Rabbi Shagar on Politics and Messianism- Beriti Shalom- My Covenant of Peace

Last summer, Rav Shagar’s collected writings on politics were published. I devoured it immediately, and I taught some of it in my Shabbat afternoon class last summer. The book is called My Covenant of Peace: Right and Left, War and Peace (Yediot Aharonot : 2020). In many ways, it is one of the best books of edited essays of Rav Shagar in that the pieces were left as he wrote them from 1983 to 2007 and arranged in chronological order. Most of his other writings the editors combined over twenty years of classes and notes into single essays on a topic, thereby obscuring his intellectual development. Here we see the specific issue that drove him to speak in each year. In addition, this book deals with the existential issues in less abstract terms and in more basic existential political terms.  This week, when the holidays of Iyar occur, is a good time to post.  

This is our 20th post on Rav Shagar,  for #19 and #18 on Hanukkah see here and  here, Other entry points are herehere. herehere, and here.).

Rabbi Shagar fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where his tank took a direct hit at the very start of fierce tank battles of Golan Heights in which two of his comrades who were with him were killed instantly; he was wounded and badly burnt. This event, along with the subsequent Israeli political trajectory of events from the withdrawal from Sinai  to the disengagement from Gaza, elicited within Rabbi Shagar a sense that the Religious Zionist narrative of messianic redemption through return to the land was broken. The first part of this book contains Rav Shagar’s direct and visceral reacting to breakdown the Merkaz Harav messianism letting his reader share his pain and confusion without an intellectualization in Lyotard terminology. The last essays written at the time of the 2005 disengagement already have his signature constructions of postmodern theory to explain Zionism.

In the book, we see how Rav Shagar had deep sympathy and identity for the contradictory Israel opinions. He expresses how the anti-Zionist Haredi are correct, the liberal Tel Aviv peace activist is correct, and the messianic settler Zionist is correct. They all have arguments from logic and from Torah, but more than that they all speak to a visceral truth that are contradictory and conflicting. This book will make less sense for an American Zionist of AIPAC, blue & white cupcakes, and support for Israel as a pareve tenet of Jewish identity. He feels the passion of these extremes.

Rabbi Shagar sees his own postmodern views as the next step in the process of Zionism. Rav Kook was the era of the messiah of Joseph; however, we presently live in an era of the messiah of David, where we transition from state building to personal growth and universalism. The new era of Zionism will be the development of Israeli democracy and will include a multiculturalism and multi-national democracy as the next stage in the redemptive process that reflects the Hasidic consciousness of containing plurality and divisions (He explains himself in his essay “On That Day” in a different volume). Or as he describes it here, a schizophrenic combination of the Haredi, liberal, and settler positions, and as a utopian revolution that we cannot grasp. Rabbi Shagar sees his utopia as “a world of beyond, which cannot be described in human language.” Therefore, he understands prior centuries of Jewish apocalyptic literature, which were “full of wondrous, mysterious visions of the figure of the Messiah, of redemption, and of the End” as the only means to convey the messianism that is desired but not realized.

The translations were all done freehand during the summer, they should be checked and edited before any use. Levi Morrow, in turn sent me some of his summertime translations. I have much more translated that I used in teaching, but I chose a number of pieces to give a sense of his thought. The book is full of ideas so do not take the few passages here as the final word on his politics. In each passage below, the opening paragraph contains my words and the rest is Rabbi Shagar.

  1. This first piece from “On the Lebanese War Sivan 1983” shows his sense of the transience of life before death on the battlefield. The essay is somewhat eulogistic reflections on the deaths of some of his students. Notice in this early essay how his thinking is personal and direct.

In war, a person stands on the core of his life before the equalizer and the true. The counterfeit needs to be expunged because answers will not help here. Where will each one stand in his last moments when he is required to return the deposit to His Creator?  On this the Rabbis said: “Remember the day of your death” Furthermore, then a person must continue and ask: If so, —why me?

Life is beautiful. Against death we feel the beauty even more – the love between people, friendship, children, even the value to just stroll and assess the air under these skies. The grass near the tanks and the green soot, very green beside the horror. Nearby stand the divine, the living, and the observers. And the person who survives from the fire wonders and does his calculations.

A strong desire grasps a person to bow with blessing before God at that very place. To cry out to heaven: Why this horror?! Why can’t it be different? And an even more depressing question: Why does he worry about these matters only in the shadow of war? Why is it only in suffering does he learn the way to his creator? (39)

2) This piece is from 1987 during the First Intifada. He is reacting to the lawlessness of the Jewish Underground, thinking that the senseless violence could have been prevented. In late 1976, the Israeli settlers movement, Gush Emunim, attempted to establish a settlement at the Ottoman train station of Sebastia by squatting and ignoring the law. The Israeli government did not approve but nevertheless create the settlement of Elon Moreh nearby. Already in 1987, he thinks neither left nor right have the solution.

