A dialogue about Rav Shagar's understanding of Teshuva, and the tension between self-creation and self-acceptance.
Different to Other Books About Teshuvah
Rabbi Schwartz: Rav Shagar wrote an important book about teshuvah called ‘Shuvi Nafshi’. In the introduction he writes: ‘I have tried to find the right language that will enable us to communicate the words of the ancient rabbis (Chazal and Rishonim) to our own world. Due to the background of religious Zionist students, yeshivot need to find a way of learning that speaks directly to them’.1
This theme of translating the old into a new language is a reoccurring theme in Rav Shagar’s writings.2 Can you explain why for Rav Shagar it is so important to translate the ideas of ancient Judaism into a language (safa) that fits his students?
Levi Morrow: Rav Shagar sees our language as shaping the world in which we live. It’s an intrinsic, determinative part of who we are. So making something accessible to a person requires translating it into their language.
Rabbi Schwartz: Most books about teshuvah use Jewish sources to show how they guide us to do teshuvah and spiritual growth. One of the unique things about ‘Shuvi Nafishi’ is that Rav Shagar puts Jewish thinkers in dialogue with non-Jewish philosophers. Rav Shagar puts Rebbe Nachman’s idea of doing ‘teshuvah on teshuvah’ in dialogue with the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s idea of irony. Rav Shagar puts Rav Kook and Rambam’s understanding of freedom in dialogue with the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Can you explain why this is important for Rav Shagar?
Levi Morrow: Rav Shagar isn’t trying to explain teshuvah in the abstract, he’s trying to explain what teshuvah means in the 20th and 21st centuries. That means speaking in the language of contemporary Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox Jews. As Rav Shagar asserts in a variety of places, this means speaking the language of the Jewish tradition and secular philosophy simultaneously, creating a new religious language composed from both. Rav Shagar wants to explain what teshuvah means in this new language.
Rabbi Schwartz: What was it like for you personally when you first started to read a rabbi who puts Jewish philosophy and mysticism in conversation with secular philosophers?
Levi Morrow: It was like a breath of fresh air. Suddenly I was reading about Judaism in the language in which I think. It meant that Judaism could be a natural aspect of my entire life, rather than an isolated world in which I participate.
Rabbi Schwartz: I too felt like studying Rav Shagar was a breath of fresh air, but for a different reason. For many years I was immersed in the writings of Rebbe Nachman, Rav Kook, the Rambam, and Chasidut in general. When I began studying Rav Shagar, I was amazed to see him putting all of my favorite Jewish thinkers in dialogue with each other. Rebbe Nachman was in dialogue with Rav Kook. The Tanya was in dialogue with the Rambam. Before reading Rav Shagar, I felt like I had to pick one Jewish thinker and leave the rest behind. Rav Shagar showed me, through his own writings, how I could combine all of my spiritual thinkers together to create my own unique spiritual philosophy.
Human Freedom versus Divine Grace
Rabbi Schwartz: Shuvi Nafshi revolves around two main ideas, human freedom (cheirut) and divine grace (chesed). At the end of the book, Rav Shagar writes: ‘This is the main question of the book: Is the essence of Teshuvah rooted in a person’s own ability, decision and strength? Or perhaps the ability to grow is dependent on divine grace? Is Teshuvah human freedom (cheirut) or divine grace (chesed)?’3 Can you explain why Rav Shagar thinks teshuvah is centered around these two ideas?
Levi Morrow: Well for Rav Shagar, everything revolves around those two ideas. We either stand reflexively outside ourselves, free to make ourselves into whoever we want to be, or we accept ourselves the way we are, seeing our nature as an act of divine grace.
In the context of Teshuvah, this mean that we either recognize our capacity to choose to be better and live up to our ideals, or we recognize that our sinfulness is part of how God made us, and Rav Shagar brings various possibilities for how to understand and accept that fact.
