Rav Shagar: To be Connected to Eyn: living in a Postmodern world

Rabbi Shagar on Postmoderism.

In the 1840s, Kierkegaard rejected Hegel’s historical dialectic narrative, instead he stressed that each individual must negotiate his or her own relationship with God. Kierkegaard also objected to Hegel’s claim that there was system of thought that could explain the whole of reality. Rather, Kierkegaard considered that the truth is based on the subject and one’s own resolute decision. As a result, Postmodernism denies the subject and sees everything as culturally constructed. Finally, the Postmodernist Lyotard denies any vestige of a grand narrative of history or ideology started with Hegel .

In the 1990s, many in the Religious Zionist camp felt that their grand collective narrative of history broke down, and that knew realms of knowledge questioned former certainties. Rav Shagar uses the language of Postmodernism to express this sense in his recent collection of posthumous essays, Luhot ve Shivrei Luhut. Today, we are going to look at his most Postmodern chapter in the volume where he defines his postmodernism and his postmodern Judaism. (I posted on a different chapter in Rabbi Shagar’s book here, and in general see the film here and on Torah study here.)

The essay To be Connected to Eyn: living in a Postmodern World is itself constructed from parts of three talks (2000, 2002, 2008) and one can see a progression from his confrontation with  Postmodernism, his postmodern reading of Hasidism, and his moving beyond.

shagar photo

I went through the book with a study group at my house. This is a first draft of selected first thoughts therefore this post is subject to ongoing change and revision. Treat these as notes to myself as I work out the issues. I am trying to understand Rav Shagar’s Postmodernism. (Assume I have seen the prior discussions.)

Section One: The Postmodern condition

In this section we find his most explicit definitions. On basic definitions of postmodernism, see here, here, and here.

For Rav Shagar, Postmodernity is not theoretical philosophy but a condition of life, we live with a sense of the end of the narratives. It is not even a description of society, it is how we feel and it is expressed by Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition. We live after all ideologies of Communism, Socialism, and Nazism. For some readers, this applies also to Zionism and Halakhacism.

In the Postmodern age, we especially experience a loss of self.  “In Postmodernity it is not the [loss of the] creator of the world (God) but also of man, a process that starts  with denial of God  and concludes with the breakdown and death of the subject.” There is what Shagar calls a “Nietzschian loss of the value of man”. Shagar explains the philosophy of Kant as subjectivism and perspectivism (AB- this is not Kant, he is reading Kant through Nietzsche, in that the latter connects everything to his philosophy of will). Kant critiqued metaphysics and now in the modern era we can only save truth, ethics, and God by relying on subject which leads to Nietzsche’s concept of the will, all ethics are based on the will.

Shagar cites Foucault in that all is a will to power, but the will has no hierarchy and it is not the cosmic blind will of Schopenhauer. Rather today, we are in a social weave in which all discourse is power “unidirectional power” – with no metaphysical angle. Shagar’s Foucault has no discussion of freedom, critique, discourse, and stratagem.  This discussion is difficult because the philosophers are more namedropped into the text than cited and analyzed; he works in a Hasidic manner by making equations of terms.

Shagar says that all is language and not metaphysics, which he proves by mentioning Wittgenstein Derrida, and Lacan. He discusses Wittgenstein’s limits of language and limits of questions that can be asked. Shagar reads Wittgenstein not as the peak of analytic linguistic thought but as Postmodern. The mistake is widespread in Israel. I should check the introductions to the Hebrew editions to find the source.

Shagar also mentions the critics of global capitalism and late capitalism, to which he states that we have Rav Nachman’s critique of capitalism. He also notes that technology has changed everything about all lives.

Section Two: Postmodern Eyn

Rav Shagar asks: what is the Archimedical point of the Postmodern era? What deep insight does it express? For Rav Shagar, it reveals the Hasidic concept of metaphysical nothingness, eyn. It is an age of no metaphysics above, no ideology below; it is a pantheistic Postmodernity.

In the Postmodernist age, there is no why. For Rav Shagar, this is neither Heidegger’s nothing nor the mystical nothing, nor is it even the Buddhist nothing. This is nothing with a small “n” as opposed to a capital one.  An attitude of no direction as described by Gadi Taub in his work, Dispirited Rebellion.

