structuring an expression of Divine Providence. The sages in every generation internalized Halakhic concepts in their own particular way, and the changing awareness itself becomes part of the Oral Torah tradition. Hence, R. Shagar’s book seeks to revolutionize not only Gemara study but also our faith. Torah min ha-Shamayim is now perceived as an expression of Divine Providence accompanying the Jew throughout his life, and not as a burden thrust upon him. And in giving up the tendentious search for the Divine in the Oral Torah and making room for coincidence, holiness may be manifest.



It is crucial to understand R. Shagar’s motivation in conducting a dialogue between traditional yeshiva scholarship, and modern, and even postmodern, methodologies. By nature, R. Shagar was essentially quite conservative. Following in the path of R. Kook and the Kabbalists, he saw the gradual developments as revelations of the Divine will. Accordingly, these developments must contain the past and may not discard it. Thus, he expressed on several occasions the necessity of having a “mitnagged” foundation for yeshivot. These are the roots, the ‘fear of sin’ preceding wisdom. Nevertheless, this must be cleansed of any impurities - callousness, fundamentalism, superfi ciality, primitiveness, etc.

R. Shagar’s conservativeness also derived from his view that Halakha is essentially conservative. Alongside his revolutionary character he also saw, especially in later years, the mystery of redemption particularly in tradition. In this context he repeatedly quoted Franz Rosenzweig and Walter Benjamin, who also followed a similar path.[13] R. Shagar argued that religious revolutions are foreign to the spirit of Halakha. Even if the posek internalizes the modern spirit, he will prefer to explain the changes he accepts as justifi ed by necessity rather than by a shift in values, in order to preserve the spirit of tradition.

On the whole, R. Shagar’s conservativeness is expressed by his efforts to defend traditional Torah study. Although he made no attempt to dismiss problems as irrelevant, he also sought to preserve the spirit of the Beit Midrash and defend its traditional values, such as the love of Torah, and dedication and perseverance in its study. He stressed that “relying only upon critical research and the search for meaning will lead to the secularization of Torah study. This will provide a solution for the problems of intellectual and existential interest, but the learning will cease to be a covenant between God and us.”[14]



R. Shagar’s book is, in and of itself, Torah, and, in many ways, R. Shagar himself was an integral part of Torah. All he spoke about, as well as his many written works, came from the calling of his heart. He felt the Torah’s anguish, the divine sorrow, and, most of all, his personal distress, while dealing with the painful unresolved relationship between the contemporary Jew and Torah. And, as is the way of Torah, only he who exerts “yegiat neshama (an effort of the soul)” will obtain the Divine message concealed between and beyond the spoken words and issues.

R. Shagar illuminated the way, directing us not to abandon Gemara study, but also not to compromise our inner truth. He called for implementing critical changes in the study of Torah, and Gemara in particular, with courage and azut de-kedusha (holy boldness). Although R. Shagar was of the generation’s greatest teachers of Jewish thought and philosophy (and particularly Hasidut), in his later days he admitted that most of his time was spent in the study of Gemara. For over thirty years, he formulated and re-formulated his unique method of Gemara study with great diligence. Several generations of rashei yeshiva and educators are the blessed fruit of his efforts on behalf of Torah, and particularly Gemara study.

R. Shagar was best characterized by constant renewal, similar to R. Nahman’s “repentance for repentance.”[15] In his later years, R. Shagar often spoke of “torat mashiah” and the arrival of “new souls” to the world. Alongside its impurities, he recognized within the spiritual awakening among many youths “bright and high spirits,” new combinations.

He pondered the nature of the connection between this renewed Torah and that which is learned in Yeshivot today. As he wrote in a Yom ha-Atsmaut discourse shortly before his passing:

Behold, days are coming - the word of the Lord God - when I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of God. [People] will travel from sea to sea and from north to east, they will wander about to seek the word of God, and shall not fi nd it. On that day, the beautiful maidens and the young men will faint from thirst. Those who swear by the idol of Samaria, and say “by the life of your god, Dan,” and “By the life of the Beer-Sheba rites” shall fall and never rise up again.[16]

Here, in Amos’s prophecy, we find not only the anticipation of social and economic justice, but also the thirst for Torah. Quite often we meet these “beautiful maidens and young men” fainting in thirst for Torah, many of them still preserving the spiritual purity, innocence and charm alongside the prophesied values of justice…

Will the renewed Torah come from these youths? How will it look? I do not know.

