Monthly Archives: May 2017

Shavuot – Rav Shagar- Face to Face

We return with yet another Rav Shagar translation, this one for Shavuot (Hebrew here). We have once again to thank Levi Morrow for his translation. For those who want prior posts on Rav Shagar, see herehere. here, here, and here.  (There are at least 16 in total at this point, I know this is becoming a single focus, but please wait for the return of other topics.)  I put this one up quickly, a little less edited, so that everyone can print it out to study on Shavuot, or even to give classes on it. Please let me know of any errors.

This essay on Shavuot is one of the best places to start with Rav Shagar in that it deals with the basic Existential & post-modern issues in a non-technical way along with an immediate application to one’s religious life.  This is the one to judge if you find Rav Shagar meaningful for today.


The basic question is what do we mean by revelation and commitment to Torah in a non-foundational age? The basic answer of the essay is to study Torah as a means for holiness in our lives and to ward off meaninglessness. Torah study is creative and individualistic, in that, anyone can make his or her own meaning in Torah. This Torah study is the empty void (halal panui), described by Rav Nachman, serving as a place to meet the infinite. (Not as a place of doubt.) Torah is the means by which we come to accept oneself and one’s specific condition, which Rav Shagar discusses in many of his other homilies.

The essay opens with the fundamental questions of revelation in our age. Rav Shagar starts by working within a Hasidic framework citing Chabad Hasidism, that Sinai was a direct encounter with God. But going beyond Hasidism, Rav Shagar asks, if revelation is given as a human experience and always processed through human concepts then how is it an infinite experience? For the original Hasidic texts, enthusiasm connects one directly to the infinite. However, in our current view of reality, how is it infinite? Rav Shagar also asks the classic question, of how can we see God Face to Face, yet “a man cannot see my face and live”. The essay has five sections. I am providing guideposts for the five sections on the specific question of revelation.

Section I- Experience of God as a Transcendental Experience of one’s own Existence

Sinai is a revelation of an unmediated knowledge of God’s existence as presented in Maimonides first chapter of the Mishnah Torah, that is, Rav Shagar reads Maimonides as a Hasidic identity with the divine.

But in a non-foundational era along with the traditional statement that we cannot see God face to face, this intimacy and identity with the divine is a non-verbal depiction in the soul. To which Rav Shagar, gives an Existential understanding. “This intimacy created the intimacy of a person with himself, the truth and calm of faith. Encountering the truth of existence grants a believer his own existence.” Meaning that unlike Heschel where one encounter God, here one encounters one’s own self. The answer to the possibility of revelation is that it is a transcendent experience that gives life meaning. He return to this later in the essay.

Section II Revelation as the Receiving of God by the Self in a moment of Love

Maimonides counts faith as a commandment, which for Rav Shagar means commandments should be fulfilled for their own sake, meaning out of love. A commandment is not a law. The command should be understood as the truth of God’s existence turning toward the individual and toward the truth in him, “face to face.” It is an I-Thou moment in which God turns toward man in order for man to receive God’s kingship with love, for man to receive God’s address and thus create man as existence. He uses Franz Rosenzweig’s description that this is the lover’s call, “love me. That simply happens in the present moment of revelation, and therefore it cannot held onto and posited as law. (For Rosenzweig on love as applied to prayer, see this article, Shagar applies it to Torah study.)

Section III Revelation as Inner Reality; Torah as our Inwardness

Rav Shagar moves from his Hasidic reading of Maimonides applied to Rosenzweig to an alternate approach to Sinai found in Sefat Emet (Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905), which focuses on the inner vitality of all things. For the Sefat Emet, speaking face to face means the revelation of this inner vitality. Rav Shagar takes this in an Existential direction. People are trapped in isolation and inauthentic experience.  “In order to be freed from this state a person needs revelation.”  However, the revelation is transitory and returns to concealment amidst ordinary life.

This is the place where Torah study becomes essential for creating the space for holiness and the divine presence. “This is the Jew’s refuge from the alienation and estrangement of the outer world, and it is here that he finds his place and feels at home.”   This form of Torah is available to every Jew and shines alike on each person. Eventually, most things are again concealed in routine and repetition, Revelation is the starting point, the openness to the concealed innerness, renewing the connection from an old-new place.

Revelation is experienced foremost as fear (yirah), which Shagar defines as the terror of the nothingness of existence. “The revelation at Sinai does not grant human ethics support from an absolute and transcendent source” and ”is not evaluated based on an external fact.” In short, Torah is about inwardness and does not depict, represent, or refer to external things.” Yet, it gives great pleasure in its ability to help a person transcend.

Section IV Torah must be studied in Covenant, defined as our Commitment and Personal Meaning

Mount Sinai is about the deference of  “we will understand” by “we will do,” understanding is based on doing. “A Jew finds his Jewish identity in the Torah, and through that his connection to God.” Torah must be studied in love not as an outsider; “anthropologists claim something similar. Can a Western researcher ever understand the culture of tribesmen living in an entirely different existential space?”  Not only do you have to be a participant in the covenant in order to understand the Torah, but also the whole sense of it is just this revelation.

But what is Torah in a non-foundational world? “The Torah is not representation, and does not describe the world of the covenant but creates it…  The Torah in its entirety is a revelation of the “I am,” a speech that reveals reality rather than depicting it.” It is out commitment, our creativity, and our finding meaning in Torah is the revelation. Thereby, blurring “the lines between discovery and creation”  and by extension God and human. In the encounter with Torah, the student  gains the truth of existence, and the inner unity that rests in the declaration “I am who I am.”

Section 5 Revelation as an Outside Transcending Event Shaping Our Lives-Opening us up to Personal Inwardness

What is the place of compulsion (kafiah) in revelation? For Rav Shagar, “If the Torah shapes the Jewish world, then it must be a personal acceptance and not compulsion.  The important new point here is that for Rav Shagar even if the source of revelation is in man’s innerness, it is still experienced as transcending him.” Even in an age of autonomy and even more so an age of non-foundationalism, religion is experienced as an outside revelation even if it comes from within. And because of this he lives a scrupulous religious life. (This is not the same as his Lacan justification elsewhere.)

Revelation is treated as compulsion and externality, but the individual chooses to accept them, in that, he “opens himself to being shaped; gives up his hold on the way things are in order to enable the creation of the plane of holiness.” In addition, the “fear of returning to the primordial chaos, reflects man’s inability to create his own existence, and the fear of our familiar world crumbling away.”

In conclusion, he states, “when inner truth is revealed as an available option, man’s freedom to choose himself, to accept himself as he is… is revealed. Choosing that which is compulsory for him brings a person to inner oneness; it opens him up to the existence that rests within him.”

In this section, he also rejects Rav Kook’s sense of a natural inner nature of the Jew. He also considers apologetics as making “a person stubborn and militantly heroic” and “actually strengthens the nihilism.”

© 2017 Alan Brill and Levi Morrow, all rights reserved.

Face to Face

From Rav Shagar’s teachings for Shavuot 2007. Edited by Eitan Abramowitz in advance of the conference organized for the sake of Rav Shagar’s recovery. Translation by Levi Morrow

“God spoke to you face to face on the mountain from within the fire.” (Deut. 5:4)

What is the meaning of revelation, which stands at the center of the experience at Sinai?The Baal Hatanya (Shneur Zalman of Liady 1745- 1813) sees this question as particularly pressing when it comes to the content of revelation:

The first thing to understand is the meaning of “the giving of the Torah,” for our forefather Abraham fulfilled the whole Torah before it was even given… the verse says, “so that you will command your sons…” meaning that the Torah was something they would receive from their ancestors. Further, you must understand what it means that, during the Ten Commandments, God descended on Mount Sinai with thunder and lightning, and that the people’s souls left their bodies upon hearing each commandment. Further, the commandments say “do not kill, do not commit adultery, etc.” and these are banal matters that are necessitated by human intellect itself.1

What value did the experience of Sinai add, if it only revealed things we already know? It seems that, as opposed to the things that occur in our regular existence, revelation is not evaluated based on the content that it transmits but based on the very fact of revelation, on the disruption of normal existence. According to the verse that we opened with, revelation is a revelation of the face, a direct encounter with God. This makes the question of the relationship between the finite and the infinite quite urgent.