Rabbi Schwartz: For Rav Shagar, the Rambam is the hero of the teshuvah of freedom. Rav Shagar writes, ‘Rambam’s answer to the question: “What is teshuvah?” is very clear: Teshuvah means transformation – letting go of one’s mistake and changing one’s life.’4 The Rambam believed that a person has absolute free will to choose to be a good or bad person. On Yom Kippur a person should not blame someone else (not even God) if something went wrong. Each person must take responsibility for one’s decisions and actions. In the words of the Rambam: ‘The matter is dependent totally on me’ (ain ha davar talui ela bi). Now, if for Rav Shagar, Rambam is the hero of the teshuvah of free choice, who is the hero of the teshuvah of divine grace and self-acceptance (kabalat atzmi)?
Levi Morrow: He shows how many traditional thinkers saw Teshuvah as a form of self-acceptance, but without a doubt the main figure is Rav Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin, just ahead of his teacher, the Izhbitzer.
Rabbi Schwartz: Yes, the chapter on Rav Tzadok and self-acceptance (kabalat atzmi) is one of the most powerful chapters in the book. Rav Shagar explains:
In contrast to what is normally accepted, Rav Tzadok says… that the highest level of spiritual growth (teshuvah) is when it comes from a motivation of love; not the responsibility towards one’s mistakes and the changing of one’s ways, but rather, the letting go of one’s mistakes. It is the awareness that one’s mistakes are truly the will of God. In other words, spiritual growth (teshuvah) is the ability to accept oneself as flawed; it comes from the awareness that I didn’t make myself; God did.5
Rav Tzadok says that the highest level of teshuvah is when a person recognizes that everything is from God, and therefore one’s mistakes are also from God. Levi, can you talk a little bit about how Rav Shagar compares this view to fatalism?
Levi Morrow: Well the underlying principle is that the way things are is the way things are supposed to be. Everything is already a manifestation of God, including yourself, so the labor of faith is not to change yourself but to accept yourself. This could lead to a sort of fatalism where, because everything is divinely determined, you cannot affect anything and you do not pursue any course of action.
Rav Shagar raises the possibility that this understanding actually doesn’t take the divine determinism far enough. It’s not just the way things are and who we already are that is divinely determined. Our choices reflect the divine will as well. So divine determinism can actually suggest that we should be incredibly active rather than fatalistically passive, because anything we choose to do will be what God determined we should do.
Doing Teshuvah on Your Teshuvah
Rabbi Schwartz: Another important idea about Teshuvah that Rav Shagar discusses is Rebbe Nachman’s belief that a person must do ‘teshuvah on your teshuvah.’6 Rav Shagar writes:
In one of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings (Likkutei Moharan 141:6) he says that a baal teshuvah must always do teshuvah on his teshuvah. This second teshuvah is rooted in the understanding that one’s first teshuvah was not serious enough. This is not because it lacked the normal religious seriousness, but because of the limited definition of normal religious teshuvah in this world. A person must do teshuvah, and at the very same time be able to joke about what he is doing.7
Can you explain this idea?
Levi Morrow: Rebbe Nachman talks about how a person does teshuvah based on a certain understanding of God and the mitzvot. Once a person has done teshuvah, however, they will have improved their understanding of God, to the point where they can recognize how mistaken their previous understanding was. They therefore must do teshuvah for their previous, mistake-based teshuvah.
Rav Shagar adds a twist to this. While this could be understood as an unending process of teshuvah, where you improve yourself constantly, Rav Shagar takes it to be simultaneous. Rebbe Nahman does not mean that you should do teshuvah and then look back and recognize your mistake, for which you must then do teshuvah. He means that while you do teshuvah, you should simultaneously be aware that from a greater perspective, your understanding is not just mistaken, but is so wrong as to require you to do teshuvah for it.
Rav Shagar calls this a ‘Kierkegaardian irony’ that requires ‘seeing with both eyes at once.’ He means that it requires the ability to maintain, and embrace, two contradictory perspectives simultaneously. On the one hand, you have to do teshuvah to the best of your ability and understanding. On the other, you have to be aware of how limited and all too human your abilities and understanding are.
Rabbi Schwartz: This reminds me of an idea of Rav Menachem Froman, a close friend of Rav Shagar, who says that we must learn to laugh at ourselves and not take oneself too seriously. Do you see a connection?
