Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Restored Faith In Oneself- Some thoughts on Rav Shagar's Faith Shattered and Restored

As I think of Rav Shagar zt”l, there’s an image which keeps coming to my mind. A searcher is climbing a mountain looking for the guru who will help him find truth. He finally reaches a plateau, and sitting right there is the one whom he thinks will answer all of his questions. The guru, who much prefers solitude, agrees to let the searcher stay, but only on one condition. The guru will continue his own personal search for truth, and the searcher can listen to it all, but he may not ask any questions. After all, the guru himself is still  searching.

With the recent release of “Faith Shattered and Restored”, which contains the first attempt to bring Rav Shagar to an English speaking audience, Maggid Books is attempting to bring Rav Shagar’s ideas to foreign soil. The question is whether a thinker who is very much a product of Israel can be understood by the Anglo reader. A number of excellent reviews have already been written. Levi Morrow, and Zach Truboff, have each written thought provoking reviews. Additionally, a fascinating conversation between the editor of the new volume, Dr. Zohar Maor, and its translator, Elie Leshem has recently been published. In a certain sense, one can ask what else can be said. Still, I’d like to approach things in a certain sense from where Morrow and Truboff left off, namely whether Maggid’s goal of bringing Rav Shagar’s ideas to an English speaking audience will bear fruit.

Before I begin, a few quick notes. I write this as the searcher who has found Rav Shagar. I am both privileged to be allowed to hear his thoughts, and sometimes confused by what I hear. Rav Shagar often seems to be megaleh tefach u’mechaseh tefachim, hiding more than he shares. For me, Rav Yair Dreyfus, who was a talmid chaver of sorts of Rav Shagar, and the one with whom he started his last yeshiva Siach Yitzhak, is the peirush Rashi through whom I make sense of Rav Shagar. Additionally, for those who decide to read this fascinating work, I would recommend that you make use of Rav Shalom Carmy’s afterward, while reading the book and not after, either by using his words as an introduction to each chapter, or as its summary. It is not that Leshem did not do a good job translating Rav Shagar’s words into English. On the contrary, he did a masterful job. Still, at least for me, even when one knows the meanings of the words, it is not always easy to grasp  Rav Shagar’s ideas. Finally, I will not attempt to summarize the specific essays in this book. Instead I will share more global thoughts which from having read this and a number of other of Rav Shagar’s works.

So with all of this, why should the thinking English reader try to make their way through Rav Shagar’s essays? It is not to find a systematic thinker. Consciously or not, Rav Shagar’s many essays written at various times  before his untimely death, pull in various directions. The fact that the essays in this book deal with postmodern ideas do not mean that he was a postmodernist. In fact, Rav Dreyfus suggests that he was more of an existentialist. What one does get from reading Rav Shagar is someone who bares his soul, or at least does so as much as he can. To me, it is not surprising that Rav Shagar’s two essay volume on Likutei Moharan of Rebbe Nachman reads so clearly. Like Rebbe Nachman, Rav Shagar struggles between simple faith, and the many ideas and experiences which make this pure faith so hard to maintain. I don’t say this lightly, but of all the thinkers who Rav Shagar quotes, he seems to be kindred spirits with  Rebbe Nachman.

To give one of the more important examples of what made him so complex, Rav Shagar fought in the Yom Kippur War. He was the driver of a tank, and was badly injured in an attack which killed the other two men who were with him in the tank. He called that war his generations Holocaust, words which are particularly filled with pathos in light of the fact that his parents were survivors. Already pushed towards a silent pessimism by his parents, surviving the attack while his friends did not, pushed him even deeper inside himself.

It is this complexity which I think can speak so deeply and directly to those who are searching. His questions are powerful and raw, and yet at the same time he struggles with them without losing his, I can use no other word, frumkeit. In this he pushes back on those who think that serious religious observance, and deep inner conflict cannot go hand in hand. Additionally, he eschews any attempt to make the various pulls that he experiences fit together. For him, there is no “Torah and” or “Torah im”. No attempt is made to synthesize the various parts of himself. He is willing to be who he is, without any sense that his conflicting sides must be solved.

