The Fruit and The Tree
It is often difficult to relate to men of great spirit because of the gap between them and us. We confront this dilemma in its full force as we begin to study the works of R. Kook. I would like to begin this lecture by illustrating his towering spiritual stature and discussing its effects on our understanding of his writings.
Rav Soloveitchik’s description of homo religiosus serves as a fitting description of R. Kook. Even Israel's Nobel laureate in literature, Shai Agnon, who was not very easily impressed, expressed enthusiastic admiration for him.
There is a well-known story about R. Kook which captures much of what made him so unique. When R. Kook moved to Israel, he was appointed Chief Rabbi of Yaffo; this job included serving as the rabbi of the secular Zionists in the outlying agricultural settlements. One summer, Rav Kook and his colleagues went on a tour of these settlements in an attempt to encourage the pioneers to observe more mitzvot, especially the laws pertaining to agriculture and produce. Their campaign was met with minimum of success. One night, toward the end of the trip, Rabbi Y. M. Charlop, who was sharing a room with R. Kook, awoke to the sight of his teacher restlessly pacing about their small room. As he looked closer, he noticed that R. Kook’s face was flushed with passion and excitement. Rav Kook noticed him and slowly approached his disciple, placing his ice cold hands on R. Charlop. "What is wrong, master?" R. Charlop asked. R. Kook responded, "I am consumed with a burning love of God." (Kadish Luz, a non-religious member of a kibbutz often visited by Rav Kook, and later Speaker of the Knesset, said years afterwards, "When we beheld Rav Kook, we used to feel as if a ball of fire had detached itself from Mt. Sinai and come to us.")
This story describes the essence of Rav Kook. His entire personality was focused on devekut (cleaving) to God. He found it difficult to constrict his other-worldly experiences into the normal routines of daily existence. We are clearly dealing with a man quite different from the average person. While we may find it difficult to get up in the morning for prayer, Rav Kook found it hard to "come down" to pray using the standardized "cages" of words. This intense spirituality, at times, creates a gap between us and Rav Kook.
R. Kook did not write in normal expository prose. His writing flowed from inspiration; he attempted to capture his powerful experiences in words. His hand was driven to write by the overwhelming emotions bursting forth from him. Once he started writing, he didn’t stop. Sometimes he didn’t even notice that he had reached the end of the page and kept writing straight onto the table. He even preferred pencil over pen, because fountain pens constantly had to be re-dipped in ink, interrupting his passionate writing. Yet, despite the spontaneity of his expression, we never find thoughts crossed out or erased in his manuscripts. Not only did his thoughts flow, they flowed correctly the first time. In this he can be compared to Mozart, who composed an entire symphony in one sitting, as opposed to Beethoven, who labored over each note, weighing the different options until he got it right.
Some scholars believe that in his effusive prose, R. Kook was only expressing general ideas, using the language of the Kabbala as a poetic device to relate his experience. On the other hand, Rav Kook’s close disciples maintained that, despite his overflowing, flowery language, he carefully chose each word. His son, Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, and the "Nazir," Rav David HaCohen (who edited Rav Kook’s magnum opus, "Orot HaKodesh" - The Lights of Holiness) provided sources for Rav Kook’s ideas from the literature of the Kabbala, thus demonstrating that the concepts and language that R. Kook employed refer to specific ideas. Rav Kook did not simply run wild. Describing something as "Netzach Hod Tiferet" is not a random poetic description. Each word relates to a specific "sefira" in Kabbala; if Rav Kook put these three words in this order, then he means it to relate to a metaphysical reality in the supernal worlds.
We, in this series of lectures, will analyze Rav Kook from the point of view of Rav Zvi Yehuda and the "Nazir," assuming that R. Kook’s writings comprise a detailed system of thought, which makes specific references to the concepts of the Kabbala. The Israeli poet, Y.Z. Rimon, who was very close to Rav Kook once described the Rav’s writings as poetry. In light of that pronouncement, the "Nazir" inquired of Rav Kook, "But is there not also a system to your work?" The Rav responded in the affirmative. Personally, I sense that there is a system in not only the ideas expressed in Rav Kook’s writings, but also in the language and terms as well.
While there is no doubt that Rav Kook's writing was impelled by personal inspiration, the inspirations adhere to an orderly pattern of laws. Nietzsche maintained that this is true of all artistic inspiration. You may believe that the rules taught you by your piano teacher are only meant for beginners, and that when you become a maestro you can fly free of restraint, creating your own music. This, however, is not the case. Even the most creative and revolutionary master uses the old rules, now internalized, as the building blocks for his works. This is true of R. Kook as well. His "rules" are the kabbalistic system of the Zohar and the Ari (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, 16th century). No matter what state of spiritual ecstasy evoked his inspiration, he will still express himself according to that basic system. If so, we are justified in interpreting Rav Kook’s writings in light of the classic Kabbalistic system. The question remains to what degree ought we analyze every word and nuance. This can only be resolved by investigating each essay individually.
In this course, we will do two things. First, we will explore individual passages of R. Kook's writings, attempting to gain insights into his general view of major concepts in Jewish Thought. We will explore the basis of R. Kook’s attitudes to specific topics. We will develop a type of code that will categorize worlds of ideas into single key phrases. Then, secondly, we will be able to move forward to discussing R. Kook’s attitude toward specific topics such as the Land of Israel, secular Jews, science, etc.