What significance could revelation have if it must always be processed through human concepts and ideas? What connection could revelation create, when the very idea of a connection is a human idea? Furthermore, Moshe was told, “a man cannot see my face and live… you shall see my back but you shall not see my face.” What then was the face that the Israelites saw from within the fire


Maimonides reads the first verse of the revelation as a commandment, and this is how he explains its meaning:

The foundation of foundations and pillar of wisdoms to know that there is a first existent, that brought into existence everything that exists, and everything that exists, the heavens and the earth and everything between them, exists by virtue of the truth of its existence… This is a positive commandment, as per the verse “I am the Lord your God.2

The fundamental term of faith is “the truth of its existence,” and from this true existence, all things receive their existence. The truth of existence is the assertion that God truly exists, while what we think of as existence does not necessarily exist. What we think of as existence is really just a possible, incidental, existence, in contrast to the true existence that is a deeper layer than existence itself. The revelation at Mount Sinai was an encounter with this layer, with the truth of existence that transcends the existence with which we are familiar. This faith gives us our existence, without it we lack substance; our lived existence is flawed and transient. Faith gives a Jew his place – he exists in God.

Already in Maimonides’ depiction of Moshe’s request, he describes knowing the truth of existence as seeing a face:

What did Moshe want to comprehend when he asked: “Please show me Your glory?” He asked to know the truth of God’s existence to the point of internalizing it in his mind, the same way you know a particular person whose face he saw and whose form has been engraved within your mind. This person is distinct within your mind from other men. Similarly, Moshe asked that God’s existence be distinct within his mind from the existence of other entities, to the extent that he would know the truth of God’s existence as it is. God replied to him that a living person, body and soul, does not have the ability to comprehend this matter in its entirety.  God revealed to him that which no man had known before him or would ever know afterward, until he was able to comprehend from the truth of God’s existence distinctly in his mind, as a person is distinguished from other men when one sees his back and knows his body and his clothing. This is alluded to by the verse, “You shall see My back, but you shall not see My face.”3

Knowledge of the face is knowledge of the essence; recognition is unmediated. In contrast, knowledge of the back, such as Moshe merited, is the ability to understanding characteristic movements, how the unique essence is reflected in walking, clothing, or writing. Both of these types of knowledge involve some degree of unmediated contact with the essence. This is what distinguishes between them and the normal ways we talk about God, which connect with neither God’s essence nor its reflection.

To use different language, we might say that unmediated knowledge is a knowledge of direct recognition, distinct from theoretical knowledge, which is indirect knowledge. The difference between them is like the difference between an exact description from a matchmaker and a direct encounter with a partner. An unmediated encounter reveals “the thing itself,” everything that escapes description. A person’s uniqueness is only revealed in such an encounter, while a description can always be applied to another person. According to Maimonides, any descriptions of God in the prophetic books are mediated descriptions; they don’t clarify God’s essence but only teach about God’s existence.4 The revelation at Sinai in this regard – only at Sinai was there knowledge of God’s unmediated presence. Only such knowledge can give faith its certainty, because it touches substance, the divine reality, itself. This is also what gives Mosaic prophecy its absolute quality.

This is the voice that Israel heard, “for hearing the voice without the mediation of an angel is called ‘face to face.”5 Revelation of the face cannot be repeated, as it is not a superficial knowledge but an intimacy (yihud), an illumination, or in Maimonides’s language, “the unity of knower, knowing, and known.” Can we encounter God’s face? Can we know God intimately, to the point of “if I knew God, I would be God?” As we said, already in the biblical text there is a contradiction between the description of the revelation at Sinai and the assertion that “a man cannot see me and live.” The sages said that the souls of Israel left their bodies and they had to be brought back to life.

The commandment of faith that springs from the revelation “is not something expressed verbally, rather it is something depicted in the soul when you believe in it as depicted.”6 Depiction in the soul, rather than intellectual knowledge, gives substance to the faith that God really exists and is present, exists truly and not just possibly. This knowledge is a connection to the thing itself, it is the encounter with the face that Israel saw at Mount Sinai. As is clear from Maimonides’s description of Moshe’s request, experiencing God’s uniqueness is a recognition that distinguishes between the layer of what is common to others and a revelation of what cannot be conceptualized. Uniqueness is not a philosophical assertion to be affirmed but a divine intimacy that is bared before the believer. This intimacy created the intimacy of a person with himself, the truth and calm of faith. Encountering the truth of existence grants a believer his own existence.


As mentioned previously, Maimonides counts faith as a commandment, as opposed to all other early commentators. The statement “I am the Lord your God” should therefore be read not as God’s declaration presenting himself but as a command. However, Maimonides elsewhere taught that the commandments should be fulfilled for their own sake, meaning out of love. A commandment is not a law, enforced by violence, but it is also not a request, made from a position of inferiority. A declaration is not addressed to the listeners present; there is no turn toward them. The command should be understood as the truth of God’s existence turning toward the individual and toward the truth in him, “face to face.”

The command is a distinct type of speech. When a person enters a room and presents himself before those present with the words “I am Reuven,” he is not reporting on or depicting something but creating with his words, with constructive speech. However, such a person is not shouting into empty space. He needs the response of those present, for them to turn toward him in return; he needs their faces. If they turn away from him, he and his address remain incomplete, cut short and rejected. In the statement “I am,” God turns toward man in order for man to receive God’s kingship with love, for man to receive God’s address and thus create man as existence.

The force of a commandment is not a force of violence, it does not use strength, but rather its force comes from its origin. The address comes from the truth of God’s existence, from the depth of God’s intimacy (yihud). Rosenzweig describes this as the lover’s call, “love me.”7 In this address the lover turns toward his beloved with his essence, and it is impossible to ignore. This is an absolute demand that is not attempting to shape the future but simply happens in the present, in the moment of revelation, and therefore it cannot held onto and posited as law. In theory, it can be refused, but on the other hand there is no choice: if you don’t accept it, the world will return to chaos.


In Sefat Emet (Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905) we find another approach to the revelation at Mount Sinai.

For God created the world using the Torah. The inner vitality of all creatures is the primordial force from the Torah… but this innerness (penimiyut) was created hidden. On the day of the revelation of the Torah, however, it was revealed and each thing attached to its root, as depicted in the verse, “face to face God spoke to you”… for then the all-enlivening power of the Torah was revealed… and the primary aspect of receiving the Torah is this revelation.8

We can understand the words of Sefat Emet by using Existentialist concepts. In a person’s initial state they live in concealment and isolation. The vitality and meaning that rests in the world, its “innerness” in the language of “Sefat Emet,” is hidden from him. As a result of this, a person is trapped in inauthentic existence, which is, practically speaking, a lack of existence. In order to be freed from this state a person needs revelation, the disruption of this opaque existence and the revelation of reality. However, since we are talking about revelation and not an intellectual idea, the innerness must return to its concealment, submerged in the world of facts and generalizations.

In order to maintain itself, revelation requires a space within which to occur, a plane which will replace the existing plane. The Torah fills this role, creating the space where reality can be revealed, a space ready for holiness and the divine presence. The words of the Torah and the fulfillment of the commandments shape a world of holiness, the substance of which transcends the day-to-day world of facts. This is the Jew’s refuge from the alienation and estrangement of the outer world, and it is here that he finds his place and feels at home. This is not the holiness of time, space, or any object, but the holiness of speech, where a language itself becomes a holy language.

The revelation of the Torah is not tied to any special insight or deep understanding; it is readily available to every Jew that is involved in Torah for its own sake, conscious of the divine command. He lives in the spoken words, in the open book, in understanding. As opposed to forms of understanding and experience that are an inner light, and therefore vary from person to person, this light is an instance of “surrounding all worlds” (sovev kol almin), beyond the emanated world, and it therefore shines alike on each person.

Sefat Emet describes this revelation as a return to the beginning and as a source of renewal. Initially, you can encounter the substance of a thing clearly and directly. Eventually, most things are again concealed in routine and repetition, interactions dull and faces are no longer revealing, as if after many years of marriage. Revelation is the starting point, the openness to the concealed innerness, renewing the connection from an old-new place. What is revealed and renews is not some external object, but reality itself.

The revelation of reality is experienced first and foremost as fear (yirah), as Baal Hatanya explains in the continuation of the teaching with which we began: “The purpose of the Torah and the commandments is to reveal God’s will within the lower world, as the verse says, “God commanded us to follow all of these laws, to fear God.”9

 The fear that accompanies revelation is not fear of something, but rather a terror that overcomes a person without any clear cause. It flows from the revelation of the nothingness of existence, the laying bare of the substantive reality behind our existence. Existence loses its material quality, its factual concreteness, it is spiritualized and appears as oneness (ahdut) and innerness. This is the response to the Baal Hatanya’s question about the very human nature of the Ten Commandments: the revelation at Sinai does not grant human ethics support from an absolute and transcendent source, but rather ethics itself appears as “nullified” (bevhinat habitul sheyesh bo), as a revelation of the infinite. The revelation is specifically in the banal statements, the superficial words.

