Lecture #10: Theology ֠Letter 44, Section E

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot



Lecture #10: Theology –

Letter 44, Section E



In the present section, Rav Kook compares Kantian epistemology with the epistemology of the kabbala.  There is a strong connection between epistemology, ontology, and theology, and they are fundamentally interdependent.  Thus, this section contains the philosophical core of the unified theory of everything, which is the foundation of Rav Kook’s religious thought and philosophy.  The primary work of Rav Kook’s thought, Orot Ha-Kodesh, is arranged on the basis of this logic: the first part deals with epistemology and the second part deals with ontology and theology.  The third part of the book is “The Morality of Holiness,” and we have already discussed the direct link, according to Rav Kook, between cognizance of God and morality.


Rav Kook’s discussion has two objectives:


1.         Clarifying the profound point of departure of Jewish faith from gentile faith and the crux of the difference – the theory of divinity.

2.         Demonstrating the relationship between the philosophical truth stemming from a single gentile sage, Immanuel Kant – whose epistemology was considered by many contemporaries to be one of the pinnacles of all human philosophy – and the inner wisdom of the Jewish People, which found its expression and concepts in the kabbala.  Rav Kook argues that Jewish esoteric wisdom already contained that which Kant had said and even more; we need his thought, at most, for its language and formulation, not for its essence.


In order to understand Rav Kook’s discussion, it is worthwhile becoming at least basically familiar with Kantian epistemology.  Kant explained it fully in his Prolegomena (or its full title, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as a Science), published soon after his magnum opus, Critique of Pure Reason. Prolegomena wrought a revolution in scientific and metaphysical thinking.  One who wishes to delve into this is welcome to study it.  A summary of Kant’s epistemology will appear next week as an appendix to this lecture.


In order to understand this section, one must also be familiar with the basic structure of the kabbalistic theory of emanations (atzilut) and the configuration of the sefirot.  In this section, Rav Kook primarily deals with the sefira of Malkhut (“Kingdom”) and its significance from an epistemological perspective.  In the previous lecture, we spoke about the fact that the sefira of Malkhut is also called Knesset Yisrael, and it is indeed the ideal essence of Malkhut.  A different aspect of the sefira of Malkhut will presently be emphasized.


By way of introduction to this reading, we note that in all kabbalistic diagrams, the sefira of Malkhut is described as the sefira that mediates and bridges between different realities – generally between the highest Divine reality (the upper sefirot) and the terrestrial reality below it.  Rav Kook, as usual, introduces new life into the old diagrams.  The most significant source for understanding his words is the section of Tanya entitled “Sha’ar Ha-Yichud Ve-Ha’emuna,” by R.  Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Chabad’s Alter Rebbe.


We will expand on the kabbalistic fundamentals at the beginning of lecture 11, which will focus primarily on Section E. Next week, I will send out an appendix to this lecture, which will contain graphs and a simple explanation of the theory of sefirot and more.  (This appendix is borrowed from another website.)  It may also suffice for you to read the section of the letter with its explanation, in which the main issues are summarized.  We will expand on it in the lecture.  Due to the proliferation of terms and ideas, the explanations are particularly long this time.  You are welcome to read them.


Letter 44 Section E


We stand above all despair,[1] even the most refined and appealing, which is no more than plaster over a flimsy wall.[2] Even the "neo-Kantian revival"[3] cannot match even the smallest part of Israel's strength.  It is true, and we have always known it – and we did not need Kant to reveal this secret to us - that all human cognitions are relative and subjective.[4] This is the "Malkhut" as a vessel that has nothing of its own, [5]and the "Synagogue” [6]or "Moon" that receives illumination.[7] All our acts, our emotions, our prayers, our thoughts – everything is dependent on "zot" - "Be-zot ani botei’ach," "in this I will be confident." [8]But anyone from a pagan race, whose ancestors were able to divert their minds from the God of Israel, "whom they called the God of gods," [9]can also divert his mind from that which is inevitably higher than everything, even though for us also it is as if He is without existence, for He has no intellectual or metaphysical form.[10] We, however, know that it cannot be otherwise, and that everything can only be from Him.  We do not speak of nor do we even contemplate the Source of all Sources, but from the very fact that we do not deny him, everything lives and exists forever.[11] This is Israel's majestic idea, eternal, even if in the end this also is revealed only through the Shekhina, [12]mah be-kakh (what of it);[13] nothingness and I [“ayin” and “ani”] are composed[14] of the same letters.[15] This is not monotheism, which negates practical talents, friendship, and beauty.  Monotheism is a fabrication of gentiles, an imprecise translation, [16]a sort of self-contradictory comprehensible infinity, and therefore can lead to nothing.[17] This is not the source of the Name of the God of Israel, the Infinite, the incomprehensible root of all existence,[18] in Whom the entire world exists, Who can be comprehended and spoken of only through the nuances of colors, through His many deeds and abundant peace, His profusion of love and courage.[19] Only Israel, who proclaims "this is my God and I will adorn Him," can say this, not the barren wilderness of Islamic monotheism, nor Buddhism's negation; [20]only the highest existence which brings joy to all and gives life to everything, revealed through the subjective revelation of all hearts who seek and comprehend him, "And each and every one will point with his finger: ‘Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him that he should save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; we shall be glad and rejoice in his salvation.'"[21] "Happy is the people who has it thus; happy is the people whose God is the Lord." [22]


