RAV KOOK’S LETTERS
By Rav Tamir Granot
#17b: Rav Kook’s Approach
Where does Rav Kook fit in among the views listed in the
previous lecture concerning the relationship between Torah and history? Here
once again his approach is original, not conforming to any of the usual molds.
Before addressing what he says on this subject in Letter 89, let us have a look
at an earlier article, written in 1903 (slightly more than a year before our
letter), entitled “Afikim Ba-Negev” and focusing mainly on the
relationship between the future and the present:
The foundation of morality is
built on two illuminations: the illumination of Torah and the illumination of
the intellect. The illumination of the Torah brings about the illumination of
the intellect; when it is perfected in man, he continues to walk in the path of
great and exalted righteousness, and the purpose of the illumination of Torah is
also to bring man to perfection in intellect… The Torah prepared the Torah
illumination in accordance with the degree appropriate for the man, with the
considerations of God, Who knows every personality… in a manner that man will
come through it to an illumination of the intellect when he is fitting for it…
But we must look to those indications that the Torah gave, through which the
divine light of the intellect will once again come. (Afikim Ba-Negev, p.
The differentiation that the Rav makes is based on the
distinction between two sources of morality and education, two modes of
guidance, which he calls “illuminations,” following the example of Rabbeinu
Bechayei in Chovot Ha-Levavot.
Here too we note the difference between classical philosophy and
the philosophy of Rav Kook. The two “illuminations” of Rabbeinu Bechayei are two
different points of view, two “guidances,” which point to the same thing. Both
sources establish the same truth or good trait. For Rav Kook, the two
illuminations are completely different. They are mutually complementary and
supportive, but they are connected to different foundations and are even
contradictory. The illumination of intellect is the ideal, the complete and
final truth. The illumination of Torah is the educational, pragmatic-historical
truth, directed towards the perfect and ideal truth.
This analysis relates to the discrepancy that exists between
ideal morality and actual human reality. The Torah is a historical power; it
attempts to uplift individuals and society as a whole from their present
situation to a higher level. As such, as it must take into consideration the
prevailing moral and cultural situation, in order to be able, in its own way, to
draw man to a higher level. This may be compared to a person who stretches out
his hand in order to lift someone else out of the mud in which he is immersed.
If he does not stretch all the way to the drowning man, the latter will have no
hope of raising himself up. The Torah “stretches its arm” all the way to us;
therefore it is not ideal, and its paths are grounded in reality. Hence, on the
normative level, the Torah is indeed historical.
However, at the same time that the Torah’s statutes are grounded
in the present, they are orientated towards the future. The Torah’s aims are
indeed ideal: its objective is perfect existence in a perfect world. The
mitzvot are the function of these two vectors: the vector of the present and
the vector of the future.
Rav Kook himself compares this, in his letter, to the
ever-changing horizon that appears to a person as he proceeds on a long journey.
At any given moment, he sees a certain horizon, which determines the direction
of his journey in the present. Obviously, the means must be adapted to the ends,
in order that he may indeed arrive at that destination. But progress will not
bring him nearer to the end-point (the horizon that he saw before making that
progress), but rather establishes a new horizon, which – at this new point in
time – now determines his direction. In any cultural reality, we aspire to
progress and to transcend our present state –we look at the horizon. But this
horizon is not objective and final; it is the horizon of the observing society
or culture. Development is infinite, and therefore horizons must be exchanged.
How is the correlation between a historio-cultural situation and
Halakha carried out in practice? What is the mechanism that allows Halakha to
adapt itself to the changing horizons? This is the question that Seidel was
asking, and it is answered in Letter 91, which we will address at a later point.
How does Rav Kook address the above questions?
His historiosophic world-view is unlike any of the alternatives
set out in the previous lecture, and he therefore resorts to a different way of
answering the problem – at the same time opening a window for us onto a whole
new perspective. The world is torn between the possibility of its (Divine)
perfection and its actual, deficient appearance. This contrast is the source of
the constant changes going on in the world, whose general direction is one of
development. For Rav Kook, the idea of development is not troublesome; on the
The personal Divine soul is given
life by it constant elevation, its Divine foundation, which calls upon it to
exist and develop. (Orot Ha-Kodesh 2, p. 532)
is manifest to us as deficient, but the aspiration for ascent and perfection
always exists, within man and nature alike. Were reality static, or were its
changes arbitrary, we would conclude that the world is not Divine. But humanity
today shares the awareness (scientific, cultural, and philosophical) that the
world is constantly evolving. The center of this development is human morality,
but the same trend extends to the other layers and levels of nature.
different places in Orot Ha-Teshuva, Rav Kook connects this idea to the
concept of teshuva (repentance). Here is one example:
Penitence emerges from the depths of being, from such great depths in which the
individual stands not as a separate entity, but rather as a continuation of the
vastness of universal existence. The desire for penitence is related to the
universal will, to its highest source.