Levi Morrow: Definitely. Both of them are saying that you should act as if your actions, your mitzvot, are of the utmost importance, while maintaining an emotional posture of carefree ‘lightnes’ (a word both of them use frequently), knowing that your actions and understanding can’t actually be significant before the infinite divine.
Rabbi Schwartz: This is a powerful way of experiencing Yom Kippur. On the one hand, to spend the day immersed in serious prayer, teshuvah, and asking for forgiveness about the mistakes one has made. On the other hand, to be able to smile, relax, and not take oneself too seriously since one recognizes that only God knows what is truly right and wrong.
Authenticity, Sincerity and Being Honest
Rabbi Schwartz: For Rav Shagar, doing teshuvah should not be done in a dishonest way. In the first chapter of ‘Shuvi Nafshi,’ he writes:
When I was young, I was always bothered by the question of honesty and realness concerning what we were doing during the days of teshuvah. We pray, ask for forgiveness, learn the laws of teshuvah; but what happens after all this? What remains from all this for the rest of the year; does anything change? Where is the honesty behind what we are doing?8
In other words, Rav Shagar confesses that when he was younger he always felt that the way people behaved during Elul, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur was a little bit fake. People say sorry to God for acting in a certain way during the previous year, but then they go back to the very same negative actions after Yom Kippur ended. What are your thoughts about Rav Shagar’s critique of a self-deceiving teshuvah?
Levi Morrow: In Shuvi Nafshi as well as in a derashah in his small book ‘Al Kapot Hamanoul,’ Rav Shagar discusses the possibility of insincere teshuvah. In his conclusion, he mentions that ‘My teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Fischer, compared it to laundry; the clothes get dirty again, but is that a reason not to clean it again?’9
Rabbi Schwartz: In other words, we must accept that teshuvah is not about perfection, but continuous growth?
Levi Morrow: It’s not even necessarily about continuous growth. The laundry gets dirty again, as Rav Fischer put it. It’s just about trying your best, and being ok with the result.
Rabbi Schwartz: In the first chapter of ‘Shuvi Nafshi,’ Rav Shagar tells a story about Rav Areye Levin and a secular Professor discussing the struggle of doing teshuvah on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The secular Professor says to Rav Areye, ‘It’s easy for you religious people. You just need to open up the books of the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch, and then do what it says. But for us secular people, we don’t have any guidelines.’ Rav Areye replies, ‘Precisely because of this reason, you secular people have more hope of doing authentic teshuvah.’10 Can you explain why Rav Shagar likes this story?
Levi Morrow: Rav Shagar likes the story because he was, generally speaking, a firm believer in authenticity. He believed that authentic action requires acting based only on yourself and what you believe to be correct. The moment your actions are guided externally, you’re no longer being authentic. This is how he explains the phrase, ‘it’s all up to me’ in the Talmudic story of Rabbi Elazar Ben Dordaya.11 In that story, the hero first looks for help doing Teshuvah in all kinds of external sources, before eventually realizing he can depend on no one but himself.
Rabbi Schwartz: So, if for Rav Shagar, simply following external religious instructions is not enough to do authentic and sincere teshuvah, then what is the function and purpose of halacha and studying religious texts? How does religion help a person do teshuvah?
Levi Morrow: Well Rav Shagar also has other texts where he understands Teshuvah as returning to your tradition and identity. In terms of authenticity, the only role texts might play is by telling you stories about people who were authentic, or perhaps a person might authentically feel that they should adhere to halakhah and religious texts.
Rabbi Schwartz: I think another thing this story teaches us about Rav Shagar is that he admires a rabbi (Rav Areye Levin) who is honest with himself. The story depicts a rabbi who is not satisfied with merely following laws and customs; he is jealous of the authenticity and spontaneity of the secular person.
For Rav Shagar, Rav Areye is a symbol of a religious person who is honest with himself: religion may have divine laws and guidelines, nevertheless, a person does not always succeed in finding meaning in them. Rather than preach to his students about a perfect religion, Rav Shagar would rather be honest and sincere.
