Naftali Brawer
Naftali Brawer

Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age by Rabbi Shagar a Book Review

Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (1939 -2007), commonly known as Rav Shagar, was a deep and original thinker whose flow of creativity was prematurely cut off with his untimely death.

While of great inspiration to his students, his thought is still not well known in wider circles. As he wrote and lectured in Hebrew, his ideas were not readily accessible to an English speaking public. Although individuals have worked hard on translating some of his ideas into standalone papers that circulate widely on the internet, an English book on his thought has been long overdue.

In a new publication, Maggid edited and translated into English ten of his essays under the title ‘Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age’.

Rav Shagar’s main project is to forge a soft postmodernism rooted in Jewish sources. For Rav Shagar the central challenge to faith today is not Torah vs Science or Secular wisdom vs Torah wisdom. These issues he dismisses as belonging to a Modern age when the notion of a single truth still held appeal, and the problem for a person of faith was negotiating between rival truths. Postmodernism renders such thinking passé. For Rav Shagar the question is not which truth to accept, but rather what is truth altogether? Can one be certain of anything? In its hard manifestation, postmodernism leads to nihilism, and this is what Rav Shagar sees as a real challenge to a person of faith.  Instead of denying postmodern angst, he leverages it to offer a deeper, more sophisticated faith. One that does not seek certainties but chooses to surrender to the unknowable. While he does not cite Tillich, his thinking is reminiscent of the great Protestant theologian’s ‘Courage to Be.’  In embracing postmodernism Rav Shagar walks a knife-edge between the nihilistic abyss and renewed faith. For some, particularly those already conversant in postmodern thought and troubled by its ramifications, he offers a lifeline. For others, blissfully living in a modern or pre-modern mind-set, his path may well prove too uncomfortable to tread.

In developing his ideas, Rav Shagar draws freely on a multiplicity of disciplines and genres such as philosophy, psychology, hasidut and science fiction. He frequently returns to Jacques Lacan and Rav Nachman of Breslov to help scaffold an idea while also making use of habad hasidut. At times however he misrepresents his sources. In chapter ten, while acknowledging that  Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi  makes no explicit reference in the Tanya to the haskalah, he nonetheless ascribes to him the view that a maskil would have been deserving of karet (the biblical punishment by which one is spiritually cut off from the Jewish people.) This assertion is problematic on several fronts. Firstly he ascribes to maskilim a rejection of God, which most certainly was not the case with the early maskilim who simply campaigned for educational reforms. Secondly, even if they did reject God it is by no means clear that Rabbi Shneur Zalman would consider them liable to karet. And finally the reason Rabbi Shneur Zalman does not explicitly mention maskilim is because he passed away in 1812 and the Russian haskalah did really get under way until the 1820s.  He may never even have met a maskil!

In chapter seven he develops the idea that mysticism, like science fiction, is a useful medium through which to make sense of a postmodern world. While I found this chapter particularly interesting and compelling I found his dismissal of classical mythology and fairy tales (‘those fairy tales are obsolete, their fantasy a thing of the past, of a long lost golden age’) to be unjustified. Bruno Bettelheim and Robert Bly have written extensively on the timeless wisdom inherent in these tales, which help individuals across all cultures and ages make sense of life. Our postmodern age is no exception.

Sometimes Rav Shagar reaches too far, as in chapter three where he distinguishes between Orthodox and non Orthodox halachists. He makes the argument that the latter, by subjecting halacha to external criticism and an external values scale ‘destroy the soul of halacha and, on a profound level, prevent it from evolving while retaining the rules of its game’. The Orthodox posek however who is committed to the halachic language game, has ‘inexhaustible options for maneuverability in his interpretations [….] He can extract whatever he needs from the text through interacting with it [….] a posek who updates halacha is not subverting the truth, for the truth is manifest in the posek’s very use of halachic language.’ While on a conceptual level this may be the case, it begs the question as to why, with all of these inexhaustible options, Orthodox halachists have not been able to deal with pressing issues like agunah, gender inequality and homosexuality to mention just a few.

Rav Shagar while a highly original thinker, was not a systematic one. He flits around topics and his style is disjointed. The editors have done their best to try and massage his scattered thoughts into cohesive essays and on the whole they have succeeded. However after reading the book I am left with many disparate ideas rather than a single comprehensive argument.  On reflection, I wonder if the essay format doesn’t let Rav Shagar down. His brilliant but disjointed ideas might in future be better presented as smaller nuggets of wisdom, perhaps organised around the parshiyot or the festivals, in the style of many Polish Hasidic works.

Rav Shagar speaks to a new generation. He may not provide complete answers to many an angst ridden postmodernist but he does open up exciting new ways of thinking. As more people read his work and assimilate his ideas, new paradigms will start forming that will enrich Jewish thought spreading far beyond his natural audience. I see Rav Shagar’s thought as the hub of a wheel out of which spokes will eventually emerge in many different directions.






About the Author
Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer is the Neubauer Executive Director at Tufts Hillel, and Jewish Chaplain at Tufts University.
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