Rabbi Shagar Spins Robots, Time Machines and Spirituality Into a Daring Book

In his book 'The Remainder of Faith,' Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg uses postmodern fantasy literature to engage the subject of freedom, to which members of this generation are unconsciously drawn.

Hugh Gordon

“She’erit ha’emunah: Drashot postmoderniot lemo’adei Yisrael” (The Remainder of Faith: Postmodern Sermons on Jewish Holidays), by Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Resling Publishing (Hebrew), 227 pages, 72 shekels

Several scholars of the writings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav have noted that both his academic treatises and the stories he would tell his followers always focused, in the final analysis, on himself, his struggles and his internal condition – which included climbs to the highest heights and descents to the lowest lows – along with artistic accomplishments and spiritual qualifications with which few people have been endowed.

Why do I mention this at the start of this review of the new book by Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (more familiarly known as “Shagar”), “The Remainder of Faith”? I was reminded of it now, as I read the essays anthologized in this book, for two reasons: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav as postmodern hero plays a starring role in this book, as he did in Shagar’s own life.

And there is another reason: because Shagar (1949-2007) leaves me, the reader, with a similar impression – that even when he is discussing postmodern theories, he is not engaged in them for their own sake, but is describing through them his own spiritual and psychological condition, and the problems that his spiritual world has been compelled to address.

The subtitle of the book is a strange hybrid: “Postmodern Sermons for Jewish Holidays.” It is a phrase that will most certainly come across as strange – if not outright wacky – to the average visitor to shops that specialize in religious books, which generally abound with totally different sorts of sermons for holiday periods. Even to me, having personally known Rav Shagar to some degree, the subtitle is somewhat surprising. I did not know whatsoever about his interest in the very extreme focuses of interest of the current generation.

From the outset, Shagar takes up the core elements of postmodern fantasy literature – robots, supercomputers, time machines, and such – in order later on to shift from this unexpected theme into a completely different discussion about freedom – for which, in his opinion, members of this generation are unconsciously searching. It is a search for an “escape route,” as he sees it, that would provide them an exit from the realistic-scientific world into something “mystical” – something that he eventually associates with the ability to be released at the stairway to prophecy, a place that he himself yearned for in his lifetime.

What I found surprising was that Shagar was so interested in this strange “mystery” that now permeates every nook and cranny of the global world’s cultural life – from “Lord of the Rings” to “Star Wars.” The meandering processes that he presents to the reader in the book recur – from the stray margins of mass culture or from contemporary theories, to that very point that burned deep in his heart all through his life: how to truly reach and get closer to God.

In this anthology of sermons, Shagar regularly initiates his discourse from some distant point (such as the distinction between revelation and devotion as found in Alain Badiou) – and then, following an arduous spiritual trek of one sort or another, recurrently finds himself standing before the gates of the same “Castle.”

To make this more understandable to the reader, I will slightly expand on one example of this: For purposes of the discussion in Chapter 3, regarding matters related to the sukkah and the concepts “the sukkah of faith” and “the shade of faith” – Shagar refers to the “purloined letter.” For those not familiar with the lengthy history of this “letter,” it begins with Marie Bonaparte in her interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “purloined letter” – a discussion that Lacan revived when he made the odd statement, “a letter always arrives at its destination,” a statement for which Derrida famously attacked him.

What does all this have to do with the festival of Sukkot? Shagar offers a surprising answer, as he links the “shade of faith” to the following things: “The answer is that the letter will reach its destination not because the destination is predetermined, such as in the traditional-teleological approach of Providence, but because the place at which the letter will arrive will always be its destination [In other words,] the individual is not the addressee prior to the letter being sent; he becomes the addressee the moment that the letter is sent to him – the moment when the individual encountered the event (the letter) that occurred.”

