You Can Go Home Again

Zachary Truboff

19 May 2020
Reading time: 50 min read

The modern Jew is never fully comfortable in their Jewishness. He or she must constantly find ways to justify their religious beliefs and practices or leave them behind entirely.

Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy’s ideal of making a home in two worlds need not preclude the possibility of being at home with Judaism.

Being at home with our Jewishness means that it as an essential part of who are. It is inextricably bound up with our identity, and we feel no need to explain it or justify it to others.

The Jewish home is the Torah. It is not merely a collection of ancient texts but a living language embedded within a comprehensive way of life that draws its meaning from the Jewish community, and especially from the Jewish familial home.

If modernity threatened the Jewish home, then postmodernity threatens our ability to make a home of any kind.

Living in multiple worlds diminishes the sense that Judaism is authentic and real. Instead, it begins to feel like it is just one option among many.

For Rav Shagar, halakha not only connects us to that which is beyond this world, but also grants us a deep connection to the Jewish past.

For Rav Shagar, there is an ever-present danger that the idea of home may turn into a fixation and become corrupted.

When teaching prayer, it may be more important to invest time and energy into the actual experience of prayer as opposed to studying the meaning of the liturgy as just another Jewish text.

A home needs walls, and must provide some sense of separation from the outside world, but that doesn’t preclude one from treating the other with respect.

For Rav Shagar, it is batitiut which stands in opposition to the concept of galut, and therefore it can perhaps be seen as taking on redemptive possibilites.

On the centrality of Baitiut in the thought of Rav Shagar, and our ability to feel at home with Judaism.

Rebbe Nachman’s tale ‘The Simple Man and the Sophisticated Man’ tells the story of two men, who grew up in the same town, who had been close when they were young, but eventually went on to lead drastically different lives. One was simple, not necessary lacking in intelligence but preferring a more naïve and humble existence. The other was clever and sophisticated, able to see life from a variety of perspectives. After completing school, the simple man went on to learn how to be a shoemaker. Because he was rather simple, it took him some time to master his craft. Nevertheless, he eventually married and was able to earn a meager sustenance for his family. His life was simple but happy. The clever and sophisticated man chose to leave his hometown behind in order to see the exciting opportunities that the wider world had to offer. He travelled to the big city, learning not one trade but several. With his intelligence, he was able to acquire them quickly, but he was not satisfied with any of them. Instead, he was always anxious that another occupation might be more lucrative. He eventually mastered even more skills, travelling nearly the entire world and attaining greatness unheard of by those in his hometown. None of this, though, made him happy and after several years, he decided to return home once again with the intention of settling down and getting married. During his time away, the fathers of both the simple man and the sophisticated man had passed away. Because the simple man had never left, he inherited his father’s home and all of its beautiful furnishings. He had been happy before and he was even happier now. The same, however, could not be said for the clever and sophisticated man. Since there had been no one to take care of the family home in his absence, it had fallen into disrepair, and he could not stay there. Instead, he was forced to lodge at a local inn, but it was not to his liking, and he was even more miserable than he had been in his previous travels.

For Rav Shagar, the clever and sophisticated man is a metaphor for the modern Jew, who has the freedom to leave his or her home within Judaism and discover the many opportunities that the world has to offer.1 Unlike their forbearers, modern Jews no longer see themselves as bound to a particular way of life or part of a larger collective. Rather, they are autonomous individuals, who perhaps need not commit to anything at all. Leaving home, however, comes with a price. As sociologist of religion Peter Berger describes it, the individual’s relationship with religious life fundamentally changes. He sees himself ‘as being alone in a way that is unthinkable in traditional society – deprived of the firm solidarity of his collectivity, uncertain of the norms by which his life is to be governed, finally uncertain of who or what he is.’2 This results in a deep sense of estrangement, for ‘Liberation and alienation are inextricably connected, reverse sides of the same coin of modernity.’3 The modern Jew is never fully comfortable in their Jewishness. He or she must constantly find ways to justify their religious beliefs and practices or leave them behind entirely. They no longer have a true home in Judaism.  What they are left with is at best a hotel, which provides the facsimile of a home but one that is ultimately lacking in rootedness and authenticity.

While one might assume that Rav Shagar’s words are aimed at liberal Judaism, his critique is in fact directed at Religious Zionism in Israel and Modern Orthodoxy in America. Both claim that a modern Jew does not have to leave the Jewish home in order to live in the modern world. Rather one is able to make a home in both.4 However, Rav Shagar contends that Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy often deceive themselves and in fact, they have much in common with the clever and sophisticated man of Rebbe Nachman’s story. Too often, the attempt to make a home in multiple worlds leads to alienation from the Jewish tradition, causing Judaism to lose its taken-for-grantedness.5

Rav Shagar explains that Rav Kook’s vision of Religious Zionism seeks to overcome this problem through the concept of sanctifying the profane, kiddush hachol. Despite their embrace of the modern secular world, adherents of Religious Zionism are meant to experience no alienation from Judaism because all secular phenomena can be incorporated into a religious worldview. To use the metaphor of Rebbe Nachman’s story, they are meant to experience the modern secular world as if it is merely an extension of their religious home. Rav Shagar, however, is careful to point out that the day to day experience of Religious Zionism rarely lives up to this ideal.6 It is all too common for Rav Kook’s claims of kiddush hachol to becomes nothing more than ideological statements disconnected from the reality. This, Rav Shagar notes, inevitably leads to a loss of baitiut and as a result, Religious Zionism is constantly pulled between two poles. Individuals are either drawn to religious fundamentalism as a way to cover up for the loss of home they experience, or they are so estranged from religious life that they abandon it entirely.7

A similar phenomenon is described by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik regarding Modern Orthodoxy in America. Despite his attempt to articulate a vision of Modern Orthodoxy where the religious and secular exist in dialectical tension, each one with its proper place, he too noted that his students lack a rootedness because they are caught between worlds. This results in a tendency towards ‘exaggerated extremism, which is frightening in its arrogance; frequently they [also] move in the opposite direction and agree to concessions and the path of least resistance. In a word, they are perplexed in the pathways of Judaism.’8 He mourns the loss of what he calls, ‘“erev shabbat” Jews, who go out to greet the Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hand, with their feet, and/or their mouth – but there are few indeed who truly know the meaning of the service of the heart.’9 For Rabbi Soloveitchik, erev shabbat Jews would seem to embody the ideal of baitiut as they live with an unreflective piety that manifests in sincere religious enthusiasm even when it is not required by religious law.

