Skip to main content

The Ethical Foundations of Rav Kook's Nationalist Views

Harav Yehuda Amital

It is forbidden for fear of Heaven to push aside one's natural morality, for then it would no longer be pure fear of Heaven.  The sign [by which one can recognize] pure fear of Heaven is when the natural morality which is rooted in man's honest nature ascends by means of [the fear of Heaven] to higher levels than it would have attained without it.

But if there should be a fear of Heaven, such that without its influence, life would tend to function better, and would actualize things beneficial to the individual and society, whereas with its influence that actualizing power would diminish -- such a fear of Heaven is invalid.[1]


            Fifty years have passed since our master, Rav Kook z"l, left us. However, if we ask ourselves how many years have passed since his words were formulated and most of his teachings written, we get to the number eighty or almost ninety years.  And since then, vast changes have occurred in the Jewish world and in the world at large. 

            There are two events which profoundly influence what is taking place in our generation, which no one foresaw in Rav Kook's lifetime: the Holocaust and the Israel-Arab conflict.  Likewise, it is doubtful whether Rav Kook foresaw the phenomenon of waves of immigration of ordinary, simple Jews from East and West, and the mass abandonment of the yoke of mitzvot which followed in its wake, unmotivated by ideological or intellectual considerations.  As to the general world - without referring to the enormous technological changes affecting all walks of life - it is sufficient for us to point to two things:  the breakdown of the ideal of the perfection of the world in the socialist spirit, and the deep crisis in which Western culture finds itself.  In light of all this, a question mark may be added to the subject of this lecture - the significance of Rav Kook's teaching for our generation?  Is it at all possible to speak of the significance of things that were written at such a great qualitative distance?

            Among the scholars researching his teachings today, one can discern two approaches.  As we know, Rav Kook's teaching includes important and profound ideas relating to the principles of Judaism, its values and fundamental concepts.  These teachings will remain valuable for generations, independent of the circumstances or the events of his lifetime. On the other hand, his oeuvre also includes analyses and explanations of the significance of historical events and spiritual movements of his time; characterizations of his generation and its spiritual problems, as well as expectations and forecasts of the development of spiritual, psychological and historical processes:  a sort of historiosophy of his contemporary scene. There is an approach which says, "Let us put aside the realia in Rav Kook's teachings and leave that to the historians; let us concentrate on those chapters of thought which are of value to all generations."  For them the question is narrowed down:  is the value of those chapters only in that they enrich Jewish thought in general, linking up to the thought of great Jewish scholars of former generations?  Or do they perhaps have a special significance for the perplexed of our times?  There is also another approach among circles devoted to Rav Kook's teaching.  These try to explain all the events of our times and all the problems of our generation according to their formulation in Rav Kook's teachings from eighty years ago.  In general, both approaches may be said to suffer from exaggeration.

            With regard to the question of whether his philosophical teachings are significant for our generation, the answer is a firm yes. His teachings seriously grapple with most of the problems that preoccupy the modern educated person.  Problems such as faith and heresy, holy and profane, freedom of choice, the chosenness of the people of Israel, exile, redemption, the relationship between Israel and the nations of the world, relations between man and society, personal and public morality, the perfection of the individual and the community, the service of the heart and the practical mitzvot, spiritual ideals and punctiliousness with regard to the mitzvot, Zionism and the state, Providence and history, law and morality, freedom and compulsion, war and peace, mysticism and realism, vision and reality, faith and science, certainty and presumption, etc., etc. - all these problems are given rich expression in his deep thinking.  And if it is true that in matters of opinions and beliefs, it is the intellectual community that is dominant and trend-setting for the broader community, then we see that his teaching is meaningful for a very broad public.

            Here we should also stress his constant struggle against the superficial approach to basic concepts of Judaism and his continual call for deep study of the theoretical part of the Torah, so that a situation should not arise with "generations whose general conceptions have all matured and developed while they have not dealt at all with the realm of divine concepts; thus that generation will be left in a lowly and pathetic condition, with religious breaches constantly multiplying."[2] These words are especially meaningful in our times, when the educated public is growing and the media continues to expand the public's knowledge even after it has left school.

