Lecture #13b: Letter 44 Sections F-H: The Unity of Opposites (continued)

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot


Lecture #13b:

Letter 44 Sections F-H: The Unity of Opposites (continued)



Unity of opposites in Kabbala and Chasidut


We now turn to studying Rav Kook’s sources, and first to his Kabbalistic-Chasidic sources.  As stated, the Kabbalistic doctrine of emanations (atzilut) contains the nucleus of the doctrine of unity of opposites, as it describes the Divine emanation as a process of splitting something off of its opposite and its continued existence alongside it within a network of opposing, antithetical elements.  This is how the first act of emanation is explained – the splitting off of Chokhma (an anagram of ko’ach ma – the power of substance) from Ayin (Keter) – as a creation ex nihilo, of something from nothing, by means of emanation, in a manner that the substance and Ayin are interconnected.  Thus, the various manners of emanation continue their existence as pairs of opposites: love and judgment, male and female, etc.


It should be emphasized that this all regards the unity of opposing elements that are expressions of the Divine oneness, that is, of a single subject.  Lurianic Kabbalistic concepts are also antithetical: constriction and expansion, direct light and reflected light, filling (immanence) and surrounding (transcendence), etc.  The Kabbalists were not afraid of representing Divinity in this manner, despite its logical difficulty.  However, the theories of the early Kabbalists do not always contain the philosophical reflections of descriptions and narratives.  To this end, we will look at the words of the first Rebbes of Chabad, who were principled masters of Chasidut and Kabbala:


“For You have done wondrous things” in that His power as the Infinite is to attract them [existents], bind them, and equalize them in their essence… For everything is His power alone, expressed in them in every specific detail, and these are two opposites in one subject… This is far beyond the intellect… how all existents are levels of His power, since He is negated from all of these levels; therefore, Keter is associated with the “wondrous” (pele)…


The meaning is that the aspect of Keter is the intermediary between the Emanator (Ma’atzil) and the emanated, and it is known that every intermediary must contain the two opposites that it connects… (Torah Or, Yitro, p.  217)


The following appears in Sha’arei Ha-Yichud Ve-Ha-Emuna by R. Aharon Halevi Horowitz of Strashelye, the greatest disciple of the Alter Rebbe:


The entire principle intent is that His equalizing be revealed [i.e.: the concept that describes the Divine unity despite oppositions] in true actuality, that is, that all reality and levels be revealed… with the expression of every detail on its own, and yet they will unite and be connected in their worth, namely that they are expressed as distinct essences and yet are united.  (Sha’arei Ha-Yichud Ve-Ha-Emuna, gate 4, chapter 5)


In these two selections, we have a concise expression of the Chabad doctrine of the unity of opposites, which is essentially its theory of creation.  The Divinity preceding creation was simple unity, containing no division between various essences and in which no oppositions can be discerned.  But, as Chabad teaches, it is not a complete unity.  The unity is fully expressed only once opposites, contradictory elements, appear, and it is subsequently clarified that they are really unified and that the contradiction was merely apparent.  In other words, Divine unity is, on one level, only in potential until all of reality appears with all of its contradiction; the power of Divine unity (the element of AyinKeter according to the Alter Rebbe) is in that it binds and connects all opposites.  This paradox is the essence of the relationship between our revealed world, which is a world of contradictions, and the world from His perspective, which is entirely unified.  Prior to the appearance of opposites, this unity had no real meaning, and therefore specifically the Divine constriction (tzimtzum), which enables the appearance of distinct and particular elements, is paradoxically also what allows for the expression of full ultimate unity.


We saw a similar paradox in the previous lecture regarding the element of Malkhut: the king must constrict himself so that he may have a people[1] and thereby fully express his dominion.  Thus, the interior of Malkhut expresses the principle of unity, and this is the aspect of Yesod, which precedes Malkhut, which unifies all of the Divine profusion.  But the exterior of Malkhut is the source of division, because it gives space to significant existence outside of the Divine.  Thus, since Malkhut is the source of the formation of the “I,” the subject, as we learned, and the vision of a world full of contradiction and opposition that our consciousness portrays are connected to each other.


