Lecture #26f: Summary and Thoughts

  • Rav Tamir Granot

 

RAV KOOK’S LETTERS

By Rav Tamir Granot

 

Shiur #26f:

Summary and Thoughts

 

1.    The main thesis that I have attempted to present in the last five shiurim is that there are differing interpretations of Rav Kook's teachings concerning society and insularity. The elements that emphasize the open, unifying and integrative character, as well as the elements emphasizing the dimension of separation and uniqueness, arise from the inherent tension in Rav Kook's teachings between the practical level and the practical and educational ideology and the philosophical dimension of consciousness, which deals with reality as it truly is, not as it manifests itself in the world.

 

2.    As I have argued, the streams among Rav Kook's students from Yeshivat Merkaz Ha-Rav and its affiliates and among the students of Rav Tzvi Yehuda, who in recent years have emphasized the principle of seclusion (in terms of a cultural barrier, educational frameworks, and even, to a certain extent, on the sociological level[1]), are actually implementing the educational and cultural practices required of an aspiring religious society as described by Rav Kook himself. Those who point to the openness of Rav Kook as a person, the approval with which he spoke of general studies, and his love for all Jews and all of mankind and enlist this in their criticism of the above practices are stating the truth – but not the whole truth. Only a complete understanding of Rav Kook's teachings can explain their influences and developments.

 

3.    Finally, I would like to set aside the dimension of objective description and analysis and present some questions that arise from the material itself, with attention to current trends:

 

a) From an ideological point of view, is the path of insularity indeed the most desirable choice, from a communal perspective, in accordance with Rav Kook's teachings? Seemingly, as stated, the practice of Divine service, education, and culture should be based on the principle of separation for the purposes of (subsequent) inclusion.

b) Does the fact that Rav Kook himself practiced openness, was familiar with secular philosophy, maintained contacts with non-religious people, etc., not in itself represent a model for emulation? To put it more generally: Should one follow the guidance of Rav Kook as educator and leader or his personal example?

c) To formulate the matter even more broadly: Separation or socialization? Cultural involvement or insularity? Admittedly, this question entails an overall matter of principle. However, there is a wide spectrum of decisions and choices that lie between the two poles. The question is, how should we relate to each of the intermediate positions?

d) Finally – unquestionably, there are educational and ideological decisions which arise from an imperfect existing reality, rather than as the result of initial, primary, ideological positions. What is the possible influence of the particular socio-cultural reality that we live in on our attitude towards the two poles?

 

Let us address these questions, in order.

 

a) The main question here concerns the degree of influence that our fundamental world-view should have on our practical attitude. For example, there can be no doubt that Rav Kook's insights concerning the essence of secular heresy, while not erasing the distinction between observant and non-observant Jews, did certainly influence both his emotional and practical attitude towards the secular pioneers in Israel.

 

This seems to be significant for our attitude to the whole question. The Religious-Zionist public has justifiable difficulty in accepting the haredi claim that the latter group expresses its belonging to Am Yisrael and bears its yoke along with the rest of the nation by selfless devotion to Torah study – because we believe that an ideal must be manifested in an appropriate and recognizable tangible form, not just as a declaration. The same applies here. If, indeed, there is a manifestation of Divine goodness and truth in every human philosophical, scientific, and even artistic creation, if indeed there is love for every Jew and every person, and a true recognition of the value of individuals and groups whose paths are not normative, or are different from ours, then there is something unseemly – on both the educational and the ideological level – in postponing the practical implementation of this awareness until Mashiach comes. Even if the obvious conclusion is not a complete rejection of social and educational boundaries, this recognition must at the very least cause us to create significant points of encounter and crossings, rather than simply erecting a fortified wall. Do such points of encounter exist? Do they have a significant presence?

 

b) In many places in his writings, Rav Kook certainly speaks with the consciousness and feeling of a "supreme tzaddik," whose perception of reality is a unified, immanent Divine whole. This also defined his own self-perception. It is these esoteric messages that give rise to his practical educational, communal, and ideological perspectives. The conclusion would seem to be that it is possible to follow in Rav Kook's footsteps only if one identifies with his perception of reality – i.e., that someone who follows him is himself a "supreme tzaddik." This would seem to represent a most severe limitation, leaving us far removed from the possibilities that find expression in Rav Kook's teachings. Breadth of vision, self-listening, absolute freedom, creativity, harmony, and nullification of the contrast between the material and the spiritual would then remain – despite their magical attraction – with Rav Kook alone.

 

I believe that this conclusion should not be accepted in its entirety, and not only out of educational considerations. The power, the innovation, and the sheer magic of Rav Kook's teachings arise mainly from his inner experiences and awareness, rather than from his position as leader and educator. The power of his teachings lies in the encounter with the real possibilities that he raises – even if one realizes afterwards that they cannot be fully realized.

