RAV KOOK’S LETTERS - Lecture #6a: Knesset Yisrael - Letter 44, Sections B-C
By: Rav Tamir Granot
Knesset Yisrael: Nationalism and Universalism
These sections continue the first section, and we will develop issues that arose in the previous lecture, some of which we discussed only in a very preliminary fashion. We will address two main topics:
· The claim that Knesset Yisrael embodies the best of the science and values of world culture, and therefore does not need to learn from it.
· The relationship between faith as a cultural and normative phenomenon and other ideas, which have independent sources.
A. “All goodness and all truth is already implanted deep within us”
In order to discuss the idea that arises in the letter comprehensively, we will cite the first section of “Orot Yisrael” (one part of Orot):
The Essence of Knesset Yisrael and the Nature of its Life
A. Knesset Yisrael is the epitome of all existence, and in this world this epitome is influenced by the actual nation of Israel, its physicality and spirituality, its history and faith.Israel’s history is the ideal epitome of world history; there is no movement in the world among any of the nations that does not have its parallel in Israel. Its faith is the refined epitome of faith, the influencing source of idealism and goodness, which it bestows on all other faiths, and is consequently the critical power of all religious concepts, bringing them to the level of “clear language” to call out in the Name of God. “Your God, O Israel, shall be called the God of all the Earth.” (Orot p. 138)
The words that we have seen in the letter are formulated more generally here, and it is clear that Rav Kook claims a metaphysical basis for them. More precisely, they have a kabbalistic, metaphysical basis. In the first sentence, Rav Kook speaks about “Knesset Yisrael” and in the next sentence about the “the nation of Israel;” this means that when Rav Kook speaks about “the Jewish People,” it is precise and distinct, indicating the metaphysical essence that is called by this name.
“Knesset Israel” is one of the foremost names of the sefira of malkhut, the final link in the chain of emanations of Divine Names and titles. The real, historical nation of Israel actualizes the metaphysical essence that is expressed by the name “Knesset Yisrael.”
What is the relationship between the sefira of malkhut and Knesset Yisrael?
The sefira of malkhut receives all of the bounty and power of the sefirot above it. Chesedand din, netzach and hod, are the active, influential aspects of Divine life. Malkhut is the collecting aspect, which includes all of the various aspects. It has no particular independent substance (“Malkhut has nothing of its own”), and precisely because of this it has the capacity to receive all of the various aspects of Divine bounty, even those in opposition with on another.
We should note that this is the essential substance of all royalty. A king has no particular defining feature. He is not an exceptional hero or particularly wise; he is not a celebrated artist or the most kind or generous person, or the like. The king’s unique ability is coordinating all of the strength that exists within his kingdom and activating it in a harmonious manner. Without the king, the various forces would act, at best, in parallel to each other, without mutual influence and cross-fertilization. In a lesser scenario, they would struggle with each other and live in perpetual conflict. Kingship enables each of these virtues to be made manifest and to have a constructive influence, through mutual nourishment and acceptance of the various virtues and through the refinement of exaggerated and unrestrained aspects that threaten to turn every quality into a destructive force.
If we use a metaphor from the world of psychology, the aspect of malkhut is necessary for the healthy existence of every personality. A person can have many positive virtues: intelligence, creativity, a fruitful imagination, sensitivity, an aesthetic sense, etc. Without malkhut, however, a person would be in a perpetual state of inner turmoil. The various forces would undermine each other. He would not be able to live a constructive life, and would even be liable to become frustrated or go insane.
Knesset Yisrael fulfills this metaphysical function within the general Divine personality; the nation of Israel is the representation of the attribute of malkhut within cultural-historical reality (note the alternation between the expression “Knesset Yisrael” and expressions such as “the nation of Israel” or “the Jewish nation;” the goal is to distinguish between the inner, ideal concept and its actual manifestation).
This is the inner meaning of the vision of the messianic kingdom of the Davidic dynasty. The kingdom, as a political-cultural phenomenon that will be actualized at the time of redemption, is supposed to be based on the fulfillment of the Jewish ideal, that is, the gathering and unified application of all the various cultures, faiths, and values that exist in the world and that are currently engaged in constant conflict and struggle. (Recall that David is the seventh “guest” onSukkot, the attribute of malkhut, and “David, King of Israel, is alive and extant,” meaning that his attribute remains). The purpose of this striving for David’s universal kingdom is to raise humanity to a state of organic-harmonious existence, enabled by the point of fundamental singularity that exists in reality and that the nation of Israel bears within itself:
Humanity is worthy of being unified into a single family. Then, all conflict and bad virtues that result from disputes of nations and their borders will cease. But the world requires its essential sublimation through which humanity will be advanced through the wealth of unique characteristics of each nation. This lack will be completed by Knesset Yisrael, whose quality is akin to a great storehouse of the spirit that contains within itself every ability and every higher spiritual tendency. Through the complete fulfillment of Knesset Yisrael, especially through its connection with the entire world, the world will preserve all of the goodness that emerges from the division of the nations, and there will no longer be a need for actual divisions. All of the nations will become a single unit, crowned by that great storehouse, the kingdom or priests and the holy nation, the most treasured of all nations, as God has said. (Orot, p. 156, para. 11)
The image of the “spiritual storehouse” complements what we mentioned above. The essence of Israel’s malkhut is not monochromatic cosmopolitanism, and certainly not political-cultural communism, and not even a disjointed and rootless multiculturalism. It is a colorful human existence in which all of the goodness that emerges from particular human sources exists in harmony, and thus the main root of national conflict is rendered null, and there is no longer any need even for actual division into nations. It is hard to know exactly what political model Rav Kook had in mind (a large federation, the European Union), but the cultural implications are clear.