To complete this idea, we cite the Arizal, as brought by R. Chaim Vital, regarding the purpose of creation of the worlds:


Regarding the ultimate intent of the creation of the world, we will now explain two inquiries that engaged the kabbalists.  The first inquiry is the investigation of early and later sages into the reason for the creation of the world: for what reason did it come into being? They debated and decided and declared.  I say that the reason is that God must be perfect in all His actions and powers and in all His Names of greatness and excellence and honor, and if He would not have brought His actions and powers into fruition, He would not be called perfect, as it were – not in His actions nor in His Names and attributes.  For the great Name, the Tetragrammaton, Havaya, is called such as a derivation of His eternal existence and everlasting being, past, present, and future, prior to creation, during creation, and after its return to what was.  And if the worlds and all that fill them had not been created, the truth of the derivation of His eternal existence in the past, present, and future could not be seen, and He would not be called by the Name of Havaya, as stated.  Similarly, the name of Adnut is called such as a derivation from His lordship, that He has slaves and He is their Master, and if He had no creatures He could not be called by the name “Master,” and so forth for all of the Names.  The same applies to monikers such as “merciful,” “clement,” and “slow to anger” – He would not be called by them unless there were creatures in the world who call Him “slow to anger,” and so too for all other monikers.  But since the worlds have been created, His actions and powers have come to fruition and He is called perfect in all of His different actions and powers, and He is also perfect in all of the Names and monikers, with no lacking whatsoever.  (Etz Chaim, Gate 1, Branch 1, Homily on the Straight and the Round)


If not for creation, God’s existence would not be perfect, since it would not have been able to relate to the three expanses of time (past, present, and future); if not for creation, His lordship would not be perfect, and the same goes for all of His Names.  The perfection of Keter (which includes the opposites of substance and nothing, yesh and ayin – the archetype of all opposition) depends on the expression of the opposites in the world through Malkhut.  This is also the connection between the highest sefira, Keter, which is a symbol of monarchy (the crown), and the lowest sefira, Malkhut, which actualizes the principle revealed through Keter.


These are the Kabbalistic sources on this issue.  As noted, the main context of these sources is theological, but already at this point we can discern the profound connection between Rav Kook’s writings and the discussions within Chabad and Kabbala in general.


Unity of Opposites in Philosophy


We now turn to Rav Kook’s philosophical sources.  This is how Schelling, an early nineteenth century German philosopher, understood the structure of nature:


… it was the conception of duality, of the opposition of forces which negate each other in a higher unity, that formed the fundamental schema of his “construction of nature” – a conception due to the science of knowledge – and from this point of view the polarity in electric and magnetic phenomena which busied Schelling’s contemporaries as a newly found enigma was particularly significant for him.  (Windelband, A History of Philosophy, Part IV, pp. 599-600)


This is apparently the source for what Rav Kook wrote in Letter 44 about the oppositions that can be found in nature, which not only do not defy logic, they are the foundation of dynamism and change in nature.  A monochromatic world is not productive.  Profusion is also a result of the encounter between opposites, between male and female.  Rav Kook takes this idea to the world of the spirit and determines that the encounter of opposing spiritual sources is also a source for spiritual fertility:


What a halakhist feels when entering the realm of aggada, and vice versa, is that he is entering another world, taking the largest part of the spiritual fertility that comes from the restful soul, based on the inner unity.


