Faith shattered and restored: Judaism in the postmodern age

by Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar)

Maggid Books, 2017

Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (1949-2007), or more popularly known by his acronym Shagar, was an inspired Torah teacher and a brilliant Torah thinker who fused his deep commitment to Jewish law, Jewish study and Jewish spirituality with philosophical inquiry and a deep awareness of social and intellectual developments in the modern period.

Rabbi Shagar was complex, introverted, scholarly and reflective, and he was particularly fascinated by faith, knowledge, freedom and consciousness as understood and experienced in a postmodern world. Yet what makes his ideas so refreshing is his interweaving of ideas from Talmud, Halakha, Hassidism and Philosophy to address the dilemmas of today. 

Just prior to his death Rabbi Shagar asked that his writings be organised and published by his students, and so far around ten Hebrew volumes have appeared. However, while a number of his essays have previously been translated into English, ‘Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age’, which is part of the Maggid Modern Classics, is the first authoritative attempt at providing English readers with ‘an optimal representation of Rabbi Shagar’s groundbreaking spiritual approach’ (p. xi).

Faith Shattered and Restored grapples with the challenges and opportunities inherent in a postmodern world, and each of its ten essays address important themes that, whether we are aware of them or not, are present in our lives. As Rabbi Shalom Carmy explains in his brilliant ‘Afterword’, Rabbi Shagar is both the ‘diagnostician and the therapist’ (pp. 197-8) whose insights provide us with ‘fresh ideas about how to live our lives in light of these new experiences’ (p. 198).

For example, in his essay titled ‘My Faith: Faith in a Postmodern World’, Rabbi Shagar describes his approach to faith. He speaks of ‘two worlds that are both ontologically real’ (p. 28) and how faith is ‘a different stratum of reality’ (p. 30). Unlike Science, ‘there is no proof of faith, and no certainty of faith to be gained with a proof’ (p. 23). Instead, faith is ‘the acceptance of one’s life as part of reality, of God’s will’ (p. 34).

I was particularly fascinated by the essay titled ‘Religious Life in the Modern Age’ which explores the impact of modernity on Orthodox Judaism, Orthodoxy’s responses to non-Orthodox ideologies, and whether we are still capable of faith. For Rabbi Shagar, ‘the traditional Jew is rooted in his belonging’ (p. 46), and therefore, ‘those who question tradition, who are compelled to justify, defend, or preserve it, no longer belong to it, for it is, by definition, a function of self-identity rather than reflexivity’ (p. 46).

A corollary of this is how ‘the test of halakha is not its truth, but its ability to maintain the integrity of its character as a linguistic and practical system’ (p. 51), and this leads him to criticize reformist approaches to halakha because ‘halakha should be revised only in its own language, with empathy toward its internal logic and symptoms, and not from an external vantage’ (p. 51). At the same time, Rabbi Shagar also explains that ‘a posek who updates halakha is not subverting the truth, for the truth is manifest in the posek’s very use of halakhic language’ (p. 55).

Then, while addressing the question of whether we are still capable of faith, RabbiShagar explains that many of the questions that are asked about faith ‘are really about the consciousness of faith, which is an entirely different matter’ (p. 57) while ‘the problem of faith in the modern world was born of a situation in which the synagogue is filled with faith, but the entire world is not’ (p. 61).

In his essay titled ‘Justice and Ethics in a Postmodern World’ Rabbi Shagar explores the themes of relativism and pluralism. He refers to the Hindu practice of ‘sati’ (widow burning) and female genital mutilation as contemporary case studies that challenge moral relativism, and he speaks about the importance of moral boundary-setting in the postmodern age. However, rather than criticizing pluralism of any kind, Rabbi Shagar explains that ‘there is a Jewish spiritual outlook that can accommodate the pluralistic mindset while setting its own boundaries for it’ (p. 110) which is achieved by augmenting a pluralistic outlook with a ‘universalistic dimension’ (p. 118) underpinned by the notion that ‘beyond our various cultural differences, there is a universal truth shared by all humans’ (p. 118).

One further essay that I would like to mention is titled ‘Love, Roman and Covenant’, and here Rabbi Shagar seeks to build a philosophical bridge between the religious rules and regulations of the Jewish marital home and contemporary philosophical perspectives on love and romance. As with previous essays Rabbi Shagar adopts a unique perspective, and rather than criticizing contemporary approaches to romance he explains how ‘the postmodern criticism of romantic love…posits an exciting point of view that could be quite compatible with Jewish conceptions of couplehood’ (p. 135).

Faith Shattered and Restored is a thought provoking book, but certainly not a book of answers. Instead, as Dr. Zohar Maor explains in his introduction, reading Faith Shattered and Restored is to ‘embark on a spiritual journey with Rabbi Shagar’ (p. xxiii) and to engage with him in deep conversation on topics that are ‘unique in the landscape of Jewish philosophy and of great importance for Judaism in the twenty-first century’ (p. xxii).

In 2012 a wonderful documentary was shown in Israel on the life of Rabbi Shagar (seehere), during which Dr. Yitzchak Mandelbaum observed that once he discovered the writings of Rabbi Shagar, ‘I knew I had found what I didn’t know I had been searching for’ (p. viii). Having greatly enjoyed reading Faith Shattered and Restored I feel the same way and I believe so will many others who are now able to appreciate the creative thought of Rabbi Shagar in English.

To purchase a copy of Faith Shattered and Restored, click here.