‘The great Other’

It is difficult to explain in this framework the extent to which things can be meaningful to he who is seeking a spiritual path (and in this case, it matters not if he seeks it in a Jewish framework, in a different religion, or even if the framework is not part of any formal religion). Shagar utilizes Lacan’s peculiar declaration to reach the conclusion that the traditional path, a perception that assumes that there is a sort of preordained “plan” devised by the supernatural being, who for his own unknown reasons imposes his edicts on us wretched human creatures from above in accordance with what is “written there” – while we, the believers in him, assume that his wondrous plans (as we understand them) are always somehow “correct”– is inherently mistaken.

On this point, Shagar in fact identifies with the intuitive sense of the atheist, who would argue that human life on earth is totally arbitrary in its nature – and if there is some “big boss” up there, then he is evidently totally wacko. Here, of all places – with this authentic feeling (which basically parallels the voice of the wife of the biblical character Job, when she says to him: “Blaspheme God, and die,” Job 2:9), Shagar makes his supreme-religious move, and argues that man truly finds God only in retrospect, after the letter has arrived – even if it arrived in a totally arbitrary manner – whereupon he can turn himself into the letter’s true destination.

In other words, it would be neither honest nor correct (coincident to our intuitive sense, of course) to say that God “sent” the “letter” (as Job contends) – since that would constitute an unacceptable confabulation. But one could certainly say that once the “letter” has already reached us (its destination) – we can (and this, Shagar believes, is the true springboard of faith) transform the letter into a prism through which we can observe the concealed God!

I feel that this typical Shagar-esque example well exemplifies the rest of the surprising progressions that the reader will find in this book in nearly every one of the conversations offered in it – notwithstanding the classy title (“Sermons”) conferred upon them. They are aimed more at the general audience than the “religious” one – which will consider them, one imagines, to be chapters of a subversive book that furtively toes the threshold of heresy.

Nevertheless, for the sake of fairness, I must say that the unusual daring of this book is by its nature limited, and that the subversive ideas expressed in it are not all that subversive, but are in fact quite moderate.

I will now explain this assertion: What really differentiates between Shagar the man, who seemingly allows himself to extend his thoughts and ruminations until they hover at the edge of the “field of faith” – and future readers of this book? The answer is that as far as Shagar is concerned, there truly is a “great Other” whom he fears (those who knew Shagar knew full well that he had a good traditional “fear of Heaven” and religious piety; readers of the book will thoroughly sense this). Yet Shagar writes this at a time when, in the minds of most of his readers, this fear of Heaven no longer exists.

In the book, Shagar can quote Lacan and interpret him as he sees fit – but the real encounter between these two persons is impossible; this is because Shagar could never have felt the subtle shadings of the different mental place occupied by Lacan (the man) when he stood up and declared that “the great Other is dead.” Lacan, as someone who moved from the Catholicism of his childhood to the other side, well understood that from now on, any attempt to breathe life into “the great Other” would be artificial, and doomed to failure. The experience of release that had occurred in the life of an individual who had thrown off the yoke – even if only once – disqualified him from ever again being able to refashion the Other, great or not, in different “clothing.”

As such, I would say that, in my opinion, for those readers seeking spiritual enlightenment, but for whom “the great Other” has already died, their interest in Shagar as a thinker who might offer them shelter in his “sermons” under the protective wings of “the great Other” may not provide what they are seeking, and instead constitute a somewhat irrelevant and esoteric field of interest. They will not be able to penetrate the hard shell of a thinker who inhabits a world of halakhic (Jewish legal) prohibitions and permissions, and the sharp and clear boundaries of red lines that cannot be crossed. It may be possible to scale this high wall by means of the insightful words with which this book abounds – but intrinsic emotional experience and knowledge (which Lacan defines as the “Real”) makes it difficult, if not impossible, to scale that wall.

The various articles contained in this book were prepared for publication by a group of Shagar’s students, beginning with Yishay Mevorach and Eitan Abramowitz. The Resling publishing house has given the book its proper due – but with that, it is a shame that there is no index, which I feel is an absolute must for books of this sort.