According to Peter Berger, none of this is surprising: those who attempt to remain committed to a religious way of life in the modern world can never escape the ‘haunting sense of the constructedness of that which the community affirms.’10 In recent decades, this problem has only worsened as feelings of homelessness and alienation have only intensified, even outside the bounds of religious life. As one cultural critic describes it, ‘from technology to immigration, urbanization and climate change – the idea of home is central. Fears that we are losing our place are rife. We live in a restless, rootless world that prompts nostalgia, a yearning for an impossible return to an imagined home.’11

Rav Shagar, however, would disagree. Not only can we go home again but we must. Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy’s ideal of making a home in two worlds need not preclude the possibility of being at home with Judaism.12 For Rav Shagar, concepts such as brit (covenant) and kabbalah atzmit (self-acceptance) are essential for overcoming the religious alienation so common to Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism. In addition, baitiut offers a powerful lens through which to reinterpret foundational religious ideas such as Shabbat, teshuvah, and halakha along with the Jewish people’s very relationship with the Land of Israel. His writings also offer the broad outline of the ways in which baitiut can be best achieved through Jewish education. Finally, he shows how baitiut may also serve as the key to new forms of religiosity and perhaps even has redemptive implications as well.


What does it mean to be at home?

In order to appreciate what baitiut might mean in the context of Jewish religious life, it is helpful to first explore more generally, what it means to be at home. On the one hand, the idea of home is something that is accessible to everyone. As one exploration of the subject states, ‘Is there any experience more familiar to us than the experience of our home: the experience of being at home; being away from home; or being on our way home?’13 Nevertheless, there is still something powerful and even a little mysterious about the nature of home. Though we all experience it first-hand, we rarely direct our attention to it.

When we look closely at the meaning and significance of home, six key characteristics emerge. First, our home orients us in the world through grounding us spatially. We are always somewhere in relation to our home and intuitively note this at all times. Second, our home is a place of safety, and ultimately of comfort. It divides the world between a private inner space that protects us and a public outer space where we are vulnerable. Thus, we often seek refuge in our home, perhaps the only place that can offer us true peace and rest. Third, we are intimately familiar with the insides of our home, far more so than any outsider could be. Every nook and cranny of our home is known to us. We are so comfortable in our home that we often find ourselves moving around within it unselfconsciously. We may start in one room only to find ourselves having walked to another with even realizing how we got there. Fourth, home is the place where our possessions are. Objects that belong to me and hold special meaning to me are to be found at home. Each one of them has its proper place in our home , though we are also willing to tolerate a certain amount of messiness. Fifth, it is nearly always the case that a home is lived in with others. Our earliest experiences of home come from the time we spend with our families and the shared intimacy that we experience together in the home. Lastly, our home is tied up with our sense of self. When I am at home, I feel that ‘”I am where I can be myself,”… there is no need to explain our actions to anyone or no need to feel on guard towards the misperceptions of the other, as, for example, when getting home tired in the afternoon, I “feel free” to kick off my shoes and lie down flat on my back in the middle of the living room floor and close my eyes.’14 Not only do I have no need to justify myself, but home is the place that reveals the deepest and most authentic aspects of ourselves. The roles we play when out in the world are just masks that we wear, masks that come off at home so that we can reveal our true selves.

For Rav Shagar, baitiut captures many of these different elements, but he also places a special emphasis on childhood as the time when feelings of baitiut are most pronounced. He describes it in the following way:

After time spent in the womb, a time when the baby is part of its mother, childhood becomes a home for him – the first foundational home that will accompany him throughout all his days. Childhood, even if it is not always happy, protects a person and grants them refuge: the refuge of home, the refuge of parents. This refuge is a state of being and consciousness that is different from the consciousness of an adult, and it is this thing that draws us again and again to childhood, to the unique ‘breath’ of school children.15 In this period of time our lives are at one with the world, with existence, with family.16

When we are young, our home grounds us, grants us protection and comfort, and most importantly, provides a deep sense of connection with our family. Because childhood is a time when we lack the capacity for reflection, the self-evident nature of home enables our lives feels both spontaneous and authentic. We are who we are and we have no need to question our identity in any way. If we extend these qualities to our relationship with Judaism, the implications are clear. To be at home with Judaism means that our Jewishness is something that grounds us. It serves as a refuge that protects us from the vicissitudes of life. Our relationship with Judaism is an intimate one. Nothing in Torah, so to speak, is foreign to us. We live our Judaism with a deep and abiding connection to our fellow Jews who share our home. Most importantly, being at home with our Jewishness means that it as an essential part of who are. It is inextricably bound up with our identity, and we feel no need to explain it or justify it to others.


The Jewish Home Is the Torah, Language, and Community

If Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy have lost their ability to be at home with the Jewish tradition, then the first step towards recovering baitiut is to understand what made it possible in the first place. For Rav Shagar, the holiday of Channukah offers a perfect opportunity to explore this question. As is the case in contemporary life, Channukah was also a time when the Jewish home was threatened by outside influences. The Greeks desired not to physically eradicate the Jewish people but rather to assault them culturally and spiritually. The Channukah story details that the Greeks violated the sanctity of the Temple, but left its structure preserved. According to Rav Shagar, the goal of the Greeks was ultimately to uproot the Jewish people’s sense of home in Judaism that was grounded in the Torah.17 He expands upon this idea in an essay that seeks to address why the translation of the Written Torah into Greek was considered by the rabbis to be a sin on par with the golden calf.18 Drawing upon the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein, he argues that the Torah must be understood not only as a collection of texts to be studied but rather as a language embedded in a way of life.19 He writes:

The problem is a problem of communication. Language is not just a collection of signs, rather it is the foundation of baitiut. It is what makes a ‘home community’ possible. The desire to preserve language seeks to establish a partnership of conversation and understanding, to make a marriage possible, a partnership in creativity, a partnership in the speaking of Torah, a partnership in a way of life, a partnership in hope and longing. The war of the Greeks was first and foremost a war against this baitiut

