Rav Shagar – Movie tribute to his life and thought

Last Saturday night, Reshet Bet broadcast a wonderful documentary on the life and thought of Rav Shagar. They interviewed his students, friends, family and had discussions and interviews with Rav Shlomo Fischer of Itri, Rav Medan of YHE and Rav Benny Kalmanson of Othniel. The only thing to say is that it was superb and to go watch it. Below are both streaming uploads and a hosted version if you want to download it. Here are a few thoughts as you watch the movie. The movie is in Israeli Hebrew as are most introductions to his thought such as the excellent collection of articles in the Hebrew wiki.

The film credits Rav Shagar with a deconstruction of holiness (kedusha), the call to create a new religious language, and the need to remove the religious shells (kelipot) and obstructions. We need a turn to the self, to inwardness, and to autonomy. When one studies a text of Torah, one asks: how does it relate to the self? Does it ring as authentic? If not? Then where and how do I find the authentic? Questions are left open. It is a journey of the soul. The soul is the text of Torah. In the quest for inwardness, existentialist thought and Hasidut are brought into the beit midrash.

Rav Shagar did not seek to give answers because we must all follow our souls. Paraphrasing Hasidut, He taught that that there is no religious hierarchy- we are all close to God, we all can only give answers that fit our own souls, we are all equal and must be our own rabbis and teachers. We need to embrace secularism, arts, academia, and the secular culture in order for Torah to again become authentic. Meoz Kahana calls Rav Shagar an anarchist.

Rav Shagar is credited with the creation of more talmidim and the inspiration of more new yeshivot than any other current Rav. The entire wave of Othniel, Tekoa, Siah, Beit Morashah, Torat Hayyim, Maaleh et al is credited to him. In this new method, the Ra”m can give shiur on Kafka or poetry or contemporary sociology in the beit midrash. There is a broad spectrum of how far a given rabbi moves from the Talmud. A discussion of the Barbara Ehrenreich or of a Fellini movie can be paired with a midrash or sugyah not for homiletics or harmonization, rather to bring out the tensions we feel and why the Talmudic or halakhic text currently does not feel authentic. For others, the goal is the reintroduce religious experience into the Beit Midrash. For others, the goal is to challenge and overturn the traditional study hall that expects one to conquer the self and submit to Torah, now the study hall is a place to find the self and relevance. (Even in a single institution, the first years of Othniel were more radical than later years. Their first year journal was entirely personal self expression, poetry and modern midrash, and later years looked more like Rav Shagar Torah.)

The interview with Rav Shlomo Fischer of Itri offers a well placed dignified contrast to Rav Shagar. For Rav Fischer, Shagar’s approach is educationally incorrect. Openness is not for most people and it is dangerous. And he politely rejects as incorrect Rav Shagar’s book on Torah study B’Torato Yehageh as undercutting the traditional approach to study. For those who need a little summary – you can look back at my post on his book B’Torato Yehageh.

The section on film is essential to understand the role of poetry, creative writing, and film in the religious Zionist world. Fellini becomes Torah because moving the soul of the student is the goal and Fellini is the Text. Scorsese’s Taxi Driver helps the student understand the problems of being a saint in the wicked city, our traditional mussar works did not offer the same portrait. But the big pronouncement is that art is not just beauty but truth.

I will leave it to Rav Medan to describe how Rav Shagar barely survived the 73 war. In a section that was too short and did not emphasize his warmth enough. The film does discuss how he gave spiritual guidance such as working on the self. Brief psychological aphorisms like a sufi or musar master. It also showed that his world still included those of his students who left observance in quest of authenticity; the formerly religious is still in the discussion.

Torah is not law, ritual, or submission. Torah is hearing the eternal voice of God in the authentic self. Rav Shagar’s quest for the self is for authenticity is in tension with the current beit midrash is in contrast to Rav Soloveitchik who finds the self in its creativity and dignity in the halakhah. For Rav Soloveitchik, the lonely self needs the submission, in the community, its needs the words of liturgy to express itself, and the alienation is not overcome. For Rav Shagar, we coin new words, we need to express the tensions, and we have to find a way on our own.

On the alleged post-modernism, Rav Shagar says there are no fixed narratives, no answers, and no harmony, but he has a firm belief in the self, truth, art, and authenticity. He has no death of the subject, no authenticity as a historic construct, no text greater than self, and no post-structural turns. When Religious Zionists use the phrase post-modern they assume modern was state building. Kafka, Freud, Rilke and Sartre are called post-modern when they are actually the height of modernism. Rav Shagar’s should be compared to Bob Dylan’s “No Direction Home” , or the historian Marshall Berman’s – “all that’s solid melts into air” which America experienced in the post WWII era was a homelessness of modernity. Relgious Zionists are reaching that now. A post-modernist would see the experience of self or homelessness are themselves constructed categories.

in conclusion, the film set out to capture the spirit of Rav Shagar’s teachings and how he transformed people and changed their outlook. From the film, you would not know anything about his institutional homelessness, his debates, his working for Steinsaltz, his need to move on from HaKotel and Beit Morashah, or his large number of critics. This is in sharp contrast to the movie about Rav Soloveitchik, which never caught his greatness and got lost in denominational and biographical details that were unknown except to the few.

