Lecture #12: Letter 44, Sections F-H

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot



Lecture #12:

Letter 44, Sections F-H




Welcome back from Pesach break.  We are still studying Letter 44. To refresh your memory regarding the background of this letter, refer to the first lecture on it and to the biographical addendum there.


Section F is a relatively straightforward section, and we will not expand upon it much. In this section, Rav Kook explains why biblical criticism is not at all relevant to a Jew for whom the Torah is spiritual nourishment, the actual word of God. No normal human being asks his father to verify a family tradition through scientific research. One whose approach to Tanakh is intimate, traditional-familial, needs no external demonstration of its veracity, according to Rav Kook; for him, the simple biblical truth is a basic principle that is constitutive of national consciousness and historical memory. Despite this fundamental position, Rav Kook intimates, as we will see, that even one who doubts the historical veracity of biblical historiography can acknowledge the moral-ethical significance of the biblical narratives.


This lecture will focus on the next section – Section G – in which Rav Kook develops the metaphysics of the unity of opposites. Rav Kook dealt with this in another letter to R. Alexandrov (Letter 110) following a question that the latter sent to Rav Kook regarding what he wrote in the present letter. These words will be cited in next week’s lecture. As will be clarified below, this is an ancient and complex question. We will explain some of this background and then focus on the aspects that Rav Kook emphasizes.


Rav Kook addresses R. Alexandrov’s criticism of what Rav Kook wrote in Eder Ha-Yakar, published about a year earlier. Rav Kook wrote as follows there:


The science of mechanics has survived for many years, and the thoroughly mistaken law that “two forces that oppose each other create a negation upon their encounter” became a line for industry, for which it was as an iron yoke on its neck. But through experimentation and the broadening of awareness, the realization strode forward proudly that two forces do not negate each other upon their encounter – they create a “new, positive force” that is also an active force that contributes to man’s betterment when they know how to utilize it. (Eder Ha-Yakar p.13)


Here, Rav Kook points out the accepted principle of modern science and philosophy of science - that opposing forces create energy or a third force. The paradigm of this conception is the parallelogram of force, from which we learn that two opposing forces indeed create a new force. A magnet and, more broadly speaking, an electromagnetic field show the potential of physical opposites to generate new power. The discovery of magnetism indeed stirred the minds of modern philosophers, who understood that the encounter of opposing forces need not generate negation.


What is the ramification on philosophy of these physical discoveries? Is there a correspondence between material phenomena and the relationship among ideas in the thought-world? Rav Kook addresses this point later in Eder Ha-Yakar:


Human thought has much more work to do before it realizes the value of the power of thought and its manifold uses to the same degree that it – albeit correctly – recognizes the physical powers in its world. Therefore, although general knowledge has already arrived at the degree of understanding in which it can comprehend physical forces that encounter their oppositions, it has not become so sublime that it can understand the wealth of blessing latent in the oppositional encounter of philosophical forces – how precisely they are not negation but positive, giving rise to a new and potent force, a proper path that should be greeted with joy and light, with blessings of peace and love.


The law of positive results from the encounter of opposing forces completed the recognition of the unity of forces in practical reality, which operates on the material. The champions of higher unity, which brightens all the darkness of the entire universe, the sages of Israel, the fathers of our tradition, have already told us: “These render pure and those render impure; these prohibit and those permit… One God gave them, a single leader spoke them in the name of the Master of all actions, blessed be He,” and “these and those are the words of the living God.” This is the great seal of unified thought, which perfects the opposing visions when they encounter each other on the horizons of thought and the spirit, which recognizes that they bring blessing to the world. There is no greater salve for the disease of the shattering of the forces, and especially the spiritual powers of Knesset Yisrael, through this lofty law, which is all embracing in its power. (Ibid.)


Rav Kook explains that Chazal already expressed their opinion on the possibility of holding contradictory positions without them canceling each other. The task that he sets for contemporary philosophy takes this even further: “The great seal of unified thought” is the placement of the contradictory values and ideas within a unifying framework that transforms their opposition into a constructive force and makes the idea more complete and general.


In Eder Ha-Yakar, Rav Kook presents this task as being imposed on the Sages of the Land of Israel, since only the ongoing process of redemption and the spiritual atmosphere of the Land of Israel give us faith in the possibility of unified thought and the appropriate metaphysical context. We will not address this aspect of his words at this point; we will return to it in a later lecture, when we address the Torah of Eretz Yisrael.