There is a direct line that connect the Sebastia train station to the Jewish Underground. It is impossible to hide from this. If people can create their own law and transgress on the state law in the case of the  Sebastia train station, then why will they not permit to themselves and act similarly to terrorize the innocent as the Underground did?… But we must look at the other side of the coin. If Gush Emunim, had asked permission from the government to settle, it would not have worked at all.  

Is there a solution concerning the return of the territories? Menachem Begin is correct. If we return the territories, Katushas will fall on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But the left is also correct, it is impossible for one nation to subjugate another.

With the help of the heart profound in practicality and imagination we have to search for a solution that the intellect cannot find. We have nothing but a struggle in moments and privately to attempt to reach a collective point that includes the right and the left.  (51, 54)

  • 3) Adar II – 1992. Here he ponders the meaning of the state and messianism, seeing three positions, the Haredi, the Zionist, and the Utopian. For the Haredim, the messiah will come in God’s time, in the meantime we learn Torah. For the Zionism, we live in history and political activism. The leader could be secular and even a false messiah or a half redemption is meaningful. The third approach, the Utopian, which he considers his own is to value the Haredi study of Torah as the meaning of our lives, and to appreciate the return to Zion by secular means, but ultimately love of God transcends the national struggle We need a utopian stage of universal moral, an elevated humanity, a revelation of God in our human contingency. A true messianic Zionism will be “a philosophic life and love of God to turn to be the inheritance of all the world.” We have a universalist Maimonides meeting Frans Rosenzweig and then becoming the meaning of Zionism

According to the Haredi view of the messiah, it does not require any activism to realize it… According to the view an eternal Torah, there is no meaning in an attempt to fulfill messianism in a historic manner…A Jew is a Jew of the study hall, of Torah, of prayer, but not of the army and politics.

Activism depends on a historical view of the messiah as derived by a Zionist messiah, not a Haredi one.  The messiah is not a transcendental cause that comes external to history and changes it. But exists as part of the historic process, and we are called to act in it.

Zionism of the messiah image is 1) a natural and realism as in the image of Bar Kochba who stands as proof of it. 2) A tautology of the rubric of the Messiah to open a door to understand the immanent history of it. The success of the messiah is tested in its correspondence to concrete historic circumstances in which it is active and not in compliance to specific requirements 3) The relation to the false messiah- even Christianity- as steps on the messianic path. From this, even non-relgious leaders can advance the redemption 4) partial messiah” weren’t they the kings of the house of David  who were fit? The difference between them and the messiah is relative. Not absolute. There is a legitimate possibility for the existence of a partial Jewish kingship, even if not the messiah.  

First, we speak of the negation of extreme trends in religious Zionism which accept the redemption as necessary process, without any possibility of retreat. According to them, messianism is the faith necessary to create the political course of the state, even if it appears against the immediate state.  I see in this position forcing with a strong arm the [messianic] vision on history and to [thereby] force the end. These that force the end, are those of whom Maimonides feared. [A false] spiritual militancy that accepts that if we decide with determination that the Messiah will come, he will certainly come.

Our critical question: Do we act based on the fact that we decided that the messiah is coming, or do we act because we think a given action is right, worthy to be done?

It is understood that my statement does not mean my break from that vision. It is not an announcement that the faith and historic rights are not an active force and active cause in the process of history, But they depend on their innerness of the law and of the process, which can never jump outside their skin

Three approaches – the Haredi, the Zionist, and the Utopian are the three stages of the redemption itself. 

The eternity of the Torah pushed forth and elevates the religious consciousness, an elevation that is itself a redemption.  The messiah of the exile awakens and opens our Zionism, and from there the journey continues to the universal purpose of history sealed in peace, with love and fear, which is the knowledge of God. We are not talking about a return to what was, rather a progression to what is yet to be, speedily in our days. This evolution does not mean the nullification of the central values of the prior approaches. The eternity of the halakhah, which stands in the center of the Haredi approach is not negated in the framework of the Zionist approach. 

[In this new Utopian age] Only love of God is important, the national struggle becomes unimportant, the breaking of the circle of Torah and Mitzvot into love of God. A shift from “you chose us” to universalism Beyond the restorative messiah which maintain existence to a utopian messianism which breaks it to greet a religious existence and an elevated humanity. An absolute revelation in existence and history support an absolute meaning in human contingency.  (not a return to the transcendent but built on the historic and immanent)

The utopian places before us the religious purpose of Maimonides: A philosophic life and love of God to turn to be the inheritance of all the world. (438-458)

  • 4) Sivan 2005 before the disengagement from Gaza where he uses postmodern theory to make sense of the contradictions of a retreating messianism as shown by the return of land. Rav Shagar surprisingly quotes Zizek on political messianism as dangerous totalitarianism. Rather, he prefers a Walter Benjamin revolutionary utopianism. The prophets taught the messianic age is accessible, but For Rabbi Shagar, it remains a desire, an ideal, a vision. Messianisim is an apocalyptic against the realism of history and law.

