Lecture #11b: Letter 44, Section E ֠Theology ֠Part 2

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot



Lecture #11b:

Letter 44, Section E – Theology – Part 2



Rav Kook's Innovation: The Malkhut of "Consciousness"

Rav Kook's innovation can be understood as an interpretation of one sentence from the Alter Rebbe: "To be a world... a complete universe and a separate thing by itself."

It can thus be asked: Is the world indeed "separate," or is it part of a monistic singularity? Are we part of the Divine or an independent universe? RSZ explained that independence stems from the delimitation of reality in space and time. But we know that space and time are not categories of reality, but categories of reason, forms of perception! We do not perceive space and time within reality as objective facts; we perceive reality from within the rational forms of space and time (this is a summary of Kant's teachings on this issue).

This opposition in the description of the nature of space and time – as categories of reality (as they were apparently understood by RSZ) or as categories of perception (in the formulation of Kant and Rav Kook) – allows us to better understand the profundity of the idea that RSZ expresses about reality being the source of the sefira of Malkhut. Malkhut, Rav Kook explains, is not a function of ontology but a function of epistemology; the product of Malkhut is not reality in which there are space and time but a consciousness that contains the transcendent categories of space and time. Before this consciousness, reality was an undifferentiated singularity. Malkhut, as explained, requires alterity – but this alterity is subjective, not objective. Thus, human consciousness, which is essentially subjective (the existence of the "I" – the existence of independent subjects), is the offspring of Malkhut. Since we have consciousness, we do not merely exist as part of reality, we also perceive it from the outside via our consciousness. The subject who is external (transcendent) to reality contemplates it from within his own consciousness and expresses his separateness from it. There is "me" and there is reality outside of me.

This effectively explains the statement of the Zohar that Malkhut has nothing of its own (see the explanation): Malkhut is only consciousness, a form of perception – it is not substance – but it determines our perception of reality. The world that we contemplate from within our Malkhut-consciousness is the world of subjective consciousness, created to allow for our subjective existence as distinct from the monistic Divine world. From this perspective, Kantian epistemology and kabbalistic epistemology as explained by Rav Kook are identical in that they agree that we only recognize phenomena – the world as it appears in our consciousness – and not the world as it exists outside our consciousness.

Between Kant and Rav Kook

The major difference between our epistemology and Kant's is in the relation toward reality beyond consciousness.

Divinity is the source of consciousness, and it therefore cannot be directly comprehended. Consciousness, which allows us to recognizes ourselves as independent subjects, forces us into its patterns of thought (space, time, multiplicity) and does not allow for direct recognition of the Divine.

The error of both paganism and non-Jewish monotheism rests on this point. Since they attempted to perceive Divinity through reason, they were forced to define it – to turn it into a comprehensible entity. The attempt to grasp Divinity through consciousness turned Divinity into something outside of it – since consciousness is always directed toward that which is outside it. Consequently, Divinity must be considered as an object, as perfect an object as it can be.

How do we relate to Divinity? We have already seen one perspective on how we relate to the Divine in the previous shiur: we relate to it through its manifestations in the limited reality. We recognize that the entire multiplicity that our consciousness perceives is essentially Divine unity that our reason and perception grasp as multiplicity:

But God is beyond all reality of which any sense or idea can enter within us, and anything that is beyond all sense and idea of ours is, in our estimation, null and void, and the mind cannot             come to rest on what is null and void [i.e., we cannot grasp Divinity directly, as one grasps an object]...

We must show the way into the banquet hall – through the gate. The gate is Divinity that is expressed in the world, in the world in all its beauty and majesty, in every soul and spirit, in everything that lives and crawls, every plant and flower, every nation and kingdom, the sea and its waves, the panorama of the heavens and the glory of its luminaries, the capabilities of all living things, the ideas of every writer, the imaginings of every poet, the insights of every thinker, the emotions of all who feel, and the stormy courage of every hero...

