While still in the midst of the shiva I feel the need to commit to writing some thoughts about my beloved Rabbi and friend, Rav Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg), who died on Sunday night 25 Sivan 5767 (June 3 2007). Rav Shagar, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak, and author of numerous books on Talmud, Jewish Philosophy and contemporary religious society in Israel, was survived by his wife Miriam, children and grandchildren, and many students. The fact that out of students only a small handful are native English speakers, gives me a sense of responsibility as well.
Rav Shagar was an extraordinarily deep Torah scholar who was uniquely able to combine all aspects of Torah in an authentic interdisciplinary approach. His Talmud classes, partially meant to deal with the alienation many young dati-leumi (national religious) men felt from Talmud study, combined classical rabbinic methods, academic research and philosophy in a meaningful and authenticity-seeking way that I have never encountered elsewhere. His classes on Chassidut, (especially Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, whom he had a special affinity to), were deep and refreshing, always hitting the profoundest existential places, always showing an acute awareness of personal and religious struggles and the sense of alienation that so many people feel in our postmodern world.
Rav Shagar was deeply concerned not only with religious service in the narrow sense, but also with interpersonal relationships on many levels. So much of his writing on repentance focuses upon the banality of our relationships, urging us to light our countenances towards family and friends, to forgive others, even ourselves, as a key aspect of rectifying the world. But he also went beyond the scope of our immediate relationships, showing true concern for the weaker members of society and searching for formulas that would transcend the barriers of polarization to make Judaism meaningful to all Israelis.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Rav Shagar was perhaps the greatest pioneer of Israeli Chassidism. It is largely in his merit that the study and practice of Chassidism has become one of the most dramatic features of dati-leumi life in Israel, especially since the paradigm of Religious Nationalism lost its capacity to be the sole provider of spiritual meaning and sustenance for an entire generation of young people. His brand of Chassidut, interwoven with the writings of Rav Kook and open to expression through poetry, is evocative of the Chassidic revival predicted by such thinkers as Rabbi Hillel Zeitlin, who saw pre-messianic Chassidut as a broad all encompassing movement.
Needless to say, Rav Shagar was not always well received by the mainstream establishment of the dati-leumi yeshiva world. He was constantly attacked for his interdisciplinary method of Gemara study, his philosophical writings and his willingness to question the accepted boundaries and truths of the community. However, throughout these tribulations, he remained – like Rebbe Nachman of Breslav – a man utterly committed to the unending search for truth. His equanimity also enabled him to cope with his illness with quiet dignity and submission to HaShem’s will.
Rav Shagar was quiet, humble and shy. Despite his charisma and the great influence he had on so many, he was always approachable, friendly and helpful. His modesty was such that many in his Jerusalem neighborhood expressed their surprise that the quiet gentle man, whom they had seen in shul or passed on the street, was the famous Rav Shagar. His yirah (awe of G-d) came before his chochmah (wisdom), and many spoke of High Holiday prayers in his presence as the most inspiring of their lives.
Three days ago he was laid to rest on the Mount of Olives, and at his massive funeral one could see even some of his greatest opponents in the yeshiva world crying profusely. The loss is so great that it is hard to put into words and frustration of not being able to do justice to this great man in an essay makes it all the more painful. In his will Rav Shagar asked us to concentrate on improving our relationships, especially within our families, to shine our countenance on those around us and to realize that there is no time; that what we need to rectify we should rectify now. That is the aching awareness that comes with death at the age of 57 after a life of intense self-examination, and it behooves us to take his words deeply to heart.
Rabbi Zvi Leshem is the Spiritual Leader of Congregation Shirat Shlomo, Efrat And Director of Overseas Programs at Nishmat, the Jerusalem Center for Higher Torah Studies for Women