            Commonly, man's first conceptions of the world surrounding him make way, with the expansion of his knowledge, for more developed and more scientific conceptions.  How sad it is that at the same time, his first concepts relating to Torah (e.g.  faith, the unity of God, Providence, prophecy, redemption, etc.) remain unchanged since his childhood.  Rav Kook speaks with pain of those whose concepts of faith and trust in God "are permanently confused in quaint imaginings, just as they appear to the mind at the beginning of knowledge, and warped - because of abandonment and ignoring of these sublime concepts - in ways of imagining which are far from the ways of Torah."[3]  Because of this, Rav Kook never ceased demanding, at every opportunity, increasing in-depth study of the realm of belief.  It would seem that this demand of his has vital significance not just for our generation.  Our concern and responsibility for the nation's spiritual future oblige us to pay serious heed to this demand.

            We must not be blind to the fact that religious Jewry of today displays great vitality in flourishing and prospering with its "simple religiosity," "proste frumkeit" in Rav Kook's phrase,[4] without elevating its religious and Godly concepts.  We must not be blind to the presence of men of science among those who are "returning in teshuva" whose spiritual baggage is limited to the Kitzur Shulchan 'Arukh, with no interest in religious thought.

            I think it would be irresponsible on our part to proceed in the confidence that there will be no religious crisis in the future arising from the poverty of religious thought and confused, sometimes childish, conceptions of the principles of faith.  Who knows if another generation may not arise for whom it will again be impossible "to explain even simple faith to average people except by expounding upon the divine secrets which stand at the peak of existence."[5]

            Even many of Rav Kook's thoughts on the historiosophy of his day are applicable to our time.  But not everywhere is it possible to separate the historiosophical from the philosophic sections of his thought.  There are also parts of his teaching that were not completely understood in their time, and even if they were understood, did not receive the proper resonance, nor were they accorded appropriate weight.  And it is precisely in our days that we can understand them in all their depth and recognize their actual and vital significance.  I have chosen here a section of his teaching that seems to deal with a general problem which bears no connection to the realities of his day.  Yet, after careful study, it becomes clear that it is anchored in his nationalist and Zionist perception, and it has great significance precisely in our time.

            I wish to refer here to one of the sections in Rav Kook's teaching dealing with an ancient problem:  the proper place and weight of autonomous duties, that is, the moral duties that a man assumes out of an inner awareness and the demand of conscience.  Rav Sa'adia Gaon, Rabbenu Bachya, and Rambam have all dealt with it.  But while they mainly dealt with duties already included in the 613 commandments and emphasized chiefly the importance of the motivation of the inner conscience, Rav Kook's teaching deals with the moral duties that were not included in the obligatory Halakhah.  As has already been said, his perception in this matter is anchored in his nationalist and Zionist perception, especially in its moral foundations.  And as we know, these moral fundamentals are the cornerstone of his nationalist perception.  I shall therefore begin with a brief explanation of this understanding of his.


            Nationalism in Israel has its source, in Rav Kook's opinion, in our father Abraham's striving to found a nation.  In the words of Rambam in his Guide (III:51), "The chief aim of the whole life of the Patriarchs was to establish a nation that would know God and serve Him."  This striving to establish a nation derived from a universalistic stance whose source was in the attribute of lovingkindness (chesed) which characterized Abraham's world:  a lovingkindness that was not limited just to hospitality, or to supplications on behalf of the people of Sodom, but one whose aim was to do good to all mankind.  Abraham our father saw the world suffering endlessly, with persecutors suffering as well as the persecuted, and the laws of the jungle ruling.  He understood that only in keeping the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, was there hope for mankind. Abraham our father understood that mere preaching would not succeed in bringing mankind to the way of the Lord.  According to our sages, some attempts of this kind had already been made in the schools of Shem and Eber, but they had not succeeded.  Therefore Abraham our father longed "to establish a great human community that would 'keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice.'"[6]