The Torah receives its meaning from the fact it resides in the community and the home. The Torah is dependent on a community of listeners, from which it receives its structure. In the same manner, Wittgenstein taught us that there can never be a ‘private language,’ and thus also no ‘private halakhah.’ An essential part of living a halakhic life is rootedness in a broader, comprehensive framework, and this is not possible for a person to do alone…

The Torah is the brit between God and the Jewish people, and the primary understanding of Torah study is its connection to brit.20

In this key passage, Rav Shagar makes several important points about the way in which the Torah serves as a home for the Jewish people. First, he asserts that the Torah is a language and that language is an essential feature of baitiut. Like the home we are raised in, language grounds us. It is the lens through which we come to understand the world and ourselves within it. Furthermore, language has a home-like quality for us because of our intimacy with it. We come to know language from the inside, without ever having to ask ourselves the meaning and purpose of every word that we utter. For Rav Shagar, the Torah serves as the language of the Jewish people. Through the Jewish people speaking its words, it shapes their reality. Like any first-language, Jews acquire an intimacy with the Torah that stays with them throughout their life.21

Rav Shagar writes further that language cannot be viewed in isolation and must be understood as something that is shared with others and rooted in a particular way of life. To emphasize this point, Rav Shagar cites Wittgenstein’s assertion that there is no such thing as a private language. Language, by definition, lives in the relations between people and words only have meaning based on the way they are used in conversation with others. Furthermore, a language is more than the words in a dictionary and must be understood as being embedded in a particular way of life or culture. Language should be seen as reflecting a worldview that emerges from the practices that accompany it. The same is true for the language of Torah. Its meaning can only be determined in dialogue with other Jews as it emerges from the comprehensive rituals and behaviors of halakha that are lived collectively by the Jewish people.

Rav Shagar, however, adds one more important note: ‘The Torah receives its meaning from the fact it resides in the community and at home.’ The Jewish community may grant the language of Torah its meaning but the primary building block of the Jewish community is the Jewish familial home. Just as a person learns their native language from their parents so too this is the case with Torah. Children first absorb the words of Torah and the rhythms of Jewish life that accompany them by watching and learning from their parents.22 To summarize, the Jewish home is the Torah. It is not merely a collection of ancient texts but a living language embedded within a comprehensive way of life that draws its meaning from the Jewish community, and especially from the Jewish familial home.

With this background, we can now understand why the translation of the Written Torah into Greek was a sin on par with the golden calf. Both acts created a profound rupture in the brit between the Jewish people and God. With the writing of the Septuagint, the Written Torah could no longer could be the home it once was for the Jewish people. Others could now make use of it.23 For a home to retain its unique character, one must feel that it is exclusively theirs. If one knows that strangers have keys and can enter in at any time, it can no longer serve as a refuge in the same way it once did.24 In the process, the taken for granted nature of one’s home is lost. The mere fact that others can experience it as well means that we now look at it in a different fashion.

Furthermore, not all languages are equivalent to each other. As Rav Shagar explains elsewhere, ‘Different language will produce different pictures of the same world – life in English is different from life in French or life in Hebrew.’ To illustrate this claim, he offers the following example: ‘The expression “to like” exists in English, but not in Hebrew. One who doesn’t understand the Anglo spirit, is able to love or to yearn for, but does not have the ability “to like”.’ According to Wittgenstein, each language paints its own unique picture of the world. In this sense, the Greek language is inseparable from Greek wisdom and culture. Translating the Written Torah into Greek only ensured that something vital was lost and that elements of the Torah’s inner essence were profaned. The Torah in translation could not be a home for the Jewish people.

In the end, the Greeks’ attempt to uproot the baitiut of the Jewish people failed and the Jewish home was preserved. The Jewish people’s success, according to Rav Shagar, was a result of their ability to affirm their brit (i.e. exclusive covenantal relationship) with Torah. When the Jews discovered only one remaining cruse of oil, it was determined to be pure because it retained the seal of the kohen gadol.25 This must be understood as ‘a symbol of Judaism preserved from foreign destructive influences.’ The Beit Hamikdash functioned as a concrete manifestation of the brit between God and the Jewish people, and in its own way, a home for God and the Jewish people. The kohen gadol represents the special intimacy of this home for he is the only one who enters into its innermost sanctum. Discovering his seal on the cruse of oil meant that this intimacy has not been lost and that the brit with the Torah had been preserved. For the rabbis, the victory over the Greeks was specifically a triumph of the Oral Torah, the living language of Torah that is preserved in the Jewish home.

However, while the Greeks may have failed, modernity has been far more successful in shattering the relationship between the language of Torah, Jewish practice, and the Jewish community. As Western culture opened its doors to the Jewish people, the language of Torah found itself in competition with other languages. Jews lost their connection with their roots, and religious life was often conducted in translation. Even Jewish languages, such as Yiddish and Ladino, were replaced with alternatives. Not only was the language of Torah threatened, but the Jewish way of life from which the Torah had drawn its strength was also in danger. As depicted in Rebbe Nachman’s story, Jews moved to cities seeking out new opportunities, but in doing so, lost the organic connections and traditions of the shtetl. The breakdown of the traditional Jewish way of life was further accelerated by the new freedoms and independence offered by modernity. A Jew was no longer bound to other Jews, and participation in Jewish communal life became voluntary, when it persisted at all.


To Be at Home We Must Learn How to Make a Brit

While the loss of home is visceral to many modern Jews, Rav Shagar notes that leaving home is a necessary part of every individual’s life. In this light, he interprets the exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden as the primordial loss of baitiut.26

Growing older is bound up with becoming disconnected. The way of the world is that at some point a child must leave his home… This is the sin of adam harishon. It was not a sin of temptation or a violation in the way that we identify the concept ‘sin’ in our world. Rather it was the sin of seeking independence, separating from the source and from Divine perfection. It was a shattering of the existing wholeness and travelling in a different direction. Indeed, following the sin, adam harishon merited freedom. He grew up and left the home. In doing so, he lost the Garden of Eden, and baitiut. Going forward, he is never able to return to it. This is ‘the fiery spinning sword’ that does not allow one to pass.27

In eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve defied God’s command but did so in order to gain independence and freedom. Knowledge of good and evil shattered the childlike innocence of the Garden of Eden, but without it, Adam and Eve would not have been able to grow. Rav Shagar appears to conclude the passage on a pessimistic note, in that by being exiled from the Garden of Eden, Adam forever loses the unique sense of baitiut that he had experienced there. However, Rav Shagar acknowledges that despite this loss, humanity need not always be homeless.