I will give an example to the required change in Messianism, a term badmouthed in our day. The religious right or Gush Emunim, which is guilted by certain thinkers for its messianism [Amos Oz 1986].

One thinker,[Zizek] wrote that radical evil ({Political term Totalitarianism) appears when religious faith or reason (or democracy itself) positioned in modalities of future present. In other words, it is dangerous when messianism becomes a political argument, as an animating force of actual politics 

As it is expressed well by the modern thinker Walter Benjamin, the Messianic promise will be understood as a revolutionary act and not a process as the Enlightenment thinks because it is not capable to produce something new, only  to return the past and return on itself.  Or as Zizek wrote: It is impossible to conclude the phenomena of the messianic age with an objective analysis of a historic process. The messianic age, in the end, is the permeation of the subject that cannot contract into the objective historic process. At every moment, to tremble with a messianic turn, time becomes compressed…

The big innovation of messianism that the great prophets preached with such passion is rooted specifically that gap is not absolute. The messiah who is coming will bridge between the subjectivity and the objectivity.  Messianism delights and excites us. Obligating us to continue to give spirit to the explanations of faith. This messianism is therefore revolutionary, that is to say, denial, which is the place where the subjective will meets with historic laws.

The gap is between a transcendental belief and actual belief, rather between a messianism in the present and a messianism of one who is coming… One should be warned against a utopia lacking a utopian spirit just like mysticism without the spirit of mysticism turned the esoteric into the revealed. Messianism is not a political argument, it should be a spirit that prevents the political, the vision remains in its base. Always not present, rather a future to which we seek and yearn for. But since it is a vision, it is not physically present, we know well to consider the logic of existence and to know the gap between ideal and reality.

Is the messianic revolution, called the rebellion of the subject with the laws of history and [a rebellion] with law in general. Does this create a justification for protest against the disengagement? (133-134)

  • 5) More on the Disengagement. In this he criticizes those who lack doubt. The true believer without doubt is dangerous. God is not a fact, but an existential belief or as he terms it- we live in a world of tzimzum. To harness non-belief in the service of belief is the estate of Ayin, which he explains in other essays is a postmodern Neo-Hasidic belief in God as mystical Nothingness.

My impression of some of the young people opposing the Disengagement is that—in contrast to their thoroughly ideological rabbis—they are driven by authentic faith, and this itself is what makes them so dangerous.

What makes the religious terrorist dangerous is that he lacks a lack of faith—he lacks doubt. This lack is what enables him to murder. Paradoxically, lacking faith protects a person from transgression. The faithless ideologue, in contrast, is plagued by a hole that he attempts to overcome through ideology, and that is what makes him dangerous. In general, however, he will not go too far, and will find formulations and justifications (even ideological ones) to prevent himself from transgressing.

We must thus open up to the lack of faith—to the ability to cast doubt—to the ironic, distanced gaze. Is such a gaze opposed to the fear of heaven? Not necessarily. In a certain situation, it itself is the fear of heaven, or at least, it enables a powerful possibility for the fear of heaven.

God is not a fact. He exists without existence. This is the secret of the tzimtzum, which is also the source of lack of faith, as Rebbe Nahman teaches. The internal logic is simple: God is not a fact, so how is it possible to believe in him? How can you believe in not-a-fact? How?

The answer is that you must conscript the lack of faith in service of the cause. Believe without believe just as God exists without existence. Paradoxically, “not believing” in this sense can only function in tandem with “believing,” without which it would become simple negation—nothingness, simple absence, rather than absence that exists. This is the revelation of the Ayin. (139-140)

  • 6) 2005, as part of the talk above on the disengagement If you are wondering how he can be a Haredi, messianic settler, utopian universalist at the same time, he answers that our goal is not synthesis or a coherent form of thinking. Rather, we have to learn to live with a schizophrenic diffuse form of thinking, reminiscent of Deleuze. We live in a permanent world of the aporia of not being able to put everything together. We accept ourselves and our diverse intentions.

We must not attempt to unify opposites and construct a coherent way of thinking; we must specifically construct the possibility of multiple ways of thinking, a schizophrenic way of thinking, but without sliding into cynical reason.