Finally, I would add that he pushes the reader to look deep within him or herself to try and be their own hero, rather than looking to him as a savior who will make that which cannot be perfectly joined be put together. This can be seen from the fact that he has become much more popular (in both senses of the term) in death, than he was when he was alive. In a sense, for his readers he is not the chassidic rebbe to whom one flocks to receive answers. Instead, through his words, his questions and struggles, one learns how to look deep inside themselves.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Close Shave- Of beards, titles and sense of self

What is the connection between outer appearance and sense of self? Can we express in an action that which we feel on the inside? Does how we look help or hinder who wish to be, and what effect does it have on how others relate to us?

Usually, by this point in the cycle of Sefiras HaOmer, I am the point of wishing I could shave. The enjoyment of being able to sleep a bit later a few days a week has worn off, and the annoyance of itchiness and waking up with drool in my beard has increased. This year, I have wondered whether I should shave off my beard when Lag Baomer arrives.

It is not that I think a beard has any inherent religious meaning. I also don’t think it changes who I am as a Jew. Still, when I look in the mirror, I see a different person staring back at me. Part of this is the increase over the last few years, of white hairs in my beard. Each time I see myself in the mirror, I am reminded that I am getting older. While part of me wants to fight this sense of no longer being so young, I wonder if it’s not time to embrace, or at least accept it.

The excitement of seeing their normally clean shaven teacher with a beard has also worn off for my students. The sweet and funny comments which come from middle schoolers who are always ready to give style advice to their teachers are no longer made, as the novelty has worn off. I find myself wondering whether they see me as more rabbinic when I have a beard, and if so, whether that is a good thing. I am unsure whether being a rabbi helps or hinders me in my attempt to teach them about Judaism, and I am often convinced it’s the latter, as the title marks me as other, different even from the other adults they know.

What does it mean to look more rabbinic and why would I even want that? I already have a complicated relationship with the title “rabbi”. If I’m to be honest, I must admit that there are times when I enjoy being called rabbi, even as I feign humility and ask those who are not my students to call me by my first name. Other times, it legitimately feels like a burden, a title that I don’t always feel I deserve, one which doesn’t help with my Avodas HaShem.

There is, I believe, a reason why something as insignificant as whether to shave, matters to me right now. My relationship with Judaism, and I how I experience being religious, is not a linear one. I am not one of those people who long ago picked a “team” and knows where they fit in. Right now is one of those times where I feel like I’m in transition, where I don’t feel completely at home with myself, as what I learn and read, and how I experience God is in flux. So it’s not about the beard. It’s about identity, and a need right now, to see when I look in the mirror, some of what I’m experiencing inside.

Monday, April 3, 2017


I haven't written on my blog for a while. Just haven't had something I thought worth saying, or lacked the words I wished to say, but now an idea struggles to come out from within, and I wonder whether I should share it.

It's almost like in Dayeinu where you thank God for each individual step of the redemption, and I'm part way through. Part of me is so thankful, as I never could have imagined getting this far, and yet part of me wonders "Is that it?". Is there more to come in my development as a learner and a teacher of Torah? And if not, what do I do with this mix of thanks and frustration I feel?

When I talk about looking to teach in shuls and colleges and the like, I must admit it's less about trying to find a way of supplementing my income, although God knows I can use it. It's this sense that I want, no I need, to find a way of sharing this Torah that is welling up from within, and I know that there's an audience who might benefit from it.

As I think about this I wonder if I'm right, or whether I'm deluding myself, and whether it's hubris which makes me want more instead of looking at all the good and simply saying dayeinu, because there has still been more years where I wasn't on the learning and teaching Torah path, than years I was on it.
So I sit here at the nexus of overwhelming gratitude, and ambition and desire, where some dreams I hadn't even known i was dreaming have been reached, while others are so tantalizingly close, and yet feel like they might remain beyond my reach, and I wonder how to live at home in two places at once.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Discovering the Unknown- Experiencing simchas Purim

Purim is approaching and I’m in a panic. I know there’s something that I want to experience on that day, but I don’t know exactly what it is. As is my wont, I have been looking for the answer in books, but it hard to find something when you are not sure what it is that you are searching for.