While one may never recover the naïve innocence of childhood, one can still build a home through the act of marriage, as the Torah itself states, ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.’28 In Rav Shagar’s words, ‘The ability to dwell in a place, to find a place, it is the essence of baitiut, and this baitiut, first and foremost, is the home of a man and woman together.’29 At first glance, it is logical to view marriage as the foundation of baitiut, because it serves as the foundation of the Jewish family, which is rooted in the home. Rav Shagar, though, has something more in mind. The marital relationship contains the seeds to baitiut, because of what lies at the heart, the idea of brit.30

As Rav Shagar’s stated regarding the holiday of Chanukah, brit is essential for baitiut. It was only by affirming the Oral Torah and God’s eternal covenant were the Jewish people able to preserve the Jewish home in the face of the Greek cultural oppression. Brit creates baitiut through binding the two sides together in an exclusive relationship. A brit can be purely political and based on self-interest, but in its highest form it is an expression of love. Through the act of brit, one commits to another so fully that one identifies completely with the other, creating a sense of unity and oneness. The clearest example of this can be seen in the brit made between David and Jonathan. It is described that ‘Jonathan’s soul became bound up with the soul of David… Jonathan and David made a brit because [Jonathan] loved him as himself.’31 Through the act of brit, we create a connection with another that becomes intrinsic to who we are. To say it simply, commitment and attachment creates the sense of intimacy that defines what it means to be at home. When a man and woman become married, baitiut is not created through the purchasing of a house but through the shared relationship that they forge together. Through the brit of marriage, we find ourselves redeemed from our loneliness and isolation and finally feel at home with another person in this world. It is important to note that marriage and the baitiut it creates are of a different quality than the baitiut of childhood. Unlike the home of our childhood, this home is freely chosen and requires our constant effort to sustain it. Nevertheless, it engenders a sense of baitiut that is real, and which we are ultimately able to extend to others who we seek to bring into our family.

All this being said, making a brit and bringing about real baitiut is no easy task. If modernity threatened the Jewish home, then postmodernity threatens our ability to make a home of any kind. To appreciate this, all one has to do is look at the state of marriage today. People often delay marriage for many years and when they do finally get married, they rarely view it as a true brit. Instead, marriage is seen as conditional at best, for any kind of enduring commitment would be a limitation on one’s freedom.32

To overcome this, we must learn that a true sense of baitiut is impossible without brit. Rav Shagar offers the following example:

Someone once told me that when they were studying art in Betzalel, in the first class it was told to the students that they do not have a set seat in the classroom, and in every session they were to sit in a different place in the room. After some time, the student became religious and arrived to learn at Machon Meir, a yeshiva dedicated to baalei teshuva. In the first lesson he heard there, the rabbi, Rav Dov Bigon, said to the students that everyone needs to have a set place in the beit midrash. In his previous place of study at Betzalel this approach would of course have been considered coercive and would only encourage a lack of creativity… Even with this, it is possible to see Machon Meir’s approach in a positive light. Most of the students were baalei teshuva seeking their place in the world. One’s technical place in the beit midrash can transform to a ‘place’ in a deeper sense, that signifies batiut and expresses absolute faith of a person in the place that he is found. This awareness does not express itself as a compulsion but rather the ability to make a brit. It allows one to have an inner identity that enables one to progress towards creativity; to arrive to a point of ‘I am who I am.’33

At the Betzalel art school, choosing a fixed space in the classroom is understood as constraining an artist’s creativity and is therefore to be avoided. However, there are real costs to such an approach. The artist may begin each day thinking they can start anew, but they never truly have a space that they can call their own. At Mechon Meir, the opposite is the case. Just as one is halakhically obligated to have a set space for prayer, so too must one have a set space in the beit midrash. The simple act of having a space each student can call their own is the first step towards teaching them what it means to make a brit. If at Betzalel artists were expected to reinvent themselves each day, at Mechon Meir they are encouraged to create a home for themselves where they can say, ‘I am who I am.’ Rav Shagar also notes, that making a brit and creating a home has an additional effect. Instead of limiting creativity, it liberates one from believing that inspiration only emerges from unfettered freedom. By making a brit and creating a home, one can discover the resources to bring forth something truly new.34

How then are the Jewish people to regain a sense of baitiut in today’s world? The answer, Rav Shagar writes, is that ‘A person must “marry” Judaism and the Torah. This is the deep meaning of the concept of brit; an inner brit that is like the brit between a husband and a wife.’35 Judaism and Torah cannot be a pastime or hobby, but one must commit to them fully and wholeheartedly. One must identify with them so completely that it is as if they become a part of oneself.36 In order to demonstrate this point, Rav Shagar  cites his teacher, Rav Aryeh Bina that ‘a person must learn until they cannot live any longer without learning.’37 Through constant dedication to Torah learning, we make it an essential part of ourselves. As Rav Shagar describes it, ‘Brit is the creation of self-identity… it is a decision that removes the matter from debate. It is not just a decision about the matter, but a decision not to bring it up again for discussion; it becomes transformed into an axiom that is self-evident, and that I do not need to question.’38

It is not sufficient that the brit with Torah should manifest only in the act of text study. It must also draw its strength from a comprehensive way of life rooted in the Jewish community and especially the home. Only when we experience Torah as natural and non-ideological can the language of Torah truly come alive, shaping our world, and enabling us to feel at home within Judaism. If we are able to achieve this, ‘The words of the Torah and the fulfillment of the commandments shape a world of holiness, the substance of which transcends the day-to-day world of facts. This is the Jew’s refuge from the alienation and estrangement of the outside world, and it is here that he finds his place and feels at home.’39 Through our brit with Torah, we are home, and our Jewishness is an essential part of ourselves, needing no explanation or justification. We are able to approach it from a place of love, intimacy, and commitment.