This is the loss of the creator, a loss of any great ideology, a loss of man, of truth; this loss is the source of the fantastic perspective which characterizes the Postmodern world. Rav Shagar then compares this condition to Existentialism and (Bahye). Where Existentialism sees no reason for life and is compelled therefore to ask Why not commit suicide, Bahye in his Duties of the Heart sees no purpose in material life so we therefore relinquish everything to serving God (bitachon 7; also see Kuzari III who rejects this opinion).

These are both forms of histavut, equanimity or indifference. The difference is that Bahye sees redemption in the light of God and in an influx of chesed. For him, it brings not only tranquility but also ecstatic love and cleaving to God. In contrast, Existentialism denies any form of redemption and destroys a sense of existence in which life as empty of meaning. An Existentialist sees the Hasid as empty and as a hindrance to self-acceptance.

(AB- Shagar  seems to conflate Existentialism and Postmodernism. According to Camus, “The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions […] and without resignation either. He experiences the ’divine irresponsibility’ of the condemned man.” Bahye sees the Divine in all creation. Despite his asceticism, he does not see the world as devoid of value.)

For Shagar, Bahye’s portrayal of the Hasid is paradoxical:  the Hasid has no promise of wealth or redemption but has complete trust without trust in anything in this world, a relinquishment of trust in anything because the world is empty and he is full [of the infinite] There are two psychological movements in the faith of the Hasid: first, the Hasid must surrender trust just as the Existentialist surrenders meaning in the world. Second one must stand directly before the nothing, Eyn

The Postmodernist, according to Shagar, outdoes the Existentialist by relinquishing truth and the need for truth. This giving up on truth yields self-acceptance But he also relinquishes a need to make a big deal or about the giving up of truth. A postmodern Hasid is therefore giving himself up to an ecstasy not of truth but of infinite self.  Since in the postmodern age there is no more metaphysics then the reaching of Eyn is really reaching our infinite selves. Rav Shagar already said similar things in the last paragraphs of the first essay in his earlier work Kelim Shevurim. God is our own infinite selves.

(AB- This acceptance of the self, a common theme in Shagar’s writings, is in direct contrast to the Postmodern rejection of the sovereign autonomous individual, Postmoderns emphasis construction of reality and linguistic constructions.)

Continuing this line of thought, for Rav Shagar Postmodern equanimity (histavut) can be explained by the two Chabad concepts of sovev kol almin and mimalei kol almin. Sovev surrounds and has no hierarchy, no good or bad, no sense of absolute just that the world is only God –all is his will Postmodern negation is sovev kol almin: nothing is absolute by itself, there is no up and down or hierarchy.

But, a person cannot live on the level of surrounding sovev rather we need to live in mimale kol almin. Sovev leads to nihilism and the breaking of categories but it can also have a positive function in opening up to new options and new places to find God.  It places us in a world where God is hidden and without hierarchy. If we do not know where God is, then we can use our free will to find the way. Shagar sees this as similar to Bahye who chose to seek God in a material world devoid of God.

Shagar declares that Postmodern is similar to hishtavut of Bahye and the sovev of the mekubalim [Chabad] insomuch as  all is equal without clear lines of where God is in the world.  The Postmodern innovation is to turn the perspective of God of Sovev kol Almin into a human perspective However, according to Shagar, in Hasidut, the Eyn has true reality and the Eyn is where all will return and it sustains the yesh, the existence, because the yesh does not really exist; only the Eyn is the true existence

However the Eyn in Postmodernity does not  sustain the yesh.  Now, the Eyn is a negation of hierarchy, postmodern perspective useful for creating new social and political perspectives

This flows from a second difference of the Eyn in Postmodernity, for the Hasid and kabbalist the Eyn is divine but in Postmodernity the Eyn is the halal hapanui – the empty space, the void or absence of God. (Likute Moharan 64) (AB- This is classic Arthur Green and his Existential doubt of God- see“Faith, Doubt and Reason,” in Green’s Tormented Master. )

For Rav Shagar, using the terms from the language of kabbalah and Hasidut allows us to see that postmodernism reveals the Eyn –the Eyn od. He conflates the Infinite of God, the absence of God and the all-encompassing of God.  In truth for Rav Shagar, there is no grasping of the metaphysics above.

We have to accept that God is the ground of everything and all our choices.

