Tablets and Broken Tablets: Jewish Thought in the Age of Post-Modernism

Professor Alan Jotkowitz

Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (R. Shagar) is not well known to the general Israeli public but is certainly one of the most important thinkers to come from the National-Religious world in the last quarter century. He published very little in the course of his relatively short lifetime but thanks to the efforts of his wife and devoted students many volumes of his writings have been released posthumously. The latest volume and one of the most important is entitled Tablets and Broken Tablets: Jewish Thought in the Age of Post-Modernism which is in some sense a sequel to his previously published Broken Vessels.

  1. Shagar was born in Jerusalem to Shalom and Sophia Rosenberg, Holocaust survivors from Transylvania. Like many of the future leaders of the Dati Leumi world, he attended high school at Netiv Meir, and then studied at Yeshivat Hesder Kerem B'Yavneh. He fought and was seriously wounded in the Yom Kippur War, and after his recovery entered the Kollel of Yeshivat HaKotel and eventually served as a faculty member there for ten years. After teaching in a number of Torah institutions, he founded Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak, with his longtime friend and study partner Rabbi Yair Dreyfuss, where he remained as Rosh Yeshiva until his untimely death at the age of fifty seven.

Reading R. Shagar's works, one is overwhelmed by his depth of knowledge and the variety of sources that he uses to buttress his arguments. Besides a thorough grounding in all spheres of Torah learning, including Kabbalah and Hassidut, his familiarity with general secular knowledge is impressive. Also remarkable is his use of a wide variety of disciplines including philosophy, literary theory, linguistics, and sociology alongside standard Talmudic methodology to develop a train of thought.      Much of R. Shagar's thought is a response to post-modernism and the current volume is no exception. In defining Post-Modernism,  Jean-François Lyotard explains that enlightened societies develop grand narratives which are stories a culture produces in order to justify its beliefs and cultural norms. Postmodernism is a critique of these "grand narratives," and it prefers mini-narratives "that explain small practices, local events, rather than large-scale universal or global concepts. Postmodern ‘mininarratives’ are always situational, provisional, contingent, and temporary, making no claim to universality, truth, reason, or stability."

 Rav Shagar was unique is that he was a Rosh Yeshiva steeped in the world of traditional Talmudic learning but unafraid to confront the intellectual threat of post-modernism which disdains searching for absolute truth. He also was willing to address the difficult questions that in many Yeshivot and Ulpanot are considered off limits or out of bounds such as: Why is there so much resistance to the study of Gemara among our youth? Why is it so difficult for young men and women to find their spouse? How can a person ever know the true will of God? Can a person really change in order to repent?

Because of his acceptance of new modes of religious expression he was a beacon for many young people looking for inspiration in Hassidic thought and for others looking to combine artistic expression with religious devotion

 The current volume looks at three main issues facing the religious Zionist community through the lens of post-modernism. The meaning of morality in a world of relativism, the phenomenon of religious Zionist youth looking for alternative means of religious expression and the meaning of religious Zionism in the intellectual milieu of post-Zionism. In all three instances he attempts to show that the tenants of post-modernism can be consistent and even elevate a religious approach. For example in analyzing the conflict between competing moral values, he argues for a pluralistic approach which recognizes the value of individual choice as opposed to one which maintains that no position has any value or one which claims that there is only one true "right" answer. In dealing with the phenomenon of “Datlash” (formerly religious) or hozerim be-she’ela (slang for the opposites of hozerim be-teshuva) he urges us to recognize that we live in a world where it is impossible to know the absolute truth  and thus everyone has to find their own individual path to God and his Torah. Rav Shagar was one of the first to recognize that post-modernism also has the potential to create an intellectual crisis for the religious Zionist community. Religious Zionism, particularly, the branch heavily influenced by Rav Kook, invested heavily in the "grand messianic narrative" of the return of the Jewish people to its ancient homeland. But what happens when this narrative is internally threatened by, for example, events such as  the Yom Kippur War or the Hitnakut or by other competing narratives. The answer according to Rav Shagar is to build a religious Zionist ideology based more on the theology of Rav Nachman of Breslov which is built on the notion of competing and even conflicting visions as opposed to the harmony of Rav Kook.

 The editors have done a masterful job in putting together the volume from lectures and manuscripts left behind by Rav Shagar. Admittedly, this is easier in a world of computer word documents than having to reconstruct essays from handwritten notes as had to be done in the past.  As much of his serious scholarship is in Hebrew, I hope that efforts will be made to translate more of his works into English in order to make them more widely accessible. When I first began to delve into the world of Rav Shagar, I found myself recalling my first encounter with the works of Rav Soloveitchik. I think the reason for this is that in both instances I was experiencing something new and original, produced by an extraordinary thinker.  Anyone interested in a fresh and original approach to the questions facing a believing person in the post-modern world would benefit from the insights of Rav Shagar.

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