We are called upon to blaze such trails in the ways of learning, through which Halakha and Aggada can be fundamentally connected.  The idea of bringing distant worlds close is the foundation of the building and completing of our spiritual world, a basic power that runs like a scarlet thread through all expressions of life, in all of its corners, and it must always be revealed more broadly.  (Orot Ha-Kodesh I, p.25)


Halakha and Aggada are opposites: Aggada deals with the principles of thought and Halakha with the details; Aggada is rooted in the imagination, and Halakha in the intellect; Aggada is synthetic and Halakha analytic; Aggada continues prophecy and Halakha continues the Torah; etc.  Halakha and Aggada became two separate disciplines, and their rupture prevents spiritual creativity and fertility.  Only study and creativity nurtured by the tension between these two poles can build new spiritual worlds.  This is “the detail that left in order to instruct the principle” (“perat she-yatza le-lamed al ha-kelal”). 


Returning to Schelling, he saw the magnet as the archetype of all nature: just as the magnet functions as a result of the tension between its positive and negative poles, so too all of nature is only the result of the dynamics of opposing forces:


What appears in nature as essence, what is called matter or atom, is only the effect of forces… the essence of nature is volition and force, and physical substance is formed only as its result.  This is the only way to understand… the unity of the life of nature.  This unity does not exist if we presume that only objects exist autonomously, which enter relationships and combinations on the basis of laws.  But this [unity] is fully understood if these objects are merely the results of volitions and forces, all of which constitute images that descend from a single primal volition that splits into opposites in order to live and in order to achieve its goals.  (Windelband, Modern Philosophy, vol. III, p. 244 [My translation from the Hebrew translation - EF])


Here, we obtain a very interesting perspective on the essence of being.  Schelling claimed that the static existence of objects, separate and fixed existence, is only the ramification of dynamic, vital forces that themselves are the refraction of the world’s vital sustaining force.  Half a generation after Schelling, this ontology was developed by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who spoke of the essence of the world as “will” and of apparent reality as of the imaginings of this will.  In terms of Kant’s doctrine, Schelling means that the real world is the world of forces and energy, and the phenomenal world is the world of static objects.  What emerges from here is that the existence of opposites not only does not present an ontological problem, it is the gateway to understanding the true structure of the world, which is not grasped sensually but understood through contemplation, when what appear as opposites that are to negate each other turn out to be the foundation of life in the world.


It is easy to see that many of the ontological principles of Rav Kook’s doctrine are contained here.  Specifically, the unified existence of opposites is the secret of the world’s vitality, the world spirit (Rav Kook’s “nishmat ha-olam” corresponding to the “weltgeist” of Schelling’s followers), and it indicates its Divine interiority.  The doctrine of the unification of opposites is itself the source for grasping this world as a Divine world, since it teaches that the world of division that we grasp is only the atomized exterior of a living, dynamic reality, of which opposites are organic limbs.


The concept of Divinity is, then, the existence of all opposites in a pre-distinct and pre-separate state, whereas the world is their appearance as divided to human eyes:


The magnet is not only the archetype of natural philosophy, but it is also the general metaphysical archetype.  Like the magnet… so too the Absolute [Divinity] is undivided unification of all opposition.  (Ibid., p.  279)


Proximity to the Chabad version is clearly discernible here, and we can attempt to reconstruct how Rav Kook built his edifice atop these two foundations, despite their differences.  The Chabad perspective wishes to understand the Divine perfection; the philosophical perspective contemplates the existence of the world and the relationship between the phenomenon and its source.  Rav Kook understood that these two perspectives actually describe a similar picture, whose linchpin is the idea of the unity of opposites – an idea that is both theological and ontological.