From the moment the mighty stream for the universal will for the life
turns toward the good, many forces within the whole of existence are stirred to
disclose the good and to bestow good to all.
“Great is penitence for it brings healing to the world, and an individual
who repents is forgiven and the whole world is forgiven with him” (Yoma
86a). In the great channel in which
the life-sustaining force flows, there is revealed the unitary source of all
existence, and in the hovering life-serving spirit of penitence all things are
renewed to a higher level of the good, the radiant and the pure.
Penitence is inspired by the yearning of all existence to be better, purer, more
vigorous and on a higher plane than it is.
Within this yearning is a hidden life-force for overcoming every factor
that limits and weakens existence.
The particular penitence of the individual and certainly of the group draws its
strength from this source of life, which is always active with never-ending
vigor. (The Lights of Penitence, Lights of Holiness, The Moral Principles,
Essays, Letters, and Poems, p. 56 (translation of Orot Ha-Teshuva by
by Ben Zion Bokser)
possibility of teshuva lies in what Rav Kook perceives as the most primal
forces in the world – the “cosmic will.” The act of repentance on the part of
the individual is not just the result of a momentary decision or of an
individual’s personal accounting. The will for improvement, for perfection, lies
at the foundation of the personality and desire of every person, because every
individual shares in the general cosmic will. This is the Divine aspect of
reality. Teshuva is an act of connecting to the universal, cosmic forces
also the meaning of Chazal’s teaching that teshuva preceded the
creation of the world:
Penitence was planned before the creation of the world, and it is for this
reason the foundation of the world.
The quest for the perfection of life is a phase of its manifestation according
to its nature. (Ibid, p. 55)
For Rav Kook,
teshuva is not undertaken despite nature or in opposition to it, but rather
is facilitated specifically by virtue of nature and because of it.
of the above we learn that not only does Rav Kook not oppose the idea of
development; he views it as the most fundamental movement of existence, carrying
it towards redemption. From the human perspective, the development of culture
and morality render humanity fit to be connected to the perfect, complete Divine
good, of which it could previously absorb only vague impressions.
appearance of Torah in the world represents a mighty push for the development of
culture. The Torah, whose influence has penetrated every layer of western
culture and even beyond, has worked its action on human culture and allowed it
to be elevated to higher moral levels. Hence, there is no need for us to regard
phenomena of moral progress in a suspicious or negative light.
question is how the natural forces are to be coordinated with the normative
system. Shortcuts will not only fail, but may also cause grave harm to the aim
of elevating culture itself. Therefore, Rav Kook argued, sometimes the Torah
suffices with the absolute minimum requirements for normal functioning of
society, leaving anything beyond that to the discretion of kindness and positive
traits. This is the explanation for the important place awarded in Halakha to
the realm of action that is “beyond the letter of the law.” It is specifically
the voluntary, free element, not subject to the authority of the law, which
allows a society to develop and progress naturally, discovering by itself and
within itself its own positive foundations.
of the above, we conclude that a perception of the laws of the Torah as fixed
laws that are eternal is incorrect – not only because this would render the
Torah irrelevant, but also because the correct perception of eternity is not one
of static transcendental existence, but rather one of a gradually improving
reality, constantly moving in an upward direction.
discrimination between Jew and gentile in certain matters operate within this
historical dialectic. In a reality in which the Jewish People is surrounded by
pagans with a primitive consciousness and abominable practices, the separation
between Jews and non-Jews was vital even on the normative level, to preserve
Israel’s uniqueness among the nations. Returning a lost article to its owner is
a lofty moral ideal, but in order to educate humanity about it, there must first
exist some society that is characterized by such ideals.
applies in relation to the laws of warfare. Towards the end of the letter, Rav
Kook describes Israel’s political situation in the world. The Israelite nation
could not survive, with Amalek and Aram as neighbors and with Midian and Ashur
next door, if it were to adhere punctiliously to the Geneva Convention. The war
against paganism and abominations required stiff measures. Nevertheless, the
Torah does not submit to the present, but rather indicates, through its laws,
the way to the future: the commandment of extending an offer of peace before
launching the war, the prohibition against destroying fruit trees, and the like,
all represent the basis for building a higher system of values related to war.
