The recent translation of the work of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Rav Shagar, 1949-2007) promises to elevate his distinctive thought to a broader audience of readers (Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age), many of whom will resonate with Dr. Yitzchak Mandelbaum’s comment on his discovery of Rav Shagar: “I knew I had found what I didn’t know I had been searching for.” Students of the Aish Kodesh may also note many parallel elements in their respective approaches. Consider this passage from Rav Shagar’s essay, “My Faith”:
There is no proof of faith, and no certainty of faith to be gained with a proof. In any event, proofs do not impact our existence like a gun pointed at one’s temple; they do not touch upon the believer’s inner life. That is why, when it comes to faith, I prefer to use terms such as “occurrence” and “experience.” God’s presence in my prayers is as tangible to me as the presence of a human interlocutor. That is not a proof but rather an immediate experience. Similarly, I do not assert that the sight of someone standing in front of me is proof of the person’s existence. That would be foolish. After all, I see you….The language of faith is the first-person address of prayer. It is not speech about something, but rather activity and occurence.
The Rebbe’s message for Parashat Bo 5702 (January 24, 1942) echoes some of this personal, first-person definition of faith, particularly in terms of accessing the secrets of Torah (sod). He begins with a discussion of a passage from his namesake’s classic 19th century Hasidic commentary:
The holy work Maor va-Shemesh explains that the secret aspect of Torah study [sod] is not a reference to Kabbalah, for these are things which are found in works of revealed Torah, and all who wish to may study them. Also, one may study them with one’s study partner, and this does not constitute sod. Rather, the aspect of sod in the Torah is a Divine revelation which is apportioned to each individual according to his individual stature in Torah. This is the true nature of sod, which one cannot study with a partner nor with a student; it remains unique to each individual, in keeping with his condition and level of Divine service.
The Rebbe underlined this surprisingly postmodern thought with his appreciation of sod as a deeply transformative concept:
Consequently, after studying for several hours, or after prayer or some other act of Divine service, one must gaze inward to determine if one has drawn closer, even a bit closer, to the aspect of sod. Additionally, one must make a personal evaluation every few months or years at least, to determine if one has made progress as a whole. One must perform this exercise after every session of learning or Divine service to determine this—that is to say, even if he has not advanced as a whole, nevertheless let him stand on his holy ground and become greater than he was. Let him at least realize that after an hour of Torah study he is not the same person as after an hour of wasted time.
The Rebbe’s message shifted to a discussion of the attack of the biblical Amalekites on the traveling Israelites, and its comparison to the weakening of Torah study in the Warsaw Ghetto. His sermon does not unduly press the with its obvious parallels to the incredible suffering imposed by the Nazi occupiers, perhaps an indication of the Rebbe’s internal turmoil (which is apparent in later entries). Rather, the Rebbe emphasized the prophylactic power of communal study. He began with a citation from Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim, and ended on a note that rings more personal, as if the Rebbe were lamenting the diminishing number of Hasidim attending his sermons:
The holy Rabbi, the memory of the righteous and holy is a blessing, in Tanya letter 23, writes these holy words: “as I have heard from my masters, if a single angel were to stand in a gathering of ten Jews, engaged in discussing Torah, a boundless fear and trepidation would overcome the angel because of the Divine Presence which hovered over them, to the point that the angel would lose its very existence.” That is to say, that when the ten Jews are scattered, each one in his own home, each one is an individual, the presence of God is not as great as if they had been gathered together. Therefore, when they come to hear the words of the living God from a master of rabbinic lore, that is to say from one person, then this constitutes a gathering and unification of all of them within this one person. As a consequence, this person experiences a greater Divine revelation which is clothed in the words of Torah which he speaks