Rav Shagar: Studying Torah as a Quest for God - צירופים חדשים

Rav Shagar: Studying Torah as a Quest for God

Ari Ze’ev Schwartz and Levi Morrow

4 June 2020
Reading time: 15 min read

How do you make sure that Torah study is an encounter or relationship with God, one where both God and the individual are present?

Religious students come to Yeshiva and Midrasha with many spiritual questions: Who is God? Why should I pray? Is Judaism relevant to my life? Rav Shagar acknowledges that the Torah being learnt in Yeshiva does not deal with such foundational questions.

Rav Shagar encourages his students to embrace Torah not simply as a book of information, but also as a way of life.

Rav Shagar is not interested in the intellectual exercise of teaching and learning irrelevant facts. He wants to inspire his students, for them to find relevance and meaning in what he teaches them.

For Rav Shagar, the ideal type of studying Torah is when I feel inspired and excited in the very moment of studying the text.

Rav Shagar believed that Torah study should be a spiritual and meaningful experience, one that transforms the student's life.

Feeling Disconnected from the Torah 

Rabbi Schwartz: Rav Shagar spent his entire life studying and teaching ancient religious texts – Tanach, Gemara, Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, and Chassidut. He taught in several Yeshivot and religious institutions in his life, and believed that the act of studying Torah was not merely an intellectual pursuit, but had the potential of being one of the deepest spiritual experiences for a Jew.

And yet, over the years, Rav Shagar had become aware of his religious Zionist students lack of connection to studying Torah in general, and learning Gemara specifically.1 These ancient texts no longer spoke the language of his student’s inner world. His students felt distant and alienated from the words of the ancient rabbis.

As a response to this educational and spiritual crisis, Rav Shagar began developing a way to communicate and translate the language of the sages into a language that was relevant and meaningful to his students. Rav Shagar wrote a book focused on how to study Gemara in a meaningful way called ‘In God’s Torah a Person Will Meditate: The Study of Gemara as a Quest for God.’ Yet the topic of helping his students study Torah in a personal and meaningful way is a theme that permeates all of Rav Shagar’s books.

Levi, before we begin discussing the specific solutions of Rav Shagar, can you share with me your general thoughts on this spiritual crisis that Rav Shagar is struggling with? What does it mean that his students aren’t connecting to studying Torah in general and Gemara specifically? And why is this issue so important for Rav Shagar?

Levi Morrow: I would start by noting that strictly speaking the book title says ‘In His Torah,’ not ‘In God’s Torah,’ working off the midrashic understanding of Tehillim 1:2. The verse describes a righteous person, saying that ‘his delight is in the Torah of God; and in his Torah does he meditate day and night.’ While the word ‘his’ in the second clause refers to God, the midrash reads it as referring to the righteous person himself. Thus, the Torah is described in this verse as being both God’s Torah and the individual’s Torah.

This duality is the essential issue with which Rav Shagar is struggling. How do you make sure that Torah study is an encounter or relationship with God, one where both God and the individual are present? In his introduction to the book, he describes how even when he was a student, it was not uncommon for Religious Zionist students to feel alienated from Talmud study, as it was specifically presented to them as irrelevant to the rest of their lives. Its foreignness was viewed as a sign of its sanctity.

Regardless of the theological meaning of that idea, the existential effect was dreadful. The students felt guilty about not enjoying the Talmud study, and many abandoned yeshivah or even religion altogether.

Rav Shagar’s goal is thus to undo this problem, to create a method of learning and teaching Talmud, and Torah more broadly, that is relevant to the individual’s life. This is particularly necessary in the Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox worlds, where we expect such things to be relevant. We do not identify holiness with alienation. So Rav Shagar wants to create a Torah study of engagement and relevance, one that can fulfill the ‘covenant function,’ embodying our active relationship with God.

Rabbi Schwartz: To respond to what you wrote, I want to quote Rav Shagar:

Many students who finish their religious high school education and go on to learn in a Yeshiva do not come in order to study Gemara specifically. Instead, high school rabbis attract many of their students to yeshiva by convincing them that in yeshiva a person will strengthen one’s faith, find answers to one’s religious doubts, and develop one’s personality.2

In other words, Rav Shagar says that religious Zionist students come to Yeshiva (and I would add Midrashot) thirsty for experiencing Torah in a personal way, in a way that is relevant to their lives. And yet, according to Rav Shagar, these religious students become disappointed when they see that the Torah learnt in Yeshiva is irrelevant to their inner worlds.

But what is the actual reality? That in yeshiva a person is forced to spend most of one’s time and effort involved in the exhausting debates of the Gemara. And thus, we are forced to ask ourselves: Is there any connection whatsoever between the spiritual desires of the students and what they actually end up studying in Yeshiva?3

This is a very honest critique. Rav Shagar will not lie about the reality in front of his eyes; he wants us to be real with the current situation. Religious students come to Yeshiva and Midrasha with many spiritual questions: Who is God? Why should I pray? Is Judaism relevant to my life? Rav Shagar is honest and acknowledges that the Torah being learnt in Yeshiva does not deal with such foundational questions. The religious youth are simply not finding what they are looking for in Yeshiva.

