Rabbi Shagar- Values and Faith in the Postmodern Age

Rabbi Shagar (d. 2007), was a Torah scholar and a contemporary religious thinker who left a deep mark on the educators and students of the last generation. Here is a translation of one of his  essays called “Values and Faith in the Postmodern Age” which is chapter 1 in his book Kelim Shevurim: Torah ṿe-Tziyonut-Datit bi-Sevivah Posṭ-modernit : derashot (Broken Vessels: Torah and Religious Zionism in Postmodernity) (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Śiaḥ Yitsḥaḳ, (2003). This essay is translated here for the first time into English. It is available below as a blog post and as a Word document. Print this out and read it over the next week.

The translation was beautifully done by Rabbi Roy Feldman, rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob, Albany NY. Rabbi Feldman received rabbinic ordination from the RIETS and from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg.  A graduate of Columbia University and he studied at Yeshivat Petach Tikva in Israel.   If anyone else has made personal translations of essays by Rav Shagar, I would be glad to post them. (Also if you find errors in this translation, please let me know).

In the last few months, I posted two other essays by Rav Shagar in translation (Hanukah and postmodernism) and have had several posts on his postmodernism. I have several other translations of Rav Shagar essays coming that are still in the pipeline.

shagar photo

To understand this essay on what Shagar calls post-modernism, it is important to bear in mind the difference between Post-modernity and Postmodernism. Post-modernity is the sense of our era when there is a breakdown of modernism. In contrast, Postmodernism is a specific moment in 20th century thought when the assumptions of modernism- in philosophy, art, architecture and literature- gave way to the post-modern assumptions.  Post-modernity is a sense of an age, a zeitgeist. postmodernism is a philosophic movement, similar to Pragmatism, Existentialism, and Kantian. The former is spirit of the age, the latter is an academic movement with a canon.

Postmodernity, the contemporary cultural era of the last 25 years is a breakdown of the objectivity of modernism, there is a questioning of rationality, science, ethics, progress, and secularism.

Postmodernism, the philosophy, deals with the current theoretical issues in hermeneutics, cultural theory, literary theory, psychology, and social science.

During the modern era, in both the phases of Enlightenment and Modernism, Judaism had to agresively defend itself against secularism especially those who thought religion is outdated, but the defense to be effective had to be on the turf of modernity. Rabbi Soloveitchik dealt with modernism as a philosophy, discussing Kantianism, and Existentialism. He did not generally discuss the cultural mood of modernity; however there were scores of books with titles on Jews and modernity dealing with the mood of modernity

In the era of postmodernity, when all values are questioned and there is no longer belief in progress and rationality, religion has come back with vengeance. Evangelicals, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews can all say that the modern critiques of religion do not really exist, or do not have to be taken seriously. Many 21st century religious works present the modern critiques of religion as just personal editorial opinions, which can be easily dismissed by believers. They can also cite popular critiques of academia as affirmations that they don’t have to answer the critiques of modernity. Orthodox op-ed writers are part of post-modernity in that they think the Orthodox perspective trumps Hume, Locke, and Kant, but at the same time they grab whatever they like in modern science, psychology or sociology. But these anti-intellectual religious figures are part of postmodernity, they are not postmodern.

Rav Shagar deals with postmodernity as a cultural social moment and not as a philosophy of postmodernism. He also uses the term post-modernism to mean postmodernity and with a dash between post and modern, contra US style.

Rav Shagar opens his article quoting a Hebrew University sociology professor, an archetype of the challenges of this era, as saying that we cannot condemn honor killing by a Druze clan since that would be subjecting them to Western liberal values rather than respecting their own values.  (There are sociologists who present such views such as Saba Mahmood who justify burkas, honor killings and polygamy as a critique of the secular-liberal assumptions by which some people hold such movements to account).