Faith, on the bottom line, will be infinite, the very saying yes in and of itself. Derridean faith. Pure form… Paradoxically, this faith gives nothing, because it affirms everything—but affirming everything means denying everything.

The final conclusion will therefore be accepting yourself. This is the tsimtsum. But it might also mean accepting yourself as schizophrenic. (153-154)

  • 7) 2005, as part of the talk above on the disengagement.  Rabbi Shagar advocated the separation of religion and state. The state law should not be halakhah and he is against relgious coercion. But the last line is the crucial one, the relgious person needs the separation in his/her mind.  

Many rabbis—not just Haredi rabbis, Religious Zionist rabbis too—are coming around to the idea that we need to separate religion and state. Religion itself will emerge better for it. Identifying halakhah with state law creates ethical problems of religious coercion for religious people as well. This is something that anchoring halakhah in the community avoids. The modern idea of the state does not allow for this sort of law-making. This conflict, of course, makes itself known not just in religious-secular relations, but also in the mind of the religious person himself (153)

  • 8) 1992 lecture to Kibbutz Hadati on “War as a mizvah”. One has to distinguish between eternal mizvot and responding to temporal contingent events in history.

This is part of a much broader conception—appearing throughout Rambam’s writings—which I cannot lay out here. This distinction is not simple, nor is it accepted by most of the religious community today—they identify religious value exclusively with “mitsvah”—but in my opinion this distinction is of the utmost importance. (345)

War belongs to the realm of politics, not to the realm of mitsvah. This is not to say that politics is not the will of God, or that politics should not be organized according to halakhah. It’s just that we cannot contain politics and war within the category of “mitsvah.” In my opinion, Rambam sensed that it was dangerous to include war in the category of “mitsvah.” A mitsvah is rigid, transcendent, eternal, supernatural, unchanging, and stands outside of ongoing history.

Not so matters of the king, which are entirely historical. For example, the whole point of “the King’s justice” is to fill gaps (lacunae) which the halakhic law of the Torah did not explicitly address. This is connected to the temporality of his role. (347)

  • 9) From a 1991 course on messianism at Maaleh. On the need to create a Torah political thinking. However, Rabbi Shagar is not looking for the halakhic questions.  

My aim here today is not purely Torah-focused or academic—it is explicitly social and political. As a Religious Zionist, I believe that the Torah is a Torah of life and it is not in heaven, so it must necessarily also generate political thinking. Then, and only then, does it attain its real meaning. The mussar masters said that a person must ponder each page of Talmud that he learns and attempt to determine how what he learned could guide his actions in his practical life. This idea is not simply an ethical exhortation, intended to get a person to apply what he learned—it shapes the very understanding of Torah itself. The question of practical application gives an absolutely different meaning to theoretical thinking, and only after they have stood the test of practical application does ideas have any real meaning. (435)

  1. 10) From a 1991 course on messianism at Maaleh, After the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE, the Rabbis instituted a variety of practices as a remembrance of the Temple. Most interpret these practices as indicating memory. Rabbi Shagar, in great creativity, explains the remembrance as both a remnant nagging at us by its absence and as our desire for a receding object that has not arrived.
  2. 10) Rabbi Shagar following Maimonides acknowledges that calculating the end does not produce certain knowledge, yet he disagrees with Maimonides and encourage the flights of imaginative magical mystical visions of the messianic age. Anything thought about in rational bourgeois terms by definition cannot be salvation from our banal corrupt world. We need utopian ideals. This ties in with his giving great importance to the magical tales of Rav Nachman,  wild folktales, and science fiction

R. Yohanan Ben Zakai, of course, wanted both to enable a way of life in the absence of the Temple, and also to shape this way of life as “a reminder of the Temple.” This has two meanings: It’s not just eternalizing the past, but the reminding itself is a manner of existing. Thus, existence in the present is none other than a reminder, the present is a thin embodiment of the past, and is necessarily deficient. The present is thus also oriented toward a future that has not yet arrived. (418)

Calculating the End is a mystery. The World to Come is a world of beyond, which cannot be described in human language. The only thing that can contain the utopian world is liberation from this corrupt, banal world by means of the sense of wonder contained in the world of mystery. Thus, apocalyptic literature is full of wondrous, mysterious visions of the figure of the Messiah, of redemption, and of the End. (426)

11) 2001 – Given in a Gush Etzion public dialogue as a response to Rav Medan. An aphorism against ideology or fixed external doctrines.

From an existential perspective, ideology is a graven image. As an absolute thought, it is automatically a fetishistic object. Spirituality reveals itself in existence, not in thought, and faith is not about declarations of faith which could become externalized, thereby lacking any internal substance. (111)

Copyright- Alan Brill & Levi Morrow

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