Lecture #13a: Letter 44 Sections F-H: The Unity of Opposites

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot



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Lecture #13a:

Letter 44 Sections F-H: The Unity of Opposites



The main subject of the letter that we last read is the idea of the unity of opposites. Before probing deeply into the matter, I wish to complete the dialogue between Rav Kook and R. Alexandrov, which continued after Letter 44 and which we have documentation of. The following are R. Alexandrov’s main points and Rav Kook’s response in Letter 100. Before reading the shiur itself, it is worthwhile to study what Rav Kook wrote there (including the explanation) and to review what he wrote in Section G (of Letter 44).


The continuation of the discussion between Rav Kook and R. Alexandrov


R. Alexandrov responded to what Rav Kook wrote in Letter 44, writing:


… this is all imaginary [the possibility of unifying opposites] because regarding absolute Divinity, no thought can grasp Him at all, and aside from absolute Divinity there is no room for two opposites on one issue… (idem., Mivchar Iggerot U-Ketavim)


He attacks the natural model that Rav Kook brought:


I have spoken my piece about the matter of two opposites in one subject, and not on two opposites in general… and his words on this matter seem very strange to me… (ibid.)


Alexandrov’s claim is that Rav Kook’s examples are no proof. There is no doubt that nature contains opposing forces, but that is not the subject of the Law of Contradictions. The Law of Contradictions relates to the presence of opposites within a single object: it is impossible that a single object can be both hot and cold simultaneously, or both male and female together. The same applies to an idea or to the Divine. Liberalism can be good or bad, but not both. Historical materialism is a correct theory or a false theory – but it cannot be both correct and false at the same time.


 Rav Kook responded to this:


Your most recent letter is presently before me. I am amazed that your honor responded to what I wrote about the unity of opposites with the known fact that it is impossible for there to be two opposites in one subject.[1]


I wondered if this is what was necessary. The main innovation is that from the aspect of higher thought,[2] which scrutinizes the profundity of things, there are no opposites in reality,[3] and whenever there are opposites there is also some hidden condition that, when it becomes explicit, will show that the two propositions that appeared in an oppositional form and expression are constructed out of different aspects of a single proposition. Thus, through both propositions together, we see two aspects of a single proposition, and thus there are no absolute opposites, and from their aspect there is no one subject, since they have different relations to the subject.[4]


Regarding the matter at hand, that is, pertaining to the condition of thought, this rule extends to all spiritual ideas,[5] and true opposition does not exist except regarding that which pertains to historical facts that we understand through received tradition. There, too, to the degree that the spiritual thoughts enlighten more, the primary ones become more refined and closer to the heart, until a person reaches through them the highest level of simplicity (temimut), after the most unlimited broadening of free thought and specifically by way of it.[6] (Iggerot I:110, p. 133)


Unity of Opposites – The Various Disciplines


The subject of the unity of opposites is discussed in the context of four different disciplines:


A.    Theology

B.    The world of ideas: ideology, values, etc.

C.    Physics – reality of substance

D.    Halakha – dispute (machloket)


Rav Kook connects the various planes in his writings and presents a single opinion about all of them. This stems from seeing this world as the garb of Divinity, and according to this theology is essentially ontology, and the ideas that motivate the world are also various modes of Divine manifestation. The root of the idea of the unity of opposites can be found, however, in the first plane – theology.


The discussions that preceded Rav Kook on the possibility of unifying opposites took place in only one of these disciplines. Within Chabad thought, the discussion revolves entirely around Divinity and is not applied to the natural or intellectual worlds. Hegel consistently deals primarily with human reason and is consequently focused on ideas and their interrelatedness. Schelling, on the other hand, who is mentioned in R. Alexandrov’s letter and with whom Rav Kook was apparently familiar, mainly contemplates the substance of reality, even though he also relates his discussion to the level of theology.


Before broadening Rav Kook’s sources a bit, we will survey the immediate context of his correspondence with R. Alexandrov. The origin point of their discussion is two topics that Rav Kook expanded upon in Eder Ha-Yakar:


A. The relationship between positive and negative Divine descriptions, or in Rav Kook’s terminology, between the Ayin as a descriptor of Divinity and the Divine essence and revealed dimension. Rav Kook explains the double mode of grasping Divinity. As absolute reality on one hand, and as Ayin on the other hand (the absence of any ability to describe, limit, etc.). This double description of a single subject with opposing descriptors generates contradiction.


