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The Jews and the Nations (2)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg


Part II

Chosenness in the Thought of Rav Kook:


            We have heretofore examined various approaches to the concept of chosenness.  We must note that this ideal can be developed in both positive and negative directions.  The unacceptable interpretation of chosenness is that which causes man to demand rights beyond his due; proudly, he sees himself as superior, as a born ruler.  In sharp contrast to this approach we find the attitude underlying Jewish thought, in which chosenness means the acceptance of the Torah and commandments, over and beyond the seven Noachide laws.  These duties might appear to some to be superfluous and burdensome.  I believe that we must place ourselves somewhere on the continuum between the two extreme positions, for the obligations placed upon us are bound up with another principle.  Chosenness means that the Jewish people are the world's "theological antenna;" we constitute the connection between God and man.  Hence, the segula finds its most significant expression through the gift of prophecy.


            It is fitting to pause here to discuss Rav Kook's approach to this issue.  Rav Kook maintains that among every nation of the world one finds individuals who attain tremendous moral and spiritual heights.  However, the Jewish people's uniqueness lies in its collective strength.  The Jewish people are not merely a nation in which certain individuals may achieve greatness.  It is a nation which must express its holiness in a public fashion and practice its values as a community.  Here, in my opinion, Rav Kook fuses two different traditions: the position of Chazal on the one hand, which maintains that prophecy was and always will be exclusive to the Jewish people, and the midrashic tradition expressed in Tanna Debei Eliyahu which claims that any person, Jew or Gentile, man or woman, slave or maidservant, may potentially achieve prophecy.  Judaism finds expression in both those directions, and Rav Kook unites them in his overall view of mankind.


            The issue of chosenness is rejuvenated and illuminated with a new light in Rav Kook's writings.  In order to understand his view, we must touch upon a new topic.


The National Spirit


            Often, philosophers find themselves groping unsuccessfully for the appropriate terms to describe their perception of reality.  As we shall see, modern Jewish thinkers face similar challenges.  Jewish philosophers have not yet discovered a precise definition for the unique essence of the Jewish people.  One of the terms commonly employed for this purpose is the expression "national spirit."  This term allowed Jewish philosophers to speak of an inner motivator, of a collective being which exists beyond the mere sum of individuals.  "National spirit," it must be noted, is not at all similar to "race."  The concept of race is based upon biological and natural components, the concept of "national spirit" on psychological and historical elements.


            The term "national spirit" thus became a useful tool to explain the nation's spiritual and cultural achievements.  Many thinkers have used the term, the most well-known among them being Achad Ha'am.  However, this term holds not only promise but great danger as well.  Thinkers like Achad Ha'am saw the Torah and the Jewish faith in general as the fruits of the national spirit.  In their concept of the national spirit we face a fresh pitfall which finds ample expression in the question of prophecy and revelation.  If the Torah and religious values are, in essence, the outpourings of the national spirit, it follows that prophecy cannot be divine communication.  There is, then, no Godly - or transcendental - revelation; there is rather the self-discovery of a nation, or immanent revelation.


            This position flies in the face of one of the most basic tenets of Judaism.  Furthermore, even those thinkers who understood the prophetic experience as a natural phenomenon, nonetheless believed it to be a revelation of realities which lie beyond man's self-contained knowledge.  We can distinguish between the prophetic communication and the prophetic experience; the content possesses objective validity despite the subjective nature of the experience.


            In Rihal's work we find two concepts which take heed of this dichotomy.  They are the "segula of Israel" and the "divine essence."  The "segula of Israel" represents the immanent, human element in his position, while the "divine essence" represents the transcendental or God-given component.


            Now we are equipped to understand the full meaning of the doctrine of chosenness in Rav Kook's writings.  However, to further our perception we must discuss a question of paramount importance which continues to reverberate through our world to this very day.  I refer to the problem of autonomy versus heteronomy.


            What is the source of the authority of the commandments, - the binding law [nomos]?  Is it in hands of someone else [hetero] or is it perhaps in myself [auto]?  How should the ideal law be constructed?  These are central questions in the philosophy of ethics and education.  Without entering into the complexities of this issue, we will attempt a brief summary of the topic.


            It would seem obvious that the Torah is heteronomic, its authority stemming only and absolutely from the divine voice which exists beyond man.  However, Rav Kook rejected the perception of the Torah as a foreign, coercive legal system that is in conflict with man's natural tendencies.  Placing the Torah upon a heteronomic basis entails a recognition of its supra-human character and its divine origin, but it is at the price of continual tension and strife, of a lifelong existential trauma.  This trauma with its severe psychological and social ramifications forms no part of the divine plan.


            God's will lies not merely in having His words obeyed, but also in the healthy and complete development of the human personality, of human society and even of the cosmos.  To borrow a phrase from R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Torah's interest in us is not theological but anthropological.  In the words of Rav Kook, the central question that we must ask is not the question of "knowledge of God" - theology's question, but rather "the knowledge of God in the world" - "the moral influence of divine studies" (Eder Ha-yakar p. 37).


