RAV KOOK’S LETTERS - Lecture #09: Letter 44, Section D The Uniqueness of the Jewish People
By: Rav Tamir Granot
This lecture continues the previous lecture on Letter 44. As promised, we will address the passage cited from Orot, in particular the matter of the relationship between the individual and the nation, and emphasize another aspect of the idea of uniqueness in Rav Kook’s thought. Let us reconsider the selection that concluded the previous lecture:
When life flourishes, when it has the worthy revelations of creation and science, it is totally impossible that opinions should be set by only one stamp, by one style. The formation of life’s character always goes from lower to higher, from lesser life-content to higher life-content, from a weak glow to a powerful, brilliant glow.
But all this is when life has, together with free creativity and science, the basic foundation of the singular spirit of the nation, the aspiration to the Divine good that is lodged in the nature of its soul. Europe rightly gave up on God, Whom it never knew. Individual humanists adapted to the sublime good, but no entire nation. No nation or tongue could understand how to aspire to the good, the all, let alone how to stamp with this the foundation of its existence. Therefore, when in our day nationalism grew strong and penetrated the system of philosophy, the latter was forced to place a big question mark over all the contend of absolute ethics, which truly came to Europe only on loan from Judaism, and as any foreign implant, could not be absorbed in its spirit.
The question of ethics does not prick us at all if we will be what we are, if we will not force ourselves to be cloaked in foreign clothing. We feel within all of us, our total nation, that the absolute good, the good for all, is that for which we should yearn, and upon this foundation it is worthy to found a kingdom and conduct politics. We see from our flesh that the absolute good is the eternal, Divine good that is in all of existence, and we yearn constantly to follow in its tracks in the national and universal sense. Therefore, love of God and cleaving to God is for us something essential that cannot be erased or altered… (Orot, p. 52 [Heb.], pp. 150-151 in the English translation by R. Betzalel Naor)
Let us attempt to formulate as “bullet points” what emerges from this passage:
- When the social and cultural life of the nation is in a state of ferment and creativity, it leads to a range of creations, ideas, and styles, each of which has its place as part of the national expression.
- This proliferation and variation are received positively on condition that it is all connected to the nation’s basic drive for the “Divine good.” This does not exactly refer to the good as defined by halakha or that is performed out of a defined religious consciousness. Rather, it refers to the metaphysical sense of the term. It does not refer to isolated and partial experiences that form a portion of the personality, ideology, or practice of goodness – which is partial with respect to its orientations, with respect to the areas toward which it is directed, or with respect to the group of people about which it is concerned – but is rather a real striving to express the full goodness of man and the world and the perfect repair of all being, a sublime striving that every man and every group find personal routes to further in practice and to formulate as a practical ideology.
- The striving for the Divine good, in its national form, is an expression of the character of the Jewish nation, and it has no counterpart among the nations. There is striving for the Divine good amongst gentile individuals, but it is not expressed in society or in the nation as a whole; private interests rule the day there, and the good is particularistic, certainly not universal and Divine.
- The romantic-nationalist stream that became strong in late nineteenth century Europe as a modern reactionary movement opposes the moral-humanistic spirit that characterized the enlightened Europe of early modernity. In Western consciousness, morality is linked to individual norms, and is therefore universal and super-national. Nationalism, on the other hand, is egoistic-chauvinistic and self-absorbed; its good is the particular good. Unless it sacrifices its personal good, which the individual can do, the results of nationalism will be the negation of morality or at least its neutralization.
5. Striving for the Divine good is the purpose and soul of Jewish nationalism, and therefore the contradiction between nationalism and morality does not exist with regard to it.
We will expand upon points 3-5 below.
Striving for the Divine Good as the Unifying Element of Jewish Nationalism
This is an important aspect of Rav Kook’s teaching and is the source of much misunderstanding. I recently saw on a secularist website that engages in the obsessive taunting of anything related to Torah and religion the following citation:
The difference between the Jewish soul, in all its essence, inner desires, strivings, character, and standing, and the soul of all the gentiles, on all of their levels, is greater and deeper than the difference between the soul of a man and the soul of an animal, for the difference in the latter case is one of quantity, while the difference in the first case is one of essential quality. (Orot, p. 156)
This passage was cited together with several other passages in order to show that Jewish thought is based on racism and essentialist discrimination. This unfortunate claim is based on misunderstanding (as is not infrequently the case). As we learned, the term “the Jewish soul” describes the internal-spiritual character, the essential mind and will of Knesset Yisrael – as a nation, not as individuals. The expression “the soul of all gentiles” similarly refers to the nationalspirit of the gentile nations. In other words, Rav Kook does not attribute any personal differences to Jewish and gentiles, only differences between the spiritual personalities of Israel and the gentile nations.