Let’s jump right in and read the first few lines of the following passage which is found in Orot HaTeshuva (The Lights of Penitence) 6:7. (The English translation is by B. Z. Bokser and is found in "Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook," published by Paulist Press in the "Classics of Western Spirituality" series.) I am going to give you the entire text here, but only read until I tell you. Don't worry if the text doesn't make any sense at first. Remember, we said he's a difficult writer!
At the inception of creation it was intended that the tree have the same taste as the fruit (Genesis Rabba 5:9). All the supportive actions that sustain any general worthwhile spiritual goal should by right be experienced in the soul with the same feeling of elation and delight as the goal itself is experienced when we envision it. But earthly existence, the instability of life, the weariness of the spirit when confined in a corporate frame brought it about that only the fruition of the final step, which embodies the primary ideal, is experienced in its pleasure and splendor. The trees that bear the fruit, with all their necessity for the growth of the fruit have, however, become coarse matter and have lost their taste. This is the failing of the "earth" because of which it was cursed when Adam was also cursed for his sin. (STOP READING AND CONTINUE WITH TEXT OF LECTURE) But every defect is destined to be mended. Thus we are assured that the day will come when creation will return to its original state, when the taste of the tree will be the same as the taste of the fruit. The "earth" will repent of its sin, and the way of the practical life will no longer obstruct the delight of the ideal, which is sustained by appropriate intermediate steps on its way toward realization, and will stimulate its emergence from potentiality to actuality.
Penitence itself, which activates the inner spirit that had sunk in the depths of the chaotic and the antithetical to the ideal goal, will enable the aspiration of the ideal to penetrate all the conditioning influences, and in all of them will be tasted the splendor of the ideal goal. It will do this by enlarging the scope of action for the ideal of justice. Man will then no longer suffer the disgrace of indolence on the way of the true life.
In this passage Rav Kook deals with the famous midrash regarding the sin of the Earth during the Six Days of Creation. On the third day, God commanded the earth to "bring forth FRUIT TREES that give forth fruit." The earth deviates from the original command and only produces "trees that give fruit." In the eyes of the Sages, the earth sinned by not producing "fruit trees." That is, trees of which the bark and branches themselves had the taste of fruit. Instead, we were left with only the brown exterior used for firewood, while only the actual fruit offers a good taste.
This midrash leaves us a bit puzzled. How can inanimate objects sin? Does the earth have free choice, like man, to rebel against its maker? In a letter, Rav Kook explains that the midrash uses the word "sin" to portray a flaw of nature. This flaw, which seems to be a natural phenomenon, is the subject of Rav Kook’s attention in the paragraph before us.
R. Kook explains the midrash as a parable. We all know that when one visualizes something of a high spiritual nature, one becomes filled with a certain feeling of "elation and delight." Imagine being the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. It would certainly be a most uplifting experience. But we all know that it is not so easy to reach that pinnacle of spirituality. The preparation required is enormous. And it is precisely during that process of tedious preparation that it is so easy to lose the inspiration represented by the goal.
For example, imagine a teacher fresh out of college. He is filled with dreams about educating the underprivileged, shaping young minds, and providing children with a chance to make it in the world. Finally he arrives for his first day of work and is overcome by the mundane and tedious realities of teaching. Papers and tests are piling up for grading. His life turns into a drudgery. The faint glimmer of his goal is the only thing which keeps him going.
It is this situation which R. Kook views as the result of the Earth’s sin. In the parable the
Fruit = the goal
Taste = the inspiration
Tree = the means of achieving the goal
Go back to the text and plug these ideas into R. Kook’s words. See if the paragraph begins to make more sense.
Originally, the means of arriving at the goal were supposed to be filled with the same sense of pleasure and inspiration as the end result. The satisfaction of the end would penetrate the process of the means. However, the Earth’s sin kept all of the inspiration in the goal, leaving the means tasteless.
Please continue now reading the rest of the passage...
There is hope for the world despite the sin of the earth. Rav Kook maintains that every sin eventually will be repaired, as will the sin of the earth. Even today, we begin to see the beginnings of this "Tikkun." Idealists who experience the pleasure of the ends in the means serve as example. About 15 years ago, I was a member of the group that founded the town of Ofra. We started off as a labor camp in temporary barracks. During the day we did extremely hard work, fencing off several mountains. My companions had fire in their eyes. Every mile was filled with the same meaning as the final result. They had bridged the gap between Ends and Means.
This passage has served as a model of Rav Kook’s thought on the subject of "means and ends." Let’s now identify these ideas of "tree and fruit" and "means and ends" with a new set of concepts: Kodesh and Chol (sacred and profane). Rav Kook’s concept of means and ends serves as the basis for his understanding of the relationship between Kodesh and Chol.
Kodesh is the inner "taste" of reality; it is the meaning of existence. Chol is that which is detached from Kodesh and thus becomes bland and neutral, without any meaning. This is, of course, an extreme formulation. There is practically nothing in the world that does not have some form of meaning. However, we are describing Kodesh and Chol as having different levels of meaning.
At this point we discover that the relationship between the "fruit and the tree" can take on many different forms. The more the process of means (tree) sticks to the goal (fruit), the more taste and meaning (both translations of the Hebrew word ta'am) it will have. Conversely, the more the means turns its back on what should be its ultimate goal, to that degree will it become tasteless, superficial, and empty. Judaism attempts to educate us to sanctify our lives, or in other words, to put the taste of the fruit back into the tree. It is our goal to attach all the practical, secular elements of life to spiritual goals which reflect the absolute meaning of existence - God Himself.
This topic of Kodesh and Chol plays an extremely important role in Rav Kook’s thought. The following lectures will deal extensively with this topic.
(This lecture was summarized by Simcha Mirvis.)