"Kefira" in our Day

  • Rav Hillel Rachmani


We have seen that "kefira," i.e. denial of God, often results from the search for something great and sublime. This week, we shall analyze Rav Kook's claim that "kefira," in essence, is a denial of a particular notion of God, a rejection of the pre-conceived idea of God developed by the person. Therefore, it is correct to say that to a certain extent "kefira" is really combating an immature notion of God.


Light And Darkness:


Rav Kook views all forces in the world as emanating from one pure source of radiant, white light. These forces contribute to the building and development of our world. Each force, be it art, science, music or literature, has its own character. Each represents a different hue of refracted white light.


In contrast, "kefira" is not another color of refracted white light, but rather is pure darkness. It has no place in the spectrum of creative and constructive forces represented in the plethora of colors which emanate from the pure white light. This notwithstanding, Rav Kook explains that there still does exist a certain spark of light in "kefira" which can indeed build and does not necessarily destroy.


"Kefira" defined:


What exactly is "kefira," and what is the spark which can emanate from it?


"Kefira," in essence, is man's refusal to embrace his personal concept and perception of God. The non-believer simply denies the idea of the Divine which he has developed and portrayed in his mind. Indeed, every human being has a certain perception of the Divine. When he rejects God, he cannot say that God does not exist, but rather that he refuses to accept his own perception of God.


This being the case, Rav Kook argued that the non-believer can never reject the true image of God. For a monotheistic God, a priori, can never be defined. The moment one characterizes God (i.e. "Almighty," "Never-ending" etc.), thereby ascribing some form and shape to God, one has created a false image (see Rambam, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 1:7-12). The non-believer, therefore, can at best deny a form of God which he has developed in his mind. This is indeed true, because in order to negate a concept one first needs to define that which he denies, prior to declaring that it does not exist. Once a person paints a static picture of God, by definition he has limited God: the real character of God can never be defined by human faculties.


Rav Kook argues, however, that the arguments of the non-believer do have subsequent positive value. Since the non-believer has successfully shattered an image of the Divine, which may in fact be a common image in the religious community, he has assisted the world in re-thinking its concept of the Divine. This non-believer has actually smashed a popular image, and forced the religious man to find a more complex and deeper perception of God. The heretic denies the standard religious notion of God, thus requiring the development of a new, refined conception. Ironically, the religious community gains nourishment from the non-believer.


This dynamic is similar to the initial hesitation of the religious world towards science. Science posed an initial challenge which eventually broadened and deepened the beliefs of the religious community.


Being that the non-believer serves a necessary function for the religious community, why do his contributions lie in the category of "darkness"?


The answer seems to relate to the following idea:


When the heretic smashes his "idols", his preconceived notion of God, his activities are accompanied by danger. A concept of God has been shattered - and it must eventually be rebuilt. This brings the momentum of a religious community to a halt. Instead of continuing to climb ever higher on their pathway to spiritual uplifting, the religious community must now rethink its direction, as well as its confidence.


While the heretic is unable to destroy God, his arguments and critiques destroy the normative systems and patterns of belief. The heretic rejects the precepts and commandments of Torah and thereby brings into question any redeeming value that they appear to have. These commandments are the religious community's guideposts for spiritual growth, and the heretic weakens them, if he does not destroy them completely.


Let us try to understand this by way of an example:


The commandments of the Torah can be understood as a ladder. While it is acceptable to break the rungs, which represent simple to complex images of God, it is forbidden to abandon the ladder. The heretic dares to do just that: he rejects the entire ladder each time he successfully shatters a rung. The road towards God is neverending, and even though each station along the way may, in the end of the day, be rejected, the road itself must never be forsaken. The danger of the heretic is his hurry to abandon the road and at the same time to drag others down with him.




Denial and negation of God is a force which is dark, yet contributes some positive spark to the world. Denial of God is a negation of life itself, leaving heresy no place in the spectrum of forces which build our world. Apostasy leaves the religious community directionless, for it destroys the very path upon which the community travels.


Rav Kook, however, argues that a positive spark does emanate from the depths of the non-believer's arguments. The non-believer challenges the religious man's concept of the Divine, forcing the religious man to re-assess his perceptions. Not only does this strengthen the religious community by demanding a re-evaluation, it is also necessary for the community's continued development. Since God is a priori undefinable, the religious community's perceptions of the Divine, and their consequent behavior, must constantly be revised. Hence heresy, "kefira," is the only dark force capable of contributing to world perfection.


(This lecture summary was prepared by David Katz and Jonty Blackman.)