Accepting the Covenant, Accepting Ourselves

For Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism, the problem may be less about the act of making a brit and more about affirming the one that already exists. Living in multiple worlds diminishes the sense that Judaism is authentic and real. Instead, it begins to feel like it is just one option among many. Consequently, we constantly feel compelled to justify our choices. If one is to remain committed to Torah, it must be because it is demonstrably true or because it is moral and ethical. These types of rationalizations, though, can never offer a permanent solution for maintaining a brit. By way of analogy, we can come up with a list of reasons why we love our children, but none of them can truly capture the force of the love that we as parents feel for them. We love our children because they are our own, and no further justification is required. Rav Shagar explains that ‘Brit is the ability for a person to accept their place, that which they have, to choose one’s choice, to stay in his place without immediately chasing after something else.’40 Our relationship with Torah must be the same.

Rav Shagar challenges us to reach a point where we can accept our commitments without feeling the need to justify them, a process he calls kabbalah atzmit, self-acceptance. He describes it as follows:

It is easy say ‘I am a Jew because I was born a Jew, and I believe because I was born a believer.’ However, the ‘because’ is easily able to deny the objective truth value of my faith… The challenge of brit is to say ‘I am a Jew because I was born a Jew’ and not due to pangs of conscience and feelings of guilt or bias. Rather, it comes from a place of brit that its personal wholeness expresses the notion that ‘I am who I am’ – accepting oneself in the deepest sense of the term.41

To better understand this, perhaps a parallel can be made to the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. According to the Maharal, the Jewish people did not have the ability to freely accept the Torah when it was given to them by God at Mount Sinai.42 The brit, so to speak, was forced upon them, making the Torah an intrinsic part of their lives whether they wanted it or not. In that moment, the Torah and the Jewish people were forever bound together. It was only many generations later in the time of Purim that the Jewish people demonstrated that they finally had accepted the Torah. They did this through their embrace of a new mitvah, the reading of the megillah. The Jewish people had finally come to accept that the Torah was a part of who they were without any reason or justification.

Despite the rabbis’ insistence that all Jews were present at Mount Sinai, in a certain sense no Jew voluntarily chooses to enter into a brit with the Torah. It is something into which they are born. We are raised into the language of Torah and the Jewish way of life through our upbringing in the Jewish home and our involvement in the Jewish community. As mentioned earlier, one of Wittgenstein’s core contentions is that all languages have their own truth and integrity that becomes an inescapable part of the way we experience the world and a true home for us. Language can thus become our true home, but only if we are willing to accept it as such.43 If we are constantly looking for justifications for our continued commitment, we will not be able to accept the brit as self-evident and therefore, we will never truly be at home in Judaism.


Shabbat, Teshuvah, and Halakha as Baitiut

A central focus throughout Rav Shagar’s writings is a turn away from metaphysics. Whereas traditional Jewish thinkers imbued concepts such as Shabbat, Teshuvah, and Halakha with ontological significance, Rav Shagar followed after Wittgenstein and his conclusions about the limitations of human language.44 Consequently, Rav Shagar often tries to offer a phenomenological interpretation of Jewish metaphysical concepts.45 In this way, baitiut serves not only as a description of one’s general relationship to Judaism generally, but also as the defining element of key religious concepts. In his writings, he offers reinterpretations of concepts such as shabbat, teshuvah and halakha through the lens of baitiut. While we might normally associate the holiness of Shabbat with the essential sanctity of the day as ordained by God, Rav Shagar emphasizes a different aspect. He notes that ‘Shabbat is maybe the most communal and family oriented mitzvah. It is not just the meals and the joint prayers that express this, rather the rest and the time spent at home together. Let us consider that the mishpachtiut [connection with family] is not just a given or a fact, rather it constitutes holiness.’46 Refraining from work on Shabbat is itself only a means to an end. It is what enables Shabbat to be a time when one can be together family at home in an intimate fashion. This is not just an incidental feature of Shabbat but is actually what gives the day its sense of holiness. One never feels more Jewish than while sitting at the Shabbat dinner table with one’s family.

Rav Shagar similarly reinterprets the concept of teshuvah. Instead of conceiving of it as a return to God, he describes it as a return home. He constructs this idea through the kabbalistic association between teshuva and bina. Bina is the sefira associated with the mother, and the act of teshuva can be understood as a return to one’s mother, a return home to a place of holiness and unity. He describes it as follows:

What is teshuvah? I had an insight from something that happened to me this past week. We were travelling to Jerusalem, and along the way we picked up a soldier who was hitchhiking. He appeared tired and pushed to his limit during his time in the army. Suddenly he let out a groan, ‘Oy, how good it will be to be home’. There stood before him several hours of traveling, but what was important is that he was already on the way home. At home his mother was waiting for him, and there he would be taken care of and able to rest, to return to a time of his childhood. He was returning home.

Supernal teshuvah is not repenting for one’s sins but rather a return home to mother, to the place from which the soul came. To return to childhood, to the wholeness before the sin, to the place we were. The child gets older and becomes a soldier. In this way, he is more effective, sober. He must worry for himself and fight alone. Nevertheless, it is good that his mother is in some place waiting, so that he knows he can always come and enter under her wings.47

While shabbat, and teshuvah may lend themselves to be more easily reinterpreted through the lens of baitiut, halakha would seem to be a harder fit. Halakha is understood to be God’s commanding voice made manifest in our daily lives. Its holiness derives from its source in the divine. Rav Shagar, however, points to a dimension of halakha that we sometime fail to register – its timelessness. He writes:

A sense of timelessness is one of the primary ways that holiness appears in our world: This is the holiness of the tradition, the anchoring of the present in the past, which depends on the past being unchanging. Traditionalism is the soul of mitzvah observance. It signifies that which is eternal and fixed and returns us to the childhood experience of wholeness, anchored in the authority of our parents.48

For Rav Shagar, halakha not only connects us to that which is beyond this world, but also grants us a deep connection to the Jewish past. Without this, religious life will lack the spiritual dimension it requires to be lived authentically. This connection is rooted once again in our feelings of being at home and childhood in particular. If halakha was experienced as a purely foreign element that disrupts our connection to the past and intrudes upon our lives, it would not be imbued with a sense of holiness. It instead is experienced as a familiar space, connecting us to the tradition that came before us and will exist after we are gone.