This is the longing that comes from the clear and mighty awareness and the universal and lofty moral demand to deliver mankind from the terrible suffering of spiritual and material troubles and bring it to a  life of freedom, full of splendor and sensitivity, illuminated by the divine idea, and to cause all men to prosper.  For the fulfillment of this longing, it is really necessary that this society should possess a political and social state with a seat of national government, at the peak of human culture, 'a wise and understanding people and a great nation':  and the absolute Godly Idea should reign there, reviving the people and the land with its life.  By this it will be known that not just wise individual virtuosos, pious men, Nazirites and holy men, live by the light of the Divine Idea, but also whole nations, culturally and politically developed; whole nations including all the various human strata, from the highest artistic intelligentsia, the elites, learned and holy, to the broader social, political, and economic classes, and until the proletariat in all its groups, even the lowest and earthiest.[7]

            "Two things illumine Israel," writes Rav Kook, "pure morality in all its strivings in the entire world, in man and in every living creature in the whole of existence; and the knowledge that everything stems from calling on the Name of the Lord."[8]  When the people of Israel will succeed in bringing this message to the world, mankind will be healed. This is a long historical process, and for the sake of fulfilling this mission the people of Israel must pass through many fiery crucibles until it will be worthy to have the verse fulfilled:  "And many nations shall go forth and say:  Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways, and we shall walk in His paths; for the Law shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem."[9]

            This great destiny, as distant as it appears, is what gives meaning and significance to Jewish existence; it is planted in the depths of the Jew's inner consciousness; it is the source of his longing for redemption.  In the words of Rav Kook, "The powerful desire to be good to everyone, without limitation of the quantity of those benefiting nor of the quality of the benefits - this is the inner kernel of the essence of the soul of the Community of Israel.  This is its inheritance and the legacy from its ancestors, and this is the secret of the nation's longing for redemption which gives it strength to live and exist, to the wonderment of every thinking person."[10]  Note Rav Kook's expression:  "This is the secret of the nation's longing for redemption."  In other words, it is not its terrible suffering that is the source of its longing for redemption, but rather its striving to do good to mankind, for this is the essence of its soul.

            This is how Rav Kook perceived the inner purpose of Zionism in his day.  He did not accept Herzl's conception of a safe haven for the Jewish people.  "It is not the sound of a despised nation seeking for itself a safe haven from its persecutors, that is fit to revive this eternal movement."[11]  He saw the movement for the return to Zion in his days as the beginning of redemption, that is to say, a process fulfilling the prophetic vision of the return to Zion, a process leading toward the divine mission of the perfection of mankind.  "There is no doubt that this great movement is the atchalta degeulah ('beginning of redemption'), may it come speedily, in our days."[12]

            We learn of the motivations for his enthusiastic relationship to the national revival movement from what he wrote in the booklet Ne'dari Bakodesh:  "If the idea of our national revival were not so lofty and elevated to the point where it includes the everlasting vision embracing the whole of mankind and all existence, we would not be able to be connected to it with so much of our inner soul."[13]  Here Rav Kook did not explain why he would not be able to be connected with the movement for national revival without its universal aim.  Apparently, he saw this as self-evident, with no need to explain it.  But what is not explained here is explained elsewhere in his writings.

There are some righteous men, very great and mighty, who cannot limit themselves within the confines of the community of Israel (Keneset Yisra'el) alone, but who are always worrying and concerned for the good of the whole world.  Nevertheless, they too are connected inwardly particularly with Keneset Yisra'el, because Keneset Yisra'el is the essence of all that is good and most excellent in the entire world, and whatever love and goodness may come to Keneset Yisra'el, she returns it and envelops all creation with it. 