This requires changing how we think about the truth of revelation. As the creation of a space wherein reality is revealed, the revelation of the Torah, like the creation of the world, is not evaluated based on an external fact. The Torah is speech that creates, rather than depicting or representing. The words construct their meaning, which is not evaluated based on exacting adherence to existence but rather based on internal coherence, on being substantive and not artificial.

This distinction can be put in terms of the Baal Hatanya’s distinction between greater knowledge (Da’at Elyon) and lesser knowledge (Da’at Tahton): in lesser knowledge, truth is about speech matching reality, and the concrete stability of the fact is an important part of truth. In greater knowledge, truth is about speech corresponding to its own inner reality, the substance that gives it its innerness. The constructive speech of the Torah does not refer to external things; such a speech would duality, on an external existence rooted in the sefirah of Malkhut.

The Torah is a revelation of “I am who I am,” speech that is one with itself and therefore disrupts the familiar frameworks of existence. Of course, identifying the truth and revelation of the Torah is not a function of deep understanding or study. Therefore it is accessible to people beyond just Torah scholars: “there is a bit of this in every Jewish soul… this is what we see practically with every Jew, when he learns any idea regarding God’s immanence or transcendence, or the like… his soul is excited and he becomes entrenched in the idea and pursues it.”10

A Jew has a sense for divinity, for distinguishing between holy and mundane, between full and empty, and sometimes this sense is strongest of all in the simple Jew. The divinity in the Torah gives him great pleasure, not because of the content but transcending it. This pleasure is a manifestation of inner connection, of intimacy with the giver of the Torah who is present in it, of the covenant that is the Torah’s words. 11


The first expression of the covenant at Mount Sinai is the preceding of “we will understand” by “we will do,” an order considered “the mystery used by ministering angels.”12 This mystery is the dependence of understanding on doing, which is [behind] the familiar assertion that no one who is not part of the covenant can understand the Torah. This assertion requires clarification, however: What is the connection between comprehension, covenant, and deed? Why can study not stand on its own?

The sages understood the Torah, first and foremost as God’s covenant with Israel. The primary meaning of Torah study is partaking in that covenant. The Oral Torah, which the sages called “the mystery,” is the intimacy between God and Israel. The sages expressed this in many homilies on their love of the Torah expressed through metaphors taken from marital life. A Jew finds his Jewish identity in the Torah, and through that his connection to God. That is how it was in the days of the Sages, and so it is today. Anyone devoted to the Torah experiences this, whether he is a student in yeshiva or a layman who gets up early to study a daily page of Talmud.

The bottom-line halakhah is therefore that a person can fulfill the requirement of the blessings on the Torah by saying the blessing of “Love,” [the 2nd blessing of the twice daily recitation of the Shema] for both the basis and the content of learning is love. This affects the form Torah study takes. Not every form of study can be covenantal, just as not every student can partake in the covenant. A non-Jew who learns Torah receives the death penalty, not because he lacks the intelligence necessary to understand it but because he does not belong to the covenant and its meaning will not be revealed to him anyway. Even regarding an ignorant person the sages taught, “one who teaches Torah in front of an ignorant person is like someone who has sexual relations with their fiancé in front of an ignoramus,” a sensitivity that reveals but a fraction of the intimacy of the scholar with his bride-Torah.

A number of anthropologists claim something similar. Can a western researcher ever understand the culture of tribesmen living in an entirely different existential space? Simply translating the language and customs into another language is not enough; in order to understand the culture you have to live within it and be a part of it. The sense of texts and actions cannot be abstracted or described objectively; it derives from the cultural context and the way of life that they are rooted in, and therefore must necessarily change in the transition to another culture. This was also the claim of the Musar masters against academic Talmud study, and this lay behind their demand that the study of ethics (musar) precede Torah study.

Regarding the Torah the claim is even more far-reaching. Not only is there no Torah without covenant, which, as we have seen, is also true regarding other forms of understanding, but the Torah itself is the language or the speech of the covenant. Not only do you have to be a participant in the covenant in order to understand the Torah, but also the whole sense of it is just this revelation, the creation of the covenant through the learning. Here we return to an idea we mentioned previously about revelation: the Torah is not representation, it does not belong to the dualistic world and its meaning does not transcend it. The Torah does not describe the world of the covenant but creates it. The covenant rests in, and is realized by, learning.

Accepting the yoke of heaven by putting “we will do” before “we will listen” is the only way to escape the external way of looking at things, the stance that evaluates things based on external criteria. Sealing a covenant enables entrance into the world shaped by the Torah, a world that cannot be known before you enter it, a world in which holiness dwells. Some people want to justify the casuistic style of learning (pilpul) based on this. They claim that casuistry is like a work of art: not to be evaluated based on physical or philosophical truth, but also not just intellectual aesthetics.  Freed from practical learning, such as the exactitude of abstract research, which adheres to the words of the text, the imagination can create the vacuous space (halal panui) necessary for divine truth, which is infinite and unbounded.

The covenant creates a different type of learning and understanding, shaping the personality of the student in its image. The Torah in its entirety is a revelation of the “I am,” a speech that reveals reality rather than depicting it. Its truth is measured in its ability to be expressed; speaking Torah constructs it, without any dualism. Torah knowledge is not manifest in the ability to compare it to other areas, to identify similarities between it and some other meaning or value. Torah knowledge is manifest in the ability to speak it from the same place where it originated, in the ability to identify and unite with the intimacy it bears within it. “If I knew him, I would be him,” and the Torah can only be known by “being it.” This is how you understand a sermon, which is independent and constructive speech, by deeply studying the words until you feel that you could have given the sermon yourself. This unity blurs the lines between discovery and creation, and the student understands, interprets, and creates all at the same time.

This changes the position of the student, as Rav Hillel of Paritch taught:

“God spoke all these words to say, I am the Lord your God.” The word “saying” seems redundant, for throughout the Torah the word “saying” is said to Moshe as an instruction to convey the message to the Israelites… at the Ten Commandments all of Israel heard directly from God, so why was the word “to say” added?

This all makes sense in light of “The Giving of the Torah” (matan torah). This does not refer to the giving of the commandments of the Torah specifically, for they were given later at both Mount Sinai and the Tent of Meeting.

Instead, the intent is that the capacity for Torah was given to each and every Israelite, enabling him to create Torah by speaking and reveal “I am who I am” (this refers to God’s essence and nature) by performing the commandments, causing it to dwell within the Israelite… This is the meaning of “and he spoke to say I am,” for he drew these words into the souls of Israel so that each Israelite would be able “to say: I am,” revealing “I am who I am” within his soul.13

 In encountering and uniting with the divine speech that is in the Torah, the student receives its absoluteness, the truth of existence, and the inner unity that rests in the declaration “I am who I am.” The ability to speak the speech of Torah, the word of God, frees a person from the incidental and the possible in existence and enables him to encounter the substantive existent.


Rav Hillel of Paritch’s words raise another point regarding the covenant of “we will do and we will understand.” Much has been written about the tension between the Israelites’ putting “we will do” before “we will understand” and the sages understanding of the revelation at Sinai as “overturning (kafiah) the mountain like a barrel.” What is the place of compulsion (kafiah) in revelation, when at its basis stands the absolute consent of “we will do and we will understand”?

We celebrate the giving of the Torah, and not the receiving of the Torah. However, as we said, the acceptance of the yoke of heaven, as expressed in the declaration “we will do and we will understand,” is critical. Without it, the revelation is just an unconvincing spectacle, a pyrotechnic display. In order to be a convinced, you have to be ready to be convinced.

If the Torah shapes the Jewish world, then there must be a process of contract entering a Jew into this world, where the Jew accepts it as his existence. Compulsory rules do not create a world. Ultimately, however, the flaw in freedom is in subjectivity itself, in its being a possible existent. The Tosafists expressed this distinction in their words about the preference of a person who performs commandments while being commanded over someone who performs commandments without being commanded.

The reason someone who is commanded is preferable seems to be because he is more concerned and distressed about accidentally transgressing than someone who is not commanded, who can simply forget about the commandment if he so chooses [lit., “he already has bread in his basket, so he can put this down if he desires” -LM]. (Kiddushin 31a)14

The greatness of a command is exactly the worry and distress that maintain the duality and the difference between limited human capabilities and the absoluteness of the command. The divine is not revealed to us as part of a natural process or as an inner nature.