The Land of Israel as Home

As a Religious Zionist, Rav Shagar identifies one more essential piece that can assist the Jewish people in recovering a sense of baitiut, the Land of Israel. Considering that Rav Shagar was born in the Land of Israel and raised within the tradition of Religious Zionism, this is, perhaps, not surprising. However, as opposed to drawing upon the mystical language of Rav Kook, he chooses to reframe the Jewish connection to the land of Israel through the language of brit and bayit.  He writes, ‘The land of Israel, thus, is first a home, brit, that is to say total connection… Is it land and territory? Or is it planting, growth and roots? A tree needs earth for its roots. A home needs walls and a roof in order to grant shelter and baitiut.’49 Just as the Jewish people’s relationship with Torah is based on brit, so too is their connection to the Land of Israel. It is a relationship that is expressed through commitment and made real through Jewish sovereignty, but the goals run deeper. The return to the Land of Israel is about building a home once again for the Jewish people.

As opposed to the Diaspora where the language of Torah is alienated from the larger surrounding culture, religious life in Israel expresses itself in all aspects of society. Living in a land where one’s language and culture are inherently Jewish makes this possible. Baitiut also connotes a feeling of connection to one’s family, the home being its natural environment. In the context of living in Israel, this feeling translates to a deep sense of connection with one’s extended family, the Jewish People. Consequently, one does not live an isolated existence but rather, within a larger web of relationships that endow his/her life with great meaning and purpose.

In one of his essays, Rav Shagar offers a powerful reflection on what this looks and feels like:

This slice of land that I walk on and upon which I live, the people who have been destined to share their life with me, the tunes that I sing, the books I read, the food that I eat and bless upon birkat hamazon, a game of basketball that concluded with reciting ‘hashem hu ha’elokim‘ – all of these arouse a deep sense of solidarity that is in its essence brit and connection. The awareness that this place and my surrounding are not something external to me, rather they are me. I am it and it is me. I do not have an independent existence… there is no duality, only the unity of one with their surroundings.50

Rav Shagar further adds that the Land of Israel serves as a home for the Jewish people for more reasons than just the physical space that it provides for Jewish language and culture to flourish. The connection in fact runs much deeper.

Just as the beginning so too the end: The mother grants life, protection and security for her children while they are young, and they return to her and the end of their days- to the same earth that they were taken from, and at the moment of their final rest, she takes them in her bosom. For an Israeli Jew, the Biblical expression ‘that one is gathered to one’s heritage with one’s fathers’ is fitting. The earth that receives him is not just any earth- it is the earth that his fathers were gathered to and included with; this earth was spread by the same ancestors who lived upon it, who walked on and who saturated the soil with the sweat of their brow.51

As noted, Rav Shagar associates the home with childhood, and therefore baitiut is closely connected with one’s relationship to one’s parents. In this case, the very earth of the Land of Israel serves as the Jewish people’s mother. From her dust we were created, and to her dust we shall return. When we die, we will be buried in the same earth alongside our Jewish ancestors, our fathers so to speak, who tilled the soil and made it possible for us to dwell upon it. If this description of the Land of Israel as home sounds almost pagan, it shouldn’t be surprising. Rav Shagar himself notes that ‘this approach has the danger of sliding into idolatry’ and is deeply aware of the dangers that may occur when the idea of home takes on idolatrous proportions.52


A Home That Makes a Space for Exile: A House Floating in Air

For Rav Shagar, there is an ever-present danger that the idea of home may turn into a fixation and become corrupted. We may form quick judgements about the inferiority of other homes as a way of defending the beauty of our own. While every home needs to be protected, one can easily become overzealous in their desire to do so. A home can be open to others or it can be viewed as a place needing to be protected at all costs turning strangers into enemies.

Rav Shagar qualifies baiutiut by stating it ‘needs to stand at the foundation, but it must be a baitiut that is soft and flexible. One must distinguish between batiut that reflects intimacy and one that reflects fixation.’53 In order to achieve this, Rav Shagar states that ‘we can be Zionists while also retaining the exilic idea as part of our being. The Land [of Israel] should not be turned into an absolute because in doing so, it is likely to turn into a fetish, an idol, and a prison. Only a sense of exile can preserve the infiniteness of the land and create a sense of baitiut that does not become restricted and atrophied.’54

For almost two thousand years, exile was the default state of Jewish existence. Never being able to establish deep roots anywhere, Jewish communities were forced to remember that their foothold was at best, temporary. According to Rav Shagar, ‘Exile is the situation in which one does not have a home. There is no specific point to grasp hold of. The reality of exile is a reality of wanderings, not only in a physical sense but also in an intellectual, mental, emotional, and existential sense as well. The deep meaning of these wanderings is giving up on a singular truth – on one form of existence that is considered to be true.’55

The experience of exile bears significant consequences for religious identity, for it acknowledges that all truths may be contingent. It therefore places willingness to doubt and question at the center of religious life. For the Jewish people, Exile enabled great creativity throughout the centuries and allowed for Jewish home to constantly reinvent itself according to the time and location. However, Rav Shagar notes that when taken to an extreme, the consequences can be disastrous. If everything can be questioned and deconstructed, religious life lacks the ability to retain its sense of authenticity. These elements of life in the Diaspora can lead to ‘new directions,’ he writes, but they ‘are many times found in actuality outside the home.’ As a result, they have a tendency to completely uproot the Jewish home. Under such conditions, Jews historically were forced to build a unique kind of home, what the rabbis called, bayit haporeach b’avir, a home floating in air.56 The Jewish home needed to be solid, but never so rooted in the ground that it could not be transported elsewhere. It must be built upon firm truths but never to the extent that the Jewish home becomes fetishized.