Shagar uses this topic to explain how in the Post-modern world there are no universal values. In his caricature of post-modernism, he states that they hold the impossibility of condemning honor killing since it would be just another act of “European white male” hegemony.  So he asks, when do I abandon my relativism for moral values?

Soft Justice

Shagar introduces a distinction from the important philosopher Richard Rorty  ofSoft Justice”. We may no longer be able to ground our ethical distinctions in foundational moral realism, yet we believe in ethics even though it is not absolute. For Rorty, we do not discover the truth of our beliefs, rather they are an invention and self creation.

Shagar asks: If we have soft justice, then can also have soft religion?

He gives a political application. The left says religious Zionist can never achieve peace because of its foundational absolute claims of homeland and Holy Land  To which Shagar asks: What do we do with the Religious Zionist claim if there is no absolute truth and religion is nothing but language games?

Here is the crux behind most of his writings. What do we do when we realize that the absolute claims of Merkaz haRav, Religious Zionism, Gush-Brisker halakhah, and the Kuzari cannot be affirmed in a post-modern age?

As in many of his essays, the sections end on a question.

The Contradiction of Experience

Shagar turns the essay to several of Rav Nachman of Breslov ideas: (1) in this world we always have problems without answers. (2) that we live with an unresolved  paradox of the absence of God in the world and that His glory fills the earth (3) that the world is a contradiction of experience – tzimzum, contractions, un explained suffering.

As a good point of contrast, Art Green in all his books used these same Rav Nachman building blocks to say that we live in a world of modernist doubt and silence from God. We are disconnected from the theistic God of the past, now we consider God as a spiritual voice in our inner selves, as well as a panentheism of God in the world. We may not have belief in the modern age but we still have spirituality.  Green states clearly that, after the modernism of Darwin, Freud, Wellhausen and the tragedy of the Holocaust,we cannot believe  in theism anymore only a panenetheism,

In contrast, Shagar will use these passages to create a postmodernity view, a way to live after cultural relativism.

The Right to be Silent

Shagar asks: How  does Rav Nachman realted to postmodernism? To which he answers with his thematic statement that post-modern means to “have no answers.”  Which he takes to mean no grand narrative or foundational knowledge.

Hence, he asks: Can we ban unethical murder in honor killings and impose our ethical values. To which he answers: I trust my human finite truth.  We can trust our own personal judgments. My truth exists as a personal revelation of God; God exists in everything including my personal truth. We are all seekers for a path. God and ethics are part of our personal existential quests.

Here is where Shagar goes off the post-modern rails and returns to Existentialism as we noted in prior blog posts. For a post-modern, we have no access to the self, everything, including the self, is decentered in signs and constructions.   The personal self is a constructed category in postmodernism.

As a modern Existentialist, Shagar in the next paragraph proclaims that a personal truth is so valid that I can be willing to devote myself my life to the personal meaning and even kill and die for it.  The fact that we cannot substantiate our values and can always doubt our values should not hinder our faith This is Existentialism 101, from an introduction class on Sartre who says the exact same thing in his Existentialism as a Humanism (1946). But whereas the modernist Sartre placed the emphasis on the firmness of decision-making, personal resolution, and commitment. Shagar places the emphasis on silence, contradiction, and the inability to have an absolute. A Postmodernism form of Existentialism.

For Sarte, there are no universals because we are isolated beings thrown toward our own finite existences and ultimate deaths. In contrast, for Shagar, there are no answers because the narrative of truth has broken down as described in Lyotard. Meaning, for him, the religious Zionist narrative has broken down.

Why stop an honor killing?  Because we still believe eternal value to goodness. Yet, this value is based on faith, our personal revelation and paradox.

Shagar even reads Maimonides based on this framework.  Maimonides write that God has no final goal for the world after creation. God is unknown and not known through history. This is clearly a rejection of the Rabbi Kook and Religious Zionist view of god’s plan for history. In Shagar’s hands, Maimonides’ negative theology becomes post-modern; Maimonides’ unknowability of God is explained as no meaning  or grand narrative or even meaninglessness.

