Between Orthodox Judaism and Nihilism

Reflections on the recently published writings of the late Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg.

"Zot Briti" (This Is My Covenant: Conversion, Secularization, Civil Marriage ) by Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar ), edited by Amnon S. Dukov, Zohar Maor, Moshe S. Faloch, The Institute for the Advancement of Rabbi Shagar's Writings, 258 pages (in Hebrew )

Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (known by the acronym formed by his name, Rabbi Shagar ), who during his lifetime was a reserved introvert, and was familiar only to a small group of students, has strangely been subject to considerable publicity in the Israeli media since his death in 2007. One could almost get the impression that he was the champion of a new post-modern Hasidism. As with every media exaggeration, there is a kernel of truth even in that vague characterization, although it is not correct.

If anything can be said clearly about Rabbi Shagar, it is that nothing about him was clear. The fact that the man was a strict adherent to halakha (religious law ) during his lifetime, although deep in his heart there was also something nihilistic about him, is somewhat strange. But perhaps the answer lies precisely in this strangeness: Perhaps the fact that he practiced an almost-Haredi Orthodoxy was his way of preserving the balance in the Nietzschean chaos within which he lived - a chaos that created in him the empty space of the "existential absurdity" about which he often spoke.

I became familiar with Rabbi Shagar in my youth during a number of personal conversations. Although I was not one of his students and didn't know him well, he made a tremendous impression on me, because he was the only rabbi I knew who refused to don the mask of the rabbi. He claimed that the biggest problem in his life was that he had to function in society as a "rabbi." Shagar was undoubtedly someone who spoke authentic truth. Anyone who heard him felt that his words came from the heart.

For that reason I have some reservations about the previously unpublished writings now being disseminated by his disciples, since by their nature they are incapable of conveying the authenticity of the living man. That this collection of writings was edited after Shagar's death is evident not only in the clear formulations and in the excellent editing of the book - qualities that don't really suit Shagar's wild nature (his original writing was brief and enigmatic ). The editing makes him accessible to everyone, even to an audience that is not familiar with the Talmud and with Jewish law. It's a kind of popular edition, although this is not meant as a criticism, but rather is a positive fact of import to potential readers.

Halakha vs. civil law

For those involved in promoting the creation of a legal foundation for an Israeli constitution, this book is of unparalleled importance. It presents three discussions, all of them dealing with questions about the encounter between halakha and civil law. Chapter 1 deals with the question of conversion - i.e., the classic issue of "Who is a Jew." As usual, Rabbi Shagar ties the halakhic questions to more basic discourse, and in his treatment, the question assumes a profound dimension that we don't find in the discussions of the poskim, the arbiters of halakha, in the following form: Who is included in the intimate Jewish covenant?

The second chapter deals with the issue of tinok shenishba, the so-called "kidnapped infant," a Talmudical term that refers to a Jewish individual who sins inadvertently as a consequence of having been raised without an appreciation for the thought and practice of Judaism. In other words, Shagar tries to clarify the attitude of the religious person toward his secular neighbor in the present-day State of Israel. The third chapter deals with the status of civil marriage from a halakhic viewpoint.

Shagar begins the second chapter of his book with the words of Maimonides in the third chapter of "Hilkhot Mamrim" ("The Laws of the Rebels" ): "A person who does not acknowledge validity of the Oral Law ... should be put to death by any person" (in other words, anyone who can kill such a person is obligated to do so, and by doing so is even performing a mitzvah, and there is no need to bring this heretic to trial before a court ). Later Maimonides says: "Since it has become known that such a person denies the Oral Law, he may be pushed into a pit and may not be helped out. He is like all the rest of the heretics and the apostates ... (of whom it is said that ) whoever kills them performs a great mitzvah and removes an obstacle from the people at large."

For a contemporary religious person, the meaning of Maimonides' scandalous halakhic viewpoint is very simple: Ostensibly, according to him, every religious person must kill his secular neighbor. That is, of course, if he knows for certain that this neighbor publicly declares that he does not believe in the Oral Law (even if he believes in the sanctity of the Hebrew Bible! ). Maimonides even makes an effort to give practical advice as to how the heretic can be killed indirectly. And this is what he writes in "Hilkhot Rotzeah" ("Laws of Murderers"; chapter 4:10 ): "If one can kill them in public by the sword, he does so. If not, he seeks pretexts to cause their death. What is implied? If one sees such a person descend to a cistern, and there is a ladder in the cistern, one should take the ladder, and excuse oneself, saying: 'I must hurry to take my son down from the roof. I shall return the ladder to you soon' (and of course he doesn't return, and meanwhile the heretic will drown )."

What does Rabbi Shagar do with these embarrassing words? First, like a clever defense attorney, he uses them to defend Maimonides. He claims that the Rambam's words prove that historians who are unfamiliar with Maimonides as an halakhic zealot, and like to present him as a kind of professor of philosophy and an enlightened humanist, don't understand him. Shagar emphasizes that during his lifetime the Rambam was motivated by one great love: love of God. It took precedence over any ethical consideration, rational logic or Aristotelian philosophy, and caused his zealousness.