B. Rav Kook’s discussion of a project to unify thought, i.e., the duty of showing how the various trends in Jewish thought can be unified and fit with each other. In his introduction to Eder Ha-Yakar, Rav Kook explains that just as the world of Halakha is built on the methodological principle of “These and those are the words of the living God,” and we study all opinions even if they are opposite, so too we must prepare an ideological platform that will allow for the inclusion of all contradictory opinions, even within the world of thought:


The explosion of the power of thought also brings about the negation and weakening of thought; for what can one think if he holds that everything outside his skull is a null and void expanse, and the world and life are only what exists within his own bit of blood and bone. The small amount of work, to collect all of the good and subtle thought of Knesset Yisrael to one place, to fit them together, and to allow them to cross-pollinate, caused those thoughts that are truly the offspring of nullity and void, which are not likely to unify with the full inner life of the Israelite nation… They emerge like dark clouds and bring blackness to the world, and especially destroy all of the genius and self-awareness of the youths…


In our practical world of thought, the study of Halakha and the Talmud, experience has been beautifully successful. All opinions, conventional and unconventional, have been collected together, have together enriched our knowledge, expanded the sphere of our thoughts and launched our flights of intellect by giving us a handle on reaching all that we desire anew from within the branches of practical thought, in a clear and successful manner, in accordance with the terms of our situation. The concrete purpose revealed by broad learning, constructed out of the aggregation and interweaving of different minds, has completely diminished the taste for division and dissent that is generated by the difference of opinion and of rulings, and brought in their stead boundless unity, love, and feelings of respect for all of the various and opposing opinions. This is also what brought to their positive emergence in their full splendor and force.


This has not been the fate of philosophical thought. Despite all of the efforts of the masters of aggada in all their divisions, the ethicists, academic scholars, and kabbalists to in some way exalt and make beloved the work of thought and idea, we have not yet merited, in our impoverishment, to establish set yeshivot and study centers whose goal is to collect, aggregate, and coordinate into one place all of the great scattered thought of Knesset Yisrael, which has been expressed in many facets, in many generations, under various conditions, by scattered groups, and in different styles and planes. Nevertheless, everything gravitates toward one source – to the Source of Israel. (Eder Ha-Yakar, Introduction)


As can be seen, these two questions do not merely stand alone; they constitute the background and introduction to all other topics in thought. Rav Kook’s persistence regarding the unity of opposites stems from its being a fundamental principle of all of his thought. It is difficult to understand his ideological and metaphysical doctrine without viewing them through the prism of the unity of opposites.


Moreover, as many of Rav Kook’s interpreters and scholars have pointed out, the unity of opposites is not only a methodological principle that serves Rav Kook in relating to other opinions. It is also a principle through which one can contemplate the many contradictions and tensions within Rav Kook’s thought itself.


(to be continued)


Translated by Elli Fischer

[1]  The Law of Contradictions: Something cannot be hot and cold or good and bad, etc., simultaneously.

[2]  An analogous expression of Rav Kook’s to “inward thought,” here in the sense of theology.

[3]  The reality in which there are no opposites is the true reality, “the thing in itself’ in Kant’s terminology and the Havaya Name in kabbala, i.e., the Divine unity that includes all. Within the world of phenomena (revealed reality), there are certainly opposites, as Rav Kook presently explains.

[4]  This idea can be symbolized as follows: Statement 1: A=Q; Statement 2: A=-Q. This is apparently a contradiction, and according to the Law of Contradictions such a situation is impossible. A model of Rav Kook’s answer is: A=A’+A’’. Now, A’=Q and A’’=-Q.

[5]  Rav Kook means that religious or ideological polemics stem from simplistic or initial understanding of the conditions of reality and of life. If we pit two ethical or social conceptions against each other, we would reveal through a profound perspective that each is correct vis-א-vis one segment of reality and is mistaken regarding another segment. Contradiction stems from the inability to distinguish between different segments or conditions corresponding to each idea, but the idea itself represents a true facet of the ideal world, which is, as noted, the Divine expression that we relate to.

[6]  The words at the end of the paragraph are not entirely clear to me, but I will nevertheless suggest and explanation. Opposition, Rav Kook says, can be generated when we deal with information rooted in experience. This is also true of matters of faith that depend on tradition, based on historical experience and its transmission. But historical experience also requires intellectual refinement. By deeply contemplating the information conveyed by tradition, one can achieve a viewpoint from which historical faith appears as a cut-off picture, and the depth of faith does not contradict and historical fact or study. We will see examples of this, please God, surrounding the issue of development and the relationship between Torah and science, later in Letter 91.