Positive Faithful Pluralism

What is the difference between secular “postmodern pluralism” as presented by the Hebrew University professor, and our aspiration to a religious “faithful pluralism”? The former has no divine inspiration and the latter has divine inspiration.

A faithful pluralism will still use the modernist metaphor of discovery but acknowledge the believer has contradictory personal revelations. Shagar elevates and glorifies personal religious decisions as a form of divine revelation.

Our personal decisions are substantive creation of Torah. It is not an empty game of post-modernism, rather the religious person opens himself up to the possibility of creation and revelation. (I need someone to translate one of his essays on mesirat nefesh and emunah, an important category of his).

In a “Postmodern Faithful Pluralism”, the encountering of a diversity of believers and non-believers with contradictory positions will not weaken the believers faith. Rather, it will strengthen the faith. Furthermore, similar to Hasidim, we find God in everything. The awareness of contradictions makes us more sensitive, moral, and modest.  We see our boundaries.

Nobody’s faith is preferable to another’s faith. We all have our faith and individual inspiration allowing this diversity to strengthen human fraternity. “Postmodern pluralism denounces the violence of the “enlightened individual” who tries to coerce his values on reality and also that of the believer who wants to impose his faith on the whole world.”

Hence, the religious man is not a primitive being rather one who possesses a genuine option for human existence. (I am not sure if this line is more reminiscent of Rav Soloveithcik’s defense of the dignity of Halkahic man or a defense of cultural relativism).

A student of mine, who is now  a major pulpit rabbi, recently reminded me why was I less interested in Rav Shagar when this book first came out in 2003.  First, I lean more to classical moral realism of Saadiah Gaon, Maimonides, or Rav Kook. Second, the way to overcome fundamentalism is not with treating relativism as revelation but with returning to a rational culture that can temper religion. Scholars of fundamentalism such as Oliver Roy (II, III, IV) point out that fundamentalism thrives on the hollowing out of mainstream culture as immoral and relativistic. His answer is to strengthen the moderate rational cultural world with multiple sources of truth including both religious and secular  Third, as a professor of religion/theology I prefer the more rigorous postmodern philosophy-  Foucault, Lacan, Bauman, Caputo -than the pop postmodernism. The philosophers have religious responses by Christians akin to what Rav Soloveitchik attempted with modernism. Finally, I think Shagar’s post-modernism in the 2013 volume is better worked out than this 2003 essay.



Values and Faith in the Postmodern Age (here)

From Kelim Shevurim: Torah ṿe-Tziyonut-Datit bi-Sevivah Posṭ-modernit : derashot  (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Śiaḥ Yitsḥaḳ, (2003). Part I, chapter 1. Translated by  Roy Feldman

 Judaism and Postmodernism

There are countless articles appearing about the murder of Ikhlas Knaan in her home in the Druse quarter of Kfar Ramah in the Galilee region.  The murderer was her brother, a regular service soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces, fifteen years younger than his victim. . .  Her family hinted that it was dissatisfied with her lifestyle and activities in the United States; it was even less satisfied with her manner of dress and self-expression while she was in Israel. I offered to write an editorial in the Opinion section of HaAretz discussing the cultural context that could allow, and at times even require, a man to kill a woman in his family.  My offer was gladly accepted.  The essay deals with what I term, “The Liberal Dilemma.”  On the one hand, murdering women contradicts our value of the sanctity of human life; on the other hand, interfering in the world of a different group and imposing dominant group’s values on the minority’s culture contradicts the liberal tendency to leave alone those who do not bother us, and to respect them.  Viewing the other as exotic—as cultured, but part of a different culture, long ago replaced the alternative, paternalistic view of the White cultured European.

I have selected the above excerpts from an essay by Danny Rabinowitz, of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Hebrew University.  Rabinowitz attempts to present a point of view from which one can understand the murder as it was committed for the sake of “family honor.”  He was surprised by the raging responses he received from feminists and others who opposed the notion that he would even consider justifying a cultural context in which such a murder could take place.