I’m convinced that Purim has something very deep within it, that the comparisons between Purim and Yom Kippur have some essential message which can’t be expressed in a clever vort. I’m sure that there is some idea found in a sefer which is the key to the locked door which stands in my way. For nearly a month, I’ve been going through various sefarim searching for the conceptual understanding which will lead to a day of deep meaning.

Of course, it is possible that my way of searching is part of the problem. Perhaps I am using books as a way of not having to do the hard work myself, or maybe sefarim are a cheap substitute for that which I really seek. I read Rav Hutner’s words as I study his Pachad Yitzchak and I realize that what I really want is to be sitting at his Purim seudah, as his words are interspersed within singing, eating, and drinking. I read the words of the holy Piaseczna Rebbe as he looks deep within himself in the Warsaw Ghetto trying to give his fellow sufferers something to hold onto, and I wonder what it could have been like to have been his chassid before the war. In my mind’s eye, I picture Rav Kook sitting around a small table in his original yeshiva with his beloved disciples. I see their radiant smiles, but I cannot hear their words. Here and there, I’ve had enjoyable seudos with friends, but I know there’s something more that I want for myself and for my family.

In some ways, I’m a spiritual orphan. I don’t have memories of family Purim seudos with divrei Torah and joyous singing from which I can draw. There is no yeshiva which helped mold me, where I might have witnessed my rosh yeshiva or rebbe at their seudah, so that I might know what to do at mine. Instead, I look at words on a page and try to turn the two-dimensional letters into a three-dimensional image, but my mind fails me. I grasp ideas, concepts, divrei Torah begin to coalesce in my mind, but none of these are thing itself for which I am searching.

As I write these words, it begins to occur to me that my problem is that I seek an idea that I can grasp in my mind. Some concept, external to me which I can fully know and possess. Realizing this, I begin to grasp the idea of drinking to reach the state of Ad D’Lo Yada. The simcha of Purim is not outside of me in a book. Its secrets can’t be truly grasped by watching others, even when they are spiritual giants. Just as teshuva can be studied in books, but true teshuva can only be found by looking deep within, the spiritual treasures of Purim can only be discovered by letting go of finding something external, and discovering true simcha which already lies within ourselves.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Impermanent Things- Getting a hold of what matters

On rare occasions, there are songs which grab me the first time I hear them. Sometimes it’s the music. Other times, the lyrics grab my attention. On rare occasion, it’s both. Although it’s not a new song, Peter Himmelman’s song Impermanent Things had that effect on me when I first heard it a few weeks ago. As I’ve listened to it multiple times over the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that its message resonates so deeply with me.

All these impermanent things Oh how they fool me dominate and rule me...

Last week, my wife got me a new phone. My old one was not working well, as it had little memory left. While I had realized for a while that it was a time for an upgrade, I had held off on getting a replacement. It wasn’t that I didn’t want one. On the contrary, I very much wanted one, and thus knew I should hold off.

...Well their beauty's never aging but their worthlessness's enraging...

My father was one of the least materialistic people I’ve ever met. Other than buying a couple of new suits every couple of years, I rarely saw him buy anything for himself, other than books, and enough cigarettes to feed his habit. Like many things, I never asked him about his lack of need for things.

...Why keep hanging on to things that never stay things that just keep stringin' us along from day to day...

For me, it’s an acquired taste. Okay, that’s not really true. I have no taste for it. I still want things. It’s just that my tastes far exceed what’s in my wallet, so if I can’t beat it, might as well pretend it doesn’t exist.

...All these impermanent things Present yet elusive passive yet abusive Tearing out the heart in utter silence...

I’m in class, pontificating to a class, in one of the many cities I’ve lived. I’m sharing my theory that once you pay for a car which has everything you can reasonably need, paying for anything extra is wrong, even immoral. A student whose parents own a Mercedes, who in my self-righteousness I have failed to notice is feeling uncomfortable, raises her hand. I call on her and she asks “Do you apply the same standard to yourself when you buy things you can afford?”.