However, Rav Kook expands the range of application of the principle of unifying opposites to his discussion of theology, and he wants to understand through it the basic problem of the relationship between “nothing” (“ayin”) and the Divine “something” (“yesh”):


Anyone who understands knows how to act with the positive images [i.e., descriptions of Divinity], which perforce must be portrayed in his heart in their positive garb, but they immediately become the basis for negative abstract portrayals that are more sublime than these and have more honor of the Divine, an abundance of holiness and an abundance of realness, to the point that it is well known amongst kabbalists and ancient theologians to call those first ideas that emanate from the true reality in their true form “ayin” and “darkness” [the sefira of Keter is called “ayin” and it is the beginning of Atzilut]. This is the sublime, dim feeling that is more precious, due to the exaltedness of this matter, than any clear feeling about limited matters, “for the source of life is with You – in Your light we shall see light.” (Eder Ha-Yakar, p. 42)


Theology is paradoxical since it posits that negation and positivity depend on one another, and in a certain sense even stem from one another. It is precisely the negation of limited descriptions of God that allows for the recognition and sensation of the Divine reality in the fullest manner and with the clearest recognition. Paradoxically, negation is the basis for something positive.


We see how this outlook on the unification of opposites has meaning in all areas: in Halakha – these and those are the words of the living God; in philosophy – the unification of ideas; in physics – the magnet, for example; and in theology – the positive and negative in descriptions of the Divine.


R. Alexandrov wrote the following about this:


In my opinion, such investigations are only the fruits of a false and imaginary game that combines two opposites of a single issue – existence and non-existence – and there is no place for this in the world of logic…


Later in his letter, R. Alexandrov cites what he wrote himself in Tal Techiya regarding the paradoxical nature of Jewish existence and the logical and existential contradictions in our world of thought, although he testifies about himself:


I investigated all of this long ago… and as I [now] see, such decisions are arrived at only by combining despair that leads to negation with the Divine feeling that fights with all its power… Yet healthy logic is not like this…


He adds:


I wrote about this at some length because… almost all of his investigations are the result of his central idea of the unification of opposites…


R. Alexandrov indeed comprehended something major here. For Rav Kook, the unification of opposites is not just a good and correct idea, but to a great degree the methodological principle that defines his entire philosophic approach.


R. Alexandrov’s questions are penetrating and, as stated, the importance of this topic for Rav Kook’s thought is great. Below we will attempt to clarify the main points.


To Consider Before Reading


The debate about the possibility of two contradictory axioms on the same question or object is quite ancient.


The contradiction of the rules of logic that R. Alexandrov refers to is the contradiction of the law that Aristotle called “The Law of Contradictions,” according to which something cannot be “A” and “not-A” simultaneously. For example, an object cannot be both solid and liquid (i.e., non-solid) at the same time. The general implication of this law is that if two statements negate each other – whether explicitly or by inference – one of them must be false.


Aristotelian logic has ruled the day ever since, and the Law of Contradictions was accepted as a virtually unquestioned logical and philosophical principle. The broad application of this law leads to a monolithic view of truth: only one truth is possible, as the prophet stated, “‘Thus are My words like fire,’ says God, ‘and as a hammer it will shatter rock’” (Yirmiyahu 23:29), according to its simple meaning.


Other philosophical positions have arisen, mainly within modern philosophy. Below we will mention particularly Hegel and Schelling, German philosophers who were active at the beginning of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the thought patterns of Kabbala should be mentioned as well. Although it did not always address this question in its classical form, Kabbala created an alternative type of logic, built on contradiction and paradox. The kabbalistic method of unification of opposites found explicit formulation in the philosophy of Chabad, and since there is virtually no doubt that it is one of Rav Kook’s main sources, we will address it below.


As an illustration of an approach that accepts the existence of opposites in the world of thought, the rabbinic midrash on the verse cited above can be brought: “It was taught in the academy of R. Yishmael: ‘As a hammer it will shatter rock’ – just as this hammer is divided into many sparks, so too every utterance of God is divided into seventy languages” (Shabbat 88b; Sanhedrin 33a has “so too one verse can have many meanings”). These very words of Chazal, which ignore the straightforward meaning of the verse, actualize this general principle, for it is impossible to say that the word of God is simultaneously unambiguous and multivalent and to understand both axioms as the correct interpretation of the metaphor “as a hammer it will shatter rock.” The resolution to this contradiction is rooted in the gap between prophetic truth, which discloses the word of God in a sharp, clear, and unequivocal manner, and halakhic and midrashic truth, which is also a mode of revelation of God’s word, albeit a multivalent one.


(Translated by Elli Fischer)

Letter 44, Sections F-H


F. Not to Kant shall we return, but to the Red Sea, to Sinai, to Jerusalem, to Abraham, to Moses, to David, to R. Akiva, and to R. Shimon Bar-Yochai, and to all our beloved who are our lives and the joy of our hearts forever.[1] "Prepare the way of the Lord, a straight path in the plain for our God;"[2] "And a path will be there, and a way, and it will be called the way of holiness… And the redeemed shall walk there."[3] Whatever the brightest and most sublime are able to conceive is already found in our treasury in a more complete and higher form, and most importantly, in a divine form. This is the difference between nothing – and everything.[4]


Now, thank God, we are standing close to the shore. We can carry our flag high. The pure and sacred spirit that flows from our source has already subjugated all of the ethical and scientific world, so that we need no longer hesitate to proclaim our victory.[5] Of course, this proclamation will not be accepted in the world, but only at the place where it first began to be accepted, the place whence the light shone, from Mount Zion.