In a certain sense, it is even accurate to say that nations do not have a soul, since national life is not connected to moral or spiritual strivings, but only to material and practical interests. At the very least, their spiritual dimension is disconnected from the material-mental aspects of existence.
This point was the basis of misunderstanding in the correspondence between Rav Kook and R. Alexandrov as well:
I recall that you [Rav Kook] mentioned the thinker V. Solovyov favorably, but it seems to be based only on hearsay… for had you read the works of this philosopher, you certainly would have known that amongst the spiritual giants of Christendom as well, the concept of worship out of love and awe of God’s exaltedness, in its purest and highest sense, are not foreign… (R. S. Alexandrov, Kitvei Mechkar U-Vikoret, p. 28)
To which Rav Kook responded:
… So, too, what you have reminded me of, that the descriptions of higher love are not unique to the Jews, because the greatest gentile thinkers also speak of it. I never said that the highest ideas are lacking amongst the human race. If they would be naturally lacking, there would be no hope of raising them to the heights of beatitude, which is our hope for it. Rather, they are quite hidden and do not live in the heart of the nations at the essence of their nationality. Amongst God’s inheritable, though, love of God is its inner character, from which its national life flows. Consequently, it is inescapable that there is also a difference between the individual people, even if the difference is sometimes very subtle, since part of the spirit of the group devolves upon each individual thereof. Therefore, even the individual can joyously recite “blessed is He Who has not made me a gentile.” (Letters I: 110, p. 135).
Rav Kook’s words seem clear - the difference between Israel and the nations is not genetic. If we compare a regular Jew with a regular gentile from the perspective of personal qualities, potential, tendencies, or passions, we would not necessarily find any difference, and it is completely possible that we would not find the tendency to adhere to God or striving for the general good in that Jew. In contrast, the gentile might express in his actions and attitudes the most perfect moral and religious longings.
The difference is within the public, the national unit. As we already learned, the nation is not merely a collection of individuals bound together for the sake of some interest; a nation is an organic entity whole individuals are its limbs. It is therefore possible to speak – not as a metaphor, but as reality – of the general spirit, its character, and its essence, as having an existence that is distinct from the actions and thoughts of the individuals who belong to the nation.
It is, however, true, Rav Kook adds, that the national element is an aspect of the individual personality (as we saw at the beginning of the letter as well), and this is advantageous to Jews as individuals as well. A Jew has the Divine, moral, national essence as a source of nourishment and influence, whereas the gentile’s connection to his nation is expressed, at most, in material or cultural elements.
When a gentile succeeds in achieving exalted religious or moral achievements, it stems from the Divine expression of his human spirit. Their religious and moral potential, Rav Kook establishes, must be inherent in the universal human spirit. Man is homo religiosus – this is a universal given, not a particular one. Otherwise, there is no basis for human striving for perfection or for sustaining the vision of “the whole world shall be filled with knowledge of God.” It would have been possible to claim that this vision describes a miracle, a new creation; however, as you may recall from Lecture 1, Rav Kook sees the world as being on a path toward perfection, of actualization of potential, and it is therefore no wonder that individual gentiles precede the general evolution.
To conclude this issue, it is important to consider another aspect of it. Perfect morality – the morality of the Divine good that is expressed in reality – is a social-national phenomenon by definition. The implementation of moral principles in the fullness of life, including social relations, law, politics, forms of government, and all other aspects pertaining to public life that have ideal purposes, is only possible within a social framework; the moral individual cannot change the general reality. This is also the reason that many outstanding religious and moral personalities were specifically people who withdrew from the world and did not take real life into consideration. These people did not have the appropriate environment for actualizing their moral ideal.