I’m silent.

...All these impermanent things Well they point in all directions like secondhand reflections...

My father was from the Bronx. Maybe that’s why he was as blue-collar as they get. When he bought his last car, they had to special order it. You see, nobody else was insisting that they wanted a car without electric windows. He could the windows on his own, thank you very much.

...All these impermanent things Well they're trying to convince me baptize my soul and rinse me...

As soon as I got the new phone, I knew it was holding me, rather than the reverse. It was shiny, and thin and new. Maybe even the latest model. And it was mine. All mine.

...Purge my mind of honesty and fire...

What else, and more importantly, who else, do I treat like things? Do I buy sefarim to draw closer to God, or the sefarim another possession I want to own? Maybe it’s God who I wish to possess, as if this is an area where I can have what others want. I can philosophize it and talk of Buber’s I-It, but that just pushes it off, as if it’s just an idea, and not something deeper. Something more concerning.

...All these impermanent things Well they all add up to zero they make-believe that they're my hero Then they fill my mind with doubt and false desires...

There’s another approach. One that doesn’t involve fighting what I might not be able to change. One that accepts it, somehow channeling it into good. With this path the doubt dissipates as I recognize that it’s not just others that I treat as an object. In letting go of the need to possess things, might I find myself?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Finding God in History- A Review of When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook

As I have noted in a previous review, Rav Kook, despite being somewhat well known, is the victim of all sorts of assumptions. This is particularly true in the English speaking world where he is primarily known for his Zionism (more on this later), and secondarily as a charismatic leader. While there are various reasons for why he is seen in this manner, I will just focus on a few.

Until fairly recently, not that many of Rav Kook’s writing were easily available to the English reader. Of those that were, most came from his more mystical and theoretical writings. My sense is that even those who study his writings in Hebrew, are less aware of his more practical writings. Fortunately, Rav Bezalel  Naor, who I am privileged to count among my teachers, has committed to not only spreading the teachings of Rav Kook, but in his latest work, a new edition of When God Becomes History- Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (first published in 2003), Rav Naor has committed to showing that Rav Kook had a more practical side, and that he spoke out and wrote about some of the pressing issues of the day, some of which continue to affect us today.

In addition to many of the features which make any work of Rav Naor worth reading in general, and in particular those on Rav Kook, including his erudition, scholarship, and fascinating endnotes which are often almost worthy of a book of their own, there were a number of things which stand out in this book. To begin, we see Rav Kook not just as theoretician, whose writings sometimes border on the prophetic, but we also see him addressing various situations, including the passing of Herzl, in the eulogy he delivered in his memory.

Another chapter offers us the speech which Rav Kook delivered at the ceremony marking the opening of the Hebrew University in Yerushalayim. What makes these last two examples particularly fascinating is that Rav Naor writes of the controversy that each of these speeches engendered among Rav Kook’s friends, talmidim and opponents. Several letters are brought where we see Rav Kook clarifying his remarks to those who intentionally or accidentally misunderstood him.

Perhaps the most fascinating part for me (although there is this amazing idea in the endnotes from the Pachad Yitzchak , whose author Rav Hutner appears in the book…), is the introduction to the eulogy for Herzl, where Rav Naor shows that the common understanding of Rav Kook as a dyed-in-the-wool Zionist, with no misgivings about the Zionist venture to be mistaken. Rav Naor conclusively demonstrates that Rav Kook had strong misgivings about Zionism, particularly early on in his stay in Israel, and that he took the positions he did about Zionism due to careful considerations, despite his concerns, and it is here that I come to what makes this book one that only Rav Naor could have written.

I have studied a decent amount of Rav Kook’s Torah, and read many articles and essays about him. While there are many scholars in the Hebrew and English speaking worlds who can do research and share interesting ideas about Rav Kook, Rav Naor is sui generis in having expertise in so many of the areas which made Rav Kook who he was. When he writes or speaks of Rav Kook, one almost gets the sense that they are hearing from someone who studied with Rav Kook firsthand, even as they know that to be impossible. His grasp of nigleh and nistar, as well his serious scholarship makes him unique in those who can teach us about Rav Kook.