Even if the source of revelation is in man’s soul and innerness, it is still experienced as transcending him and his concepts. The duality that we live in does not enable us to understand free will as creating itself outside of any external context. We constantly experience freedom from an external perspective, as a response to the causal frameworks in which we live. This stance creates nihilism, because there is nothing in our existence that contains absolute, non-relative, meaning.

In such a state, the need to justify the unjustifiable, to turn the external into the internal by way of apologetics that deny duality, arises. This process receives its meaning fromthe effort involved, and makes a person stubborn and militantly heroic. It rarely achieves its goal, because its lack of integrity actually strengthens the nihilism. The path to freedom is not in ignoring duality but in accepting it, as the Tosafists taught, for tension that is one with itself ceases to be tension.

Duality requires the compulsion and externality of revelation, but the individual chooses to accept them. The individual opens himself to being shaped; gives up his hold on the way things are in order to enable the creation of the plane of holiness. The compulsion, accompanied by the fear of returning to the primordial chaos, reflects man’s inability to create his own existence, and the fear of our familiar world crumbling away. In the affirmation “we will do and we will understand,” a Jew enters a world he did not create, the rules of which are not tailored just for him, and only there can he feel the holiness and achieve oneness. This is the meaning of the ability to say “I am who I am,” which Rav Hillel of Paritch says was granted by the revelation of the Torah.

When inner truth is revealed as an available option, man’s freedom to choose himself, to accept himself as he is and where he is, is revealed. Choosing that which is compulsory for him brings a person to inner oneness; it opens him up to the existence that rests within him. The “nullification” involved in putting “we will do” before “we will understand” lets a person hear the speech that creates the Torah, the letters whose roots start beyond conscious thought and external significance. The power of hearing creates a space for holiness, inspiration, and revelation.

© 2017 Alan Brill and Levi Morrow, all rights reserved.

  1. Lekutei Torah Bemidbar 12:3.
  2. Maimonides, Laws of the Foundation of the Torah 1:1-6. [Translation taken from org and edited for clarity. ~Levi Morrow].
  3. Ibid, 10.
  4. Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 1:46.
  5. Ibid, 37.
  6. Ibid, 50.
  7. Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, p.209.
  8. Sefat Emet, Bemidbar, Shavuot 5631, p.22.
  9. Lekutei Torah,
  10. Kuntrus Hahitpa’alut of the Mittler Rebbe, p.58.
  11. “Normally if a person takes an object home from the market, has be purchased its owners? But God gave the Torah to Israel and said to them, ‘It’s as if it is me that you are taking,” Shemot Rabbah 33:6.
  12. Bavli Shabbat 88a.
  13. Pelah Harimon, Shemot, p.240.
  14. Bavli Kiddushin 31a.

Love and Law- Rav Shagar on Religious Zionism 2005

One hundred years ago, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the metaphysical seer of Religious Zionism wrote that the land of Israel is the very soul of the Jewish people. Judaism’s diaspora orientation  was displaced by Rav Kook for a messianic vision of the ingathering of all Jews to the land, where they will find a renewal of their souls and a sense of completeness lacking in prior centuries. In his vision, the land will radiate all that is good, and holy. Through the land Jews will attain “unity, collectivity, idealism, holiness in nature, freedom, universalism, and harmony” and from their attainment these ideas would spread to the world with Israel serving as a spiritual beacon. For Rav Kook, Religious Zionism was to be all love and mystic light. But now, how should one relate to the current 21st century State of Israel based on authority, secularism, violence, and rejection of this vision?

Rav Shagar (d. 2007) sought to tackle directly this gap between ideal and reality, what he calls the post-modern breakdown of the Zionist narrative.  My American readers may not agree with his answer, but his questions are unasked by others.

This blog has published many translated essays written by Rav Shagar, nine in total and three posts about him and one TV movie about him. One of our main translators is Levi Morrow, a rabbinical student in Jerusalem, see here and here. As noted before, if anyone else has translations of Rav Shagar, then I will post them. Here are some of the prior ones- here, here, and here. If you have already had enough of Rav Shagar, then be patient for other topics.


In this 2005 essay, Rav Shagar opens his discussion of contemporary Zionism, with the  impending withdrawal of Israel from the Gaza strip. In his eyes, this place called  Gush Katif, one of the most densely populated places on earth was a barren land without a people, if not for the Israeli settlers. To him, this settlement project was the height of showing immense true love of the land. The disengagement was a setback to this Zionist love of the land. (He had no sense of the large native Arab population of 1.8 million or the centuries of Arabic Jews and Mustarab Rabbis who made Gaza their home.)

The forthcoming disengagement leaves him in a state of oscillation between seeing the state as violence due to the government’s evacuation and the original dream of lights and holiness. Does this violence show the end of the dream?  No, we have to continue to love of the state through obedience even if the Israeli government is not what we wanted or expected. Even paying taxes to the government is an act of love.

This dialectic allows the settlement project now to be one of seeking peace and a new liberal Zionism.

For Rav Shagar, the State of Israel remains redemptive and messianic, as well as providentially exceptional compared to other states. The state still draws down lights because the state is not a based on a “historical-factual material process” rather Religious Zionism is a specific transformative spiritual teaching of redemption.

In the middle of the essay, where Rav Shagar discusses how obedience to the State of Israel is one of love, he makes an interesting riff on a famous idea of Franz Rosenzweig. In Rosenzweig’s important essay Die Bauleute (The Builders, 1923), he discusses the attitude of the Jew to the commandments. Unlike the Orthodox Jew, Rosenzweig did not accept all of the commandments, but distinguished between the subjective “commandment” (Gebot), which addresses the lived life of the individual in the present, which he could readily accept, and objective Law (Gesetz), which he could “not yet” accept.  (American Modern Orthodox obedience to an objective law is exactly what Franz Rosenzweig rejected.)

Rosenzweig used this distinction to defend ritual law before the critiques of Buber, now Rav Shagar uses it to defend Religious Zionism and its laws before the disillusion of the disengagement. The laws of the state are not done as law but as an act of love of the law. The relationship to state for Rav Shagar is an “unmediated relation” of love.  We love the state and the traffic rules and income tax as a fulfillment of Rosenzweig’s subjective commandment (gebot).

Franz Rosenzweig paints Judaism as a life of following mizvot as a sheltered a-historic family space immune from history and public life. Rav Shagar quotes Rosezweig and considers Religious Zionism as the reversal of this valence though a renewed attachment to land, territory, state, and architecture.

For Rav Shagar, this new embodied life is not an integration of secular philosophies with Judaism nor is it a Neo-Hasidic raising of sparks because in both of those models the embodied culture remains outside of the Torah. Rather, the embodied Judaism of Religious Zionism is like love where one becomes one with the beloved, Judaism now grounds itself in land and nature.  (He has no sense of cultural theory in which we are all embedded in culture).

Rav Shagar proclaims a new religious Zionist as Israelness, and not just Jewishness. All life in Israel is one of love, even following the secular law.

Is Israel still a utopian vision redemptive light? Has it been reduced to force and violence?

To answer this, he turns to the distinction between the Messiah son of Joseph and the Messiah son of David. The older Zionist forms were the temporary Messiah of Yosef and now in the Post-Zionist age (and Post-Modern age) we are in the era of the Messiah of David.

In conclusion, we should not rebel against the state, rather we should embrace it with abandon, the same complete abandon that is the the essence of Purim. To live a life of abandon is the true messianic option.  He compares himself with the old liberal Meimad approach, which he faults for being benign, here he advocates a renewal of prophecy, messianism, and love- a shattering of the status quo. For him, we need to choose the pleasure of the love relationship over reality.

In other words: How I learned to stop worrying and love the state- with abandon and apocalyptic messianism

Translator’s Introduction-Levi Morrow

This sermon (see here for the Hebrew original), which was given by Rav Shagar around Yom HaAtsma’ut in 2005 during the lead-up to the Disengagement, is of a pair with the last sermon that I translated, given for Purim of that year.

This sermon tackles the problem of the violence inherent in the law. Its starting point is the passionate redemptive love of the land that Rav Kook enshrined into Religious Zionism. Love of the land contrasting with the violence law of the current nation- state forms a tension deep in the heart of Religious Zionism. The Disengagement threatened to tear the movement apart, into those following the state and those the redemptive vision. Shagar attempts to overcome this problem by proposing two complementary reimagined visions of the state and its law as based on love, not violence, one based on Rosenzweig and one on Rav Kook.

In discussing Rosenzweig, Shagar contrasts his understanding of the unique nature of commandments with that of law (as presented by Eric Santner). As opposed to law, which is always ultimately a matter of force, commandments are derived from the revelatory encounter between two individuals, and fulfilling a commandment re-enacts that encounter in the present moment. To perform a commandment, then, is to do something for your lover because you love them.

