Lecture #3: On the Jewish People - Letter 44, Section A
RAV KOOKS LETTERS
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learning at the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion is
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This week of Torah learning at the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion is being sponsored by Ronni & Nachum Katlowitz in honor of Ronni's mother's birthday - Happy Birthday Mrs. Lucia Pasternak!
Lecture #3: On the Jewish People - Letter 44, Section A
In this shiur, we will begin studying Letter 44. This is a long letter, with many heavy topics, so I have divided it into sections. Our study will accordingly be split up over many shiurim.
Through this letter, we will be able to address several basic theological and ideological elements of Rav Kooks teachings, and we will thus expand on several matters that will form the basis of further study.
The letters addressee
letter was written to R. Shmuel Alexandrov. R. Alexandrov was one of the more
unique of Rav Kooks correspondents, and he does not fit neatly into one of the
categories of Rav Kooks correspondents (leaders, regular rabbis, disciples,
etc.). R. Alexandrov was born in the same year as Rav Kook, 1865, and was
apparently murdered by the Germans when they arrived in his town of
This brief description demonstrates R. Alexandrovs complexity as well as his clear similarity with Rav Kook in several ways a similarity that was the source of their relationship. R. Alexandrov saw Rav Kook as a kindred spirit and placed great hopes in him. Their correspondence began in 1902, when Rav Kook was still in Bausk, and continued for about ten years, during which R. Alexandrov asked Rav Kook to help him clarify the profundity of philosophic and historiosophic issues in Jewish thought, especially in their practical context. Only a few of Rav Kooks letters to him have been preserved, and they shed light on the evolution of Rav Kooks views on central contemplative issues during his first fateful years in Eretz Yisrael. (According to the testimony of R. Zvi Yehuda Kook in his introduction, Rav Kooks earliest letters to R. Alexandrov have been lost.)
R. Alexandrov himself published his letters to Rav Kook (under the title Mikhtevei Mechkar U-Vikoret), in which the views that Rav Kook discusses in his letters may be discerned. Alexandrov raised radical views regarding the essence of Judaism and the processes that it was undergoing, and Rav Kooks responses are therefore particularly interesting, as we will see in detail in these shiurim.
The letters that R. Alexandrov sent to Ahad Haam during that period are also very important. Ahad Haams heresy seemed to R. Alexandrov, as it seemed to Rav Kook (as he cryptically alludes), to be an expression of the positive aspects of modern heresy, and he therefore felt particularly close to him.
The date and context of the letter
This letter is dated 5667 1907. At that time, Rav Kook was rabbi of Yafo and the surrounding communities, where he encountered all of the communal and educational challenges that the new Yishuv had presented him with. The immediate question that he and R. Alexandrov corresponded about was how religious Judaism could practically address the spiritual and educational challenges it faced, namely, enlightenment, heresy, and the new education. They both believed that something must be done on the educational plane. They also both felt that these issues could be engaged without resorting to polemic or negation of the enlightened and secular positions. They further agreed that the root of the practical response would be the rise of a new generation of Torah scholars who would create a new type of Torah-oriented spirituality with different horizons, a more exalted and relevant inner, contemplative world, and that, to that end, the new Yishuv needed a suitable institution of higher learning.
dispute was about the nature of such an institution. R. Alexandrov thought that
something like a university should be established (a college for Judaism and
science, something akin to
this description of their disagreement, one might think that the issue was
purely pedagogical, a question of curriculum. This, however, is not the case. It
is clear that the debate about the education of Torah scholars was symptomatic
of an attitude toward education in general, and consequently to even more
fundamental issues such as the meaning of
We will address each of the issues that emerge in the course of the letter itself, and will, of course, point out the connections between them, which are never arbitrary in the thought of Rav Kook.
I have topically divided the letter into six sections:
essence of the Jewish People; the meaning of
b. Establishing a rabbinical school that would include higher education; opposition; inward, not external, education.
c. The difference between Jewish and gentile faith; the attitude of our faith to the science and ethics of human origins.
d. Historiosophy of religion.
e. Theology: epistemology and ontology.
f. The attitude of the non-observant to tradition and Torah; the supremacy of philosophy.
Over the next two weeks, we will deal with Section A.
Thoughts before reading
The first section touches on one of the central question of Rav Kooks thought and, in essence, of modern Jewish philosophy as a whole. In order to better understand the general background of the discussion, we will preface it with several points.
rabbinic and medieval Jewish thought generally perceived the confrontation
between Judaism and other cultures as a confrontation between truth and
falsehood, good and evil. The significance of
The exception to this rule is the encounter between Judaism and Greco-Arabic philosophy, as reflected in the works of great Jewish sages like R. Saadia Gaon and the Rambam. These giants saw philosophy as the achievement of human understanding and human understanding as a medium for revealing the truth and the Divine truth in its totality. Consequently, they faced the following question: what special significance do the revelation to Israel and the resulting chosenness of Israel have? During the medieval era, this question was not linked to the question of national identity or social processes; exilic Jewish existence was segregated and apart from the surrounding nations, and the primary encounter was with the best of philosophical literature, not with culture, which was considered low and misguided.