The attacks come first and foremost against my propriety; and to a certain extent against the propriety of traditional anthropology to offer coherent and functional explanations for shocking phenomena.  Many of the critics assume that there is a connection between investigating for the sake of explanation legitimizing a crime and its culprit.

The discussion highlights the dilemma of the postmodern world, a world that cannot talk about “universal values” because, as far as it is concerned, such values do not exist.  Truth does not exist, and “the truth” surely does not exist.  In this world, “truth” is a social construct—it is only “politics of truth,” as Nietzsche explained: “Values and their changes are related to increases in the power of those positing the values.”

What can we do in such a world?  Must the Knesset, for instance, impose laws on the Druse to prevent these murders, blood redemption, or other traditions that seem immoral to us?  Our moral values oblige us to prevent and eradicate such shocking phenomena from happening, but our historical, sociological, and anthropological consciousness teaches us that, from the Druse point of view, the murderer not only defended his society and its moral values—but he did the right thing.  As a man of values, can I ignore the second point of view, a critical approach that rejects the imposition of “European White Male” values on a world that seems primitive to his condescending eyes?

This story highlights more than anything the fact that the central question of “values in the postmodern world” is the question of limits: At what point do I abandon my relativist awareness in exchange for my moral values?  There are values for which even the most extreme relativist—enlightened to and fully aware of the fact that all values are relative and contextual– would put his foot down, rebel, and declare: “That’s IT!”  If not, we would arrive at a paradox, as Rabinowitz himself explains in his essay:

English city governments with large communities of people of African descent, specifically those that customarily circumcise babies and young girls, face a difficult dilemma.  The citizens (in this case Muslims), who possess inexorable electoral power, demanded that their practical religious needs be included in the list of surgeries covered by the state health insurance. . .  Thus, they would save a great deal of money and prevent the inherent danger of circumcising their daughters without any medical attention or hygienic conditions, and most importantly– they would have the opportunity to openly maintain their culture and traditions in their glory.  At least one city has added this operation to its list of surgeries that are subsidized by public funding.

Similarly, we must ask, what is our position regarding the burning of Indian widows?  From our point of view, this is the most despicable of immoral acts, but the Indian man believes he is doing the widow a great favor.  The perplexed postmodernist has a predicament:  He will object to the phenomenon, but he can also see the Indian man’s perspective.  As far as he is concerned, the notion of a general moral decree, one devoid of a socio-cultural context, is baseless.

The Postmodern Solution: “Soft Justice”

If so, what is justice in a relativist world?  David Gurevitz has coined an apt phrase: “Soft Justice.”  Again, we do not expect complete justice which, as we have established, does not exist; our expectations are lowered to a soft, local justice, that is derived through discourse and consent among people.  There are many models of “soft justice,” but they are all characterized by conceding the pretense of absolute rulings.  Nonetheless, as Gurevitz remarks, soft justice has its own boundaries; it is guided by non-relativistic rules, namely, the dogmatic belief in human rationality without which fruitful discussion and consent are impossible.  These values are formulated in terms different from those of traditional justice.  Richard Rorty, a contemporary American philosopher, suggests just that: we must abandon the metaphor of discovery, and adopt instead a metaphor of self-creation and self-founding.  The metaphor of discovery causes man to believe he has discovered “the truth,” and there is therefore no room for other truths.  The metaphor of invention and self-creation, on the other hand, encourages the outlook that each value is produced from and by its society, and, if so, it does not contradict values of other societies.  Only through such compromise can we have harmony within a society and outside it.

In this context, we develop a fascinating question: Is it possible that, like “soft justice,” we can also have “soft religion,” or are faith and religion naturally forced into decisive truths?