“A City in Which There is Everything”
Based on this, Rav Kook reaches a far-reaching conclusion - the nation of Israel is a microcosm of all humanity. From a historical perspective, the capacity of its malkhut comes to fruition in that in its ostensibly particular historical life, the epitome of the history of the entire world occurs. On the cultural plane, all of the various ideologies that appear in the world have micro-parallels in the nation of Israel. Sometimes this is more explicit and sometimes it is implied, but it exists. The jarring fact that nearly every ideological movement in the world (especially at the beginning of the twentieth century) counted Jews amongst its leaders or most prominent activists is a pathological symptom of this essential principle; pathological – because these Jews took part in partial idealistic trends that were specifically alien to Judaism, and sometimes even attempted to import them into Judaism in their stunted form that lacked “malkhut.”
This insight allows us, as Rav Kook explains, to understand other aspects of the historical life of the Jewish nation. Israel’s amazing ability to maintain its identity and not develop any religious or cultural dependence – an ability that is especially prominent against the background of the cultural fate of ancient peoples, including the greatest empires (the most obvious example is the Roman empire) – this ability, the idea of “a people that dwells apart and is not considered amongst the nations” (Bamidbar 23:9), is a result of the nation of Israel’s incorporation of all qualities and opinions, thereby releasing it from the need to obtain beliefs and opinions from outside. Even when the Jewish people absorbed outside ideas – the incorporation of Greek philosophy in the Middle Ages, for example – the integration was harmonious; it did not injure the nation’s original religious-cultural identity. Rather, it contributed to the sophistication of scientific ideas and of faith.
This fundamental feature of the Jewish People had negative manifestations as well. Excessive factionalism and internal disputes, so characteristic of our national history, and which caused the nation terrible damage at critical junctures of its history (for example: the emergence of the sects during the Second Temple era and the zealous factionalism that led to its destruction), are also an expression of the fact that the Jewish People contain the roots of qualities and values that are diametrically opposed to each other. Negative disputes stem from the appearance of these various elements while emphasizing their opposition to each other, without recognizing that they are different expressions of the general, unified element that is the true character of the nation:
The multiplicity of different characteristics, which are distributed among many nations, are included together in Israel. “He fixed the boundaries of nations in relation to Israel’s numbers.” Consequently, they are more prone to internal divisions and dissent, given that there is no lack of various tendencies and capabilities: “A city in which there is everything: its priests come from within, its prophets come from within, its noblemen come from within, and its kings come from within, as it says: ‘Out of them comes the cornerstone; out of them comes the stake….’” The Torah as a whole, which incorporates, through the power of the essence of its capacity and through the value of its lifestyle, the entirety of everything with all of its detail, is a shield against divisions. Through it, the greater good appears through all of the varieties of opinions and models, in many spiritual and material matters. It unifies them all through the universality of the Torah’s existence, except for those truly wicked people who uproot the House of Israel and brazenly throw off its highest yoke, as Beruria said to the heretic: “Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth to children like you for Gehinnom.” The multiplicity of forces is good for the nation when they are unified at the source of its existence, the Torah. (Orot, p. 169, para. 6)
Let us summarize these words and their implications for understanding the letter. The Jewish People stands out specifically through the over-arching unity that it represents in the world, which is the root of its existence. Positive qualities, outstanding virtues, or values, articulated in a full and detailed manner, are expressed by other nations, each of which has its own particular aspect and substance. But the epitome, the refined source, is specifically with us. The partial manner in which values are expressed and in which ideologies are formed by the gentile nations causes then to often appear in a low or distorted manner. The positive influence ofKnesset Yisrael is vital for purifying the ideas generated by universal man and placing them in their proper form and proportion.
 This term will be defined within the lecture.
 See: Orot, p. 140, sec. H. Knesset Yisrael is the eternal, metaphysical essence contained within the real existence of the nation of Israel.