These righteous men cannot be nationalists in the superficial sense of the word, for they cannot tolerate any hatred or injustice, nor any limitation or shrinking of goodness and lovingkindness; they are good to all, like the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He, Who is good to all and Whose mercies extend over all His works.  Yet they yearn for salvation with mighty fervor because they know clearly and believe with all the fullness of their pure souls that the salvation of Israel is the salvation of Lord - the salvation of the world and the fullness thereof, of everything in it, from the greatest heights to the lowest depths.[14]

            But there is a further reason for his emphasizing the universal aim of the idea of national revival.  Rav Kook was afraid that the Zionist idea, based simply and solely on the search for a safe refuge for the people - an idea completely divorced from the prophetic vision of the return to Zion, divorced from the universal moral purpose - was likely to lead to a moral breakdown and to the adoption of the doctrine of reliance on physical strength.  Thus he writes,

Nationalist feeling is a sentiment exalted in its honest naturalness, but when it is not properly directed and does not turn to the higher goal of the absolute happiness of general perfection, it will eventually burst the bounds of morality when it oversteps its boundaries by raising a hand to capture castles that do not belong to it, without righteous judgment and with no holy goal or purpose.[15]

            It is worth emphasizing that these things are said with reference to nationalism in Israel; that is, Jewish nationalism which is divorced from the vision of universal redemption is likely to wither to the point of breaking the bounds of morality and seizing castles that do not belong to it, with no justice or righteousness.

            Rav Kook was also aware of the religious and moral problems endemic to a framework of national sovereignty:

It is indeed an especially difficult task to observe the general Torah of the state - a much harder task than the observance of the Torah of the individual.  For the Torah and its commandments are for the purpose of refining mankind; but the work of refining society as a whole, with its political needs, is much more complicated than the work of refining each individual in himself as a private person.  For behold, in regard even to simple human morality, where man's natural sense of justice aids him, our eyes see that while, so far as individuals are concerned, it does at least have some hold on life, humanity as a whole has still not reached a point at which [such simple morality] is accepted as an obligation in public or party policy.  And it is for this reason that, as we know, the same evil inclination that is present in an ordinary private person is many times stronger in public political man, so that [with him] all concepts of good and evil, righteousness and wickedness, become entirely lost in the diplomatic maelstrom and the seething flow of politics, which is like a turbulent sea.[16]

            For this reason, Rav Kook demands that it is precisely in the movement leading to national and social growth that we are duty-bound to raise the moral level and the connection to our holy foundation.

Among the strengths of our holy Torah is that it is the Law of life and the fountain of truth.  Far be it from us to think that the stormy waves of political striving are to be permitted to blind our eyes so that we cannot see ahead; and most certainly we dare not permit the separatist party tendency, which may awaken particularly at a time when the political movement is about to be formed, to cause us to act against the attributes of righteousness and truth, of universal and particular human love, of the love of Israel and Israel's special duty of holiness.  For our obligation is not only to be holy people as individuals, but also, and especially, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.[17]

            By this reasoning, Rav Kook saw it as a vital necessity to emphasize the connection between the national revival movement of his day and the prophetic  vision of the return to Zion, which incorporates the people of Israel's divine mission to be a holy nation and kingdom of priests for all mankind.


            Now we may ask:  What is that Torah that is to "go forth from Zion" and that will excite many nations to declare, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord...  and He will teach us His ways?"  Are only the laws contained in the Shulchan 'Arukh Choshen Mishpat intended?

            Moreover, these laws are obligatory, and that is apparently their strength.  The nations of the world were commanded, in the framework of the Seven Noahide Laws, to set up a judicial system of their own, according to their own understanding.  Will the laws of the Choshen Mishpat become mandatory in the future for the sons of Noah as well?

            Here we return to the question raised earlier on the place of the moral duties which one arrives at by an inner awareness.

            To the question, "Does the formal Halakhah encompass all the duties of a Jew?"  Ramban[18] responded in the negative.  He explains that the mitzvot "Ye shall be holy" and "Thou shalt do the right and the good" are intended to place upon man duties beyond those that he has been commanded:  "Even in regard to that which He has not specifically commanded you, you must take heed to do that which is good and right in His eyes."