Shagar extends this logic to the state. What if we regard the state as a lover? Suddenly, filing tax returns becomes an act of love, as does obeying the speed limit and deciding to walk all the way to the cross-walk instead of just crossing in the middle of the street. Lovers don’t have to be perfect, they’re allowed to be flawed. All we really want of our lovers is that they love us back. So too the state does not have to be perfect, it just has to love us back.

Herein lies the crux Shagar’s vision: what happens when your lover kicks you out of your home? Or asks you to help kick out other members of your family? Is there a point where you stop responding with love? Shagar says no. Even though the lover, or the state, has shifted from acts of love to acts of force, you must continue with acts of love.

The second approach renews Rav Kook’s project. First, Shagar argues for a passionate love of the land as an important part of Religious Zionism. This is in contrast to the way Religious Zionism has come to focus largely, perhaps even exclusively, on the political entity of the state. This presents an opportunity for non-Israeli Jews in particular, who often find themselves at odds with the politics of the state to be wildly in love with the land itself.

Second, Shagar tackles the way Israeli Religious Zionism sees the state as the beginning of the process of redemption, yet he state has done much to contradict this understanding. Resolving this tension requires reconceptualizing the process of redemption itself, such that developments like Post-Zionism and the Disengagement do not actually contradict it. Shagar does this by exploring one of the more neglected aspects of Rav Kook’s messianic teachings, the death of Mashiach Ben Yosef as the death of nationalism, and the current Post-Zionist age as Maschiah ben David. Shagar consciously taking up Rav Kook’s project of interpreting history and carries it beyond where Rav Kook even went.

 Law and Love

Between the Love of the Land and the Sovereignty of the State[i]

(Translated by Levi Morrow, edited by Alan Brill)

The Song of Songs

In the writings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, the land of Israel is above all love, and more specifically, falling in love. His sentences of light and splendor are the sentences of a love-drunk lover, repeating himself again and again in almost every paragraph.

“In the land of Israel the letters of our souls expand, they reveal a torrent… the air of the land of Israel manifests the refreshing growth of these letters of life, in their splendorous beauty, with pleasant niceness and joyous power full of the influence of holiness.”[ii]

With his immigration to Israel, the man of God, student of the Volozhin Yeshivah, fell in love with the land and its pioneers. Like a beloved revealing herself to her lover, the land of Israel revealed its secrets to Rav Kook. There the broad expanses that he had never before known in his life in the exile, in the time when he yearned for the land, opened up before him, expanses that became primary aspects of his teachings: the ideas of all-inclusive unity, collectivity, idealism, holiness in nature, freedom, universalism, redemption, harmony, and ascending development – all of these are the love songs of his encounter with the land. The lover and the beloved reveal themselves to each other. “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me” (Song of Songs 7:11).

The lover is illuminated and enveloped in a delightful world of grace. Everything shines, everything is full of radiances and enveloped in wondrous harmony. He feels free and liberated. Not for nothing did mystics of every generation describe their mystical experiences in terms of falling in love, which is an experience of altered consciousness; intense oneness, transparency, grace, and salvation. “How much does the heart yearn to love everything, all beings, all of the works, all of creation.”[iii]

Rav Kook brought this love into the core of Religious Zionism. The love of the Song of  Songs is a fundamental experience in the life of the Religious Zionist; the intimacy between lover and beloved that the Song of Songs projects is the intimacy of two who are connected to their environs, and the setting of the land of Israel is an integral part of this intimacy. The intimacy between lovers occurs in the land’s natural setting, with nature involved in their love. This love has absorbed the vistas of the land and the seasons of its year. The shulamit whose hair “is like a flock of goats streaming down from the Gilead,” whose nose is like “the Tower of Lebanon” looking down on Damascus, whose eyes are “pools in Heshbon,” and whose neck is “like the tower of David, built to talpiyot,” this is the beloved in the land of Israel. Nature, time, the individual, and love all come together in this wondrous song, and this connection is the basis of the spiritual world of Religious Zionism.

The sages who explained this song as a love song between the people of Israel and her lover, God, understood that a different sort of religious language was present in this song. It was not exilic, but was connected to and deeply involved with the land, derived from a relationship with it. Nature itself becomes a different nature, a divine nature; nature that resonates with the song of Hannah Senesh: “My God, may it never end/the sea and the sand/the plash of the water/the brilliance of the sky/the prayer of man.”[iv]

Law Versus Love

 There’s no doubt that Gush Katif is one of the clear manifestations of Rav Kook’s Song of Song’s style love. This desolate piece of land began to bloom after the encounter with its lovers. This is a reciprocal love story, both the loved and the beloved are not distant and aloof. Rather, she reveals her love – the land blooms. This is how one of the lovers put things:

For a generation we have been living in a magnificent settlement project in this beloved strip of land. The project was set up on virgin soil that had known no man since the creation of the world, and yet it miraculously responded to us, as if we were chose, as if it knew how much we loved it.

In the course of a generation, our souls have become connected to this beloved land, and to each other. With great effort and integrity, we have set up beautiful towns and splendid communities… No evil and no impurity, only goodness and grace. Doors that have never been locked and open hearts are our symbols… A place of Jewish and Zionistic pride, a place that is the dream of every proud Jew… The spirit of man is what turned a barren desert into a blooming garden and a band of strangers into the most wondrous of communities.[v]

Against this youthful love full of grace and trust – “I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride… in a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2) – the Disengagement stands like a heavy cloud. The state decreed on this strip of land the decree of the Disengagement, and revealed, painfully, the foundation of sovereignty, the violence that underlies its laws.

What manifests itself as the law’s inner decay is the fact that rule of law is, in the final analysis, without ultimate justification or legitimation, that the very space of juridical reason within which the rule of law obtains is established and sustained by a dimension of force and violence that, as it were, holds the place of those missing foundations.At its foundation, the rule of law is sustained not by reason alone but also by the force/violence of a tautological enunciation—“The law is the law!”[vi]

More than anything, the Disengagement symbolizes the crime of the legislation of the law itself, the violence that it bears within it, the recognition that, in truth, violating the law is less serious than the crime of making the law. The inner decay that exists in the rule of law is expressed in the claim heard constantly in the mouths of those who support the disengagement law: This is the law, and the law is the law! – And therefore, it must be respected. The arbitrariness of its legislation strengthens the tautology of the law. A justifying “judicial wisdom” is entirely lacking. Its justification is simply the legality of the process: the process is legal, it is confirmed and organized in the Knesset.

The law is justified not by ethics or judicial wisdom but by the simple fact that its legislation is the hands of the majority. The violence required to enact this law, removing people from their land, is not the extraneous remainder of the process but the very heart of law: the violent claim that the law is law. This violence, “the fearfulness of the government,”[vii] implanted in the very heart of sovereign existence that justifies itself with brute force, is what motivates the prophet Samuel to rebuke the nation with “the law of the king” that he lays out before them.[viii]

If so, then the love of the land and the sovereign violence of the state are tragically clashing before our very eyes – law versus love. For us, as Religious Zionists, this clash is incredibly harsh. Just as Rav Kook implanted love of the land within Religious Zionism, he similarly implanted it with the understanding and the faith that the state is the greatest manifestation of, and pathway to, redemption. “Our state, the state of Israel, is the foundation of God’s throne in the world.”[ix] According to him, this is a state “that bears within its existence the greatest idealistic content.”[x] He saw the state as a necessary and decisive step in redemption, and his teachings of redemption deal with it and its ongoing at length.

Faced with the Disengagement, it is impossible not to ask: Is the State of Israel really the beginning of redemption? Can it, or any state, really take part in salvation? The threat of exile that hangs over the residents of Gush Katif, the roots of which lie in the forcefulness of the state, present us with the sharp contrast between the “idealistic content” full of light and love from the teachings of Rav Kook, and the opaque and unmoving law of the state.

From Law to Commandment

Rav Kook undoubtedly recognized the violence hidden within the idea of the state, and he even wrote about it;[xi] if so, what led him to teach that the state of Israel “is actually the greatest happiness of man”[xii]? Is there a depiction of the state, “an ideal state,” that does away with sovereign violence? That presents a state where law does not impinge on love? I intend to depict here two possibilities of such a state, one that arises from the thought of Franz Rosenzweig and one that can be derived from the teachings of Rav Kook himself.