This issue of the relationship between the Jewish truth and the truth of general philosophy or culture became sharper in the modern era, especially in the nineteenth century, due to several factors:
- The rapid advancement of scientific discovery and the consequent technological success.
- The great works of European thought, some of which had decisive cultural impact and whose dissemination was rapid and effective thanks to methods of printing and transportation.
- The social and political opportunities that were opened to Jews, namely, the Emancipation and all it entailed, which allowed Jews to believe that they could be part of that culture.
addition to this intellectual-cultural perspective, the ideological context
questioned the idea of
are the main reasons for the fact that nineteenth century Jewish thought in
Central and Western Europe dealt almost obsessively with attempts to redefine
the idea of
Mendelssohn, in his Jerusalem, had already claimed that Revelation as a
particularistic phenomenon (directed at Israel alone) was not intended to
transmit metaphysical or moral truths, since those are the fruit of
contemplation and thus, by definition, universal. The unique dimension of the
the end of the nineteenth century, with the success of the Zionist idea, this
question arose once again. Zionism is, of course, a repudiation of the Jewish
Enlightenment as a historical-political program, but its attitude toward the
Chareidi ideology completely repudiated the Enlightenment, of course, and
sometimes Zionism as well, and therefore could maintain the classic position on
Kook faced this question in a most penetrating manner. On the one hand, he was
linked to Zionism; on the other hand, he also saw European culture and
Enlightenment as positive foundations for cultural elevation and advancement.
Finally, of course, he was completely bound up in the traditional sources of
Judaism, from the Tanakh through Chazal and philosophy, and
including Kabbala. He was therefore unwilling and unable to view
Rav Kooks nationalist outlook, which we will address in the next section of Letter 44, emerged from within this matrix of historical and spiritual forces.
You are now welcome to read the letter. Please also relate to the explanations in the footnotes.
Letter #44 Section A
By the grace of God,
the holy city of
To my friend, the great rabbi, the wise and exalted, our teacher, the R. Shmuel Alexandrov, may his light shine. Peace and blessing.
Your letters reached me a while ago and I wanted very much to reply, out of respect to you and because of the benefit to be derived thereof, but I have been caught in a web of constant concerns, and since I wished to respond at length, and with adequate clarity, a task which requires free time, I delayed. When, however, I saw there was no end to the matter, and already owing a second reply, I decided to wait no longer. I will write quickly, as much as I am able, [answering] each of your letters in order. Even though I will have to be very brief, I hope it will suffice for one as wise as you.
A. I must begin with an introduction explaining the difference between those standing within the interior of the Divine light the light of all of mankind, revealing itself in the light of Israel and those whose ankles have tottered a bit, and who, unstable and ready to fall, need strengthening, healing, and assistance to support them, in order that we be able to enter the portal of the house of Israel with all our being "to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to visit his Temple," and all evil spirits that seek to draw us out of the bounds of the holiness of God, blessed be He, who grants holiness to Israel, will thereby be driven away from us.
The true quality of the Jew, embedded in the recesses of the Hebrew soul, is the blessing of Avraham our father, may he rest in peace, attested to by the biblical verse, "the seed of Avraham, my beloved." The essence of Jewish life is contained only in the love of God a love for his blessed name as designated particularly in the name "the Lord, God of Israel." All other conditions of life, be they many and broad, detailed or general, are only effects or supplements of this foundation of authentic life. This is our most important characteristic, which prevailed within us, in the first dewy days of our childhood, and which accompanies us forever. Although [our love for God] is concealed at times, it is exactly for this reason that it will again be revealed with greater intensity. This is the rule for any great and powerful force subjected for a long period to an obstructive counterforce: when it prevails, it does so with thunder and great strength, with an explosion and torrent. This characteristic has not changed and will not change. The procession of life and its external forms change at times, but not the inner content. "I remember in your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, when you went after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown." This memory stays and endures forever: "God is not man, that He should lie, nor the son of man that He should repent."