[1]  Despair can be found in the pessimism that emerges from Schopenhauer’s philosophy, in Nietzsche, in Buddhism, which despairs of the world, and in atheism, which leads to solipsism, a worldview devoid of orientation and free of progress.

[2]  An expression borrowed from Yechezkel’s metaphor, “They plaster over that flimsy wall” (Yechezkel 13:10 and the rest of the chapter; see also ibid. 22:28), about a nation that covers up and reinforces false prophecy.  Rav Kook means that modern philosophy announces nothing new to us; even those true points can be found within the inner Jewish truth.

[3]  An expression borrowed from R. Alexandrov’s letter, which saw Western philosophy as having reached the peak of its achievement with Kant’s thought and as progressively deteriorating into the depths of materialism.  The following words deal with Kant’s epistemology as formulated in the Critique of Pure Reason and more concisely and clearly in his Prolegomena (Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as a Science).

[4]  In brief, Kant pointed out that all consciousness (the perception of reality or thought) depends on the categories of reason, which are an integral part of them.  In other words, they precede experience, and they therefore mold our very encounter with reality.  The “subjectivity” that Rav Kook refers to is the reason of every subject – of every person – that we are unable to perceive or think outside of, and thus all of our knowledge is a result of it.  In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant proposed a study of “the empirical categories of reason,” an attempt to describe the patterns of consciousness of human reason.  Kant’s conclusion has far-reaching consequences: since the pattern of consciousness is given – and our knowledge of the world is thus dictated by it – we do not know the world as such, but rather as it appears to us (“the world of phenomena”). This leads to the conclusion that our perception of reality is partial and tentative.

[5]  Kabbalists say that the sefira of Malkhut – one of whose monikers is “the moon” –has nothing of its own.  In other words, it has no independent substance.  Rav Kook presently explains that the meaning of this determination is that Malkhut is the form of awareness of reality, the reflection of reality within our consciousness, but it is not itself reality, and therefore has nothing of its own.  Paradoxically, we are capable of seeing the light of the moon, which is a reflection of sunlight, but we cannot gaze at the sunlight, the source itself.  See the next note. 

[6]  R. Shimon further stated: Berakhot do not descend or issue forth until the Shekhina joins with the Holy One, blessed be He, and all of the buildings are desolate and dry with no flow until the Shekhina comes.  Therefore, “in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you” (Shemot 20:21), which Onkelos translated as “in every place where My Shekhina is palpable,” for all berakhot are gathered into it.  Due to it, it is stated “all who kneel, kneel at ‘barukh.’”  What is “barukh”? The kaf represents the sefira of Keter; the resh represents “reishit Hokhma;” the bet represents the upper and lower mothers; the vav incorporates six sefirot – and thus all ten sefirot are included in it and all are gathered into it.  It is therefore called “the synagogue” – where all is gathered (Zohar Chadash, Tikunim 2, 88b). 

As is known, Chazal interpreted the verse in Yechezkel (11:16), “And I will be for them a miniature temple in the lands…” – “These are the synagogues and batei midrash in Babylonian” (Megilla 29a).  This explains the connection between the Shekhina and the synagogue, as well as the idea that the synagogue, like the moon, is a place where the Divine light is reflected in a restricted manner, enabling contact with man.

[7]  The Zohar states that the Shekhina is the same as Malkhut: “All these seven upper levels [i.e., the seven sefirot from Chesed to Malkhut] re-accept from the higher mother [i.e., the sefira of Bina, which is the source of profusion for the seven sefirot].  The stature of the moon, which reigns at night, draws nourishment from the level called “the lower Shekhina,” which is nourished by the tzaddik [i.e., the moon is influenced by the tzaddik – the sefira of Yesod].  Since the tzaddik is filled with supernal delights and it is nourished by it, [this level] is called “moon.” For just as the lower moon has none of its own light, only what is given it from the sun, so too this higher level” (Hashmatot Zohar 251b).