What happens when God stands at the top of the pyramid and is the one who justifies the rule of the king or the law? In such a case, the laws turn into commandments. Does this remove their violent sting? According to Rosenzweig – yes, and this in light of his principled distinction between a law and a commandment:

To me as well, God is not a law-giver. He is a commander. Only a person in his laziness devolves the commands… into laws – well ordered… without the urgency of being commanded, without the “I am the Lord.”[xiii]

The imperative of the commandment makes no provision for the future; it can only conceive the immediacy of obedience. If it were to think of a future or a forever, it would be, not commandment nor order, but law. Law reckons with times, with a future, with duration. The commandment knows only the moment; it awaits the result in the very instant of its promul­gation.[xiv]

A commandment is not an instruction or a law. It does not support itself with external force, rather it receives its support from the fact that it itself is a holy act. The “command” aspect is an inherent part of it. For example, just as two objects in space bear a relationship to “the law of gravity” and act according to it, moved as part of their very existence rather than being forced artificially, so too there is an intrinsic, immanent, connection between the commander and the commandment that cannot be severed. This connection is not a function of the past, just as gravity is not a function of the past, rather it is an event that happens in real time.

According to Rosenzweig, a commandment is fundamentally an unmediated relationship between two individuals, and therefore the heart of the commandment is revelation. A person who performs the same actions “without the urgency of being commanded” therefore cannot encounter God through them. “In that moment we only know the moment itself, and we know it with all the greatness of the divine-human substance of the commandment, from which we can say: ‘Blessed are you’… only from the unmediated state of the commandments can we speak to God… a person hears the voice of the commander only within the commandment.”[xv]

That is to say, whereas the law bears no relevance for those under its authority, rather it just attempts to force on the present that which is past, that which is written in a book, a commandment bears within it significant meaning for the commanded – there is an active relationship and encounter between the commander and the commanded. In other words: the commandment is the way the Torah organizes the falling-in-love of revelation. The commandment carries with it the ongoing revelation of the lover, God, to the Jew, and the outcome of this – the statement, “love me”: “No third party can command [love] or extort it. No third party can, but the One can. The commandment to love can only proceed from the mouth of the lover. Only the lover can and does say: love me!”[xvi]

A commanded person experiences the command as directed to him personally, an experience that is lacking in the alienated law that anchors itself in self-referential tautology – the law is the law. The sovereign does not turn towards his servants but rather imposes laws upon them. What, then, would an ideal Jewish state, with commandments rather than laws, look like?

Let me clarify with an example: imagine a driver at an intersection in the dead of night. There are no other drivers on the road, but the traffic light is red. The driver knows that no one is watching him and he could safely cross the intersection, without fear of accident or police. I know many people who even in the middle of the night, with no one watching, would not drive through a red light, because of the religious framing of “governmental law” (“דינא דמלכותא”); from their perspective, crossing the intersection would be “a religious prohibition” (“איסור”). Just as they would never consider eating pig even in a hidden room in the dead of night, so too they would not illegally run a traffic light. The applicability of the divine law come from its divine commander rather than its content, and therefore it applies in all contexts.  The commandment is not a function of content but of relationship. The same person stops at the red light not because of fear of the law but because of inner connection, identification, not with the content of the action but with the action itself – you don’t drive when the light is red.

A state whose laws do not rely on violent power to enforce their fulfillment but are exchanged for commands, will lead, in psychological terms, to “release from the punishing pressures of the superego [that] is a form of grace… a grace internal to those rigorous imperatives… rather than one that suspends the law in its ‘fulfillment.’”[xvii] Thus, for example, a father does not care for his children because of the law but as a manifestation of his intention and his freedom. He is not driven by an external force which compels him but from internal compulsion, from the obligation he finds in the very fact of his being the father of his children, an obligation that is his very freedom.

Similarly, would an ideal state not collect income tax, for example, by compulsion but rather it would be paid as a commandment? Would a person who fills out the assessment for his income tax feel the same feelings that he feels when he gives charity to the needy? A person gives charity as part of his relationship with the need individual, a relationship that is parallel to his relationship with God, who commanded him to give charity; income tax would be paid from the place where a person forms an internal relationship with the state, a relationship that requires the assessment.[xviii]

A State of Falling-In-Love

An in-depth study of Rav Kook’s teachings on redemption, and understanding what is so novel in them, enables us to learn about another possible avenue for sovereignty without violence.

The redemptive teachings (התורה הגואלת) of Rav Kook are not just a depiction of the end of days or of the spiritual greatness of the land of Israel; they are a drawing down (המשכה) of lights. This teaching is itself an act of drawing out the lights of the land of Israel, lights that to a certain degree did not exist in our world before their revelation, and Rav Kook was the one who drew them into the world. Rav Kook’s teachings create a different religious mindset, innovating over everything that preceded them – “religious Israeliness,” and not just “religious Jewishness.”[xix]

Parenthetically, I would say that even with the difficult events that are threatening us and disturbing our Yom HaAtsma’ut (Israeli Independence Day) celebration, we must celebrate this teaching, the teaching of the redemption of the land of Israel, a teaching to which we are bound and that is bound to us.[xx]

In the deepest sense, Rav Kook’s teachings about the drawing of lights did not just identify the process of redemption; they also enabled it. It blazed a path for the Jews from exile to the land of Israel, one that was not simple, and according to many was impossible and undesirable. Redemption is not a historical-factual, material process; rather it is not separate from the specific teaching that lays out and enables the process.[xxi] Without the spirit of its interpreters, a spirit that grants the process its sensibility and its unique “light,” the redemption cannot happen. Hence, the vitality of the teaching, Rav Kook’s teaching, for redemption.

What was the spiritual situation before Rav Kook’s teachings? What was that “religious Jewishness” that we mentioned?

Rabbi Elazar said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And many peoples shall go and say: Go and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths” (Isaiah 2:3)? The Talmud notes that Jacob is the only Patriarch mentioned and asks: Is He the God of Jacob and not the God of Abraham and Isaac?

Rather, the verse specifically mentions Jacob to allude to the fact that the Temple will ultimately be described in the same way that Jacob referred to it. It will not be referred to as Abraham referred to it. It is written of him that when he prayed at the location of the Temple mountain, he called it mount, as it is stated “As it is said on this day: On the mount where the Lord is seen” (Genesis 22:14). And it will not be referred to as Isaac referred to it. It is written of him that he called the location of the Temple field when he prayed there, as it is stated: “And Isaac went out to meditate in the field” (Genesis 24:63). Rather, it will be described as it was referred to by Jacob, who called it house, as it is stated: “And he called the name of that place Beth-El” (Genesis 28:19), which means house of God.[xxii]

Jewish space is not a space connected to the earthly and external, rather it is a space anchored within itself. “The inner point” [described by the author of the book] Sefat Emet [of the Hasidic author Rabbi Yehudah Alter of Gur] is a clear expression of this type of existence. Jewishness is the home (הביתי) – “Jacob who called it a house,” not the mountain or the field of Avraham and Yitzchak, the mountain and field that are integral parts of the Song of Songs. Jewishness resides in the family, in “the children of Jacob” whose “bed was complete.”[xxiii]

Rosenzweig taught that the expressions of Jewishness are commitment and being rooted in the covenant, which are the fundamental acts of Judaism. According to this definition, the Jewish exile is the creation of a sheltered a-historical, family space, without concern for surroundings or engaged in the rules of history.[xxiv]

The Jews “lack the passionate attachment to the things that constitute the primary… ‘objects’ of other historical peoples and nations, attachments that ultimately constitute their vitality and endurance as peoples and nations: land, territory, and architecture; regional and national languages; laws [=state laws], customs, and institutions.”[xxv]

Their land exists only as a holy land for which they yearn, and their holy language is not their first language, not the language that they speak in their daily lives. Jewishness connected only and entirely in itself. “Our life is no longer meshed with anything outside ourselves. We have struck root in ourselves.” “And so, in the final analysis, [the Jewish nation] is not alive in the sense the nations are alive: in a national life manifest on this earth, in a national territory, solidly based and staked out on the soil. It is alive only in that which guarantees it will endure beyond time, in that which pledges it ever­ lastingness, in drawing its own eternity from the sources of the blood.”[xxvi]

The meaning of the Jew being connected only in himself is that the nation in its very being is that the “outside,” other nations and cultures, either do not exist from the Jew’s perspective, the “outside” does not enter his horizon at all, or is brought inwards into the “house” via “hospitality” (“הכנסת אורחים”).[xxvii] For example, the body – it either doesn’t exist, in which case the Jew is not involved or bothered by it, or it is ignored as irrelevant; or it is internalized as a medium for delighting in God, such as in the Hasidic worship via “raising up the sparks.” This is hospitality – the “outside” ceases to play the role of “outside” and behaves like “inside,” as part of the home.