 

Therefore, I believe, our approach to this question must be based on two dialectical foundations. On the one hand, humility and a sober self-awareness that puts us in our proper place, and on the other hand, an attempt to reach the uppermost sphere in which Rav Kook existed and from which he saw, in a tangible way, without creating a binary, two-dimensional educational picture – either you're a tzaddik like Rav Kook or you forego all the spiritual and human possibilities that he raises. The educational conclusion, to my mind, is that the supreme religious awareness should be viewed as a state which is possible to aspire towards and to achieve, and one's personal or social situation in relation to that supreme level should be viewed as a situation of partial realization, offering partial possibilities, rather than negating them altogether. This is not an exact formula, but it attempts to sketch a general approach that retains the relevance of the deepest and most impressive dimensions of Rav Kook's teachings, even if they are not able to be fully realized.

 

c) In the two previous points, I explained the educational and spiritual need for a position that does not force us directly to one of the poles.[2] The applications of this general sketch depend, to a considerable degree, on one's judgment and evaluation of the surrounding society, or of various frameworks of social and educational partnership; in the cultural context, it depends on an evaluation and judgment of opinions, cultural phenomena, certain disciplines, etc. In other words, there lie many possibilities between the establishment of a Talmud Torah for a defined religious elite, with careful screening on the basis of halakhic criteria, and the establishment of a school in which religious and secular children study together, with no admission criteria, in the same classes and with the same teachers. One might, for example, establish a "mixed" school with separate classes; or two schools – one religious, the other secular, that share a common yard; or a school that is religious but which leaves the definition of identity to the children and their parents; or to establish a relatively lenient religious threshold; etc. Similarly, there are dimensions of dress which create social identity, social frameworks, and a range of forms of community and separate dwellings, creating a broad spectrum of possibilities.

 

In the intellectual, cultural dimension, we might draw a distinction, for example, between different philosophical sources. We might distinguish between philosophy and literature. We might close off vulgar culture (obviously, this needs to be defined) and recommend culture that is of higher quality.

 

We might consume media in an absolute way, as part of the ideal of social inclusion and involvement, or we might forego those aspects of contemporary culture which are perceived as materialist and appealing to the lowest human drives. We might thus avoid watching TV or reading newspapers, while still permitting ourselves classical works (literature, music, etc.), which express deep, lofty elements of human culture.[3] I believe that adopting a position of absolute isolation, on the educational or social level, empties the ideal of overall unity of all meaning; hence, the distinction between different nuances, different frameworks, or different disciplines, is of great significance.

 

Thus, for example, an absolute rejection of any application for an exegetical discipline that is not based on traditional Jewish sources, simply because it originates "outside of the camp," does not sit well with Rav Kook's perception of the truth – nor even with his comments on biblical criticism. As noted, one would be equally mistaken in thinking that absolute acceptance of any position reflects an accurate understanding of his teachings – certainly on the level of teaching the masses. It is specifically for this reason that it is desirable, for example, to draw a distinction in the realm of biblical study between the enlisting of literary tools in exegesis and the wholesale adoption of biblical criticism, even if we accept that both methods were born in the academic world, not in the beit midrash.

 

To explain further: while the point of departure in the literary approach is "instrumental" – i.e., it provides tools for more in-depth understanding of the text qua text, and insofar as the language of the text is human language (since it certainly is – "the Torah speaks in language familiar to people," and any reader of Tanakh knows this) – the point of departure for biblical criticism is theological or de-theological – i.e., it assumes that Tanakh was written by a person or by several people, it denies the beliefs of the Tanakh itself (revelation, prophecy, etc.), and it is on this basis that it proposes its exegesis and commentary.[4]

 

d) In my younger days, the question of reality influencing principle was often invoked in the context of the co-ed membership in Bnei Akiva. The argument went as follows: Does the reality in which a mixed society exists need to cause de facto recognition of that framework, despite the principled position that such a society is not desirable? Or, on the contrary, are we meant to fight for the ideal model, or to leave the movement and establish a new one that will uphold it out of a policy of separation?

 

In the matter of our discussion, too, I have often heard the claim that cultural integration is a fact, and that religious society for the most part does not maintain any clear boundary between itself and the rest of society, and therefore separation is not effective and may even lead to a distancing of the religious public from its leadership. The problem is admittedly a complicated one, and this is not the place to treat it in full. I seek merely to highlight one particular aspect of it: there is a question that must be raised here, and that concerns the price. Are we capable of bearing the price that we pay for our existence alongside the secular public with no boundary? The historical approach of cooperation need not influence our thinking here, since society itself has undergone some critical changes.