This is our established and everlasting quality, needing no research or philosophy, nor any preservative in the world, for its maintenance or existence. We broaden our knowledge and awareness and make them more sophisticated, in order to give wider space for this divine essential characteristic to expand and reveal itself more fully. By means of its external revelations which are not at all similar to and are of a lesser degree than the essence of strength and clarity and the inner quality of the love of the Lord God of Israel hidden within us it is this very quality of their weakness and dimness which allows us at times to rationally verbalize them and through them to participate with those exceptional individuals who remain in the community of mankind. Even though there can be men of God within any nation or tongue, it is nevertheless inevitable that every person, from whichever nation he may be, will contain within himself completely from the framework of a nation which has already established its own particular qualities, by the mere fact of appearing at its inception on the rostrum of nations. 
The Jewish spark within us is, therefore, truly all our strength and joy, all our spiritual wealth and the essence of our being. All other spiritual possessions [e.g. righteousness, kindness, Torah, mitzvot] are subordinate to [the Jewish spark as manifest in the love of God] and serve it. Even if [the spiritual possessions] seem to be of greater quantity than [the Jewish spark], they are null and void when compared to it terms of its essence and quality, just as all our material wealth silver and gold, houses and palaces, the power and delights of kings are subordinate to life's essence as revealed in the inner center of our lives, whether it is the center of our brains or anywhere else it may be according to any of the views of biologists. 
This is felt strongly
and with all the soul's might by anyone who wants to be a true son of
This inner characteristic can be maintained in its strength and purity only by that healthy guidance and nature necessary for its preservation. It therefore powerfully encompasses an immense and wonderful hot burning love for all the practical mitzvot in the written and oral Torah, mitzvot that are well-rooted in inner love, since this is their source: "From His right hand went a fiery law to them." Wisdom and evaluation, pure philosophical research, refine and cleanse the ideas and conceptions of their ethical and intellectual impurities and set them on [the course of] their true nature, pure and healthy at its source. Therefore, a spiritual fundamental idea which will restore the fallen Tabernacle of David can never be constructed and established without these two interconnected conditions: [first], the heart's perfect love of the commandments of the Torah in its love for the Lord God of Israel, [who is] bound to them [the commandments] according to feelings, and [second], the foundation of life on the essence of the Divine nature implanted in us in eternal love. Anything which seems to contradict these elements, be it intellectual or practical, be it in the life of the individual or in the life of the community, may the most high hand of God, sent "from the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the cliff, forever prevail through the strength of the [main] point of our life, to resolve and ameliorate them in a way that will not only result in no diminution or weakening of the knowledge of life, through this seemingly contradictory encounter, but will even bring it [life's point] vigor through the triumph of truth by means of its overpowering [the seemingly contradictory theories] and which will actually come to light in the life of man and the nation, and spread through the life of all mankind.
convoluted sentence is not arbitrary. Rav Kook formulates here, in passing, the
proper psychological and intellectual attitude that is becoming of a Jew. The
distinction here is dichotomous, and the intent of the dichotomy is to generate
a definition. The best state is the state of those whose main nourishment is
from Jewish sources and methods, the light of Israel which is not perceived
here to be a limited circle of opinions and actions but the best of the light of
humanity, revealed especially through internal Jewish creativity, literature,
and even emotion. The problematic state is that of those who seek their
spiritual nourishment outside, whose spiritual identity is prone to fall since
they have lost their rootedness in
 And you,
The sentence The true quality of the Jew [i.e., love of God]
blessing of Avraham our father is also very precise. On the verse And God
blessed Avraham with everything [ba-kol], Chazal offered the
following interpretation in Bereishit Rabba: Avraham had a daughter
whose name was Bakol. The kabbalists explained that Bakol is the Jewish
People, which is the Divine sefira of malkhut (Kingship), known as
a daughter. In other words: the attribute of love is infused into the
sefira of malkhut, of which the Jewish People is the metaphysical
embodiment. Avraham Avinu, the first to love God, thus bequeathed his offspring
the nation of
 Rav Kook is not speaking here of belief as a matter of knowledge or
consciousness, but rather of love, which is a psychological-personal
relationship. Love of God is not universal religiosity, but the unique
expression of the Jewish People. The difference is in name as well, since the
Name of the God of Israel is the Tetragrammaton and reserved for
also refers to Avraham, as stated above, and also to the beginning of
 This is
one of Rav Kooks most important determinations: The principle of development
that applies to all of nature and culture does not
Yirmiyahu 2:2. See
above, n. 4. This is his intent: Love of which the chosenness of
 The prophecy of Bilam, Bamidbar 23:19. The meaning is: Gods memory is eternal it expresses essence and therefore if God remembers this love as a bride, it means that it is embedded as a feature of the Jewish People.
 This is an allusion to the prophecy of Yoel (3): Among the remnants that God calls, namely, the individuals who call in Gods Name. Nevertheless, the simple meaning there is that it refers to Israel, and Rav Kook himself understood it that way elsewhere.
