Rav Shagar On Revelation & Covenant In The Giving Of The Torah

In a derashah called “Regarding the Name of the Father” (see here for the full original Hebrew) published in “She’arit Ha’emunah,” Rav Shagar discusses Shavuot and Pesah as representing a basic tension between revelation, on the one hand, and identity and tradition on the other hand. Below I have translated and explained the primary paragraphs laying out his understanding of the nature of revelation, both at Sinai and in the life of the individual.

Before looking at Shagar’s ideas, it’s worth briefly summarizing (the relevant aspects of) the short book “Ethics,” written by Alain Badiou, that Shagar is working with in his thinking about revelation. Badiou wrote his book in an attempt to create a new theory of ethics. He was explicitly attacking theories of ethics based on otherness and victimization, with the latter meaning ethics that assumed the goal of ethical behavior is to keep people from being harmed; if everyone is ethical then no one will be harmed. Badiou argues that this sort of ethical theory understands humans as victims, something that makes them no better than animals, and ignores the unique potential of humans to dedicate themselves to the service of truth. It is in line with this potential that Badiou posits a different ethical theory, what he calls an “ethics of truths.”

According to Badiou, an ethic is the set of behaviors created in the process of an individual being loyal to a truth. A truth in revealed in an event, wherein a new idea emerges into existence, an idea that could not have been expressed with the language available before the event, and part of the ethics of this truth is the creation of new language for talking about this truth. This idea is a truth about the world, which means it must have existed before the event, when it simply lacked a name. The truth revealed in the event is thus the “void” of the previous situation, and the event and ethics of that truth amount to a naming of that void.

Badiou gives a variety of examples from history of such events, always from four realms: politics, art, love and science. Einstein’s discovery of the theory of relativity is thus an event, and working out all of the implications of this new theory, against people who insist that it can’t be true because it contradicts everything known about science up to this point, is an ethics of the theory of relativity. Loyalty to a truth helps establish it as a truth, and it turns the individual into a subject of that truth. In contrast, betraying an event by acting as if nothing had changed is one of the sources of evil in Badiou’s theory. That is the broad strokes of Badiou’s theory, and we can now move on to Shagar’s own ideas.

Following Alain Badiou, I would like to distinguish between an “illumination” and an “event.”1 An illumination is connected to the sefirah of Hokhmah, which is the beginning of existence, “the first cause” in the language of the philosophers, the beginning of “the process of emanation” (seder hahistalshelut) in the language of the Hasidim. In contrast, the event is rooted in the sefirah of Keter, it is connected to the Real, to the absolute reality that is beyond the process of emanation.2 The relationship between event and illumination can be seen as the relationship between will and wisdom: the event is an act of will, wherein reality itself changes. Something that did not exist before appears, like a lightning bolt of reality, what in the kabbalistic mythos is described as the birth of new souls emerging from the infinite (ein sof). Illumination, in contrast, is the explication of what already exists, the improvement of the situation that deepens its constituent parts. This is an improvement bound up in conatus, in the need to persist and self-sustain that is fulfilled by the meaning and explanation given to reality.

Revelation is an event, not an illumination. When it occurs, it is a vibration that shakes up, rather than clarifies, what already exists. What is the receiving of the Torah? It is those events where a person suddenly experiences an explosion of truth – “For my words are like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that shatters rock (Jeremiah 23:29); “Something that happens in situations as something that they and the usual way of behaving in them cannot account for.”3

The giving of the Torah is only possible when a person is ready to think about and experience the world differently, to open up to “a new way of being,”4 in Badiou’s words. The revelation of an event, which appears in a reality that is already given – what is – and where nothing else can appear, is dependent on this readiness. A person “needs something to have happened, something that cannot be reduced to its ordinary inscription in 'what there is.”5

No specific revealed content stands at the center of revelation. The event of revelation is not an opinion, but rather “the name of the void” that in its nature “cannot be named entirely.”6 This is where the need for a covenant arises in revelation - “The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Ḥorev” (Deuteronomy 5:2), a covenant that is fulfilled in the declaration “We will do and we will listen.” This covenant is the response to the “name of the void,” the requirement for uncompelled loyalty that creates “a new way of being and acting within the situation,” because “the event was excluded by all the regular laws of the situation.”7 The heart of revelation is therefore universal, in that it is free of any named content, leaving only singular loyalty to it; creating new laws and approaches, through which a person enables a “way of being” for the new event. This is true for more than just the giving of the Torah: scientific revolutions, like Einstein’s, for example; political revolutions, like the French Revolution; the revolution that is in constantly innovative artistic creation; religious and spiritual revolutions - these are all expressions of constructive loyalty to a revelatory event, the creation of a new language for the “name of the void.” These are illuminations from “the primordial intellect,”8 a dimension that precedes the intellect and renews it.

The combination of revelation and loyalty to that revelation is, as per Badiou, the appearance of truth - the commitment of the subject to the event. The event demands loyalty because it itself appears only as an excess, as a void with no place in language and disconnected from everything. The lightning flashes without context and disappears as if it had never been. It is to this lightning that we must be loyal, and this loyalty constructs the lightning as truth. This is what the Kabbalists and Ḥasidim called raising Malkhut to Keter, an instance of “the crown of sovereignty” (“Keter Malkhut”). Keter is the lightning bolt of reality and Malkhut, which has no independent content, is the loyalty and decisiveness that realize the event.

