The New Jewish Philosophy of Rav Shagar

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Miriam Feldmann Kaye

It is encouraging to read new opinion pieces on the significance and challenges of Rav Shagar’s thought, in light of the new publication of his essays in English. In continuing this conversation, I will reframe postmodernism, address two main issues at the root of these discussions, and put forward three avenues for pursuing further conversations.

Rav Shagar

Rav Shagar’s popularity does not simply stem from the new generation ‘exiting’ the religious fold. That phenomenon has been present since Emancipation, and is but one response to secularism and to challenges posed by the majority (often Christian) culture and the challenges of living as a minority in all realms of daily existence.

The more novel and pertinent explanation of Rav Shagar’s popularity is that, in today’s postmodern world, we increasingly find that the values of our communities are undermined by surrounding multiple truths. We have far more knowledge than we ever did of cultures and values foreign to ourselves.

In response, Rav Shagar was one of the few Jewish thinkers to welcome and ride the tide of postmodernism, attempting to incorporate the postmodern critique with traditional values. Postmodernism does not necessarily deconstruct every element of religion left intact; it does have something positive to offer.

While Rav Shagar did not manage to complete this project in his lifetime that was cut all too short, the seeds of a postmodern Jewish theology have been planted. This work is not just a Religious Zionist phenomenon; it represents broader attempts in Western civilization of coping with the postmodern critique, which exist across the spectrum: it influences the humanities, social sciences, law, art, architecture, and beyond. In building upon those who have recently written on this topic, I would like to clarify what exactly the postmodern critique entails for us.


The postmodern position can be summarized as follows: ‘Logical’ or ‘rational’ modes of dialogue hold no superior qualities to other interpretative motifs but rather are pretentious ‘meta-narratives’ only applicable to some people and in particular contexts. The supposed objectivity of one of these systems represents but a drop in the ocean of a multitude of discourses and narratives formed by human consensus.

The meta-narratives present dominating ideologies formed and sustained in order to hold power over others’ truth-claims, and therefore no singular theory can be entertained as absolutely and objectively ‘true.’ On these grounds, ideas associated with metaphysical certainty and the empirical are negated in favor of the particular, myriad ‘voices’ that make up our reality.

The remainder of this article focuses on two ideas which are often mistakenly emphasised as predominantly problematic in typical rejections of Rav Shagar’s philosophy: first, that an inability to prove the efficacy of our religious values over those of others is problematic; and, second, that the crumbling of ‘objective truth’ spells the end for a committed Jewish life. I shall then briefly set forward what I believe to be the challenges of Rav Shagar’s philosophy with which we are faced.

Postmodern Disenchantment and Rav Shagar on Multiple Values

I agree with many others that the notion of truth as narrative and consequent relativism presents untold challenges to traditional religion. The ‘special’ nature of a singular religious community is perceived to be threatened by the exposure to multiple cultures other than our own. With globalization and cheap international flights, the values of other cultures are brought to our doorsteps.

Critically, Facebook and Twitter perpetuate the notion of virtual social communities and, indeed, reality without borders. While some maintain that cyberspace means that we bypass reality, we in fact engage in a different type of reality which governs our lives with both benefits and dangers.

We benefit from the capacity to learn about different ways of life, including through the Diaspora-Israel relationship, but other ‘conversations’ might challenge our preconceptions and deeply-held precious worldviews, forcing us to open our minds, for better or for worse.

However, we do not continually occupy one particular position that is locked in competition with the others: this is not an economic market with theological monopolies, nor is it a zero-sum game. Rav Shagar took the view that deep identity is actually logically unjustifiable; we did not necessarily choose our conceptual backgrounds; they are simply ours; they are our “home”: “The religious individual is not obligated to believe that their home is the best … it is simply their home. And this sensation is the basis for the deepest type of faith.” (Be-Torato Yehege, 184)

In fact, our very identities are complex; they constantly vary and take different forms. We hold multiple views and behaviors, different in the Beit Midrash, the family, and the boardroom. This could be especially so for Modern Orthodox Jews constantly juggling the cognitive dissonance (for some) or successful amalgamation of worldviews (for others).

Indeed, our realities are actually multi-faceted: “Postmodernism, which allows for a multitude of languages and perspectives, will also enable us, accordingly, to live in two worldson the one hand the scientific causative world, and on the other hand the world of meaning, which is the world of faith and providence” (Luhot ve-Shivrei Luhot, 421).