 

Aside from the fact, to which I alluded previously, that contemporary culture reveals itself too often as being centered around ego, hedonism, and base desires, and too little on idealism,[5] there is a different problem, which touches on the essence of the matter. Israeli society at the time of the birth of the state, or prior to it, had a clear and sharp idea of identity. There was Zionist or anti-Zionist identity, religious or secular identity. Even the hegemonic attempt to mold a unifying Israeli identity emerged from the assumption that the category of identity is clear and solid; the question concerns its content – i.e., which identity is the proper or desirable one. This discourse, while full of ideological tension, nevertheless facilitated the maintenance of religious identity and its development, despite the mixed social reality and the absence of clear physical or social barriers. Contemporary culture, on the other hand, is devoid of stable identity. A person assumes different identities at will. He exchanges goals and values – if he has any – granting them all only relative value. Post-modern discourse blurs identities. The incessant, unlimited accessibility of information contributes greatly towards this, as does the inflation of the media and the loss of the "absolute." The significance of this cultural situation is that it is enormously difficult to form a stable, self-confident identity that can stand up to the outside and hold its own against the tide that destroys boundaries and identities. Seclusion is vital in order to provide a defined, stable sphere which can serve as a platform to decide whether or not to be secluded. The setting of boundaries is essential as a first step to create the conditions for decision-making, even before we start discussing phenomena or views that are to be ignored or rejected because of their content. The ability to turn inward, to concentrate, to focus, is critical.

 

I believe that the option of seclusion, as arising from Rav Kook's writings and from the philosophy developed by his students, becomes most significant in this social and cultural context, because it represents a precondition for the spiritual possibility of molding a personality that has a stable spiritual and mental center, clear points of orientation, and defined aspirations for holiness and elevation. The danger is that it can become a "failed version" of haredi society. The dialectic model that we have proposed, based on Rav Kook's teachings, with the tension between its philosophy and metaphysics, on the one hand, and practical aspects (education and society), on the other, while not a guide for solving every specific problem, may serve as the basis for molding a path whereby the two opposite poles together form a whole religious personality and a healthy religious society.

 

Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1]  To clarify matters: This has nothing to do with the value attitude towards the State of Israel and its institutions. The position of Rav Kook's students is squarely in support. On the practical establishment level, too, there is recognition of and participation in public activity: in the army (pre-military academies, such as that in Eli), as well as in a wide range of social projects in the civil sector. The insularity I refer to above is mainly in the cultural and ideological-educational spheres. See, for example, the description by Hava ha-Levi Etzioni, "Eretz Shesu'a" (Tel Aviv, 5760), pp. 64-97. Some of the details there are outdated, but the general picture does reflect existing processes.

[2]  I have emphasized in particular our obligation to relate to the dimension of cultural openness and social involvement, since the justification for separation has already been set forth at length in the previous shiurim.

[3] For example, let us consider the realm of music. Post-modern discourse refuses to accept the supposedly elitist distinction between quality creations and mediocre ones, between higher and lower music. There are no longer texts that are considered shallow, nor musical structures that are deemed simplistic. Everything is of equal value. It is specifically this position, viewing culture as devoid of hierarchy, with no distinction between different levels, between the superficial and the profound, that sometimes causes people to think that there is no choice but to oppose anything that is secular, Western, etc. However, this discourse is not correct; it is misleading. One is allowed, for example, to consider Beethoven a more profound composer than Johann Strauss, just as one is permitted to consider the melodies of Chabad as reaching deeper recesses of the soul than those of Gur. It is not snobbish to decide that Yoni Rechter's songs are of higher quality than those of Sarit Hadad. Interested readers will find an engaging attempt at explaining the differences in quality in "Yode'a Nagen" by Daniel Shalit (Tel Aviv, 2002). Obviously, every person may enjoy whatever music he chooses. However, from a cultural and educational point of view, the ability to distinguish quality is often useful; it may guide one's decisions such that one need not choose between negating everything, on one hand, or indiscriminate consumption, on the other. This is meant on the level of principle, rather than the educational-tactical level, where the problem is more severe.

[4]  The presentation here is somewhat simplistic, since the literary approach also sometimes raises fundamental questions; on the other hand, some have suggested making instrumental use of biblical criticism, without crediting its basic assumptions. Nevertheless, there is still room for this distinction, and my intention here is merely to illustrate one possible distinction from an exegetical and educational perspective.

[5]  The aim of this shiur is not to evaluate contemporary culture. My views on the subject are far more critical than the above presentation. The point here is to illustrate the obligation and the possibility of distinguishing between – and consequently adopting a different attitude towards – different phenomena which originate outside of the boundaries of Torah and our tradition, even in the broadest sense of the word.