When the longing for this light reaches its highest point, it begins to draw a great abundance of light from the hidden light that it deep within it, and it is expressed from deep within it, since everything draws light from the highest source, and all the worlds and everything within them are nothing but expressions that appear to us as individual sparks of that higher expression of light, but when they are all a single unit, a single revelation, in which all beauty, light, truth, and goodness is contained (Orot, Zeronim, ch. 1).

On the other hand, we know that Divinity (the Name of Havaya in the Tanya's terminology) is the source of everything, and even though the source is not directly comprehensible ("the source of all is the incomprehensible Infinite"), nevertheless, the idea that all of the multiplicity within reality is rooted within the perfect Divine Being – and that even our consciousness itself, which projects the world's multiplicity to us, is an offshoot of the Divine unity – fills us with great joy as well as intense striving to become exalted and to approach the greatness of Divine goodness, which is the source of everything.

Kant, whose thought was still rooted in the pagan world, claimed that the object, the world beyond consciousness, has no meaning for us. He understood this object – being – as the external data of consciousness.[1] We, on the other hand, understand that this "object" is not outside consciousness, but is its source. Consciousness is what "casts us out" to contemplate the world from a transcendent dimension.

As I noted in the explanations to the letter, this is also how the various names for the sefira of Malkhut can be explained. Malkhut is the "I" (ani) because it is the root of subjectivity. Prior to Malkhut, there is a straightforward, monistic unity that is impossible to speak of from outside; after Malkhut, there is "ani," me, the perceiver, and you (ata) the object of perception. Therefore, the kabbalists say that Malkhut is "ani," but from the perspective of the ani, God (Tiferet) is "Ata." Malkhut generates differentiation, an awareness of duality. Malkhut is also called "this" (zot) because the forms of perception of Malkhut are the categories of space and time, the categories through which concrete existence – "this" – is perceived! Malkhut is also "the moon" because the tzimtzum within it enables the perception of existence that cannot be grasped without it, just as the moon allows us to contemplate the sunlight that cannot itself be perceived.

I wish to conclude this shiur with an important passage from Part II of Orot Ha-Kodesh, a segment in which Rav Kook most clearly articulates the theological alternatives and the web of relations between them. So as to avoid repetition, we will present the section as is and explain it in the notes. There are several new insights here beyond what we have already learned, and I hope that they will be understood by learning the passage itself and through the clarifications in the notes.


Orot Ha-Kodesh

Vol. II, p.399

- The excerpt deals with theology

- Monotheistic theology (or simply "theism") sees God as an independent, transcendent, other-worldly entity: the world is limited, material, and finite, whereas God is the opposite. During the medieval era, this was the most common opinion among theologians, and this is also the most common religious image (God in heaven).

- Weakness and fatigue are the result of the ontological alienation between man and God: God is perfect, and I am lacking; as much as I try to emulate God, I will remain just as far from Him. This fatigue can also be expressed as jealousy, as Nietzsche articulated it: "I want to be God!"




- Descriptions of God as righteous, upright, good, pious, etc. are intended to describe Him according to the greatest possible perfection of these attributes. Our attempt to cleave to these virtues is predestined for failure because we are limited, finite, material, etc.

- In theistic theology, a person can find some satisfaction and comfort if he succeeds in living a highly moral life – but the distance between him and God remains infinite.


- "The failed smallness to Divine greatness" = man's smallness and nothingness compared to God.


- Pantheism = Divinity is within the world; world and God are not two distinct entities. Pantheism per se was formulated by Spinoza. Rav Kook cautions that pantheistic thought requires refinement. He also gives a source for a doctrine so refined: Chabad, the rational Chassidut (even though it seems that Chabad philosophy also does not exhaust the idea). Nevertheless, this alternative is recognizing the world, including man, as an expression of Divinity and not as a separate reality.