This framework extends beyond the polarity of ‘religion’ and ‘science’. We have numerous modes of actions and belief meant for different situations. Indeed, we are not Jewish educators or communal pastors only when we speak to others about values; we are more rational beings when we think; we use scientific mindsets to speak of science; we become religious beings when we pray. We switch between realities: we may be parents, customers, or drivers at different points in time. And we undeniably function differently in different contexts according to various rules we have learned or rejected along the way. Critically, this does not necessarily mean that rationalist discourse is defunct: rather, it means that it is one school of thought amongst others, appropriate and important in particular situations.

Each circumstance has its norms. One example of living conceptually in this supermarket, brought by Rav Shagar, is his comparison of the peacefulness of Shabbat to the Hindu state of samadhi as two particular and different instances of “spiritual re-centering, unification, serenity” (Luhot ve-Shivrei Luhot, 123). This is one striking example of his recognition of the particular nature of each community, rather than as competing for the same ‘reality.’

It is worth entertaining the prospect that multiple realities do not necessarily lead to an insurmountable clash. Moreover, this conception might neither be entirely new nor necessarily problematic. However, one of its permutationsthat of relativism- must be examined in terms of its scope and meaning, and should be reconfigured for us. This is part of Rav Shagar’s project, a task, as Rabbi Carmy encourages in the volume’s Afterword, which is upon us to continue.


The second line of thought traceable in the recent articles is the concept of ‘objective truth,’ or lack thereof in Rav Shagar’s thought. I would like to take to task the idea that objective Truth underlies Jewish belief, as Rabbi Eis would have it.

Where did the notion of objective truth come from and why do we think Jewish belief is dependent on it? I propose that the marriage of objective absolutism and Jewish belief was a category error, one which we are only now beginning to unravel. Not only did this approach create a false impression that an objective sphere exists, but we were led to believe that absolute objectivity underpinned religion.

The Greek philosophers distinguished between body and soul, metaphysics and physics. Centuries ago, we know, Philo had already begun the process of attempting to square revelation with Greek philosophy. It can be argued that the notion of objective truth proliferated from Greek philosophy. We must also remember that Jewish civilization began centuries before Socratic discourse. Thus, it was not an innately Jewish term, although Jewish thought has always integrated surrounding philosophies into its theological corpus, and today’s philosophy and socio-cultural critique is no exception.

This does not mean that objectivity and rationalism are not important: the ‘Golden Age’ of Spain saw some of our greatest philosophers develop reasoned and rationalist theology against an Aristotelian backdrop and in dialogue with Christians and Muslims, not to mention in more ambivalent engagements such as the Ramban’s “Disputations” and Yehuda ha-Levi’s Kuzari.

The idea of objectivity was maintained by Western philosophy throughout the centuries, later updated by Descartes with his probing into distinctions between mind and matter. Kant then scrutinized discrepancies between the Phenomenal and the Noumenal, rendering the metaphysical, objective sphere inaccessible to Existentialists and neo-Kantians.

Moving towards the pre-modern age, even under conditions of pogroms and persecution, ‘reason’ came to join those categories. With the modern rise of philosophy of language, Wittgenstein had referred to objective truth as a ‘trick’ which has accompanied our thinking since philosophy was first documented. At a juncture of converging post-Existentialism, post-Colonialism, and postmodernism, many are aware that the very distinction of subjective/objective altogether is to be dismantled.

This historical backdrop is necessary for understanding how, upon entering the modern era, and in the aftermath of world war and genocide, objective certitude was called into question. Within religion, the place of objectivity was also challenged, precisely because it was believed to have been part and parcel of religion in the first place.

On this, at the least, I agree with Reb Dvorkin that what remains of religion must be based on belief rather than knowledge. But how new is this phenomenon? Just think of the Thirteen Ikkarim (required beliefs) of Maimonides and the mystical, anti-rationalist development of Hasidism centuries ago.

This is not to negate the role that objectivity and rationalist discourse has played and still plays for many of us situated at the transitional generation between modernism and postmodernism. Nevertheless, for the younger postmodern individual, which Rav Shagar termed the “TzaDaP” (Tzioni-Dati-Postmoderni –the Religious-Zionist Postmodern), it would be worth considering that this mode of dialogue does not and will not hold water.

In Jewish thought, even within our transitional period, there is room to posit a singular God and a plurality of humankind simultaneously. My teacher Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, apprehended, in my understanding, a shift from particularism, an idiosyncratic Jewish position, to universalism, which was not necessarily meant for us, even though its role has played out significantly over the centuries.

While discussions of the universal and particular in Judaism do not neatly align with that of the objective/subjective analysis, it is worth pointing out that this needs careful examination. Indeed, Rav Sacks has expressed the need to ‘exorcise Plato’s Ghost’ (Dignity of Difference, ch. 3). Plato’s universalization of truth through the ‘Forms’ of Beauty, Justice, etc., was not designed to underpin religion, but rather science.