The Cunning of
Divine Providence in History
Rav Kook does not suffice with what we have said thus far. If culture is
progressing, then historical reality must adapt itself accordingly. History,
which reveals God’s will and His Providence, sometimes creates new conditions
that should be viewed as an expression of moral elevation. We shall consider two
have already seen that in Letter 90, Rav Kook describes modern technology as a
manifestation of Divine will, rendering slavery almost redundant, and hence also
example relates to the laws of warfare. Rav Kook views exile as a necessity that
was also backed up by an “inner will” (in the sense of a moral feeling or
We left the world of politics by force of circumstance that [nevertheless]
contains an inner desire, until a fortunate time will come, when it will be
possible to conduct a nation without wickedness and barbarism – this is the time
we hope for. It is understood that
in order to achieve this, we must awaken with all of our powers to use all the
media that time makes available – all of our powers to use all the media that
time makes available – all is conducted by the hand of God, Creator of all
worlds. However, the delay is a
necessary one; we were repulsed by the awful sins of conducting a nation in an
evil time. Behold, the time is approaching, the world will be invigorated and we
can already prepare ourselves, for it will already be possible for us to conduct
our nation by principles of good, wisdom, rectitude, and clear divine
enlightenment. “Jacob sent to Esau
the royal purple” (Mishlei 12:25, Chagiga 12b); “Let my master
pass before his servant.” (Based on the blessing after the reading of the
Haftara, which in turn is based on Yeshayahu 55:11). It is not worthwhile for Jacob to
engage in statecraft when it must be full of blood, when it requires an ability
for wickedness. We received but the
foundation, enough to found a people, but once the trunk was established, we
were deposed, strewn among the nations, planted I the depths of the earth, until
the time of song arrives and the voice of the turtledove will be heard
in our land (Avoda Zara 10b). (Orot, “War,” par. 3, translated
by R. Bezalel Naor)
the status of violence as a legitimate political tool – whether used internally
(police, etc.) or outwardly (war)? Rav Kook answers: We received a small dose of
this “Esav” element. Rome, which Chazal identified with Esav, was – and
perhaps remains to this day – “the mother of all empires.” Esav is an expert at
statecraft, in matters of strategy and army, and we cleared this historical
stage for him: “Let my master, I pray you, pass before his servant, and I shall
proceed at my slow pace” (Bereishit 33:14). Yaakov, the man of peace,
does not wish to be identified with “now” militancy. The use of force, even
where it is essential, causes us discomfort. In the midst of the First World War
(during which the article on “War” was composed), Rav Kook prayed and hoped that
its conclusion, when it came, would herald the establishment of the new
Israelite kingdom, with no violence and no bloodshed.
difficult to think of a more humanist, almost pacifist, quote from any thinker,
religious or secular: the entire exile is understood here as an expression of
repulsion at war and at the violence, wickedness, and bloodshed that it entails.
(Of course, it also has other levels of significance, but we shall not elaborate
here.) “It is not worthy for Yaakov to engage in matters of state while these
must entail much bloodshed!”
this to the level of our discussion: There was an historical situation in which
violence and war were necessary. The long exile is understood here as a Divine
and human act (the two dimensions are inseparable here) which de facto
solved the conflict between the historical situation requiring violence and
bloodshed and the moral sensitivity which recoils from violence, and certainly
from war. The solution is astonishing: We shall wait, even two thousand years.
implications of the above for our own times are inescapable. We did not merit
the awaited result. We still need war. Paradoxically, it is the
Zionist-Religious right-wing, the students and followers of Rav Kook, who are
perceived as militant and as not recoiling from violence. I believe that, in
general, this view is inaccurate and distorted. However, once we remove the
distortion, we must acknowledge its grain of truth. That grain is located, in my
view, in the centrality of the national idea in Zionist-Religious thought (and
especially among the followers of Rav Kook) – an idea which is not always
pursued to the same depth and breadth as they were in Rav Kook’s own thought.
seen that Rav Kook maintained that Am Yisrael is called a “nation” only
in the borrowed sense, and that Am Yisrael is better defined as a
treasury containing every spirit, the essence of existence and of humanity. I
believe that many of us – whether because of our teachers or because of the
prevailing cultural and historical climate – came to absorb Rav Kook’s national
world-view in processed form, within a modern national outlook that is referred
to in political parlance as “right-wing.” Rav Kook’s pathos, in speaking of the
uniqueness of Knesset Yisrael and when processed through modern national
conceptualization, can seem like a right-wing, even militant national ideology.
This is significant on the level of political positions, but also with regard to
the disdainful, even arrogant, attitude towards world culture and towards
anything that takes place outside of the confines of Am Yisrael.
to Zionism – it is possible to defend the fact that we are today a fighting
nation. Unquestionably, that is what reality demands of us, and there is no
doubt that it is quite moral to fight against enemies who come to destroy us or
to claim parts of our land. However, it would seem that from a spiritual
perspective – and I refer here specifically to the spiritual and moral aspect –
it must be understood that war and bloodshed keep us far away not only from
President Shimon Peres’s “vision of a New Middle East.” They also show how far
removed we are from Rav Kook’s vision of redemption. It may be that even in our
own times, it is necessary to establish a state using war and violence; it may
even be that when all is considered, this violence entails less evil and
bloodshed than the alternatives. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that this
historical situation as a whole is very far removed from Rav Kook’s vision.
the possible responses to this from within the framework of Rav Kook’s thought?
For the present, I leave this question open, and in one of the future lectures,
we shall attempt to address it from different angles.