Rabbi Schwarz: At the end of the first chapter of ‘Shuvi Nafshi’, Rav Shagar asks a very honest and important question:
The youth of today are in different situation than we were when we were younger. What does the concept ‘teshuvah’ mean to a postmodern person who lives in a pluralistic and relativistic world, where there isn’t one single truth, and certainly not the ‘Truth’? If there is no Truth, or to say it in reverse, if there are multiple truths and everything is dependent on the ‘context,’ then to where should a person direct their teshuvah? …Is there room for teshuvah in a world of relativistic truth?12
In other words, postmodernism is a world where we do no act based on absolute Truth, where we acknowledge that our values are influenced by our cultural backgrounds. Rav Shagar asks: How can a person say sorry and return to God in a world where no one necessarily believes in absolute values and absolute truth? What does teshuvah mean for a person living in a postmodern world? Levi, can you explain what Rav Shagar is struggling with here?
Levi Morrow: Teshuvah assumes that there is some fundamentally correct way that you are supposed to live your life, a way to which you can return if you have strayed. Postmodernism, as Rav Shagar depicts it here, leaves no room for there to be one correct way to live to which we all must return.
Rabbi Schwartz: The Rambam believed his understanding of God was True and correct for everyone. Therefore, for the Rambam, to do teshuvah was quite straightforward. Follow the instructions and arrive at the correct goal. Yet if postmodernism has no one Truth and one correct goal, then how does Rav Shagar suggest a person do teshuvah? How does one choose which spiritual path to strive toward?
Levi Morrow: You have to be very honest with yourself. Rav Shagar lays out two different approaches to teshuvah, broadly speaking, within the Jewish tradition, one based on human freedom and one based on divine grace. Knowing which one is right for you requires honestly appraising yourself and your life.
Rabbi Schwartz: Yes, in many pieces of Rav Shagar, he discusses a type of truth that is true for the specific individual, what he calls ‘local truth.’ A Biblical verse that Rav Shagar likes to quote in this context is, ‘I will be who I will be’ (Shemot 3:14). Levi, how would you apply this principle to teshuvah? Do you think some people lean more toward a teshuvah of human freedom,13 while others lean more toward a teshuvah of divine grace and self-acceptance? Do you think Rav Shagar would say it has to do with one’s personality or cultural background? Why do some people need to hear more lessons about taking responsibility, while others need to hear more teachings about self-acceptance and letting go?
Levi Morrow: The difference between teshuvah of grace and teshuvah of freedom is fundamentally about your ability to shape yourself, to consciously change who you are. Some people might be entirely incapable of changing who they are, and some people might be capable of making themselves into entirely new people. I think most of us are in between, with aspects of ourselves that we cannot change and aspects of ourselves that we can.
Becoming the Mashiach for Oneself
Rabbi Schwartz: In chapter four of ‘Shuvi Nafshi’, Rav Shagar discusses Rav Soloveitchik’s philosophy of teshuvah. Rav Shagar seems to be very excited by Rav Soloveitchik’s phrase: ‘The sinner who does teshuvah becomes the king Mashiach for oneself.’14 Can you explain why Rav Shagar is attracted to the idea of becoming the Mashiach for oneself?
Levi Morrow: Well Rav Shagar understands that line as being about self-creation, an important theme in the writings of both Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Shagar. For Rav Shagar, self-creation, and really any creativity, represents the divine potential of human beings. ‘The created attains the level of creator,’ as Rav Shagar quotes from Rav Kook. The ability to create meaningfully and lastingly is very important for Rav Shagar. In the context of teshuvah, it means the possibility to make ourselves into who we really want to be.
Rabbi Schwartz: The concept of the Mashiach is usually understood to refer to an outside force and savior. The way Rav Shagar and Rav Soloveitchik are using it is in a very different way – internal and self-saving. The normal understanding of the Mashiach is someone outside of me being my savior, while this second attitude of the Mashiach is me myself being my own savior. The first Mashiach is external, while the second Mashiach is internal. Do you see a parallel between these two different ways of understanding the Mashiach and Rav Shagar’s two concepts of teshuvah?