(AB- One senses a romantic pantheism and living in the moment, this is akin to Western Zen, focus on being “In the moment”. One also sense an existential concern with an authentic or well lived life not the postmodern concern with hegemony, social construction, or looking at the logic of our desires. This is more Camus meets Siddhartha, and Arthur Green in the language of postmodernism.)

A note should be made of his use of Hasidic language, it is not a translation of Hasidut into Postmodernity or vice-versa, rather a few theologically pregnant Hasidic terms that he uses to create a concrete that is original to him.

Section Three: Soft and Hard Postmodernity

Rav Shagar thinks that Postmodernity has no telos, no ultimate goal, no foundation, no ideology, and no closure. (AB- This means that neither Halakhah, beliefs (emunot), experience nor Zionism can serve as a basis to judge or create hierarchy.)

Postmodernists do not turn look to their struggles into fear or joy because they believe it is all contingent or happenstance.

Question: Can you bind yourself to Eyn in a way similar to the way a traditional religious Jew can bind himself to the Holy One blessed be He for religious devotion?

Answer: No, one cannot. And one cannot experience the resolution offered by religion anymore, no fear or rejoicing.

Question: Will we not we be officially left with nothing and therefore create a closure defined by absence?

Answer: Hard Postmodernism is Nihilism and deconstruction of the subject. It denies truth.

Soft Postmodernism, however, is a mixture of traditions, what works for me, I do not know what the truth is, there is no possibility of knowing truth but it does not deny truth itself. In soft Postmodernism, all is based on the perspective and context of person but truth does exist.

(AB- The only people who use this soft/hard distinction are Emergent Evangelicals who use postmodernism to says that there is no certain truth in the world and therefore we turn to Christianity, but the Christianity is uncertain about doctrine and teachings).

Question: How can this perspective change society without possessing truth?

Answer: The paradox of the void/absence (halal panui) allows us to confront the lack of truth without running from it or hiding, it instills an attitude of humility not victory.

shagar photo2

Section Four: Klipat Amalek as Opposed to Self-acceptance

The paradox of Postmodernism is that if everything is in doubt and there are no true values then does this not lead to the questioning of postmodernism since we cannot know that it is true.  Such a question is “nonsense” in the Wittgensteinian sense.

Wittgenstein’s nonsense is a form of Eyn.

(AB- in Wittgenstein’s writings, the word “nonsense” carries a special technical meaning which differs significantly from the normal use of the word. In this sense, “nonsense” does not refer to meaningless gibberish, but rather to the lack of sense in the linguistic context of sense and reference. In this context, logical tautologies, and purely mathematical propositions may be regarded as “nonsense” Why do these Israelis misread Wittgenstein so horribly?! The very question shows that Shagar is treating postmodernism as an ism to adopt rather than the current condition of our lives like the prior existential-psychological era that we did not choice but were embedded within).

But if Postmodernism is another uncertain narrative then even postmodernism is yeshut (an entity or grand narrative). In fact this makes it a pure yeshut, which in Hasidut makes it the evil of Amalek. The acceptance of postmodernism is thus Amalek. However, soft Postmodernism lets you not even accept the theory without accepting it as the truth. Yes, we are in doubt even about Postmodernism – just give up foundations and accept that you will never know. We will live with the existential irony of holding opposites.

Section Five: Random, Indifference or Discomfort—Routine and Ecstasy

The difference between the two types of Postmodernism is dependent on separating the connection between random and indifferent. Hard postmodernism says the randomness leads to indifference. Soft postmodernism says that randomness does not lead to indifference because there is meaning above the self, even if we cannot know it.  We give up the need for truth and even question Postmodernism.

There is ecstasy when you realize that you can live as Eyn because then you know that you are living life fully without the limits that binds others. In that state of living, one is above the limits of science, historicity, or psychology or any other structure that impedes the believer and his belief. Eyn opens him up to humility and greater spirituality.

In conclusion, we wind up with the irony and freedom of the religious Existentialists,  like Zorba the Greek—or do we? We also get the freedom to see everything as Eyn and not worry about belief in God, the rationality of religion, religious rules, or social roles. We have the absence of God, the self as God and the full language of Hasidut. But whereas Art Green’s Hasidism leaves us in the modern world of doubt, and a postmodern would treat God as culturally conditioned (or textual or a God beyond God), here we have a self that accept itself and its fragmented life.