- Pantheism demands that a person forego his subjectivity, his recognition of self as having separate, independent existence. Monotheistic theology creates a sense of cessation and nothingness in relation to Divine perfection, but at least leaves the person his "I." Pantheism demands the foregoing of the "I" as well: the recognition that even my subjective reality is part of God's overall unity.













- "The second outlook" is the pantheistic outlook, in which there is nothing other than God. Pantheism considers egoism (as an ideology) and egocentrism (as a consciousness) as ontologically baseless, and consequently morally baseless, outlooks. From an egocentric perspective, relinquishing the ego means relinquishing everything, and therefore pantheism's demand for the nullification of the "I" seems to be a demand for suicide, which may be ontologically justified but certainly does not bring happiness.





- The reality of man's existence lies in being part of the total Divine unity – in being an expression of this unity. Rav Kook opposed mystical union (the mysticism of the unity, a religious experience whose basis is the absolute nullification of self to the Divine). In mystical union, man's singular personal aspect is lost in the totality of Divine perfection, to which man nullifies his thoughts and will. Indeed, subjectivity is an expression of the Divine, but it does not require the nullification of its singularity, only the relinquishment of a position that sees the subject as an independent existence and leads him toward placing himself at the center (egocentric consciousness).




- This is a change in consciousness: not simply adopting an ideology but foregoing the built-in pattern for perceiving reality (in Kantian terms, foregoing the given forms of reason).

- "imagination" = an image of reality as it is given by human reason.

- Release from the built-in images of reality is the acquisition of the greatest freedom - man's freedom to perceive reality and himself as they truly are, unmediated.


- If thus far it seemed that these are two contradictory theological alternatives, it is now clarified that classic theism is the basis for the second approach, the approach of "there is nothing but Him." Otherwise, the world would be perceived as is – the object as God (as Spinoza saw it) - and there would be no understanding that the revealed reality is the last phase of Divine manifestation and that Divinity is the soul and root of the world.

- The images "receptacle" and "temple" are synonyms for the sefira of Malkhut. Here, a kabbalistic foundation is revealed: Theism – the perception of duality, of man and God, "I" and "You" – stems from Malkhut, which is, as explained above, the source of human consciousness and the differentiation of the perceiving subject and the perceived object. "I accept the yoke of the kingdom (Malkhut) of Heaven upon me:" there is an "I" and there is a "Heaven" and there is a relationship between them; this is the consciousness of Malkhut. We need theism so that thoughts of total unity do not become a type of nature-paganism or, on the other hand, complete atheism. Theism allows us to see Divinity as "the place of the world" and to still maintain the transcendent aspect ("the world is not his place").

- The unmediated sense of the world of the deeply religious and logical deduction (such as for the Alter Rebbe) both lead to a pantheistic conclusion. This is true on both the internal-experiential plane and from the perspective of inspiration and creation: consciousness of unity fills a person up and influences him toward feelings of elevation, love for everything, and acceptance of everything. In contrast, the practical world (choice, responsibility, purposefulness) requires precisely the consciousness of a separate, deliberate, contemplative "I" that decides on its own. Malkhut is the sefira of action. Even though its light is limited (an incomplete expression of the Divine), this restriction of Malkhut is necessary for man, just as it is a necessary component of Divine emanation.

- "Temple thinking" – the Temple, the form of perception, the structure of awareness – corresponds to Malkhut. But Malkhut "has nothing of its own" – it does not represent the real world. Its basis is not ontological but epistemological (belonging to consciousness).

- According to this, Malkhut necessarily stems from the places above it – from the Name of Havaya – and this flow creates a different, dialectic consciousness: the practical world is guided by the consciousness of the existence of self, man's freedom, responsibility, and, from a theological perspective, by theism. "The philosophical world" is the pantheistic world, the product of thought that itself emerged from the total Divine Being.