In order to achieve peace, the secular left says, we must abandon our traditional sense of “home.”  Only the cosmopolitan, who feels at home everywhere in the world, can bring peace.   Religious Zionist society, therefore, is incapable of establishing peace: concepts of “homeland,” “my home,” necessarily displace the Other, and lead to a perpetual struggle.  Therefore, says the left, in order to achieve peace, we must abandon—even through suffering—the sense of home, and stop thinking in terms of “homeland” in order to prevent the constant spilling of blood.  Religious Zionism, says the left, can never achieve peace, since the belief in “homeland” and the “holy land” lead to an unending conflict.  Nevertheless, the connection the left makes between the “social revolution” and the question of peace cannot be severed so simply.

Is a Religious Zionist solution, one that does not give up and resort to Haredi insularity, possible?  How can we establish truths in a world that no longer believes in them and maintains that the concept of “truth” in and of itself no longer exists, that discourse cannot represent reality and is simply composed of “language-games?”

The Contradiction of Existence

I would like to claim that this problem is unresolvable; its source is a ‘programming failure’ of the human experience.  Furthermore, understanding this failure and its role as an origin opens a religious option far more exciting than the accepted one.

In one of his famous teachings, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav teaches that there is a contradiction at the core of the human experience.  He terms this phenomenon, “problems that have no answer.”  Rebbe Nachman opens the teaching with the assertion that “the Blessed Lord created the world in light of his mercifulness since he wanted to reveal his mercifulness, and if not for the creation of the world—on whom would he have mercy?”

This is a difficult assertion.  On such an assertion, Yehuda Amichai wrote: “If God were not full of mercy, there would be more mercy in the world.”  If God had created the world as better, He would not need to have mercy on us, nor would we on Him.

To my understanding, Rebbe Nachman is not claiming that God created the world to have an object for his mercy; rather, the creation itself, its resonance, that which it reveals, is mercy.  He is not discussing mercy as a concrete status; mercy is embedded in the contradiction of experience, specifically the human experience (and they come to include the concrete expression of suffering).  Rebbe Nachman explains this rift as the concept of tzimtzum (lit. “constriction”) in the Kabbalah.

According to him, tzimtzum is a paradox: On the one hand, in order for a world to exist, God must disappear from the world.  On the other hand, a Godless reality opposes the infiniteness of God, for the concept of God’s unity comes not only to negate cooperation, but also to assert that there is no entity other than He, for “His glory fills the earth.”  And so, Rebbe Nachman continues:

And so tzimtzum, the contraction of empty space, we cannot understand or deduce until the future.  For we must say two opposites, existence and nothingness, for the empty space exists through the tzimtzum, that God, as it were, contracted his Godliness from there, and there is apparently no Godliness there, for if it were not so, it would not be empty, and all is infinite, and there is no room whatsoever for the creation of the world; truthfully, however, there is certainly Godliness even there, since there is surely no life without Him, and so we cannot have any element or aspect of empty space until the future…

Reality in general, and the human experience specifically, is absurd, but absurdity is an abyss, and it itself is the origin of the great mercy at the heart of creation.

The Right to be Silent

How is this related to postmodernism?  The postmodern contradiction is one of the problems that Rebbe Nachman said “have no answer.”

Let us return to the morality example we discussed earlier: Do we have the right to interfere and impose our moral values on the Druse murdering the young woman?  As we have said, the possibility of reflective observation, that places all matters in their context and in their place, always exists and we may not escape it.  However, in the end, I am indeed human, finite, with my own truth, and I believe in that truth, and I cannot and will not deny it.

Rebbe Nachman’s notion of tzimtzum is latent in this paradox.  My truth, indeed, exists as a revelation of God.  God exists in everything—“leit atar patur minei,” say the hassidim.  It’s translation: “There is nothing from which God is absent,” including the existential and ethical domains, and so, they exhibit certainty.  We can always pose the question: do other people not have other values?  But this possibility should not destroy the notion that a certainty exists which I would not renounce, in truth, I am willing to devote myself to it, to die for it or even to kill for it.