This fascinating volume will benefit the expert and the laymen, those who have studied much of Rav Kook’s Torah and those who have not, and especially those who think they’ve heard all that has to be said about this fascinating polymath. It can also serve as an excellent introduction into the ideas for Rav Kook for those who might have assumed that his Torah and ideas are inaccessible to them. Once again, Alec Goldstein of Kodesh Press is to be commended for making a quality work of Torah scholarship available to the English-speaking world.

The book launch for this book will take place next Thursday, February 9th, at the YU Seforim sale. Rav Naor will speak at this event, which is free. For more information, please click here.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Fun, Family, or Faith?- What is Modern Orthodoxy really about?

"He is searching not for a faith in all its singularity and otherness, but for religious culture."

Rav Yosef Soloveichik in the Lonely Man of Faith

Rav Soloveichik once said that rabbis and teachers had managed to give Shabbos over to their congregants and students, but had not succeeded in giving over Erev Shabbos. They had managed to give over the rules of Shabbos, but were unable to convey its spirit and purpose. In thinking of the Modern Orthodoxy of today, I would paraphrase these words and say that we have been succeeded in conveying the religion of Adam I to the next generation, but have failed in giving over the faith of Adam II.

An essay was recently written which suggested that intermarriage is starting to spread to the MO world. While I think the claim of the writer is mistaken, and certainly disagree with the possibility that the intermarriage rate in our community is 10%, I do not disagree that we are increasingly facing the failure of our community to produce a next generation who are meaningfully engaged with Judaism as a religion.

In Lonely Man of Faith, Rav Soloveichik famously speaks of Adam I and Adam II. In discussing the approach of the former towards religion, the Rav speaks of a person who is interested in what religion offers him. He likes the community aspect, and the connection to tradition and customs. He might heartily agree that “the family that prays together, stays together”. Adam II on the other hand sees Judaism not just for what it adds to his life, but also as something which connects him to Ratzon HaShem. Instead of asking what he gets from being religious, he looks at what is asked of him. He is searching for a faith. It is my strong contention that Modern Orthodoxy of today is largely a community of Adam I, and only rarely a community of Adam II.

If Judaism is nothing more than a system which is supposed to produce happiness and meaning, than how can we be surprised when our children decide that what made us happy is not what leads to their happiness? Why shouldn’t they move towards a more egalitarian approach to religion, or even more towards taking from religion only that which works? If we move entirely away from the language of commandedness, to one of choice, why should we be surprised when our children, in fact, choose?

We’ve somehow arrived at a largely bifurcated educational system where we either emphasize text learning or a more fun approach that is more about finding meaning. What both of these approaches lack is the thick religious experience which is more commonly found in the charedi world. We, and by we, I mean our homes, shuls, communities, and schools are not giving over a religious experience which reaches our kids in their kishkes. We’ve got minyan three times a day, daf yomi, kosher sushi, and sleepaway camps, but do we have a relationship with God. We are frum, but are we religious?

If I’m honest, I’m not sure if we as a community really want more than what we have right now, but if we do, it is going to take more than changing school curricula. Even if our schools, and Israel yeshivot and seminaries can light the spark in our children, in which community are our children supposed to land? With all the hand wringing that exists over kids “moving to the right” (a phrase that needs to be unpacked), why would we expect our children who have discovered the deep meaning of Judaism to stay in our community if we are unable, or even worse, uninterested in producing a community that is more connected to God? If our daughter has discovered the joy and meaning of davening, why should she attend a shul where talking during davening is the norm. If our son loves singing slow plaintive zemiros, will he enjoy a Shabbos meal where the talk mainly revolves around politics and pop-culture?

If we are unable to give over Shabbos and Erev Shabbos, our kids will either look for a community that does, or walk away from a neutered version of Shabbos which offers a nice family meal and some time away from technology, but little more. Those benefits can be found outside of our community, and yes, outside of our religion. If our kids are to stay, we need to offer them something deep and real. If we don’t, can’t, or won’t, we can’t complain if they take our decision seriously, and make their life choices accordingly.