 This refers specifically to gentile religious
philosophy, and more generally to the value of the Enlightenment as a foreign
import. Alexandrov was greatly influenced by the German philosopher Friedrich
W. J. Schelling and the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, who were both
also linked to Kabbala. He even wrote to Rav Kook that the latters own
views were essentially Platonic (referring mainly to Rav Kooks theological
meditations in his work Ikvei Ha-Tzon). Rav Kook responded that the
attribute of love of God which is part of
 Personality is comprised of several spheres: the personal-individual sphere, the national sphere, the human sphere, and the natural sphere. These spheres nourish one another, and just as a person cannot create a work or express an idea that is not human, so, too, he his unable to create anything disconnected from the national sphere to which he belongs. National identity is something innate, not chosen, and it is even reflected in the works of the most outstanding individuals. This idea is based in Kabbala and is well-suited to the mainstream of European Romanticism that was then flourishing and that highlighted the unique-particularistic aspects of the various national cultures and saw them as facts of nature. Thus, the impression that we are expressing similar views when speaking of faith or love of God is the result of shared language (a superficial factor) and not of shared essence (an internal factor).
 Rav Kook avoids getting into the physiological problem of the center of personality and contents himself with to each according to what he believes.
 This refers to the ideological or metaphysical constructs of Ahad Haam or Gordon, for example, who attempted to define the essence of Israel with all sorts of definitions that they drew from general literature (the Hegelian spirit, Tolstoyan nature, and the like), and which are the result of failing to absorb the essence of Israel from its foundations, from those who bear it.
 This is an important tangential note. Rav Kooks writings on proponents
of Jewish Enlightenment and secular Zionists are sometimes interpreted as though
he has some kind of mystical belief in a Jewish spark that will be revealed and
ultimately be victorious regardless and irrespective of the practical and
ideological path of the specific Jew. It is true that Rav Kook believed this on
the national level, and we will yet address this, but this is a mistake on the
personal level. In his opinion, heresy and abandonment of Judaism are tolerable,
and there is hope that they will be repaired, only if a strong and firm Jewish
foundation underlies them, that is, only if that person has a strong national
connection and faith in the importance and uniqueness of
emphasis here is on Gods Name specifically, in the sense of
 The Lord came from Sinai and arose to them from Seir, appeared from
Mount Paran and came forth from the holy myriads, from His right hand went a
fiery law to them (Devarim 34:2). Gods revelation to
Several years later, the great Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig would write in his Star of Redemption that the mitzva of loving God is the major principle, and essentially the only mitzva and that everything else is its extension and expression. Everything reduces to one thing; the root of Judaism is love, not just faith, and love is revealed and reinforced through action. We have attributed this principle to both Rav Kook and Rosenzweig, despite the differences between them.
R. Alexandrov believed that the main problem of Jewish identity in our generation is beliefs and opinions (we will expand on his comprehensive view of mitzvot in a lecture on a different letter), and here Rav Kook opposes this understanding of the problem.
 The raising of this problem is connected with one of the fundamental issues that Rav Kook and R. Alexandrov discussed. As will soon become clear in the body of the letter, Alexandrov believed that Judaisms main problem was the challenge of global Enlightenments, which was also its weak point vis-א-vis internal proponents of Enlightenment. Response to this could only come, in his opinion, in the form of philosophical efforts, and first of all with real familiarity with general philosophical literature and continuing with attempts at synthesis.
The problem is that in his earlier statement that commonalities with general philosophy are only superficial and his advice to draw on the internal and not external sources of spirituality, Rav Kook seems not to provide any tools for dealing with the emerging contradictions between scientific or philosophical conclusions and the fundamentals of our thought, and not even the tools to resolve conflict on the practical level, such as potential conflicts between adherence and dedication to keeping the Torah as it is and the renascent historical and sociopolitical reality.
In fact, however, Rav Kook rejects the problem and expresses faith that by focusing on those powers that lie within the Jewish essence, everything that appears as a contradiction will not only be shown to be non-threatening to our worldview, but even serve as a source of internal clarification that will result in the truth prevailing and emerging victorious, i.e. raising our worldview to a higher and stronger point than existed prior to the contradiction and conflict. From this, the nations self-confidence will also be enhanced through its own sources. Dealing with Enlightenment in the manner that R. Alexandrov proposes and as many Jewish proponents of Enlightenment have done and continue to do even today causes, according to Rav Kook, loss of faith in our truth and gives Enlightenment more space than it deserves, ultimately causing more harm than good.
 Based on Shir Ha-shirim 2:14. In connection with this quote, note
the statement by the Zohar (84b): My dove in the clefts of the rock, in
the secret places of the cliff my dove this refers to the Jewish People;
in the clefts of the rock this is