            But while Ramban emphasizes the impossibility of detailing everything in the Torah - "Because it is impossible to mention in the Torah all of a man's behavior with his neighbors and friends, and all his dealings, and all the orderings of the community and of countries, in their entirety" - Rav Kook maintains that there is a special purpose for the noninclusion of many duties in the mandatory Halakhah:  it is desirable that these supererogatory deeds be performed out of an autonomous inner compulsion as a form of free-will offering and an expression of the love of kindness.  Furthermore, Rav Kook stresses that "the Torah's goal is that the mind be ruled by love and benevolence."[19] In his view, the ideal is to keep the Torah as the Patriarchs kept it, that is, out of a free, inner cognition, and not by strength of a heavenly command.  Rav Kook adds that "this is the basic reason we always attach the covenant of the Patriarchs to all the most essential principles, and the covenant of Eretz Yisra'el is derived both from our inheritance from them and from our acceptance of the Torah.  The Patriarchs indeed kept the Torah out of a free inner cognition, and it is fitting that this quality play a large role in moral existence.  And this is the basis of the hidden aspect [of goodness] which manifested as pious deeds and actions beyond the letter of the law."[20]  It is the divine balance which watches over the moral development of Keneset Yisra'el that determined "how much of it should derive from the [coercive] power of law and judgment, and how much from the goodness of the heart and internal consent without coercion, not even moral coercion."[21]

            Rav Kook adds that if it all came "as mandatory law, people would have obscured its eternal guidance from being a beacon to all generations and a light to the nations, according to their widely varied spiritual levels."[22]  In other words, if all the moral duties were to be turned into mandatory Halakhah, it would be detrimental to Israel's mission of being a light to the nations.  It is the very fact that the people of Israel reached, through the Torah's guidance, a moral way of life out of a free inner awareness, that will cause many nations to marvel and will inspire them to ascend to the mountain of the Lord.  This is "the Torah [that] will go forth from Zion" and this is the "word of the Lord [which will emanate] from Jerusalem."  Moral duties that we are accustomed to define merely as pious deeds, or beyond the letter of the Law, are thus found to be the essence of the Torah.  Rav Kook adds,

One cannot measure the magnitude of the loss that human culture would suffer if these exalted virtues were set as fixed obligations.  Only that which is most essential for present physical and moral life, and which, if weakened, harms the roots of the future, becomes law, and [of this it is written,] 'Greater is he who is commanded and acts'... This is the fate of [duties] 'beyond the letter of the law,' which will be of great benefit when man's heart of stone will turn into a heart of flesh.[23]

            And if we ask what is the relative weight of that part of Judaism that has to be observed out of a free inner awareness, as compared with the obligatory halakhic part, Rav Kook answers that:

That aspect of morality which must rise out of charity and the love of kindness must always be the greater part of general positive morality, just as the open air is in comparison with the buildings and cultural activities in them; it is impossible that they should not leave it a very broad expanse.[24]

            Note the image used by Rav Kook.  Its meaning is that the autonomous duties are quantitatively several times greater than the halakhic duties.

Be aware that the Torah was lenient in laws relating to the community, not pressuring the spirit of the nation to piety, because then piety would have been made into a matter of routine and duty, and the Torah's purpose is that the mind be ruled by love and benevolence.  This is the reason underlying some of the Torah's leniencies in the laws of warfare.  As for the elimination of idolatry, this is in keeping with Israel's general mission; in any case, this subject was left to the courts to inquire into the moral quality of each cult, since not all cases are identical. Because of our many sins these matters have not been expounded to us in detail, for from the time we lost our national spiritual strength we lacked practical experience in these things, and thus it will remain until God, blessed be He, will restore to us our crown of glory; may it be soon, in our days.[25]

            Rav Kook hints here that one cannot draw any contemporary lessons from the way wars were conducted in biblical times.  Those wars were directed against an idolatrous culture which caused great moral damage.  And even in biblical times, not all the wars were the same.  The court used to weigh up the moral damage caused by the particular idolatrous cult, and the norms for Israel's conduct were prescribed accordingly.  A further expression of the importance Rav Kook ascribed to the moral duties beyond mandated law is to be found in his words defining the term "a righteous nation" in relation to the house of Israel in the text: "Open the gates and let the righteous nation that keepeth faith enter." "Righteous nation," says Rav Kook, means one that executes righteousness and lovingkindness to every individual and also toward every nation. Consequently, he adds, "it strives to ensure that even its necessary conquests be by way of righteousness and faith. And now, when we are returning to our Land, we are conquering it not with might and not by the sword, but rather by peaceful means; and we pay with substantial funds for every inch of our Land, despite the fact that our right to the soil of our Holy Land never ceased."[26]