Similarly, evaluating and renewing the concept of universalism was imperative for Rav Shagar. He contrasted the ’Internal’ world of meaning with the ‘External’ experience than purporting to prove universal absolute values (She’erit ha-Emunah, 174).  

Furthermore, Rav Shagar doubted the blanket term ‘Western universalism’ because it was dependent on particularism (Luhot ve-Shivrei Luhot, 129), which is far more fitting for Judaism: “Universalism is a non-concrete simplificationit ‘makes us all identical at a time where variance and difference do exist … we now find [in postmodernism] a different call to universalism which is actually based on accepting the differences of others, with the view that people are incomparableeach one has their place in the world.” (She’erit ha-Emunah, 78)


We arrive at an age where the concept of Intersubjectivity is both more relevant, following the perceived breakdown of objective/subjective altogether, and more descriptive of the conceptual world in which many now speak and operate.

This is a position that I understand Rav Shagar to have often taken. Indeed, he engaged in a surprisingly creative disrobing of objective truth. He highlighted non-essentialist elements in Socrates’ school of thought as being “not as Greek as it once was” (She’erit ha-Emunah, 104; Le-ha’ir et ha-Petahim, 192-195).

I am loathe to think of rejecting objective truth as a curse; if we are open to following Rav Shagar, it is precisely the opposite. Indeed, we may live in nostalgia but not in regret. For Rav Shagar, undoing objectivity is a ‘shevirah, a destruction; while initially perceived as disastrous, it allows us to reconceive all sorts of terms afresh, including relativism, and the chance to create “renewed creations of reality” of Rav Shagar (Kelim Shevurim, 25). It holds a “hidden blessing for the religious community” (Be-Torato Yehege, 181).

Thinking Ahead

The takeaway for us here is crucial: we are not at a loss now that objective truth has been confounded, but stand to gain. We were at a loss when, in the previous century, science thwarted the very efficacy and need for religion as a whole. People could not cope with the polarities of religion and science, and, from an educational perspective, Rabbi Perl wrote emotively, that perhaps the price we pay for such an ‘amalgamation’ is ‘too high.’

This synthesis may become decreasingly necessary. I am aware of so many examples of those in my own generation for whom it didn’t work, for whom the cognitive bridging of distinct worlds of self-determination and Halakhah, or science and faith, intellectualism and spirituality, feminism and Modern Orthodoxy, become too mentally and societally exhausting, and who left. Could postmodernism be worse for us than any of these other syntheses?

Reservations and Moving Forward

With everything said to this point mitigating the extent of these challenges, I do have three apprehensions regarding the implications of Rav Shagar’s thought for us, in areas of theology, education, and mysticism.

The Shagarian shift in thinking carries far-reaching implications in the domain of Jewish theology. While many have professed that Judaism is primarily dependent on action, I believe that if we do not sustain theology, our action will lose its backbone. I doubt it would be enough for Rabbi Eis for his students only to ‘be’ observant. He might envision, in a manner similar to Rabbi Rothstein, a theology requiring ‘reach’ and ‘appeal’ that ‘resonates’ with the challenges to identity today. If we only speak of belief, what will happen to our being able to verify principles of faith? If uncertainty plagues us, what of education?

I am moved by Perl’s concern as an educator. Even though I have now begun teaching in a Jewish educational role at the University, this position is only the tip of the pedagogic iceberg. I feel the pull just as seriously, and as perilously, as a parent, becoming ever-aware of the intricate discourses involved in situating right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and how to accept an idea, or a person, if you disagree with their principles or way of life.

Finally, for now, the subject of mysticism and Hasidism. Rav Shagar’s theological dependence on mysticism, on the one hand, marks a shift away from more rational discussions on religion, which will put some people off; on the other hand, it reflects the growing popularity of ‘spirituality’ and its focus on the ‘soul.’

However, can mysticism be non-elitist without resorting to pop-spirituality and celebrity Kabbalah? Can Rebbe Nahman followers with no Hasidic backgrounds themselves avoid the stigmas of the happy-clappy dancers of Jerusalem streets distributing glorified self-help literature? Can neo-Hasidut present a viable way forward when the new and growing movement is associated largely with hippies and hilltop youth?

This question is potent and is now being explored in a new way, marking unchartered territory, due to greater accessibility to other cultures and notably to the ‘East’, which also interested Rav Shagar. It is possible that offering mysticism as a viable alternative ontological model upon which practice might rest holds some promise.

The path, however, remains unclear. Where does this leave us? We are living in an exciting era. Only time will tell.

Miriam Feldmann Kaye, a graduate of Cambridge University, lectures at the Hebrew University in Jewish thought. Her book featuring Rav Shagar and Prof. Tamar Ross, Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age, is forthcoming with the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.