VTS 01 1-shagar on Vimeo.

VTS 01 2-shagar on Vimeo.

VTS 01 3-shagar from Alan Brill on Vimeo.

And here is the cloud version for easy downloads– click here.

7 responses to “Rav Shagar – Movie tribute to his life and thought

  1. Sarah Rindner

    We really enjoyed watching this, and of course would not have encountered it without your post. Thank you so much!

  2. Thanks for posting this.

    Indeed, as you mentioned in the last paragraph, there are some rather important things missing from the documentary. I’ll add to your list that some of his biggest talmidim aren’t featured, including the one who heads the team in charge of publishing his books, and other’s who have large roles in Siach and editing his works. Such absences might say something about a possible competition over owning Rav Shagar’s legacy.Tzur notes in his interview that it wouldn’t be “authentic” to say “THIS is Rav Shagar”. Also missing are Rav Shagar’s two main colleagues from the Makor Chaim kollel and Shefa- Rav Steinsaltz and Rav Fruman. The youngest generation- those who got to Siach in his last years- weren’t so well represented.

    Other than that, I would say that the movie did a very good job of providing interviews with Rav Shagar’s various kinds of students. The ones who’ve remained in Siach, the Datlashim, those who studied with him in HaKotel and Shefa who know teach elsewhere, and even those who may be considered “of the derekh”- Kosman, who always thanks R. Shagar in his books even though he left the mainstream Dati Leumi life, and Ohad Ezrachi, whose brand of new age judaism has led him to call for a sexual openness that got him kicked out of Otniel and other yeshivot [I doubt that many of the rabbis interviewed even knew that he would be in the film, and I would guess that if they had been told then some of them would not have agreed to partake].

    The generational differences between the different students are also apparent. His earlier ones both look and sound like the more classic “mizrachi” style Dati Leumi types, and as they get younger, the students’ appearances and words shift away from that model. I won’t list here who represents which period, but I’ll just point out that Avichai Tzur’s comments “הוא שיחק את זה” and that Rav Shagar wanted to “escape” from this world, is probably not something that his earlire students would have said, even if they were still close with him in those years.

    For me, his observation is closely to related to what I view as one of the main points of the film. Rav Shagar is described as almost too difficult to be with for an extended period of time- he sucks some students in, but shuns others (including the movie’s producer), and even those who are part of the “secret circle” he keeps near have a tough time with his tortured soul. Rav Benny calls him “a consuming fire”, and Rav Drayfus claims “that his presence blocked” out others. Vardy paints a picture in which the experiences of the talmidim are results of Rav Shagar’s personal depression and unsatisfaction. His obsessive search for personal authenticity takes a heavy toll on those around him, both students and family. This image is important in understanding Rav Shagar as a larger phenomena, and we should be grateful to Vardy for providing it to us, as it is not something easily expressed in the written form in which we usually learn about Rav Shagar.

  3. Nehemia Stern

    It’s the big ‘Me’ question. The documentary points to a real tension not just in religious Zionism, but Judaism in general. Where is there room for ‘Me’? Different people in this film struggle with this question in different ways.

    Some left-leaning scholars relate Israel’s emerging economic and social neo-liberalism to changes, in what they call, Jewish fundamentalism, Gush Emunim, religious Zionism, etc. What they miss (because they don’t look very hard) is that there are spiritual vectors to neo-liberalism that touch the soul and not the wallet.

    • Nehemia,
      Can you spell out your second paragraph? What are the spiritual vectors to neo-liberalism in Israel? Your left leaning scholars is a bit oblique, can you spell it out in academic terms?

  4. Miriam Feldmann Kaye

    I thank you for posting this especially to an English-language audience.
    I submitted a doctoral thesis recently (Univ. Haifa) on Contemporary Orthodox Jewish theology in Israel and Postmodern philosophy, in which I compared the writings of Harav Shagar and Prof Tamar Ross. This is probably one of the first academic pieces on Harav Shagar written in English. I set the context of why his thinking and writings are currently significant and popular in Israel, rather than on the ‘existentialist angst’ presented in the film.
    I know this blog is not for self-publicity ( 🙂 ) but if anyone is interested in knowing more about him from a philosophical and theological perspective, I would be delighted to share.
    (miriam at 3ff.org.uk)

  5. in which I compared the writings of Harav Shagar and Prof Tamar Ross.

    As someone who has briefly studied with both, I hope you wouldn’t consider the two to be in remotely the same league.

  6. Rav Fischer says openness is dangerous. Why is that? Because people might start to think for themselves? What does the Rav fear?

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