A home can make a space for exile and even achieve the impossible of floating in air, because, as Rav Shagar explains, homes are inclusive by nature and can contain dissonance. We identify deeply with everything that exists in our home, and while we may prefer for every item to fit together perfectly, there is no absolute requirement for them to do so. A strong home is inclusive of difference and recognizes that anything and anyone can find their place there under the right circumstances. Rav Shagar writes, ‘It is as if my home were full of various objects, among them a gleaming state-of-the-art stereo system, but also an old tape recorder and a threadbare rag doll. Must one choose between them? The old, broken knickknacks are no less part of home than the gleaming high-tech gadgets. I am aware of the differences between old and new, but I choose to hold on to both.’57


Educating Towards Baitiut 

Much of what passes for traditional Jewish education in the modern era, Rav Shagar claims, has failed to grant a true sense of baitiut. Torah learning has become central in a way unlike any other moment in Jewish history, but it has often focused on Jewish texts to the exclusion of a lived Jewish experience. To put it in Rav Shagar’s terms, there has been an attempt to affirm the brit with the Torah, but only with books and sacred texts. The full breath of Torah as a language and way of life embedded within the Jewish home and community has largely been ignored. Whereas in the past it was the responsibility of parents to pass on Jewishness to the next generation, this role has now been taken on by the yeshiva.58 A yeshivah, however, is an ideological community that is often disconnected from broader Jewish life and as a result, it struggles to convey a sense of baitiut.  Consequently, it leaves many Jews alienated from Judaism or at best possessing only a very shallow religiosity. ‘The modern era’ Rav Shagar explains, ‘alienated man from this content and severed him from his home, dealing a deathblow to intimacy. It was an era that gave rise to the Orthodoxy that lived by the book but is bereft of its Shabbat-like soul.’59 As Rav Shagar noted, the Jewish people’s brit with Torah can only flourish when it exists as a language and way of life that is embedded within the Jewish community and primarily in the home. Without baitiut, a Jew may perform the mitzvot but only in a superficial manner. For Jewish education to genuinely be impactful, Torah must be taken out of the yeshivah and brought into the home. At the same time, the baitiut of the home must be brought into the yeshivah.

The Pesach seder, for Rav Shagar, is a powerful example of how one educates towards baitiut in the family home. Even though the study of sacred texts is prominently featured, the seder does not take place in the yeshiva and does not require the presence of a rabbi. Rather, it is a religious experience focused around the family in which the Jewish story is passed from one generation to the next. It is not just about a parent reading the haggadah to their children, but instead is an experience where the language of Torah comes alive through people asking questions. For many committed Jews, memories of Pesach seders surrounded by family are an essential component of their upbringing. This experience, in fact, is not limited to Pesach and can be created on Shabbat and other holidays as well.

For a yeshivah to become more like home, it requires a significant change in orientation to the way in which it operates. Its atmosphere must become more family-like with an emphasis not just on the intellect but on emotions as well. Rav Shagar would often quote Rav Yehuda Amital, ‘that youth who reject religious lifestyle generally suffer from a deficiency of kneidalach and noodle kugel, or perhaps of the Pesach seder’s aromas and the melody of the High Holidays.’60 To the extent possible, these elements must be brought into the yeshivah experience. The yeshivah must strive to establish an atmosphere where a student can feel the warmth of Torah and Judaism, enabling them to truly feel at home with it.61 Rav Shagar also argues that schools should place an emphasis on experiential learning. Just as a child experiences Torah at home through living the Torah and mitzvot, a yeshivah must also create similar opportunities. When teaching prayer, for example, it may be more important to invest time and energy into the actual experience of prayer as opposed to studying the meaning of the liturgy as just another Jewish text.

Schools should also invite parents to come to the school and learn with their children, creating a more authentic model for Torah study such as would be found in the Jewish home. The ideal would be for schools to become more embedded in the communities that they serve. Rav Shagar asks, ‘Is it possible to establish a school that will be connected to a specific community, where the involvement of the parents in it will not be only to criticize what happens between the walls of the school, but the opposite… to be a center around which a community is formed, one that is based not only on Torah classes, but also on social activities, on hesed and social action?’62 As long as schools separate themselves from the rest of the community, they are more likely to model a Judaism that is disconnected from the actual Jewish home and will present only a narrow picture of Jewish life.

One final point must be noted regarding the importance of educating towards baitiut. Rav Shagar states that at a young age, a more Haredi (i.e. traditional) style of Jewish education may be appropriate. ‘In my opinion, it is preferable in the early stages to have a charedi education built upon a baitiut that does not encounter the other or an outside perspective.’ Childhood, as Rav Shagar highlights, is a critical time for Jewish education and the development of baitiut, and we must keep in mind that a home can only be built if it has a firm foundation.63 Its walls must be solid and able to stand up on their own. If the Torah and the Jewish way of life are not presented to children as something real and holy, they will likely fail to make a brit with it, never seeing it as an essential part of their life. As the student gets older, it becomes critical to expose them to broader worlds, for ‘remaining with this approach at later stages is more likely to bring about a narrow-minded and rigid outlook.’64 Even still, an individual who lives in multiple worlds must always work to ensure that a home remains for them in Torah and Judaism. Even as an adult this might necessitate some level of separation between religious and secular, ‘a certain seclusion that aims to strengthen the religious community, in order to create a profound and meaningful religious world that can coexist with other worlds.’65


Religious Life Built on Baitiut

There is no question that Rav Shagar’s understanding of Jewish religious life in terms of baitiut imbues it with a different quality. To be at home with Judaism means having an intimate connection with the Torah and the Jewish way of life, experiencing it as a part of one’s very being. This contrasts with what is often considered to be the more traditional approach in which the Torah is something external, perhaps even foreign and strange. A Jew must accept the Torah as an absolute obligation regardless of whether or not he or she identifies with it.  For many traditional orthodox rabbis, the Torah is something external, and a Jew’s relation to it must be one of yirah (fear), which manifests as submission and even subjugation.

