Review of Faith Shattered and Restored
Many Orthodox Jews outside of Israel have never even heard of Rav Shagar (Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg). Ten years after his untimely death at age 57, this may begin to change. A carefully crafted first collection of translated essays from Rav Shagar, aptly entitled Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age (Jerusalem: Maggid Press, 2017, 224 pp.), has just come out – and it is likely to engender much interest from a completely new audience.
There is no question that Rav Shagar was a trailblazer. There is also no question that he more seriously applied Rav Kook’s approach of ‘sanctifying the new’ to contemporary trends than any other Jewish thinker. In his own day, Rav Kook was a master at finding the positive about everything he encountered. He claimed that the theory of evolution bore tremendous resemblance to classical Jewish ideas; and that by clearing away primitive conceptions of faith, even atheism could make a positive contribution.
While Rav Kook’s approach is not for the faint-hearted, abandoning it also comes with a cost. For time does not stand still, and there will continue to be new ideas competing for the hearts and minds of young Jews. It is with this in mind that Rav Shagar pursued his work. In a letter written towards the very end of his life, he tells his followers, “I sought to create… a significant Torah-based position that would provide a fitting solution for the religious and existential stirrings of our generations” (p. xii).
Though much of the essays in the book relate to postmodernist thought, that is not really what animates Rav Shagar. Rather, his writing is in response to a certain malaise that has seeped into contemporary Israeli culture and – largely as a result of the disillusionment that came in wake of the withdrawal from Gush Katif (which Rav Shagar keenly felt) – even into some parts of the religious Zionist camp. Nonetheless, it is impossible to properly read this book without simultaneously becoming more familiar and sympathetic to an intellectual movement often seen as contrary to the Jewish tradition.
Postmodernism is an ideology that denies man’s ability to get to objective truth. In fact, such an approach has much in common with the mystical teachings of Rav Kook, an approach that Rav Shagar and many others Israelis were raised upon. (Conversely, this may prove to be a hindrance for a North American audience less comfortable with mysticism, and resultantly less able to feel any resonance with postmodernism.)
But it is not just resonance that brought Rav Shagar to postmodernism. He also welcomed it as a response to the academic criticism of traditional religious truths. He saw postmodernism as a way out of the limiting linear thinking so prevalent in academia and the many circles under its influence. And it is against such a backdrop that Rav Shagar occasionally feels a need to address Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz and his followers’ rigid intellectual options. On more than one occasion, Rav Shagar responds that his faith cannot be charted upon such an axis. It cannot, because authentic faith is both more personal and more profound. Hence words and philosophical arguments will always fall short in the understanding of faith. That is to say “the price of language is duality, and, in the context of faith, unreality...Faith does not reside in words, and certainly not in any exposition or essay” (p. 24).
While not all of his arguments work and some of his readings are debatable, Rav Shagar’s true greatness was in his ability to see the religious potential in new ideas and issues. For example, he deals with pluralism as a reality that religious Jews – especially in Israel – must accept, if they are to appropriately interact with the non-religious. Another contemporary issue that takes pride of place is the problem of uncertainty. His reading of the Binding of Isaac (Chapter 1) as a test of how to respond to God from uncertainty is a masterpiece. While the reader is left with questions about how this relates back to our own lives, the general lesson is that the central issue at play in Avraham’s test is his temimut, insightfully translated here as integrity.
Like many others involved with postmodernism, Rav Shagar is readily aware of the impasse created by acting upon values that are no longer seen as universal. His resolution is more of an assertion than an argument: Here too, there is an attempt to reach temimut – someone appropriately grounded in his culture cannot authentically be anything but what he is, and act in accordance with that awareness of self. While this is the type of statement that makes opponents of postmodernism stark raving mad, Rav Shagar is correct that – when buttressed by faith – it is ultimately the truest answer to why we believe what we believe. In the words of Rav Shagar, “Traditional theological debates that sought absolute, transcendental criteria to determine which belief reigns supreme are meaningless in a postmodern world, but that should not impugn our perseverance in the faith of our fathers. We must see such faith as our home, self-evident and unquestionable, and thus in no need of such tests” (p. 117).
No doubt, some will find his ideas unsettling. There is no question that adapting a postmodern stance makes it more difficult to hold on to a specific worldview. In this regard, Rav Shagar tells us that we must “go beyond the anthropological stance of studying a tribe without joining it” (p. 129); and that the key to that “lies in one’s willingness to open up to inspiration” and to immerse oneself in Jewish life (admiringly pointing to the charedi community in this regard).
As indicated earlier, Rav Shagar’s treatment of postmodernism is remarkably reminiscent of Rav Kook’s treatment of the ideologies of his time. Like his model, Rav Shagar is able to identify the ideological idols that postmodernism seeks to destroy, its parallels with Jewish thought (in Rabbenu Bachya and Maharal, as well as in Hassidic thought), and how it can be uplifted by a heightened awareness of God. Also like Rav Kook, he is not slow to point out the terrible mistakes that it makes when it ignores the Divine element that should be at its center, going so far as to call more doctrinaire (“hard”) postmodernism the husk of Amalek that must be totally destroyed. And, finally like Rav Kook as well, Rav Shagar’s is a creative rendering of the Western theorists he draws from. As per editor Zohar Maor, “[It is futile to ask] whether his portrayal of postmodernism, or of any other thought system, is ‘authentic’ or ‘precise’; what mattered to him was how external ideas could enrich and challenge the religious world” (p. xvii). Personally, I find such an approach quite compelling.
All of the comparisons to Rav Kook notwithstanding, it should be pointed out that Rav Kook was a thinker deeply immersed in a coherent worldview. While he was profoundly aware of the currents around him, his writings are permeated with an authenticity that makes them all the more persuasive. He found the good in everything that he saw, because – according to his largely Kabbalistic worldview – they could not exist in God’s universe without some good. Hence finding it was only a question of discovery, not of reinterpretation. My reading of Rav Shagar, however, left me unsure as to what extent there was a system behind his thought. In many places, it seems more likely that he was simply responding to the best of his prodigious ability to the things that came his way.
Another way of summarizing the problem is to say that Rav Shagar’s thought was fragmented. The editors and R. Shalom Carmy (in his afterword) attribute this to his early death. There is no doubt that this contributed to it. But I get the sense that – very much like the postmodernism that Rav Shagar integrated into his approach – fragmentation was intrinsic to his personality as well. From that perspective, it is a weakness only insofar as it may be confusing to the reader, or representative of a worldview the reader rejects. For the author, however, it may have been a reflection – as well as an approbation – of that worldview.
Perhaps Rav Shagar felt that the type of destabilization that postmodernism attempts to inject into general society would have great value for a Jewish community that has become too comfortable. Of course, no one wants instability. But it is precisely the instability of the Jewish condition that has largely been responsible for the depth and creativity of much of our genius. Paradoxically or not, specifically when the Jewish community in Israel and in the Diaspora is more secure and well-off than it has been in a very long time, many feel an intellectual and spiritual dullness. Rav Shagar seemed to have been well aware of that. And he was willing to go very far to shake us out of it.