Photo Credit: Torat Emet Press

Title: Torah Goes Forth from Zion: Essays on the Thought of Rav Kook and Rav Shagar
By Rabbi Zach Truboff
Torat Emet Press

 

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Rabbi Zach Truboff’s new book, Torah Goes Forth from Zion: Essays on the Thought of Rav Kook and Rav Shagar, presents a riveting collection of essays laying out select themes from each of these under-appreciated thinkers clearly and comprehensively. The chapters include topics like art, idolatry, tefillah, fanaticism, halacha as a language, and tzedakah as a radical act. These two thinkers are often unfairly pigeon-holed into one topic for which they are best known – Rav Kook as “the Zionist rabbi” and Rav Shagar as “the Postmodernist rabbi” – and Torah Goes Forth from Zion shines a helpful light on many lesser-known but still critical themes from their writings. Rav Kook is more than just a Zionist, and Rav Shagar cannot be so reductively understood as “Postmodern.” In Torah Goes Forth from Zion, the great range and variety of their respective writings are on display.

The book has 15 chapters, with seven dedicated to each thinker and a fascinating first chapter which frames both thinkers in the context of the dramatic events which shook the Jewish people in the modern era. The chapter achieves this through the lens of S.Y. Agnon’s book about the First Aliyah, Only Yesterday, which I had never before encountered, exploring the different themes and characters, and providing suggestive comparisons between different characters and Rav Kook and Rav Shagar.

There’s so much to say about Torah Goes Forth from Zion that it would require a small book to properly review it all. In lieu of that book, I just want to briefly discuss a single theme which comes up in various forms throughout the book: home.

Perhaps the most dominant discussions of home appear in the Rav Shagar chapters, where it is connected with the idea of brit (covenant) and with the idea that the Torah and halacha are like a language. For Rav Shagar, Torah and halacha provide the Jews with a home beyond their physical location. Torah and halacha, beyond any element of divinity they possess, can also serve as a Jew’s fundamental identity and as the lens through which they encounter the world.

Without ignoring the differences between Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Shagar on this topic, Rabbi Truboff cites helpfully from Halachic Man’s famous description of the various ways the halachic Jew encounters the world not as nature or raw material, but as the object of halacha – a pool of water is not simply a pool of water or even a place of quiet reflection, it is a mikveh. The Jew is at home in halacha, and therefore also at home in the world.

In a deeply personal passage, Rabbi Truboff discusses how halacha helped his wife and him find language for processing, articulating, and acting within a situation of terrible loss, revealing the true stakes and power of this idea. Homes aren’t just the basis of who we are, they’re also a final refuge, and a first resource when it is time to rebuild. They shape our world even when we don’t have the strength to do so ourselves (a good example of this might be the laws of aveilut, which give direction in a time when it’s hard to know where to turn next).

Rebuilding and finding a home in the world are themes that arise in a more literal sense in the discussions of Rav Kook. Rav Kook’s mystical understanding of history led him to see Zionism as part of a much larger story of cosmic and national redemption. In this story, the return of Jews – religious or otherwise – to the land of Israel was a returning home, a shift from an unnatural state back to the way things are supposed to be. In returning to the land, the Jews can go back to who they are supposed to, and in doing so help all of existence move forward toward redemption.

This pro-home note is not Torah Goes Forth from Zion’s final word on the subject, however. The discussions of Rav Kook and Rav Shagar highlight both their similarities and their differences. While Rav Kook was concerned with the value of the return to the land, Rav Shagar – living 50+ years later, in sovereign Israel – was concerned with keeping the return to the land from eradicating what made Jews distinct throughout history. He wanted to make sure that the geographical home – Israel – never came at the expense of the spiritual-existential home – the Torah. Rav Shagar thus speaks about the importance of introducing an element of exile into redemption, thus open redemption up toward other possibilities.

The importance of openness to other possibilities also comes through on the chapter on idolatry in the Rav Kook section. Building on discussions of yirat shamayim in medieval Jewish thought, Torah Goes Forth from Zion shows how Rav Kook was deeply concerned with the way our comfortable, traditional notions about G-d and Torah – our spiritual home – can close us off from deeper mystical conceptions. The very language of Torah and halacha through which Jews experience the world, can itself close them off to the truth of G-d and reality. For Rav Kook, we must always be aware of the limits of our understanding, and of how the divine infinite always escapes us to some degree or another. (Rav Shagar himself sounds similar notes in a variety of places, notably in a chapter on “exile” as an important element in education in Luchot U’shivrei Luchot.)

These two poles – the familiar and the unfamiliar, home and exile – are in some ways characteristic of all religious life deserving of the name. Deeply embedded in tradition but seeking after a transcendence that cannot be reduced to that tradition, Jewish life maintains a constant internal tension. Torah Goes Forth from Zion is a wonderful book, one which draws inspiration from exactly that tension – discovering the unfamiliar within the traditional, and the traditional within the unfamiliar.

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Levi Morrow has semichah from the Shehebar Sephardic Center in Yerushalayim, where he teaches modern and medieval Jewish thought at Yeshivat Orayta.