Levi, you and I studied in various Yeshivot for many years. Can you share your thoughts on what Rav Shagar is referring to here? Did you ever witness this struggle amongst your friends when you were learning in Yeshiva? Also, did you ever personally feel disconnected from the Torah you were studying in Yeshiva?

Levi Morrow: So, I was lucky enough to find a yeshivah where we could explore those kinds of questions. However, I attended a yeshivah high school where that was certainly the experience. To borrow Rav Shagar’s description of Brisker Talmud study, we could ask ‘what’ questions but not ‘why’ questions. We could ask about the specific contents of the Talmud and Torah, as broadly as we want, but we couldn’t ask about why we were studying Talmud or why it says what it says. This led me to generally feel like Judaism didn’t have and wasn’t interested in these questions, a feeling that persisted until I attended yeshivah after high school.

Rabbi Schwartz: I also experienced in my high school religious education a total disconnect between personal meaning and studying Torah. Tanach, Mishna, Talmud, Halacha was taught as history. This is what happened to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Sarah. This is what Jews do on Pesach or Yom Kippur. We never asked: ‘What does Avraham’s life teach me right now as a teenager trying to find himself?’ Or ‘What do the laws of Pesach have to teach me about experiencing freedom in my own life?’ Such questions were not considered important or serious questions. In this way, learning Torah was a very passive experience. I was not involved in the text. I was never encouraged to bring myself to the text.

In contrast, Rav Shagar says that studying Torah should be a very active experience. A person should search for solutions to their personal questions inside of Jewish texts. In the following piece, Rav Shagar describes his ideal relationship to studying Torah:

We must strive towards the development of a ‘Ben Torah.’ The Torah must be one’s culture; something that one is immersed in and draws inspiration from; inside of it a person is able to find the solutions to one’s most personal questions. And since that a person’s entire world- or at least a large part of it- is centered around the Torah; as a consequence, one’s thoughts and values, one’s personality, is developed through this Jewish culture.4


Studying Torah as Jewish Culture

Rabbi Schwartz: Levi, what does Rav Shagar mean when he says that Torah should be one’s culture (tarbut)?

Levi Morrow: Culture for Rav Shagar is more than just specific objects of a culture, such as music, art, or clothing. It is the whole web of such objects and all the meanings that those objects bear. Jewish culture is the Torah and its interpretation and its application and the customs that build up around its application. All of that strongly shapes the individual who grows up within that culture.

The Torah would be such a person’s whole world, or at least a central part of it. They would live within the Torah more than they contain the Torah within themselves. So, the Torah would of course be intimately involved in and relevant to their personal issues; the whole distinction between Torah and personal issues would be blurred, to say the least.5

Rabbi Schwartz: Usually the world ‘culture’ has a secular connotation. Music culture, sport culture, food culture. One of Rav Shagar’s favorite Jewish philosophers, Franz Rosenzweig, had a deep appreciation of the world ‘culture,’ and applied it to living a fully immersed life of Torah. Rav Shagar also uses the world ‘culture’ to describe an all-encompassing relationship to Torah study.

On a personal note, growing up in Australia, sport was such a deep part of the national culture, it was all encompassing. My friends and I would plan our week according to what sport was on. We would proudly wear our sport jerseys out. We would constantly discuss the statistics and players leading up to the sport game. In this way, the Australian sport culture influenced everything we did. It shaped our personalities, dress, language, and topics of discussions. It wasn’t something forced on us; we loved it, it was a natural part of who we were.

When I first started studying Rav Shagar’s description of perceiving studying the Torah as Jewish culture, I immediately thought of the way I grew up and the intense Australian sport culture I was surrounded with.

In the book ‘In His Torah he Will Meditate,’ Rav Shagar encourages his students to embrace Torah not simply as a book of information, but also as a way of life. If a person chooses to immerse themselves in Jewish stories and symbols, Jewish laws and customs, Jewish festivals and celebrations, then a Jewish attitude to life naturally begins to shape their mind, emotions, personality and entire life. This is Jewish culture. The Torah has become something natural to who a person is, something organic to the way they express themselves.


Studying Torah as a Spiritual Experience

Rabbi Schwartz: To be sure, Rav Shagar writes that immersing oneself in studying and following the Torah is not merely about being a part of a nationalistic culture, but also about a spiritual connection to God.

Studying Torah is not merely an intellect project; it is a way of life for the Jewish people. Yet it is more than this; it is a relationship (brit) between God and the Jewish people. Our essential awareness is that of the Torah as a book of love (Sefer Ha Brit). Brit means that the main function of studying Torah is a spiritual connection (devekut), an intimacy that a Jew experiences toward God when studying Torah.6

Levi, can you share your thoughts on this piece I just quoted? What does the word ‘berit’ mean for Rav Shagar? What is the difference between a secular national culture and a Torah spiritual culture? Why is this distinction significant and important for Rav Shagar to point out?