In a critique of Rav Shagar, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein explains that he sees Rav Shaagr’s approach as deeply problematic. He writes, ‘I’m afraid, however, that votaries of current spirituality often erode the status of yirah; and, together with it, the status of the very essence of Yahadut [Judaism]: kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim and kabbalat ol mitzvoth [accepting the yoke of heaven and the accepting the yoke of the commandments].’66 To make his point, he cites the following passage from Rav Shagar, which describes kabbalat ol malchut shamayim through the lens of baitiut:

Belief in the halakha, like the belief in the Sages in this context, does not necessarily derive from being sure that these sages were the wisest. Rather, its source is a kind of intimacy: Torah and Judaism – this is I! My choice of myself is the choice of Torah, of tradition…This realization – which the sages term ‘the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven’ – affords the possibility of contact with the Infinite, in that it is absolute and primal.’67

Rabbi Lichtenstein’s conclusion is unambiguous: ‘And to think that this exercise in narcissism is to be equated with kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim!’ Rav Shagar, nevertheless, perceives baitiut as the necessary foundation of Jewish religious life. In fact, he would often quote Rav Lichtenstein’s own co-rosh-yeshiva, Rav Amital, who said, as mentioned above, ‘that youth who reject the religious lifestyle generally suffer from a deficiency of kneidalach and noodle kugel.’ For Rav Shagar, ‘What he means is that what many people miss in the religious world is not so much the smell of the food as the connection to that world, the sense of belonging generated by the customs, flavors, smells, and scenes that are all unique to the religious lifestyle. These things make one’s lifestyle cozy and intimate, Shabbat-like such that one cannot step outside it, just as one cannot truly leave home – one belongs to it, wherever he may be.’68 Baitiut is not meant to be an invitation to self-centered spirituality but rather it creates a deep loyalty to the Jewish tradition. A person with a strong sense of baitiut would hesitate greatly before dismissing any element of traditional Jewish life.

For Rav Shagar, baitiut is not only essential to religious identity, but in fact, brings about a new type of religious personality, one whose ‘consciousness moored in the intimacy of a certain existence needs no walls, definitions, or separations… This mooring manifests itself an unpretentious existence, one that does not endeavor to prove itself or surpass itself, but rather is what it is, justified in itself without carrying any banner.’69 It is characterized by a sense of modesty that ‘opens me up to the other.’ One may believe that their home is the best place for them, but one doesn’t feel a need to impose it on others. More than once, Rav Shagar explains, ‘I have been surprised to discover that one who preserves the brit, the type who is rooted in his land, and in his faith or culture; it is he who is able to demonstrate open-heartedness towards the other… The reason for this is simple: He is not intimidated. His identity is seen as self-evident from his perspective. His identity is not threatened and it does not need justification.’70 A home needs walls, and must provide some sense of separation from the outside world, but that doesn’t preclude one from treating the other with respect. In fact, the act of making a brit and creating a home is what makes hospitality towards others possible.

Rav Shagar’s analysis of Shabbat candles expresses this idea beautifully. As previously mentioned, Shabbat is one of the most important times to experience baitiut, and it is the Shabbat candles more than any other religious ritual, which represent this aspect of the day. They, ‘illuminate the home. Their holiness is an extension of the home. The light is connected to the home and for the home.’71 This is directly related to Shabbat being a special time for hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests.72 ‘This [Shabbat] candle represents the satisfaction and fullness of the home’ Rav Shagar writes, ‘and from this attitude comes Shabbat hospitality – when one feels they are at home with oneself, then one is able to bring guests into the experience.’73 Building a home and feeling at home within it is an essential condition for hospitality. To be at home with oneself ensures that one will not be threatened by difference. Strong homes are inclusive by nature and within them, ‘The guest is invited to be a member of the household and to take their portion as a member of the home that is illuminated with the light of the Shabbat candles.’74


Conclusion: the redemptive aspect of Baitiut

After exploring all the various dimensions of baitiut and their centrality to Rav Shagar’s thought, it may be helpful to examine one final aspect of baitiut, one not fully articulated by Rav Shagar, but nevertheless implicit in his writings. In traditional Jewish thought, galut, exile, is contrasted with geulah, redemption. However, for Rav Shagar, it is batitiut which stands in opposition to the concept of galut, and therefore it can perhaps be seen as taking on redemptive possibilites. Though not cited by Rav Shagar, a fascinating midrash from Bereshit Rabbah states that feeling at home in the world is an essential feature of redemption itself. The midrash appears as a commentary on God’s command to Noah that in the aftermath of the flood, humanity must ‘be fruitful and multiple; filling the earth’ (Bereshit 9:7). It attempts to explain how human beings managed to make their home in all parts of the world, even though some locales are more hospitable than others.

Reish Lakish said: A covenant75 has been made in favor of climates… A student of Rabbi Yossi was sitting before him studying Torah and could not comprehend what was being explained to him. ‘Why can’t you grasp it?’ he asked, ‘Because I am in exile from my home,’ the student replied. ‘Where are you from?’ he inquired. ‘From Gabat Shammai,’ the student answered. ‘What is its climate?’ he asked. ‘When a child is born there we have to crush spices and smear his head with it, lest insects should eat him,’ the student replied. ‘Blessed is He who inspires the inhabitants of such a place with a love for it!’ Rabbi Yossi exclaimed. In the future, so too it will be: ‘And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh’ (Yechezkel 36:26). A heart of flesh (lev basar) which is to be understood as (lev boser), a heart that does not desire his neighbor’s portion.76

According to the midrash, Rabbi Yossi’s student is in a state of exile from his home, and therefore, he is unsettled and not able to focus and properly study Torah. Despite the fact that his home is far more inhospitable than his current place of residence, it nevertheless retains a special meaning for the student. As long as he is not at home, something essential will be lacking from his life. For Rabbi Yossi, this fact embodies the religious truth that human beings have the capacity to make their home anywhere, even places that outsiders might perceive as strange or lacking. For those who love their homes, this love requires no objective justification. The midrash then takes this idea a step further and states that redemption itself will bring about a transformation leading the Jewish people to finally be at home in the world. They will be given a heart of flesh to replace the heart of stone that they had borne throughout exile. In their return to the land of Israel, they will be at home and as a result, they will feel no jealousy towards others. They will have no need to justify their beliefs, actions, and identity to others and there will be no conflict. Rather, all will be at peace.77

While a true and complete baitiut may ultimately await us in the messianic era, Rav Shagar’s writings demonstrate the ways in which we can start the process of going home once more.


Write a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Facebook Comments

More articles on the subject

Rediscovering the Language of Halakhah

Zachary Truboff •

30 min read

Though we often fail to realize it, halakhah is a language that shapes the world of those who speak its words. Both Rav Shagar and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik are sensitive to this but the difference in their approaches have radical implications for the way we experience halakha in our lives.

The Jewish Past and Future

Zachary Truboff •

10 min read

The past might trap us in limbo, but it can also point us where we need to go. A look at Rav Shagar's drasha for Yom Yerushalayim.