Levi Morrow: I don’t think so. The correct parallel is between the Mashiach as an external force acting upon the Jewish people and the individual doing teshuvah, acting upon herself as an external force. Just as the Mashiach is both one of the people and separate enough to act upon the people, an individual can to some degree stand outside herself, enabling her to examine and act upon herself.
Rabbi Schwartz: Very interesting. Does ‘becoming Mashiach for oneself’ follow Rav Shagar’s concept of teshuvah being an act of human free will?
Levi Morrow: Yes. First, I would note that for Rav Shagar teshuvah is always an act of free will, the difference between the two forms of teshuvah is in the nature of the act. Teshuvah of freedom is about freely creating yourself, whereas teshuvah of grace means accepting who you are as a gift from God, something you must freely choose to do. Rav Soloveitchik sees redemption and Mashiach as being about self-creation, so when it comes to teshuvah this falls under Rav Shagar’s category of teshvuah of freedom, meaning the freedom to create yourself anew.
Rabbi Schwartz: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. Both self-creation and self-acceptance must be freely chosen. To choose to accept oneself with all of one’s imperfections is just as much of a choice and is just as difficult as creating oneself.
Levi Morrow: Actually, Rav Shagar suggests that choosing to accept yourself as you are may be the harder choice, to the point of being almost inhuman. The greatest conceit of modern man is the degree to which we shape and control who we are. We like to think we have absolute control over who we are and that we can remake ourselves to fit our whims. Self-acceptance requires overcoming this illusory conceit, recognizing that, in whole or in part, we cannot control who we are.
Rosh HaShana versus Yom Kippur
Rabbi Schwartz: In chapter four of ‘Shuvi Nafshi’, Rav Shagar writes:
These two attitudes of teshuvah characterize the difference between Rosh Hashana… and Yom Kippur… Rosh Hashana is rooted in human effort, where even the crowning of God king is dependent on human freedom. In stark contrast, Yom Kippur is a day of surrendering to God’s compassion, to divine grace.15
In Rav Shagar’s eyes, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur can be divided into two different types of teshuvah. Rosh Hashana is focused on human freedom and self-creation, whereas Yom Kippur is about divine grace and self-acceptance. Can you talk a bit about how Rav Shagar sees Rosh Hashana versus Yom Kippur?
Levi Morrow: Rosh Hashanah, for Rav Shagar, is the day of God’s coronation, when the Jews declare that God is sovereign over all creation, including themselves. That is a fundamentally creative act, instating values and standards by which we can judge our actions and see what we have done wrong. The great problem of the contemporary individual, Rav Shagar suggests, is that she lacks a standard with which to evaluate her own actions, and it is this problem that we rectify on Rosh Hashanah.
In contrast, Yom Kippur is about acceptance rather than creation. On Yom Kippur, we accept that we have sinned, and ask God to forgive us. We can’t ever change the past, we can’t make the sin go away, so we ask God to forgive it. The feelings of purity and atonement at which we aim on Yom Kippur come from God, not from ourselves.
Giving Up Inner Meaning (Vitur Al HaPenimiut)
Rabbi Schwartz: At the end of chapter six of ‘Shuvi Nafshi’, Rav Shagar discusses the idea of ‘vitur al h’penimiut’, loosely translated as ‘letting go of inner meaning.’16 He writes:
We have learnt that inner meaning is the test of teshuvah. However, if everything is God’s will, then it is also possible to let go of inner meaning. If the divine perspective is absolute, then who says that accepting God’s will with a feeling of inner meaning is the true test of teshuvah? Indeed, God is present in a person’s lack of inner meaning just as it exists in the inner meaning itself. From here we arrive at the idea of trying to accomplish the paradoxical goal: the Chasid let’s go of inner meaning (vitur al ha penimiut).17
Levi, I have to confess to you that when I first came across this idea of ‘letting go of inner meaning’ I was very skeptical. I remember thinking to myself: ‘Why is Rav Shagar encouraging me to let go of achieving the spiritual goal of authenticity and inner meaning?’ Can you explain what Rav Shagar means by this shocking and thought-provoking phrase?