[8]  The word “zot” is one of the most important names of the sefira of Malkhut.  Malkhut is always the feminine side of the Divine atzilut, and therefore all of the feminine names are linked to it: moon, Knesset Yisrael, Malkhut, zot, and Shekhina.  Rav Kook presently cites this name in order to clarify that the possibility of achieving concrete experience or perception of reality, “zot,” depends on the sefira of Malkhut, through which, as a form of consciousness, inner and outer reality obtains articulation, definition, delimitation – and consequently substance.  Thus, “be-zot Ani botei’ach.”  In the biblical source (Tehillim 27:3), the word “zot” is merely a name: “If a war arises against me, I have faith in ‘zot’” – I have faith in God that He will save me from any war.  In the kabbalistic text, this word alludes to the Shekhina – to Malkhut – which fights Israel’s wars.  Rav Kook’s interpretation links Malkhut as a form of consciousness (“zot”) with the formation of our subjective awareness; the “Ani” has faith in “zot.  See Zohar Chadash: “And when the Shekhina, which is called ‘zot' is with Israel, about whom it is said ‘and even zot, when they are in the land of their enemies.'  What does Israel say to it? ‘Where has your beloved gone, O most beautiful of women…’ with many entreaties and prayers.  And tzitzit, tefillin, Shabbat, and holidays about which it says (Shemot 31), ‘It is a sign between Me and Israel;’ the sign of brit mila, the sign of Shabbat, the sign of holidays, the sign of tefillin.  And about this it says ‘for zot all the pious shall pray….' ‘If one has found a woman, he has found good….' and the prophet stated (Yirmiyahu 19), ‘A wise man shall not take pride… except in zot.'  And our forefather Yaakov, since he knew that zot is the main way to do God’s will, commanded his sons and let them know about zot, as it says (Bereishit 49), ‘And zot is what their father said to them.'  David also knew that it is the way to exercise God’s will.  When he fought his enemies, he said (Tehillim 27), ‘If an encampment is camped against me… I have faith is zot’” (Tikunim 2, 83a).

[9]  In other words, idolatry and atheism stem from the same root - relating to the object only.  Idolatry attributed the Divine essence to objects, and thus brought about the anthropomorphism and vulgarization of faith.  Modern philosophy only acknowledges the object because it does not know more than what is comprehended through rational human sense-perception.  The foundation of modern atheism is the denial of anything about which “This! Zot!” cannot be said.  Kant understood that the perceived “this” is only the world of phenomena and that unperceived being lies beyond it; however, the idolatrous root caused man to ignore that being or to be unable to understand the relationship between that which is beyond awareness and the revealed and familiar world.  Thus, idolatry and modern atheism are two sides of the same coin.

[10]  The (Divine) “object,” which is the source of the phenomena, the source of all ‘zot’ (concrete being, something that can be perceived, pointed to, and indicated by ‘zot, this!’), has no form at all.  The word “form” carries its modern meaning here, not its philosophical meaning.  Rav Kook means to say that Divinity, the source of all phenomena, is not only not physical, it is devoid of any metaphysical description or definition.  This is the meaning of the sentence “for us also it is as if He is without existence;” according to the categories of our perception, that which is not defined, or at least perceived hypothetically, does not exist.  This is, of course, a philosophical fallacy, because the object’s concept is embedded, as stated, in human reason – it is a form of thought.  Therefore, seeking Divinity based on the concepts of reason leads to imagining it as an object – i.e., to idolatry – or to the negation of its existence, i.e., to atheism.

[11]  Rav Kook accepts the Rambam’s doctrine of negative attribution.  According to this doctrine, Divinity cannot be described with any positive description because description is definition, and definition sets the reality of an object for God, i.e., His being an entity that exists in itself (even if described as perfect, the greatest, etc.).  God is described as the source of reality – One for Whom existence as phenomenon, as ‘zot,' is impossible without, just as the moon cannot shine without the sun.  The non-negation of the Source and His non-positive definition are two cornerstones of Jewish theology, since through this combination God is, on one hand, inevitable – the phenomena cannot exist without their Source – and on the other hand He is beyond human comprehension. Human perception only knows phenomena, the reflection of the Divine source in our consciousness when it contemplates reality and portrays it with the stylus of subjective awareness.

[12]  In other words, even the basic awareness of God’s existence depends on its reflection in reality – the Shekhina – and we have no unmediated contact with Divinity outside of Malkhut.  See n.  8.

[13]  Monotheism that relates to the Divine essence and not to its manifestations in reality divorces the world from Divinity, and thus nullifies the importance of technology (practical ability), ethics (morality), and aesthetics (beauty), as they are immanent universal phenomena.  When we enter the banquet hall (Divinity) through the gate – “revealed Divinity” (the metaphor used by Rav Kook in his essay “Thirsting for the Living God;” Zer’onim Ch.  1) – we immediately validate all the phenomena through which God is revealed, and thus religion does not negate the world.  On the contrary, it gives all values an absolute, infinite dimension.

