Todd Berman

A Humble Request to the Critics of Postmodernist Orthodoxy

Recently on a few blogs and webzines, the writings of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, of blessed memory, have been subject to heated debate. Although Rabbi Rosenberg, affectionately known as Rav Shagar, passed away a decade ago, posthumously his thought and writings are being widely published and have become popular in Israel. Recently, a volume of his writing was translated into English and this has caused some new interest and controversy. Rabbi Julian Sinclair penned a beautiful summary of the complexity of Rav Shagar’s thought. Rabbi Sinclair spells out Rav Shagar’s view of embracing a type of Post-Modernism which is one of the most central facets of Shagar’s thought and the one which is the source of the most strident critique.

The Lehrhaus has been running a series of pieces both appreciative and especially critical of Rav Shagar’s thought. Rabbi Dr. Gil Perl, Head of School at Kohelet Yeshiva kicked off the latest round with a reassessment of Rav Shagar’s approach for Modern Orthodox students. Rabbi Perl seems to have started a minor storm.

Here is the latest response. This one penned by the eminent theologian, biblical scholar, and philosopher, Rabbi Shalom Carmy. Rabbi Carmy brings unparalleled intellectual acumen, as always, to the discussion and raises the banner in support of our mutual teacher, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, who disagreed with Rav Shagar’s approach.

Yet, I feel that the phalanx of opposition marshaled against Rav Shagar by those in Rav Lichtenstein’s corner from both the beit midrash of Har Etzion and the halls Yeshivat University are misdirected.

As Rabbi Carmy points out, “[Rav Shagar] has often succeeded in speaking for people and about real problems that had not been articulated previously. He is a master diagnostician of the human soul under postmodernism and has struggled to define its implications sincerely and eloquently.”

Indeed, his writings do.

I accidentally picked up a volume of Rav Shagar’s work one Shabbat at the “makom” of an Israeli student at Midreshet Lindenbaum. I was hooked. What struck me, immediately, was that he was asking THE questions. And actually speaking to that student (and to me but perhaps less so as I’ll explain.)

Let us Modern Orthodox Jewish educators do a reality check. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear are awake to the great challenges to faith our students, children, and ourselves are grappling with: the role of the Jew in a non-religious world, the value of the nation-state today, academic critiques of traditional religion, the value of serving in the Israeli army post-1978, etc. etc. The reality of Truth, the role of personal narrative, the meaning of consciousness, and the conflicting values of individual and nation have been analyzed, questioned, and challenged. How do Torah and tradition respond to these and other such challenges?

To be honest, these challenges grip me a bit less than my students.  For those who understand what this means, I’m a Gush guy more or less. I see Rav Lichtenstein as one of my mentors (as failed a student of his as I might have been.) His persona and writing speak to me. His awesome knowledge of Torah and the outside world inspired awe. If he could conquer both the entirety of Jewish texts and secular literature and culture and not be bothered by these issues, how can? Traditional Talmud learning enthralls me no matter how esoteric the subject matter. I appreciate this approach.  But looking around, I don’t think his ideas speak to my children both actual and educational. To some yes, but to most, not really.
As Rav Lichtenstein himself says, “Without question, during my formative years and, to a lesser extent, beyond, the source and bulwark of my commitment was not so much a cluster of abstract factors or arguments as key persons. This may make my response less valuable for readers who have no access to my sources of strength and inspiration. Moreover, such a response raises obvious questions about determinism and inequity which, in a different context, would need to be addressed philosophically. But any other would be not only partial but false.”

I have my “sources of strength and inspiration.” But not all my students and friends do.

Look around, many are choosing to abandon a life of Torah and Mitzvoth. Even when Rav Aharon was alive and active, his hyper-demanding message delivered in his unique style certainly did not speak to everyone. And now that his colossal presence is absent, his approach certainly doesn’t. Many are looking beyond esoteric Talmudism and Brisker learning – towards things like Hassidut and more. These are the areas Rav Shagar embraced.

Rav Shagar offers some people a new set of answers which may help them keep Torah and Mitzvoth and allows them to create a meaningful relationship with the Master of the Universe despite challenges such as academic Bible scholarship, postmodernism and a host of other assaults on the foundations of Torah.

As Rabbi Carmy concedes, “On some of the questions with which [Rav Shagar] grapples, I believe he may provide positive orientation. On others he may be propagating a confusion of diagnosis with remedy, with the danger that his readers are liable to perpetuate the disease.”

Well, at least Rav Shagar was trying and I believe, as Rabbi Carmy suggested above, he diagnosed the issues profoundly. Not everyone will be confronted with academic bible study and simply read a few articles in Megadim, say “Rav Aharon must have worked it out”, and feel better. Folks, many of our students are simply running away. Just visit a college campus or yishuv in the West Bank. Rav Lichtenstein’s was a voice but not the only one.

Rav Shagar confronted the issues head on and suggested a way forward by turning post-modernism, or at least his understanding of it, on its head – did he understand the fine details of Lyotard, Derrida, Lacan, Foucalt, et al? Honestly, I don’t know and actually don’t care.  Rav Shagar presented ideas on how to navigate our complex world and maintain fidelity to Torah and Mitzvoth. He presented his students with a path – one which accepted that truth is ultimately elusive and hence we need not expect a search for it to be successful. His writings don’t speak to everyone – but at least he tried. And that is important. And for many, he offers a path towards God.

If Rav Shagar speaks to some, and in many ways he speaks to me, then I say great.

As the Rambam said so powerfully so long ago, “ואסמע אלחק ממן קאלה”.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.