How can both of these ideas exist together?  Rebbe Nachman recommends silence.  He cites the midrash in which Moses asks about Rabbi Akiva’s destiny: “Is that Torah, and is that its reward?”  And he is answered, “Be silent; this is how we advance thought.”  In other words, the solution is not found at the theoretical level; the solution is a response, or, to be precise, abstention.  Abstention which is not evasion but rather a unique response to a human situation that knows itself and rejects the denial of any of its components.

The fact that we cannot substantiate our values, and that we can always doubt them, should not hinder our faith.  Rebbe Nachman’s greatness lies in his ability to turn problems into devotion.  Take for example the unjust event we have described: if any of us were to encounter this situation, he would not sit aside and allow the Druse to murder his sister.  He would implement any measure necessary—including killing—in order to prevent the murder of the young woman.  But why?  Rebbe Nachman teaches that we can respond to these questions, questions of faith, in three ways: (1) a positive response, (2) a negative response, and (3) not asking the question in the first place.  There are questions that cannot be answered, and there is no need to answer them.  That is faith, paradoxical as it is (and Rebbe Nachman was correct to express paradox), and as such its strength and intensity are hidden.

Such a response answers not only the question of moral values, but we can broaden it to the general question of human existence: Everyone asks himself whether his life has value.  If he helps someone—even if that day he was to die, and the person whom he helped would also die, and nothing would be left, we still believe that there is eternal value to such actions.  Similarly, Rebbe Nachman knows that the final questions, the metaphysical questions, are beyond the capacity of language.  Unlike the postmodernist, however, who concludes from this that they lack meaning, that they are “nonsense” as Wittgenstein claims derisively (and maybe even despairingly), for Rebbe Nachman, this knowledge opens the possibility of faith.  He knows, as many before him also knew, that absolutes deviate from the “language games” possible in a given language, and that silence is a human potential no smaller than speech.  In effect, only a meaningless environment can create true meaning.  Maimonides writes that God does not have one absolute, final goal—that exists only in the world, after its creation, and not outside it.  God is One unto Himself, and that is also the nature of faith.

Positive Faithful Pluralism

The difference between faithful pluralism and postmodern pluralism is the difference between relativism which lacks inspiration and relativism which is open to inspiration, between the claim that the postmodern game is an empty one and a stance that ascribes meaning to it.  Faithful pluralism does not hesitate to use the metaphor of “discovery.”  Even if it knows that there are many different and even contradictory “revelations,” these contradictions do not paralyze it.  It would certainly admit that “truth” is a social construct, but it is still a substantive creation and not simply an empty game.  Am I willing to open myself to the possibility of this creation, and to see within it divine inspiration, full of faith, even if I am aware of other possibilities?

We therefore arrive at Positive Faithful Pluralism.  Encountering different types of believers and nonbelievers will not weaken my faith, it will strengthen it.  Like the hasidim, I will be able to recognize the Godliness in everything.  The theological question of “which faith is preferable” loses meaning in the postmodern world, however, this does not disrupt my allegiance my Jewish heritage.  What remains is the existence of faith and inspiration, and these serve to strengthen human fraternity.

This will not eliminate the possibility to have faith and to live ourselves, but know to set boundaries.  The awareness of contradictions will balance us and make us more sensitive, moral, and modest.  The Muslim will remain Muslim and will live in his faith, but if he also adopts for himself the western perspective and is reflective and rational, he will be able to accept me as a Jew.  And, certainly, vice versa—the Jew…

Only then can fraternity be created.  Postmodern pluralism denounces the violence of the “enlightened individual” who tries to coerce his values on reality, and also that of the believer who wants to impose his faith on the entire world.  The faithful individual will be forced to adapt a rational but uncertain approach, without hurting his faith; so too, the others must relate to the religious man not as a primitive being, but rather, as one who possesses a genuine option for human existence.

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