Levi Morrow: Rav Shagar is talking about the idea of doing teshuvah and serving God even when you don’t personally identify with it. Instead of making your religiosity a function of your inner life, you make it about your conscious choices and decisions. You choose to serve God, even without inner feelings of religiosity.
Rabbi Schwartz: As I mentioned above, when I first came across this idea of ‘letting go of inner meaning,’ I was very skeptical. It took me more than three years of immersing myself in Rav Shagar’s writings to really comprehend what he means by this mysterious phrase and why he thinks it is relevant to my own spiritual life.
It seems that there are two opposite extremes. On the one hand, some people follow mitzvot out of a passive obedience to religious authority. ‘I have to obey the laws or I will get punished by God.’ On the other hand, some people strive to do mitzvot motivated by continuous inner meaning and inspiration. ‘I want to feel spiritual excitement in every mitzvah I do.’
But here, Rav Shagar seems to be presenting to his reader an in-between path: not following mitzvot out of passive obedience, but also not out of constant spiritual inspiration. Can you discuss a little bit how ‘vitur al ha penimiut,’ of choosing to do mitzvot even when one doesn’t feel inner excitement, is a third option of connecting to Torah, mitzvot and God?
Levi Morrow: The interesting thing here is how the obedience model and the ‘giving up on innerness’ model can look so similar while being so different. In the binary you depicted, you’re either obedient to God or freely seeking personal meaning and inspiration. However, it is also possible to see your inner life as tyrannical, as something we obey. In that sense, giving up on innerness means freedom from the tyranny of our inner lives and feelings, an ecstatic ability to choose who we want to be rather than being slaves to who we already are.
Rabbi Schwartz: This is a very important idea. We often assume that being able to access internal inspiration is the ultimate freedom. Yet Rav Shagar’s ‘vitur al ha penimiut’ argues that sometimes our obsession with inner meaning can itself turn into a prison. If I can only do something when I am inspired, when I am madly in love, then I am a prisoner to that inner goal, in a certain sense.
Would you say that Rav Shagar’s concept of ‘vitur al ha penimiut’ follows the Rambam’s attitude of teshuvah as an act of human will? In other words, I must choose to do teshuvah, to create my life based on the way I want to, and not wait for internal inspiration to determine everything?
Levi Morrow: You end up in a similar place as Rambam, but it’s not exactly the same. Rambam’s model is its own thing, it’s just about shaping yourself into a new person. Giving up on innerness means shaping yourself into a new person, while consciously rejecting the idea that you should slavishly follow your inner life.
Rabbi Schwartz: To put ‘vitur al ha penimiut’ in context of the two main themes of Shuvi Nafshi, of cheirut and chesed, of self-creation and self-acceptance, perhaps we could say that there are times when a person must learn to accept and listen to one’s inner world (chesed), and there are other times when one must choose to transcend and be free of one’s inner world and commit to self-creation (cheirut).
Levi Morrow: Well Rav Shagar goes a step farther than that. He says that giving up on innerness is itself a form of divine grace. The difference is that you accept that God did not give you meaning and inspiration, that God wants you to choose consciously rather than following your inner life.
Rabbi Schwartz: Yes, this is very difficult to do, especially for people who consider themselves spiritual seekers. Can I accept that what God wants from me in this specific moment is not inner depth, but loyalty to external actions that I have committed to.
To give a personal example, sometimes I am rushing and have no way to pray with kavana in a long and drawn out meditative state. Yet, perhaps trying to force myself to have extra kavana at this specific moment is not an expression of God’s will, but a sign that I am a slave to some abstract concept of the need for spiritual inspiration. Perhaps what God really wants from me at this moment is ‘vitur al ha penimiut’, praying without inner meaning, and just to say my simple words of prayer. Levi, can you think of a personal example of ‘vitur al ha penimiut’ in your life?
Levi Morrow: I don’t have a specific example, rather this is essentially the framework through which I think about halakhah as a whole. The point of halakhah is not personal inspiration. Then it’s a question of what it is about, but that’s a different topic.