But the immediate test of the Rambam's ability to apply this halakha to real life, and that demonstrateds, according to Shagar, that Maimonides knew very well how to balance zealous love with the needs of life, is his attitude toward the Karaites who, as we know, reject the truth of the Oral Law. Here, claims Shagar, Maimonides found a solution to the problem by introducing into the discussion a balancing element: a renewed use of the concept of the "kidnapped infant," which appears in the Talmud, but with a different meaning. Maimonides claims that in his generation the obligation to kill your heretic neighbor does not actually apply to the Karaites, because they are the product of a defective education given them by their forefathers, and hence are themselves "kidnapped infants" who do not deserve to die.

But what are we to do if our secular neighbor is a former ultra-Orthodox Jew, who left his community on his own and became secular? It's hard to do justice to Shagar's complex discussion with the halakhic and philosophical problem aroused by this scenario, so I will focus only on his conclusion. In the final analysis, claims Shagar, this halakha is not concerned with the punishment that the secular person deserves for his heresy, but rather with protecting the greater community of believers. The threat of death is an effective means designed to prevent the weak members of the community from leaving.

Shagar is well aware that his words are an open admission that the Jewish community as a community of believers is no more than a shallow collection of individuals. The community is composed of a group of fakers, imitators and cowards, who declare their faith only for fear that they will be killed. Shagar says that outright, probably due to his general pessimism about the opportunistic way in which human beings adopt beliefs.

In any case, the solution adopted by him to the problem of coexistence with the secular community - in the wake of the complex play between the Rambam's zealousness and his loving-kindness - is to separate the community of believers from the secular public space. Shagar sees the return to separate neighborhoods as the solution to the problem. Only in that way can the secular Jew receive the respect he deserves as a human being from the religious believer, since as a "stranger" he has ceased to be a threat. Shagar thinks that the more the religious Jew perceives the secular Jew as an "other," as a kind of "goy" who lives in the neighborhood - the more the religious person can respect him.

In this complex manner he gives a new meaning to the concept of "kidnapped infant," one that he believes suits present-day Israel: The further religious Jews are from secular culture, the more they will be able to grant secular Jews the desired definition of "kidnapped infant," and treat them with the respect that derives from this distance.

Brainwashed and faceless

In the final analysis, with all my admiration for Rabbi Shagar's unique personality, I must confess that after reading his words I am left with simple questions to which I found no answer in this complex discussion. I find it hard to understand how Shagar assumes, on the one hand, that the observant community is composed of faceless and obedient people, who are brainwashed with a doctrine that they don't really believe in, while on the other hand, he doesn't question the violence advocated by Maimonides in order to protect this community from heretics.

Something here is not clear: If there is no genuine religious content in the hearts of those riding in the wagon, the wagon should be empty! What exactly are the religious Jews protecting if they themselves are in need of scare tactics in order to "believe" in their Judaism? And in general, isn't Shagar aware that those same means were used in the past and are being used today by the darkest of inquisitions: to keep communities of "believers" inside the "proper frameworks"?

One of the things that has always amazed me personally about the various religious doctrines I have known is the immediate tendency of the convinced believer to peer inquisitively into "his neighbor's plate" - without allowing the neighbor to make his own accounting before the Almighty. Incidentally, Rabbi Shagar tells the reader about this tendency in himself, with impressive candor (when he describes his inability to tolerate a situation in which one of his children won't observe Shabbat properly in his home ).

To clarify all this further, I would like to reverse things for a moment and present them in a mirror image: What would Shagar say were the secular schools to teach children about a new law passed in the Knesset, which orders them to kill their religiously observant neighbors, who are in error and are misleading others - although practically speaking, it would be understood that mercy takes precedence in Israeli courts, and the secular majority would adopt "ways of peace" toward the religious community, because they are a type of "kidnapped infants" of their primitive and benighted religion?

Furthermore, I don't completely understand Shagar's statement that the motive for Maimonides' call to murder is love of God. What kind of God did Maimonides imagine that led him to call for the murder of heretics in that god's name? According to Shagar, what concerns Maimonides is that these heretics will cause the community to fall apart. But I don't understand that claim either. Does Maimonides assume for some reason that the Almighty is bothered by the question of the existence of a tiny group, which seems to be suffering from megalomania with its constant claim that it is the only nation He loves?

In the final analysis, don't we have here insane megalomania, characterized by strange imaginings about God's special love for this nation and the love returned to him by his people - false and childish imaginings that have no basis in reality? How are these imaginings different from those of pagans who pictured the gods of wood and stone showering them with the gifts of their love?

As I understand it, genuine love of God (which is not an imaginary fantasy ) and devotion to religion - including the great value that I find in a zealous desire to do God's bidding - cannot lead anyone to call for the killing of anyone who doesn't think like him.

Love of God, as Martin Buber explained so beautifully, actually has no real meaning if it doesn't include love of man, and I mean any human being. For me, a zealous desire to do God's bidding means only genuine adherence and unconditional dedication to the work of internal purification of my innate tendency toward egocentrism (in other words, purification of my own "secular" nature, rather than a forced "cleansing" of my "secular" neighbor ). Because only when we open up to the other are we dealing with the real religious situation, as Emmanuel Levinas taught us.

Levinas also emphasized in the name of his teacher, "Mr. Chouchani," that the term "Israel" does not refer to someone who lives in a religious neighborhood surrounded by the walls of religion, and from there views the secular Jew (not to mention the Palestinian or migrant worker ) as an "other," but to someone who lives a life of dialogue with the other - a life of accepting responsibility - especially regarding the fate of that "stranger," to whom he opens his door, his ears and his heart.

Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau