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.