The gaping difference between Jewishness and Israeliness is the difference between the images of the mother and the lover, that same lover depicted in the Israeli love song of the Song of Songs.[xxviii] The primary female image in the world of the Jew is the maternal-familial image; “Happy are all who fear the LORD, who follow His ways… Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons, like olive saplings around your table. So shall the man who fears the LORD be blessed… and live to see your children’s children. May all be well with Israel!” (Psalms 128). This is not the figure of the lover who descends from the hills of Gilead to see the flowering vines. For sure, the vine – a fruitful vine – and the olive saplings are present here, but they are organized around the familial table of the home.

The image of the lover expresses revelation and the happiness of encounter, while the image of the mother expresses the womb, familiarity without encounter; no stranger is, or could be, present in its light. This difference is not simple, and it demonstrates the innovative nature of the Song of Songs in the Jewish world, and the boldness of Rav Kook’s teaching; he returned us to the lover and the beloved, he took us out of the home and into the field, he returned us to history. Not only the lover and the beloved show themselves to each other, but also the land reveals itself to them, they are enveloped in it and it in them, and all of this in strong contrast to the disconnect of the exilic Jew from all external connection to the world.

The teachings of Rav Kook, then, return us to the outside world, to nature, to the land, as an embodied nation. The Jew no longer yearns for the land and grounds himself internally, but reaches the lands and delves into it, into its environment.

Our original question thus returns in full force: Does Rav Kook return us to the violence that is in the outside world, to the forcefulness of the body, to the compulsion of state institutions and the arbitrariness of law?

We could probe further and challenge. Is Rav Kook’s vision of redemption, the vision that returned us to nature and naturalness, the same as the Zionist vision of normalcy, of “the house of Judah like all the other nations” (Ezekiel 25:8) – a nation alongside other nations, a culture alongside other cultures? Is giving up on Jewishness [in favor of Israeliness ~LM] the same as normalcy? Furthermore, does not the lover, caressed by God’s grace, prefer to escape from the world and delight in his love? Does not returning to the world contradict the love that gushes within him,[xxix] and doesn’t Rav Kook, the great lover, return us to this world?

Rav Kook describes an abnormal redemption,[xxx] a redemption of falling in love, of man and nation “sick with love,” a redemption where existence itself shines with a different light. Existence itself shines with the light of falling in love. Rav Kook’s utopia is a miraculous world, a world that shines with the unending light of miracles. In this utopia, existence does not just look different, it is different on an essential level. The state and its institutions ascend and shine with a different light. This is a mystification of material being (היש). Like the kabbalists, Rav Kook thinks that redemption is an ontological shift in existence – the very material of the world will change and be purified. The State of Israel as the foundation of God’s throne in the world is an ideal state that shines. At its center lies not force but light: “through the strength of Israel, their expansion and the revelation of their lives, in whatever form this takes, reveals the light of the highest level of non-being (האין העליון), revealed as tangible existence (יש), and illuminates the whole world with the light of life, sustaining and improving and elevating everything.”[xxxi]

I will attempt to sharpen this idea. The land of Israel, as presented in the Song of Songs, is the living background for the love of the lover and the beloved; it is present in their love, which paints it with blazing colors of beauty and desire. The land simply seems different, aromatic, blossoming, loving, and full of plentiful waters from flowing rivers. Rav Kook’s land is where human life shines with the light of God’s love, with divine vitality behind the growth and pleasure of all things.

The  lenses (כלים) by which the lover grasps reality are different from those of a regular person, and these different vessels grant lenses a different meaning. However, this is not just a matter of understanding. Kabbalah teaches that the lenses (כלים) affect the light itself – enabling it and shaping it;[xxxii] the world of the lover is really a different world.[xxxiii]

Just as a lover eating in the presence of his lover experiences the food differently, seeing the eating itself as a gesture of love and closeness, so too Rav Kook living in the land of Israel lived constantly in shabbat, his weekday meals were shabbat meals. For him, the land of Israel and the state of Israel were lit up with the light of shabbat. A

Imagine a shabbat-style state. I don’t means a state where no one works, where there are no police or banks, but a state where the days of the week shine like shabbat: the cops will smile, the faces of the clerks will beam, and the store-owners will sing… this is a state where love and grace, not force, are at its center.

New Lights

Rav Kook saw great purpose in the land and the Zionist institutions in his lifetime. In the continuing development of the state and its institutions he saw the lofty goal of a shining utopia, of a time when force will disappear, replaced by love, solidarity, and brotherhood. This was how he experienced the beginning of redemption. He identified the Zionist settlement of the land of Israel as part of a process leading to utopia. Without the consciousness that a certain degree of utopia is realized already in the present, creating a feeling that it could come at any moment – that it is coming now, waiting just behind the door. If so, Rav Kook’s utopian redemption would be no different from the faith of every other Jew in an eventual messiah.[xxxiv]

Can we also relate like this to the State of Israel as it is today, without a fundamental change in how we think of utopia? In my opinion, we cannot, and this is the hopeless situation that we are confronted with today and that we cannot deny.B The State of Israel does not scintillate light and love but force and law, so how should we relate to it? Should we shrink away from understanding it to be the beginning of redemption? This understanding as the beginning [of redemption] is what gives the state its meaning, explaining that what is happening is part of a utopian process, and the utopia is already partially realized with the process being well underway.

We have to consider the present reality. We cannot decide in advance our interpretation of events and be caught up in dogmas regarding redemption. It is possible that the events of our time demand of us, as the events of Rav Kook’s time demanded of him, to construct new lenses, to formulate new concepts, in order to be able to properly grasp and understand them. The possibility of taking up Rav Kook’s project, of identifying holiness in historical processes, is in our hands. Rav Kook stood before secular Zionism, knowing how to elevate its holy sparks by formulating new religious concepts through deeply and innovatively interpreting old concepts.

The process of redemption may be different from how Rav Kook foresaw it, and we may not yet understand this process as it should be understood. Perhaps everything happening now can, and should, be understood in light of Rav Kook’s famous words regarding the nullification of nationalism:

With the Mashiach Ben Yosef, the messiah descended from Joseph, the nation of Israel rediscovers its sense of nationalism. However, the ultimate purpose is not isolationist and elitist nationalism but rather the attempt to unite all members of the world into one family, under God… When the world needs to transition from nationalism to universalism, then the things that developed out of a narrow view of nationalism will need to be destroyed, for they demonstrate a corrupted and particularistic love. This is why Mashiach Ben Yosef  is going to be killed, and the true and lasting reign will be that of Mashiach Ben David.[xxxv]

In light of these words, the process of redemptions may not be held up at all, in fact just the reverse, it is happening even faster than Rav Kook could have foreseen or than we normally think. The feeling of not being at home (איבוד ביתיות) that is welling up within us even more forcefully due to the Disengagement Plan flows from the rapid pace of the changes. Perhaps the crude destruction is actually progress, and perhaps Post-Zionism is actually the killing of Mashiach Ben Yosef to make way for Mashiach Ben David.

A person feels comfortable with the world and accustomed to his understanding.  Therefore he feels violently shaken by drastic shifts that happen, or could happen, to him. However, he can see these changes as processes that announce the coming of the messiah. A person feels, rightly, that his old world will be destroyed, and who knows what will be with the new one? What is its nature, and what will it bring with it? To this, Rav Yosef responded in his famous statement: “He will come, but I will not see him.”[xxxvi]

Indeed, the Talmud depicts the “week” wherein the messiah will come as consisting of harsh and terrifying events. “On Friday – disharmonies, on Saturday – wars, – on Saturday night – the arrival of the messiah.”[xxxvii] The Maharal taught that the arrival of a new world, a world of redemption, is bound up with the destruction of the old, and therefore anarchy and war must precede the arrival of the messiah.[xxxviii] The birth pangs of the messiah in our day are opinion wars and cultural revolutions.

Disobedience to Force

In conclusion, I want to say a few words about disobedience (הסרבנות).[xxxix] Disobedience manifests itself specifically in the same place where we find the violent basis of the law. Disobedience is not disobedience to the law but to the forceful element that is its foundation. In this context, justifying disobedience means making peace with the position that says the only response to the fundamental violence of the law is a corresponding act of force. Is that what we want, that force should overpower force? The true rebellion is not force but its abandonment. The ability to abandon the game of force and violence is truly a messianic option. We do not dream of a time when the right power will win out, but for a time when power and might will not make right at all. We seek pleasure (עונג) and not reality (מציאות)[xl] – this is the true messianism.[xli]

The prophet, describing the arrival of the messianic king, used these images: “Rejoice greatly, fair Zion; Raise a shout, fair Jerusalem! Lo, your king is coming to you” (Zekhariah 9:9). As readers of this verse we expected a monarchical appearance full of pathos and strength, but to our surprise all of the shouting is simple over this. “He is victorious and triumphant, yet humble, riding on an ass, on a donkey foaled by a she-ass” (ibid.). The humble man riding on a donkey is the one who destroys the bow of war and speaks peace to the nations unto the ends of the earth. “He shall banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem; the warrior’s bow shall be banished. He shall call the nations to peace; his rule shall extend from sea to sea and from ocean to land’s end” (ibid., 10).