[14] The proliferation of color is the aforementioned world of phenomena, perceived by human awareness represented by the sefira of Malkhut – through which we see all reflections, idealism, and realness of the Divine source.  Malkhut is a sort of prism; we, who look at the prism through its other side, see many colors, but they all originate in the white light, distinct and different from all the other colors, that was shone into it and refracted at different angles.  Our consciousness is such a prism.

[15]  Ani” is a name for the sefira of Malkhut, for the Shekhina (Hashmatot Zohar, 261b).  Ayin” is a name for the sefira of Keter, the root of emanation, the aspect that is beyond any definition or comprehension (see, for example, the tenth sha’ar of Sha’arei Ora) – the knowledge of the existence of a Source, but no knowledge of its essence.  Whereas the form of the sefirot is in the stature of man and its structure is known to us by its reflection in man, Keter is above and beyond any expression –it is the source of everything. From our perspective, it is merely a shimmer – like a crown.

Ayin” is the first sefira; “Ani” is the last sefira.  Malkhut is “Ani” because it is, as stated, the source of the subjective consciousness of man’s awareness of his reality as a separate and distinct reality, from within which he contemplates what is outside.  According to what was stated here, awareness of the Ani is the source for the Ayin: if the Ani is recognized for what it really is – a reflection of a hidden reality – then it itself points toward the Ayin.  See, for example, the following passage from R. Yosef Gikatilia: “This is the secret of the stem of the yud [Keter is represented by the stem of a yud], for Ayin has no particular letter – that it why it is called Ayin  [nothingness]: Ayin is above and Ani is below, the receptacle of the abundance of the sefirot [in other words, Malkhut, which is Ani, received the abundance of the sefirot]” (Sha’arei Tzedek, seventh sha’ar; notes in square brackets are mine).

[16]  This means that the Jewish idea of Divine unity was falsified in Muslim-Christian theology into what is called monotheism: awe of God as an infinite entity.

[17]  The “accusing finger” is pointed here manly at Islam, although the claim is also true of all of Judaism’s offspring.  Monotheism, which many people mistakenly consider Judaism to be, speaks of Divine existence as being an infinite entity, a perfect metaphysical Being, that is directly grasped by religious-philosophical consciousness.  Monotheistic religion is based on relating to that entity, and not on relating to its manifestations.  This theistic concept, as it is often called, contradicts itself, for what is a concept cannot be infinite.  Medieval theology is full of linguistic and philosophical games whose goal is to solve this problem, but according to Rav Kook, the theological contradiction remains in force.

[18]  “‘And he encountered the place’ – R. Huna said in the name of R. Ami: Why do we give God the moniker of ‘Place’ (‘Makom’)? Because He is the Place of the world, and the world is not His place” (Bereishit Rabba [Vilna] sec.  68, s.v. va-yifga ba-makom).  The word “Makom” here takes on the meaning of “source:” the world is expressed within God, but the revealed world does not exhaust His being.

[19]  As he does in many places, Rav Kook uses code words here: Profusion of action = Malkhut; Profusion of peace = Yesod; Profusion of love = Chesed; Profusion of strength = Gevura (Din).  These are the main sefirot among the seven constructive sefirot, through which the hidden Divinity is expressed as it is grasped by us through its ideals –by walking by the light of and striving to actualize these ideals, we adhere to them and to their Source.  We have no contact with Keter, only knowledge of its existence; we do, however, have a real, living relationship with its emanation – with the ideals that are revealed as various phases of the Divine emanation through the structure of the sefirot.

[20]  In philosophical Islam, the Divine is perceived as a transcendent entity that is not a source of life, but is outside of life.  Buddhism completely negates the world and says that only man’s merging with the infinite validates his life and raises it above the world’s suffering – thus it negates life.

[21]  “Ulla Bira’ah said in the name of R. Elazar: In the future, God will make a dance circle for the righteous, and He will sit among them in the Garden of Eden, and each of them will point to Him with their finger, as it says (Yeshayahu 25), ‘And they will say on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for Him that he should save us; this is the Lord; we have waited for Him; we shall be glad and rejoice in His salvation’” (Ta’anit 31a).  Here, Rav Kook interprets the rabbinic midrash as a wonderful metaphor for his idea.  The righteous point to God with their fingers – they relate to concrete, real expression: ‘Behold! This!’ God is in the middle, and each of the righteous surrounding Him points to the concrete expression from his own angle, from his perspective, from his aspect.  This is the proliferation of color that was spoken of before.  In the future, we will merit seeing the full extent of the circle; in the meantime, we are privy to partial expressions, knowing that they all have a single source.

[22] Tehillim 144:15.  The emphasis is on “who has it thus:” the nation that engages morality, and is not content with philosophical abstraction – this is the nation whose Lord is God.