How will it correlate with the Torah we learn in yeshivot? I do not know.

But it is clear to me that this renewal of Torah will be a major portion in the Torah of the mashiah.

I still believe in R. Kook’s call for a spiritual revolution in Erets Israel… I often feel that we, the religious and Haredim, are responsible - and we must change our ways in order to bring about such a process. We may discover that we are the ones who are actually delaying redemption, precisely by entrenching ourselves in the old, the established, the rigid and the alienating.[17]

* * *

On the 25th of Sivan 5767 (June 11, 2007) R. Shagar passed away at the age of 57 following a serious illness. Be-Torato Yehegeh was the last of his works which he prepared for publication. In his final weeks, while experiencing much pain and suffering, he negotiated various issues with the editor, and even wrote his preface to the book.

We will be completing the subsequent chapters of R. Shagar’s life’s work with tears, as did Yehoshua for Moshe:

Rabbi Shemuel Bar Nahmani quoted Rabbi Yonatan’s saying: when Yehoshua said ‘Blessed be he who chose the righteous,’ the treasures of knowledge were taken [from Moshe] and given to Yehoshua, and Moshe had no understanding of the words Yehoshua was speaking. When Yehoshua fi nished teaching, the people of Israel turned to Moshe and begged of him, ‘fi nish the Torah,’ and Moshe said, ‘I don’t know what answer I may give you’ - and Moshe, tearfully, continued writing and Yehoshua taught them (and explained the writings).[18]

How fortunate and privileged were we to sit in R. Shagar’s shadow.



[1] This was the reasoning behind R. Shagar’s opposition to R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s proposal to substitute Gemara study in Yeshiva high schools with the study of Mishna and Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. R. Shagar argued that we cannot abandon Gemara study altogether since it is necessary for deepening the student’s connection to the religious world. See Be-Torato Yehegeh, 200-203.

[2] R. Shagar, Al Kappot ha-Manul: Discourses for the Days of Repentance and Yom Kippur [in Hebrew], (Efrat: Mekhon Kittevei ha-Rav Shagar), 2004, 16.

[3] Nefesh ha-Hayyim, Sha’ar 4 Chapter 3.

[4] R. Israel Salanter, “Ma’amar bi-Inyan Hizzuk Lomedei Torateinu ha-Kedosha,” in Kitvei R. Yisrael mi-Salant, ed. M. Fichter, (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1989), 189-194.

[5] R. Shagar, Be-Torato Yehegeh, 64.

[6] R. Eliyahu Meir Bloch, Shiurei Da’at, 7-13.

[7] Aharon Surseki, Rabbi Shimon ve-Torato, 1981, 87.

[8] Ibid., 94.

[9] This assessment of R. Soloveitchik’s work, as are all others in the ensuing paragraphs, are based on R. Shagar’s analysis of R. Soloveitchik in Be-Torato Yehegeh, 105 ff.

[10] Be-Torato Yehegeh, 135-136.

[11] Be-Torato Yehegeh, 147.

[12] This is based on R. Shagar’s chapter on “Studying Gemara in a Postmodern Culture,” Be-Torato Yehegeh, 181 ff.

[13]  Cf. R. Shagar, “Seeing the Voices - Yeshivish Scholarliness and the ‘Feminine Voice’ in Torah Study” [in Hebrew], in Shenei ha-Meorot: Women’s Equality from a New Jewish Point of View ed. Zohar Maor, (Efrat: Bina le-Ittim, 2007).

[14] Be-Torato Yehegeh, 205.

[15] In chapter 6 of Likkutei Moharan, R. Nahman speaks of the need to constantly repent since with each higher spiritual level reached comes an understanding that earlier attempts at repentance were inadequate.

[16] Amos 8:11-14.

[17] R. Shagar, “Yearning for a New World” (Hebrew), in: Nehalekh be-Ragesh: Selected Works, 226-227.

[18] Y.D. Eisenstein, Otsar ha-Midrashim, Jerusalem 1982, 356.

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