To sort out where Rav Shagar differs from Existentialism, we return to Kierkegaard: “Without risk, there is no faith. Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty. If I am capable of grasping God’s objectivity, I do not believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty […] still preserving my faith.” For Rav Shagar, after his reading of Nietzsche, Lyotard, and Rav Nahman, there is no quest for passionate faith because we have made peace with the contradictions and uncertainties. This peace and uncertainty is our ecstatic freedom.

Appendix: Already on Facebook, Todd Berman commented that in a way that shows that his readers may really just be looking for a pluralist modernity. Kuhn and Berlin are pluralist moderns and not postmoderns.

Can only tell you what works for me. The notion that the corollary to the impossibility of Truth is the lack of necessity of arriving at Truth is very powerful for me. I was quite taken by Isaiah Berlin’s article on History where he argues that history is more akin to art in that it jibes with one’s understand of the world. Then Thomas Kuhn questioning the absolutes of science or more accurately the bias of scientists skews their models of the world, Rav Shagar, for me, seems to be the first person to take such notions and argue for a synthesis within my world view. Can one study artificial intelligence, read Asimov, Biblical criticism, like the Mets, and find a way to work this into a holistic view or why learning Bava Metzia is important as well?

6 responses to “Rav Shagar: To be Connected to Eyn: living in a Postmodern world

  1. Michael Fagenblat

    nice post, thanks. And btw, there was an evening at Van Leer last night, 18th, on Rav Shagar, and they usually record all their events and make them available online.

  2. Upon introspection we believe we recognize have a personal history, a story we tell ourselves and others about our life, even when we have forgotten many of the details. Nothing hangs on the truth of such stories. What is important is that we have some idea how we started out and how we got to where we are today, who were and are the important people in our lives, our feelings towards them & that this kind of story hang together more or less. Now some people have fragmented and gone psychotic, others are demented, but for most of us we have some measure who we are, what were our important life decisions, and our current values, goals and ideals. We use all of this in deciding how to live going forward, in expressing opinions etc.. R. Shagar makes it sound like we are all wandering around in a daze, like characters in some 1960s Antonioni or Fellini movie.

    So what difference does it really make if the Hegelian grand narrative or Marxism or for that matter Labor Zionism has fallen into disrepute? The fewer the ‘isms’ the less competition for religion however understood. And if ‘truth’ is no longer what it used to be, how many Jews are upset that quantum mechanics seems so weird, cosmology is unsettled with little hope of settling the issues empirically. Even if the “I” is in some sense a construct, so is most of folk psychology. In an age of AI and robots about to satisfy Turing tests, who knows which psychological terms will survive? Will intention, agency or will be alive and kicking a hundred years from now. Yet this presents no crisis for the continued use of folk psychology today?

    I would say Rabbi Shagar is being over dramatic and a bit hysterical. There is no crisis.

  3. walter benjamin

    ej-great post except I would differ from you on one point that there is a crisis and that is of the “I”.

  4. I have always been troubled that Rav Shagar just seemed to rather uncritically assume that “truth” of post-modernism, and simply ignored its many critics. What of science? Do post-modernists really wish to assert, to take just one example, that the structure of DNA, discovered by Watson and Crick was just a “culturally bound truth”??

  5. Prof. Brill,
    Thank you for all of the elucidating posts. I have grown a lot through your shared knowledge.

    Three ideas for future posts that would interest me at least (I believe others, too):
    If you have already done these, my apologies for missing them. I only started following your blog this year.

    1) Please do a proper interview with R’ Ysoscher Katz. From your posts on FB there is a constant dancing back and forth between you two and it would be lovely to hear his views, organized, by means of the type of thorough Q&A you apply with other interviewees.

    2) A review of R’ Zalman Schachter Shalomi’s thought and its contribution to modern Judaism. If you have something new to add to the mix, of course…

    3) A response to the new Atheism (Harris, Dawkins, etc.). Would be riveting to hear an educated and scholarly rabbi work through their arguments, one by one, showing where they are on point or where they have constructed straw men (I believe they do this often, e.g., deconstructing a religion that nobody is really following today…).
    Maybe you hit the last two in previous posts. My apologies again for overlooking, if that is the case.
    Still, the first idea seems only natural in lieu of your expressed intrigue in his stances on various FB threads.

    Thank you so much,

  6. @enyphill
    I too would love to read an interview of Rabbi Ysoscher Katz. His insight is incredible, and he seems to be forming an exciting and creative (post?) modern-Hassidic school of thought

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