The model of a society-nation striving for the good and attempting to implement it on the social-national plane is indeed a condition for the application of Divine morality to all of existence, since all nations will learn from Israel’s social order:
One’s state is not the source of ultimate contentment. This may be said about a normal state, whose value does not exceed that of a large mutual responsibility society, in which many ideas, which are the crown of human life, remain, but float above it without touching it. However, in the case of a state that is ideological to the core, that is engraved in its very being with the most exalted ideological content, such a state indeed provides one with his greatest source of contentment. That is our state, the State of Israel, foundation earth of the Heavenly throne, consumed by the wish that God be acknowledged as One, for this in truth is the sublime happiness. It is true that this sublime happiness requires a prolonged clarification in order for its light to emerge during days of darkness, but it will not fail because of this to be the most sublime happiness. (Orot, p. 160)
The humanistic position that the most sublime happiness is individual happiness and that the state is designed to allow individuals to realize their happiness stems from a worldview that attributes a technical-materialist function to the state and views morality as a question of personal obligation or virtue. We, on the other hand, envision the state as an arena for actualizing Divine morality. Consequently, the greatest perfection and happiness of human life depend on the founding of the ideal moral and religious state.
Morality and Religiosity in National Identity
Point 5 above can cause a certain amount of confusion: in the first and second lectures, we saw that the essence of Knesset Yisrael is expressed in the ideal of calling out God’s Name – publicizing the idea expressed in the faith in God’s Name – whereas in this lecture and at the end of the previous one, it was specifically the moral aspect of striving for the perfect good in private and national life that was emphasized. This distinction reflects different emphases that emerge from the words of Rav Kook himself. There are passages in which Rav Kook formulates Jewish identity from the religious perspective, such as here:
However, in Israel the Divine character is lodged in the depths of the nature of the nation’s soul. The thirst for knowledge and Divine feeling, in its utmost sublimity and purity, is for Israel the point wherein life is felt and the pleasures that derive from the perfection of this picture in all its breadths and depths of life – these are the aesthetic dimensions. The inner opinion, that recognizes that in the filling of this sublime longing all is filled, that there are none of life’s objectives, pleasures, orders, and contents that are not contained within this infinite point – this recognition is something specific to Israel, embedded in the national nature, manifesting in the interior consciousness of even the masses, and progressively clarified and crystallized for the exceptionally gifted in every generation. The Divine expression within life’s every value, in the depth of the soul’s nature, corresponding to the life-sap of the nation’s history, manifesting in the talent of prophetic creation in her chosen sons, elevating to the level of an eternal people, the gift of whose soul will be recognized by all humanity… (Orot, p. 64 [Heb.]; pp. 150-151 in the English edition)
There are other passages in which R. Kook bases Jewish identity on the moral inclination, the striving for absolute and universal good:
The essence of the desire to be good to all, without any limitation at all in the world, whether in terms of the quantity of beneficiaries or the quality of the good bestowed, is the inner core of the essence of the soul of Knesset Yisrael. (Orot, p. 139)
In light of what we have learned, it is clear that there is no confusion or opposing tendencies. Rather, these are two sides of the same idea. The idea of Jewish faith is founded upon the relationship with Divine ideals, and therefore its primary meaning is in Godly life – the application of Divine ideals in reality.
We conclude this discussion with a section from the essay “Worship of God” (part of which was cited in the previous lecture), which includes the main points:
But the blessed awareness that is unique to Israel, “My firstborn son is Israel,” “Like grapes in the desert I found Israel; like the first fruits of the fig,” which is the processing of Divine ideals, to process and perfect them, to make efforts to sublimate them, to promote them within the nation, mankind, and the world. This is the deepest knowledge of the “wise and understanding nation – whose laws and statutes, in this whole Torah, are just,” filled with sublime ideals and glorious and reliable Divine notions of how to move them from potential to actuality in every generation; this is the enlightened worship of God, the service of sons who internally sense the inner connection to their Father and Creator, the Source of goodness, life, and light. (Eder Ha-yakar p. 145)
For Further Study
1. In the following passage, Rav Kook speaks about the essence of Mashiach ben Yosef and explains the dispute within Chazal (Sukka 52a) regarding the interpretation of verses of eulogy inZekharia (12:10), which are the source for the idea of Mashiach ben Yosef. Based on what we have learned, explain why the killing of Mashiach ben Yosef and the slaughter of the evil impulse are essentially two sides of the same coin:
Israel’s nationalistic character as such is revealed in the character of Mashiach ben Yosef. However, the ultimate purpose is not merely national consolidation and seclusion, but rather the desire to unify the whole world into a single family, and for all to call out in God’s Name. And even though this requires a dedicated center, its whole goal is not merely to serve as a center, but also to have a more universal impact. When the world needs to transition from nationalism to universalism, there needs to be some sort of destruction of things that took root as a result of nationalism narrowly defined, which includes the drawbacks of excessive particularistic love. Therefore, Mashiach ben Yosefwill ultimately die, and the true and lasting kingdom will be that of Mashiach ben David. When the trait of longing for universal good overtakes and annuls the value of nationalistic isolationism, it is only one small step before evil is also purged from individual life. Thus, the termination of the evil impulse and the killing of Mashiach ben Yosef are very similar ideas. Therefore, Chazal disputed (in the chapter He-Chalil) regarding the verse, “and they shall lament… those who were slain,” whether it refer to the slain Mashiach ben Yosef or the slain evil impulse. (Orot p.160)
2. Below is a passage from the Maharal in which he writes about the issues we have dealt with. The Maharal is one of Rav Kook’s most important sources, and it is therefore important to see what he wrote on this topic and to discern what Rav Kook took from him and what he added or altered. Consider: are the words of Rav Kook an extension of the Maharal or a dispute with him?