            Rav Kook teaches us that the Torah contains two ideals which we must combine.  And the unification of those two ideals spells chosenness.  The essence of chosenness lies in the compatibility of the divine revelation with the Jewish people's national spirit.  A nation fit for divine communication was chosen as the vessel for God's revelation.  This is the meaning of the midrashic legend which relates that God offered the Torah to all the other nations of the world, and they refused to accept it.


            The match between national spirit and God's word is not easy to guarantee.  In fact, it is glaringly absent in many nations:


"And this is not far from the truth, in relation to most nations.  Because ... their divine knowledge, being dim and weak, is not an appropriate basis for their being and existence, and it is not their permanent nature or national cause."


            Thus, the true meaning of the Jewish people's chosenness is that they do not see morality as a law enforced from without, but rather as an expression of their inner desires.  The opposite of this harmonious relationship can be found in the rebellion of part of Western culture against the "Judeo-Christian" tradition, a rebellion whose most extreme expression took the form of Nazism.


            It is not racial genes which grants the Jews this special affinity.  In truth, it will someday be the happy lot of all.  In this context, chosenness merely bestows the status of the firstborn, with the confidence that one day the other siblings will join the eldest.  Thus, the harmony between our inner world and the divine law constitutes the quintessential experience of the eschatological end of days.


            Of course, this harmony does not flow effortlessly throughout every Jew's daily life.  At times there appears to be a conflict between the demands of religion and morality, on the one hand, and the individual Jew's natural tendencies on the other.  Rav Kook explains that although those conflicts do exist, they are the result of cultural problems, deficiencies that have not yet "come under the influence of the Torah."  Every problematic situation, according to Rav Kook, is "based either upon a distorted understanding of the Torah on our part, or can be traced to a specific cause."  Morality and religion do not simply mean conformity to the revealed Torah; they are also an integral part of human self-actualization.  The conflicts will lessen from "generation to generation, and the issues will unravel themselves in tranquillity and holiness."  This, then, is part of our cultural mission: to create a society in which such conflicts cease to exist.


            Rav Kook expressed this synthesis using the symbolism of the Kabbala in his commentary on the introductory prayer "Le-shem yichud:"


"The complete marriage of the Jewish people with the Holy One - this refers to the identification of God's will as expressed through the entire nation, at the root of its collective soul, with the revelation of divinity which lies at the heart of all of existence. ... And at the Jewish people's highest level no difference exists between the divine outpouring upon all of existence and the manner in which it is perceived through the Jewish nation.  For this reason we pray in all our endeavors to achieve 'yichud,' the fusion of the Holy One and His Shekhina (divine presence)" (Orot Yisrael, Orot p. 141).


            The congregation of Israel, a symbol of the kabbalistic sphere of "malkhut" (kingdom), here becomes the symbol of Jewish existence: "The congregation of Israel is the concentrated essence of all of existence, and in this world this essence is actually contained within the Jewish nation" (ibid., pg. 138).  "Tif'eret" (glory), the symbol of divine revelation, is not understood simply as the revelation of the Torah, but is the widest sense, as "the effect of the divine life upon all of existence."  The transcendental element finds expression through all of existence, yet it still may conflict with "the divine will which is expressed in the nation as a whole, at the foundation of its collective soul."  The merging of these two desires is the essence of the aspiration to "unite God with His Shekhina through all of our actions."  Our segula is expressed through the "spirit of the nation" which is umbilically bound to the divine spirit.  The immanent touches the transcendent:


"The national spirit which is currently awakening has supporters who boast of independence from divine spirituality,; were it truly possible to foster a national spirit of this sort, it would be tantamount to placing the nation upon a pedestal of impurity, even destruction, but they themselves do not realize what they want ... [This is true] to the point that even he who claims that he needs no godly spirit, if he craves a Jewish national spirit, the godly spirit is manifest at the innermost heart of his ambitions, even against his will.  The private individual may cut himself off from the source of life, but not so the nation of Israel in its entirety; therefore all of the nation's achievements, which are beloved to them because they give voice to the national spirit, hold the divine spirit within them: the country, language, history and leadership.


            "And if at some future time such a spiritual awakening takes place, when people will say that all the above are due to the national spirit alone, and they will attempt to deny the influence of the divine spirit upon all these achievements and upon their apparent source, the national spirit, what must the righteous of that generation do? ... They must struggle to reveal the light and holiness contained in the national spirit, the light of God within all these outer trappings, until those who cling to the ideas inherent in the general spirit ... will find themselves rooted and living in the divine life, aglow with holiness and exalted strength" (Orot Ha-techiya 9, in Orot, p. 63)


            When we say the introductory prayer of "Le-shem Yichud" in conjunction with prayer "Viyhi No'am" (May the pleasantness of God upon us ... and may our handiwork be established), we pray for peace, for harmony between the commandments that we fulfill, and our innate human ideals.


(This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)


Copyright (c)1996 Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion.  All rights reserved.


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