- Like the Alter Rebbe, but with a different interpretation – which depends primarily on the form of consciousness and not on reality – we arrive at the end of the section at the unification of the two forms of consciousness: pantheistic consciousness, represented by the Name of Havaya, and theistic consciousness, represented by Malkhut. This is the "Yichuda Tata'a" the lower unity, between the Ze'eir Anpin (Tiferet-Havaya-YKVK; pantheism, over-arching unity, absolute Divine Being) and the Nukva (feminine-Shekhina-Malkhut; theism, the subject).

The Total Divine Outlook

It is natural that the common perception, the understanding of God that stems from the monotheistic idea, which is also the best-known outlook from the perspective of faith, sometimes causes sadness and weakness of spirit, as a result of the weakness that enters man's spirit when he imagines that he, as a weak and limited being, is so distant from the Divine perfection, which illuminates with the light of the splendor of its power.

Weakness is especially aroused by emphasizing that moral shortcomings become prominent within the spirit by limiting the stature of man vis-א-vis Divine perfection with regard to justice and morality. Indeed, this weakness can be minimized to the degree that one is strong in his moral, practical, and virtuous state. Yet the weakness cannot be completely removed, due to the ongoing comparison of failed smallness to Divine greatness, which infinitely frustrates even the broadest idea.

Less wearisome to man than this perception is the monotheistic philosophy that tends toward pantheistic interpretation when it is refined from its dross. This stands out in the rational dimension of the new Chassidut which asserts that there is nothing outside of God.

Man finds himself so that if only he does not occupy an independent place inside himself, then when in his imagination he is torn from the infinite Divine perfection, he will certainly be weak and failed and is nothing. He is even more "nothing" than the "nothing" of the insignificant value assigned in the first image; for there he was indeed considered to have some independent existence within his own boundary, the domain of his will, and his consciousness, emotions, and tendencies – only that his world is infinitesimal to the point of weakness and nullity compared to the infinite Divine greatness. Nevertheless, it is not an absolute and fundamental nothingness. This is not the case with the second outlook, which explains that there is nothing outside of absolute Divinity. Therefore, settling on the individual tendencies of a person, which rests on a worldview that there is some individual and independent reality, even if it is very small, is nonsense and mistaken. This worldview ought to have weakened the spirit man at the depths of its contemplations even more than the first. Yet this is not the case. Rather, this latter restores the power of man's eternity, and encourages him not to forget the truth of his existence, and that he should distance himself from lifestyles that are rooted in the mistaken idea of his own personal existence, spiritually torn away from the Divine infinite. But once he treads this path, he no longer needs to conquer reality, only false imaginings, since he has already been authenticated by the Infinite.

But in truth this task is not as easy as the imagination makes it seem. Going free from the prison of the imagination is no less difficult than escaping from some physical prison. Nevertheless, the ultimate boldness of spirit he accrues is more than the first thinking.

But it is impossible to reach this without much practice and the most refined mental exercise possible based on the first outlook, and then it garbs itself and all its detail in the light of the latter outlook and becomes a receptacle and temple for it. "God is in His holy Temple".

But even though the theoretical and poetic-emotional world becomes more refined and sublime through the second thinking, which is filled with the light of humility and nullification of being, the practical world cannot continue on its path while constantly taking this higher vision, and so a person must of necessity minimize his light in order to adapt to the practical world and connect with the first, "temple" thinking. But he must still know full well that this thinking is not clear in and of itself, and it has nothing of its own. Rather, it is ideologically and graphically bound up with the higher thought processes of the second mode of vision that we discussed. Then the real world becomes accelerated and blanched and full of justice, and the world of thought becomes ever more reinforced from the blessings of its Source, and they constantly unite through unified observation, and the center of existence is united in perfect unity.


Through Rav Kook's words in the letter, we have attempted to understand the foundations of his epistemology and theology. We were also able to understand why we do not need Kant, except perhaps for his language and concepts. Moreover, we have understood why Kant's wisdom, although it touches on the truth, does not get to the root of the matter, which can be drawn specifically from Jewish sources.

 [1] Kant did attribute significance to the world itself in his ethics, but that lies beyond the scope of the present shiur.