Rav Shagar opens by creating a dichotomy between Badiou’s “event” and what Shagar calls “illumination.” In the course of the derashah, this dichotomy becomes the dichotomy between Shavuot and Pesah, respectively, but here I want to focus on Shagar’s identification of the revelation at Sinai as an event. This has the effect of changing the focus of any discussion surrounding the revelation from the content that was revealed to the fidelity of the Israelites to this content. It doesn’t matter what you think was revealed to the Israelites at Sinai, what matters is that they committed to it, and to figuring out what their lives would look like after this event, once they had rearranged their lives around it.

This commitment is what Rav Shagar calls “the covenant” (habrit), which was necessary to give the revelation at Sinai continued existence after the event itself. What would have happened if the Israelites had not said “we will do and we will listen,” a phrase the midrash associates with total commitment beyond all logical argumentation, but instead had gone back to their daily lives? God’s appearance on Mount Sinai would have faded into the mists of history. The presence and effect this revelation has had throughout history is thus due more to the commitment of the people than to the revelation of God.

Shagar’s formulations leave open the question of what exactly the revealed content is that he was referring to, and that’s exactly the point. He might be referring to the minimalist view that the people as a whole experienced God saying the first two commandments, which amounts to a revelation of the truth of monotheism, or he could be referring to the maximalist idea that Moshe received the entirety of the eventual tradition already at Sinai (though I think something along the former is more likely). What matters is not what, or how much, was revealed but that the people committed to shaping their lives, and the life of the nation as a whole, in accordance with it. Parenthetically, if we take the Shagar to be going with a more minimal content to the revelation, then we end up with something similar to Rambam’s idea that the Torah was given in response to a specific historical situation, and thus many of the mitsvot look like monotheistic versions of pagan rites from that historical situation (see Moreh Nevukhim, section 3, particularly chapter 32). The people commit to reshaping their lives around the monotheistic idea, and the Mosaic Torah is what that looks like.

This structure of event and loyalty also gives us a new way of thinking about the oral Torah. According to Rambam, the oral aspect of the Torah was something that developed over time, with each generation adding new interpretation and decrees on top of what it had received from its forebears (see Mishneh Torah, introduction, and Hilkhot Mamrim 1-2; see also Moshe Halbertal’s article on debate in the history of halakhah). In light of Shagar’s formulations, we should see this constant process of interpretation and decrees as the result of an ever-renewing commitment on the part of the nation of Israel to the revelation at Sinai. In each generation the nation continues to arrange their lives around this revelation, and as they encounter new realities this inevitably brings new interpretations of that revelation. In this understanding, the content of the revelation must perforce be less important than the commitment to the revelation, as the commitment generates ever new content out of the original revelation.

Using Badiou’s ethics as a lens also enables us to look at other aspects of the narratives surrounding the revelation at Sinai in new ways. The revelation at Sinai comes shortly after the conclusion of the exodus from Egypt, wherein the Israelites are freed from slavery. In light of Badiou’s rejection of ethics as a way of preventing harm, we might see the revelation of the exodus from Egypt as a self-sufficient narrative. The exodus takes the Israelites out of Egypt, but it leaves them as victims, as former-slaves. Turning them into human subjects requires an ethics of Sinai. Badiou’s theory also indicates that biblical narratives after the revelation at Sinai should be read against the background of the commitment to this revelation. Thus when the Israelites profess a desire to go back to Egypt, they are not just rejecting the divine grace they received in the exodus but also the truth-event of Sinai. They are betraying the covenant of the revelation at Sinai by trying to live as if it had never happened.

Moving away from speculation about the revelation at Sinai, it is worth returning to one of the more significant sentences from Rav Shagar’s derashah: “The giving of the Torah is only possible when a person is ready to think about and experience the world differently, to open up to ‘a new way of being,’ in Badiou’s words.” The first thing to note is that, as through much of the passage above, Shagar is talking in the present. He is ultimately less interested in what happened in and around Sinai than in what happens in the daily life of his audience. Revelation, in whatever sense, is not a fact about the past to be affirmed or denied but a very real option in the present. Shagar’s discussion of revelation as an “event” in Badiou’s sense tells us what he means when he talks about revelation happening today. He is referring to experiencing an event that reveals some truth about existence that could not have been articulated before, and which can only be maintained by the creation of new language for talking about it and new actions based on fidelity to it. Moreover, in order to experience such an event, we have to be “ready to think about and experience the world differently, to open up to ‘a new way of being.” Being truly open to divine revelation requires the ability to be surprised by the truth with which God might present you. Shagar’s derashah thus presents a challenge to his reader, to be truly alive and attentive to his existence, and ready to commit to the divine truth in whatever way it might appear.

1. Badiou Alain, “Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil”, trans. Peter Hallward, London and New York, 2001. Badiou discusses the “event,” which I am contrasting with “illumination.” [In Hebrew, these two terms are spelled differently, with different derivations, but are homophones, pronounced “heh-ah-rah.” ~Levi Morrow]

2. [In Kabbalistic terminology, the sefirah of Hokhmah, the first that is counted, is identified as the first created thing, and it is called “the beginning of wisdom.” The sefirah of Keter, the first that is uncounted, is “pure, refined, light,” identified with the will of the creator, the infinite. ~editor’s note]

3. Ibid, p.41.

4. Ibid, p.42.

5. Ibid, p.41.

6. Adi Apfel, “ Foreword: On the Role of Ethics in Creating Reality in the Thought of Alain Badiou,” in Badiou, “Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil” (Hebrew), trans. Adi Apfel, Tel Aviv, Resling, 2005, p.9 note 10.

7. Badiou, pp.41-42.

8. For more on this concept see “The Unconscious and the Concept of the Primordial Intellect in Hasidic Literature” (Hebrew), in Devarim Shebego: Pirkei Moreshet Vetehiye, Tel Aviv: Am Oved 1976, pp.351-360.

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