Levi Morrow: Well I think what’s truly interesting is that he is primarily erasing differences. By using the world ‘culture,’ he’s putting Torah study and Judaism right alongside all of those things you mentioned. That’s what makes the difference so critical, because it is why Torah and Judaism also transcend the category of ‘culture.’ The difference is what Rav Shagar sees as the capacity for the Torah, and our studying the Torah, to embody our relationship with God.

By studying Torah, we interact with the divine, we grapple with how God can shape our lives, and we bring ourselves into dialogue with God. It is this religious, divine element that makes the culture of Torah and Judaism different from secular culture.

Rabbi Schwartz: Yes, I think this is an important insight into Torah study. The act of studying Torah is meaningful in and of itself. By analyzing the Torah, we enter into a dialogue with God. Often, we think of studying a book as a means to knowing something outside of the book. The book is only a means to comprehending an idea, while the practical implementation of this idea is the goal. For example, I read a recipe book so that I can know how to practically cook food. Or I read a map so that I can know how to practically arrive at a location.

Yet when it comes to studying Torah, Rav Shagar says that the very act of studying Torah is also one of the goals. In other words, interacting with a religious text; analyzing spiritual concepts; pondering insights about myself, my people, and the world around me – this is a meaningful experience in and of itself. In this way, Rav Shagar sees studying Torah as a goal and not simply a means; that the very act of studying a spiritual text is significant and transformative. Levi, I want to quote for you a powerful piece of Rav Shagar where he asks himself what is the goal of studying Torah.

The truth is that many times I will ask myself: What am I searching for when I learn Torah? Or to say it in reverse: What is the reason why people come to listen to a religious class?

Personally, there is this great fear that continuously returns before each time I teach that perhaps I won’t say anything. Now of course I am aware that in my words I am communicating information and that I am passing on certain ideas. Yet my true desire is not to impart information but rather inspiration, a type of spiritual pleasure and inner satisfaction.7

I would love to hear your thoughts on this fascinating piece. What does Rav Shagar mean when he says that he fears that in teaching Torah he won’t say anything? And how does Rav Shagar answer his own question: What am I searching for when I learn Torah?

Levi Morrow: This is a repeated theme in Rav Shagar’s reflections on teaching Torah. He’s not interested in the intellectual exercise of teaching and learning irrelevant facts, which we might think of as the pointless shifting of information from one person to another. He wants to inspire his students, for them to find relevance and meaning in what he teaches them.8

This fits with his critique of traditional yeshiva study, which specifically identifies holiness with irrelevance. However, it also echoes his critique of academic forms of study, which put a premium on disinterested study. Against both of these, Rav Shagar wants to propose a new, almost messianic form of Torah study, which he says will be judged base on aesthetics rather than truth. By this he means that the value of the Torah study is in how it affects the student, the way it astonishes and inspires them, rather than in its accurate reflection of texts or history.

Rabbi Schwartz: So, what does Rav Shagar mean that he is afraid he won’t say anything when teaching?

Levi Morrow: He means that he’s afraid the words he says will not be meaningful or inspiring to his students. Saying ideas doesn’t meet his standard for having actually taught something. They have to strike home in the student’s.

Rabbi Schwartz: This is a powerful idea. Usually people think that the main responsibility of a teacher is to teach an idea or text. Yet Rav Shagar does not think that this is what it means to teach Torah. Instead, he wants to use these ancient Jewish texts to speak to his students, to uncover an insight into who they are, to give them a moment of connection to God, to experience spiritual inspiration.

You mentioned above that Rav Shagar thinks that the ideal type of Torah learning, the Torah of the Mashiach, is judged based on aesthetics and not truth. I think this is a helpful way of thinking about studying Torah.

Let’s take the example of listening to a song. We don’t judge a song based on whether it is true or false. Instead, we judge a song based on how it makes us feel in the moment of listening. The song is meaningful not because of some idea I received from the song that can be used after I stop listening to the music, but instead, the song is meaningful because I experience enjoyment, a feeling, a vibration or energy while I am listening to the song. Listening to a song is all about the present moment experience; the song is meaningful right here and right now.

In a similar way, for Rav Shagar, the ideal type of studying Torah is when I feel inspired and excited in the very moment of studying the text. Studying Torah is a spiritual experience in and of itself. The way this text enables me to analyze my thoughts and examines my values is itself significant.

While of course Rav Shagar would say that by studying Torah we learn practical things for life; nonetheless, we must also train ourselves to appreciate the act of studying Torah as a spiritual practice for the present moment. Just as we love the experience that happens to us while listening to music, so too, we must learn to appreciate the inner experience that happens to us while studying a religious and spiritual text.


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