But if there is cause for wonder, it is about this: How can such a holy and superior nation, chosen by God (Devarim 7:6), reach such a low state, from one end of the spectrum to the other? We explained this a bit in the work Gevurot Hashem; see there. Here we will add more, to set you upon the root of the matter.
This is because Israel is unique and transcendent among all nations, who are on the level of matter while Israel is on the level of form. We have explained this many times, asChazal said (Yevamot 61a): “You are called ‘man’, and the gentile nations are not called ‘man.’” It is, as it were, obvious to them that the status of Israel vis-א-vis the value of the nations is as the status of man vis-א-vis unspeaking animals. This is because man transcends animals in that man is not physical and material to the extent of other animals – rather, man is intelligent. So too is the stature of Israel, who transcend the material and in whom matter does not inhere. It is as though, with regard to Israel, the material is null in the presence of the spirit, and matter is nothing but a vehicle upon which the spirit rides; this matter is null compared to its rider, just as a donkey is null and inconsequential next to its rider. This is the state of Israel when they do God’s bidding, when they are transcendent form exclusively. The opposite is the case vis-א-vis the gentile nations; it is as though the soul is null next to the body, and as though they are entirely body and matter.
It has already been clearly proven that the spirit predominates in Israel. This is known from Israel’s worst trait, that our Creator attested “that you are a stiff-necked people” (Devarim 9:6). This means that Israel does not accept rebuke, do not listen to moralizing, and are a stubborn people. This is because they are not material, since matter alone accepts being acted upon. Something that is exclusively form is more steadfast and cannot be acted upon. Therefore, Israel remains set in their attributes; they cannot be affected to accept rebuke. The Sages further said (Beitza 25b) that Israel is the most brazen of nations. This is because they have the strength of form. They discussed at length in Beitza (ibid.) that they are brazen like fire. This is all because they are wholly separate from the material, for fire – a flame – has no body, and is therefore strong and powerful. So too Israel, which is not of matter, is difficult to act upon. The nations, on the other hand, are easy to act upon and receive rebuke and reproof. For this reason,Chazal said (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 11:5) that Yona did not wish to go on God’s mission to Nineveh, because he knew that the nations are closer to repentance and will certainly repent and accept rebuke and reproof from the prophet who rebukes them, as they did (Yona 3:4-10), thus obligating Israel; for the nations repent but Israel does not repent at all. This is all because the nations are the opposite of Israel; just as Israel is stubborn and recalcitrant because they are not material and therefore not acted upon, so too the nations, which are material, accept rebuke and repent. For when one rebukes them, they are affected and change their ways.
It has been explained to you that in Israel matter is virtually nullified next to the spirit. This is what they mean when they said (Yevamot 61a) “’You are man’ (Yechezkel 34:31) – You are called ‘man’, and the gentile nations are not called ‘man.’” When you consider this matter, you will know that the rules of transcendent form apply to Israel, and the rules of matter apply to the nations. It is known that form acts upon and rules over matter. Therefore, when Israel does God’s bidding, they truly rule over all nations, fulfilling “And God will place you above all the nations” (Devarim 28:1). For this reason, it is not becoming of form to be less than or to leave that which is appropriate for it, for that is the essence of form itself – for it is perfect and lacks nothing. This is not a material matter, for there is no material body that is perfect… but when the form is not as it should be, it is as should it has no existence at all. Therefore, when Israel, which follows the rules and levels of form, to which perfection is becoming, are at the proper level – they are above everything. But if they leave perfection, when it is as though, heaven forbid, they have no existence at all, it is as though they disappear. For form – when it is imperfect – is nullified and ruled over by everything. (Netzach Yisrael, ch. 14)
Translated by Elli Fischer