Even the weaker-spirited among us will live, arise, and stand on their feet. Now that the effort of our spiritual work has grown and expanded, both with respect to our own survival and to the entire world, over what can the weak among us have pangs of doubt? Only over the inability to display the past before the senses of the present.[6] For this reason, [some say that] perhaps the narrative portions of the Torah are just myths which never actually took place. But this very doubt can only have been borrowed from the gentiles,[7] for one who feels himself growing and born in [a particular] house knows well the business of that house, and could not possibly think that the living and enduring history of his nation, which is so integrated, ordered, and distinguished, is a fabrication.[8] But we shall walk also with these captives,[9] who have distanced themselves from their father's table, but without anger, and we shall say to them: Brothers, [even] if it is as you say – matters of legend which have such great capacity to bring about good and blessedness, everlasting hope, and morals, are so precious and noble, so much so that they are in effect words of the living God, and it befits them that anything fixed in their memory should be guarded with honor and great love.[10] This is insufficient to fully revive them, but it will be enough to open a door, to remove the scorn and hate, the rejection and revulsion to anything pertaining to Judaism, even in the hearts of those children who are far away. And with the shining of the exalted and inner knowledge,[11] and the august, lofty morals, and the clarification of the great and lofty aspiration of the entire nation, with its sturdy integration with the refined aspirations of the elite mankind,[12] all these will bring our children closer and closer to the innermost [holiness], until they return and live the true life, the life of greatness, courage, and holiness.[13]



[1] This is a veiled criticism of Alexandrov’s proposal to establish a higher institution for rabbis, with the reason given that we do not have great philosophers like other nations do. See Mikhtavei Mechkar U-Vikoret, p. 35.

[2] Yeshayahu 40:3. Here, as with the following verse, Rav Kook emphasizes the expressions “the way of the Lord” or “the way of holiness”, i.e.: the characteristic way of specifically Jewish thought, which is also the path to our redemption.

[3] Yeshayahu 35:8-9. In other words, there is a connection between the process of redemption and the flourishing of the Jewish way of holiness. Based on this verse, the last part of Orot Ha-Kodesh is called “The Way of Holiness” (“Derekh Ha-Kodesh”).

[4] This is the point that links all of these sections of the letter. Do not be led astray by style and language: what was said earlier about monotheism is the paradigm for all our relations with foreign philosophy – similarities are merely external. The difference between our one God and the Muslim Allah is the difference between nothing and everything. The same is true regarding ethics.

[5]  Rav Kook is apparently relating to two phenomena: a. Ideal morality is universal according to ethical philosophy – apparently under the influence of Jewish morality; b. The recognition of unity is spreading within the sciences, and the world is getting closer to a recognition of the unity of existence, even if it has not yet understood its source.

[6] Here, Rav Kook incidentally confronts another claim, related to the denial of the Holy Scriptures and based on historical criticism of the Bible. The “weak-spirited” have doubted our ability to verify the historical narratives of the Bible, and consequently raised the possibility that they should be treated as myths – stories of legend.

[7] Biblical criticism originated with apostate Christian scholars such as Wellhausen and his colleagues.

[8] Rav Kook claims that our relationship to the history of the nation need not be the same as that of critical scholars. You do not subject the stories of your grandparents to empirical rigor as though they were archaeological findings; their truth is self-evident – created by the connection to the teller. This is the tragic error of Wissenschaft des Judentums (the science of Judaism, i.e., academic study of Judaism) - relinquishing the traditional connection in favor of an alienated quasi-objectivity is the relinquishment of belonging on the national-existential plane and on the epistemological plane. It is the relinquishment of the greatest source of certainty. When one stops believing his father’s stories, he needs family therapy – not a historian!

[9] An allusion to the category of "captive children (“tinokot she-nishbu”) that the Rambam borrowed from Chazal and applied to the Karaites; nowadays, it is constantly used regarding those who lived in an environment disconnected from the tradition.

[10] That is, the moral value of a metaphor, such as a prophetic metaphor, is not dependent on its historical veracity. If these narratives influenced the faith and morals of Israel and the world for the better, they are worthy of being the basis of our education, regardless of their historicity.

[11] The reference is to religious thought and its foundations in esoteric wisdom, which were discussed earlier.

[12] The difference between Israel and the nations is evident on the national level. There are special gentile individuals who have reached high levels of religiosity and morality.

[13] This conclusion is also apparently built on kabbalistic conventions: truth (emet) = Tiferet (corresponding to the Name of Havaya); greatness (gedula) = Chesed; courage (gevura) = Din; holiness (kedusha) apparently corresponds to Yesod, which is called holy (kodesh), or corresponds to its root within Tiferet.