            Faithful to this perception, Rav Kook says regarding the law, "And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," which by all principles of Halakhah refers only to fellow Jews, "It is our desire to observe the command to 'love thy neighbor as thyself' not only with regard to individuals but also with regard to the nations, so that the nations of the world also should have no grievance against us."[27]

            Elsewhere, again, Rav Kook writes, "When we consider the aggada [homily] that says that in Jerusalem they learned Torah from Sisera's grandsons, and that in Bnei Brak they learned Torah from Haman's grandsons, we penetrate the profundity of lovingkindness, according to which we should not be swept up into the stream of hatred even against our worst enemy."[28]

            Rav Kook is aware that whoever does not accept his view will be able to clutch on to scattered teachings of our sages for support. Against such people he writes, "The love of fellow men must burst forth from the source of lovingkindness, not as a matter of law, for then the clearest part of its brightness would be lost, but rather as a mighty inner movement of the soul.  And it must endure very difficult trials, to overcome many contradictions scattered like stumbling blocks in isolated teachings, in the superficiality of several laws, and in numerous conceptions that arise from the limited expression given to the esoteric part of Torah and the national morality."[29]

            His practical approach to the idea of the love of mankind gains further expression in his call to struggle against spiritual and physical hindrances to this love, albeit without explaining their nature.

When the passionate desire to be good to all prevails, then man knows that a heavenly illumination has come to him. And happy is he if he has prepared a worthy place in his heart, in his mind, in the work of his hands and in all his feelings, to receive this exalted visitor which is greater and more sublime than all the honored of the land; let him hold on to it and not let it go.

And all the hindrances and delays, physical and spiritual, that hinder the acceptance of this holy idea into his very inner self, let them not restrain him; let him fight against all of them and cling to his stronghold, let him raise his sights afar to grasp the attributes of God, Who is good to all, and Whose mercies extend over all His works.[30]

            It would seem that beyond his teaching, something of Rav Kook's pure personality is revealed here.  "True greatness and genius are joined together in a generous soul to pour a dominion of love, of freedom and of honor, onto both nation and man together."[31]




*    Translated by Rabbi Bernard Caspar z"l and Rabbi Ronnie Ziegler.  This article originally appeared in Yovel Orot, ed. B. Ish Shalom and S. Rosenberg.

[1]    Orot Hakodesh, Vol. III, p.27.

[2]    'Ikvei Hatzon, Ma'amar 'Avodat Elokim.

[3]    Ma'amarei Re'AYaH, p.86.

[4]    Iggerot ReAYaH, I, p.160.

[5]    Orot Hakodesh, I, p.7.

[6]    Orot, Lemahalakh ha'idei'ot beyisra'el, Chapter 2.

[7]    ibid.

[8]    Orot Yisra'el, 1:7.

[9]    Yeshayahu 2:3.

[10] Orot Yisra'el, 1:4.

[11] Iggerot Re'AYaH, II, p. 59.

[12] ibid.,  p. 176.

[13]  Ma'amarei Re'AYaH II, p.417.

[14]  Orot Hakodesh, III, p.349.

[15]  'Olat Re'AYaH, I, p.234.

[16]  Ma'amarei Re'AYaH, p.174.

[17]  ibid.

[18]  Commentary on the TorahVayikra 19:2 and Devarim 6:18.

[19]  Iggerot Re'AYaH, I, p.100.

[20]  ibid., p.97.

[21]  ibid.

[22]  ibid.

[23]  ibid.

[24]  ibid.

[25]  ibid., p.100.

[26]  Ma'amarei Re'AYaH, p.252.

[27]  ibid.

[28]  'Orot Hakodesh, III, p.326.

[29]  ibid., p.318.

[30]  ibid., p.316.

[31]  'Eder Hayakar.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!