Does the messianic process that we are living in contain the possibility of creating a religious avant garde that is not politically right or center but left, that refuses (מסרב) to grab for power, calling us to rebel against force? Will a non-right religious Zionist political party arise that will truly be a prophetic party? I am not talking about a party like “Meimad,” with its “bourgeoisie” (“בעלבתית”) relaxedness and its unconditional devotion to consensus, but about a party that will shatter the status quo of existing political options and lead us to new territory. Perhaps the path there is already being paved. The claims of the right against the Disengagement are essentially drawn from the humanistic discourse of the Israeli left.

In our situation, force inevitably triggers an opposing force, drawing itself into the constraints of force and wallowing in them. We must break this vicious cycle, as a step toward redemption.C

For he has grown, by His favor, like a tree crown, like a tree trunk out of arid ground. He had no form or beauty, that we should look at him; No charm, that we should find him pleasing. He was despised, shunned by men, a man of suffering, familiar with disease. As one who hid his face from us, he was despised, we held him of no account. Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing, Our suffering that he endured. We accounted him plagued, smitten and afflicted by God; (Isaiah 53:2-4)

Thus he shall judge the poor with equity and decide with justice for the lowly of the land. He shall strike down a land with the rod of his mouth and slay the wicked with the breath of his lips. Justice shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his waist. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid; The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them. (Isaiah 11:4-6)

Appended Notes

A These words remind me of a debate that arose in a class I where I taught Rav Kook’s famous words on the holiness of eating, “the very essence of easting… and all movements and sensations of life are full of light and holiness” (Shemoneh Kevatzim, Collection 2, #65, p.271). One of the students claimed that he wanted to eat an “ordinary steak” and not a “holy steak.” This claim reveals the gap between Rav Kook’s approach and that of Haredi Judaism. Haredism does not seek to replace the outside world. It leaves a neutral world, outside the Jewish home, and even when it is drafted – from time to time – for the sake of holiness, its neutrality remains and the indifference toward it does not change. In contrast, Rav Kook’s Israeli (ארצישראלית) demand is total: he desires to eliminate any neutrality of the outside, and to turn it into holiness despite its being “outside.” How does this happen? Does a beloved who eats “ordinary ice cream” in the company of his beloved feel anomalous because of what the act represents? Is he interested in “ordinary ice cream” or in the act of eating ice cream with her, an act that turns into a deep gesture of love – without overriding its ordinariness?

B There are those who deny and attempt to ignore the chasm above which we are standing. For example, not too long ago I sat at a table at a bar mitzvah with two important Jerusalemite rabbis, a kollel student from “Har HaMor,” and a relative of Haredi appearance. The latter told us all woefully about how he had been a major in the IDF: “For thirty years I faithfully served the state, year in and year out, doing long stints of reserve duty, and here the state has gone and turned into a state like all the nations;” he was referring to the ruling of the High Court on the topic of Reform conversions. He continued, asking: “Can anyone still believe that the state is the beginning of redemption?” The rabbis joined in angrily, lamenting the destruction of the religious councils and the Kashrut system by the Prime Minister’s son. The kollel student did not take long to respond – he spouted the normal line about delays in the process of redemption; the safety net is already spread out in case the Disengagement should actually happen.

C This, too, is a form of battle, because it turns the gaze towards the other and reveals his violence. See also the words of Ami Shaked: “As a community, without innocents and after years of struggle have taken even the good out of us, we are obligated to fight in a way fitting for our way of life, for our nature, for the goodness of our hearts and for our commitments to the fate of our community. Despite this, our destiny commands us to wear our garments white and our heads anointed. We are committed to a painful battle, one that will shake the nation of Israel in its nobility and its uniqueness, its concern for the collective despite the danger to its own project” (above, note 4).

[i] Quotations from Rosenzweig’s “Star of Redemption” and Eric Santner’s “On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life” are taken from English volumes rather than being original translations from the Hebrew sermon. Unbracketed footnotes are Shagar’s, bracketed footnotes are from the original editors of the Hebrew volume, and italicized brackets are mine.

[ii] Orot (Hebrew), Jerusalem 1993, p.12. There is a famous story about Brenner, the elder writer, who joined Rav Kook for the third meal and left quickly, saying: there is too much light there, and I cannot stay.

[iii] Shemoneh Kevatzim (Hebrew), Jerusalem 2004, Collection 3, Paragraph 20, p.366. [Translations of Rav Kook by this author.]

[iv] “Walking to Caesarea,” Diaries, Songs, Testimonies, Tel Aviv 1994, p.221. [Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.]

[v] A. [Ami]  Shaked, Security and Military Coordinator of Gush Katif – [Translation by this author.]

[vi] Eric Santner, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig, Chicago, University of Chicago, 2001, pp.56-57.

[vii] Bavli Avodah Zarah 4a.

[viii] I Samuel 8:11-20.

[ix] Orot HaKodesh (Hebrew), Jerusalem 1985, III, p.191.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Orot, ibid., p.14, #3.

[xii] Orot HaKodesh, III, ibid.

[xiii] Selected Letters and Diary Excerpts [Hebrew], Jerusalem 1987, p.326. [Translations from this text are by this author.]

[xiv] The Star of Redemption, trans. William Hallo, New York Chicago San Francisco 1971, p.177.- zzz not original

[xv] Selected Letters and Diary Excerpts, p.336.

[xvi] The Star of Redemption, p.176.

[xvii] On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig, p.109.

[xviii] Regarding this it is said, “God desired to give merit to Israel, therefore he gave them expansive Torah and commandments” (B. Makkot 23b)…

[xix] We can learn about the difference between Jewishness and Israeliness from the fact that there were sages who wanted to physically hide the Song of Songs which, as we saw, expresses the Israeli (ארצישראלית) relationship, which Rav Kook drew out, between man and God, and attempted to prevent its inclusion in the canon (m. Yadayim 3:5).

[xx] See Bayom Hahu, p.250 and forward.

[xxi] See Bayom Hahu, p.143.

[xxii] B. Pesahim 88a. [Translation from]

[xxiii] Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:17. [The correct citation seems to be 4:7.]

[xxiv] See Bayom Hahu, p.176 and forward.

[xxv] On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig, p.110.

[xxvi] The Star of Redemption, pp.305, 304.

[xxvii]  See On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig, p.116; Shagar, B’Tsel HaEmunah (Hebrew), p.106-11.

[xxviii] For a different understanding of these images, see Bayom Hahu, pp.123-127.

[xxix] See “Mered V’Hesed,” B’Tsel HaEmunah (Hebrew), p.43 and on. Regarding Rav Kook, see “Az Nedaberu Yirei Hashem,” Zeman Shel Heirut (Hebrew), pp.179-186.

[xxx] On the views of the Maharal and the “Sefat Emet,” who greatly influenced Rav Kook, see Bayom Hahu, pp.193-199.

[xxxi] Shemoneh Kevatzim, ibid., Collection 2, #319, p.339. [Translation by this author.] Also see, ibid., #189, p.299. In these words Rav Kook departs from a central theme in the teachings of Hasidut – discovering the divine as the nullification of the world as opposed to its construction.

[xxxii] As we saw regarding Rav Kook’s teachings about redemption.

[xxxiii] [“The world of a happy person and the world of a depressed person are different worlds.” (L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Tel Aviv 1995, paragraph 6.43) -Yeshai Mevorach]

[xxxv] See Bayom Hahu, p.140.

[xxxv] Orot, ibid., p.160, #6. Famously, Rav Kook identified Mashiach Ben Yosef with the Zionists.

[xxxvi] B. Sanhedrin 98b.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 97a.

[xxxviii] Hiddushei Aggadot (Hebrew), 3, Sanhedrin, p.204. See also Bayom Hahu, p.204.

[xxxix] [This is regarding the call by many Religious zionist rabbis for IDF soldiers to disobey orders that have to do with removing settlers in the Disengagement Plan. -Y.M.]

[xl] Ibid., p.150, 160.

[xli] Ibid., pp.138-139.