The implication of this understanding of the world of ideas is of the utmost importance.  According to this model, the contradictory ideas that appear in the world parallel the phenomenal world: they are a polar reflection of the living inner essence, whose entrapment in the form of fixed ideologies generates opposition.  Individualism and collectivism as two moral doctrines can be a good illustration of this.  According to one view, the individual is the end; according to the other, it is the collective.  These are two opposing stances.  According to Rav Kook, we should view them as poles motivated by the vibrant human desire for the improvement and quality of human life, and the tension between acting on behalf of the collective and acting on behalf of the individual is the motivating force of human action in general.  Human personality, Rav Kook claims, is always constructed from an individual foundation and a national-social foundation.  Every ideology is an amputation of one real side of this vector of forces, an amputation that internalizes one essential but incomplete foundation of the human psyche and formulates it as an ideology.  This is the meaning of the metaphor of the different horizons of those observing the sea:


Both parties consist of upright people who truly love their people who do not turn their backs on the past, just as there are even people like this amongst the opponents who wish to completely uproot the Zionist movement.  It is a bad sign for a party if it thinks that it alone is the source of life, of all wisdom and all integrity, and everything other than it is vain and evil-spirited.  (Letters I:18, p.  17)


In other words, the problem is rooted in the fact that the various opinion-holders and movement leaders do not understand that they represent only one pole – indeed true, but only partial – of the truth, and that specifically through the existence of the negating and opposing position can a dynamic of development and life be created.  Just as we are only fully aware of the sea (in Rav Kook’s parable) when we combine the given data from the observations of various horizons into a complete picture, so too we can obtain a full understanding of man, on the essence of society, of the world, or of anything else only if we find the way to the unifying method that will contain all of the partial and contradictory truths by locating each position within the perspective that is worthy of it.




As we have seen, this is a deep and multifaceted topic.  In order to attempt to arrange and perhaps even simplify a bit, I will try to summarize by claiming that there are three main models for understanding the principle of the unity of opposites:


A.  The perspectives model – According to this model, opposites are not really opposites; they only appear as such because we scrutinize the same concept from different perspectives.  This is the parable of those standing at the seashore that appears in Letter 44.  Since every observer is unaware of the possibility of looking from a different angle, he mistakenly imagines that his grasp of the concept is complete.  The understanding that opposites stem not from the essence of the concept but from its adumbrated understanding allows every observer to acquire other perspectives as well, and thus to see the concept through a broader view.  (Another source for this is Rav Kook’s homily, appearing in Olat Re’aya, on the Talmudic statement “Talmidei chakhamim increase peace in the world.”)


B.  The “garb” model – According to this model, contradiction is not in the concept itself, but in the different ways that it is clothed.  According to this model, attention should be paid to the fact that ideological, moral, or metaphysical positions are always the garb of a deeper inner content, the soul of the idea, for which the need to translate into words and definitions, to clarify or formulate as a practical program, causes it to appear through its garb.  This model explains why contradictions are even possible within a single “observer” who has but one perspective - since he grasps the idea through its various contradictory “clothings.”


C.  The essential (or metaphysical) paradox model – Here, we are no longer dealing with the way in which the concept or idea is grasped or appears, but with the concepts themselves.  The claim is that specifically because of its perfection, the Divine must contain contradictions.  In our world, oppositions can appear within different objects.  The Divinity, which includes all, must include these essential oppositions as well.  Later (when we study Letter 91), we will see that even the concept of perfection is lacking and does not include its opposite: the imperfect being that strives for perfection.




I wish to clarify one final point: does the doctrine of the unity of opposites have any operative meaning, whether in practice or on the level of spiritual action? And if it does, what is it?


On this point, there is a broad variance between the different Kabbalistic and Chasidic ideologies as well as among the different philosophical schools.


One possible conclusion of the doctrine of the unity of differences is the desire to exist on the existential plane on which all opposites are nullified.  But the implementation of this desire takes many varied forms.


In Chabad, it takes (not as its only task, but certainly as a central part of worshipping God) the religious form of the principle of “bittul ha-yesh” (nullification of self) - complete cancellation of the individual will and individual consciousness in favor of the Divine.  This bittul, an inner psychological act preceded by spiritual contemplation and moral effort (humility, awe, etc.), leads a person to the experience of clinging to God, in which he succeeds in grasping the Divine essence – the singular with no divisions – of reality, of true “there is none but Him” in its ontological sense.


For Hegel, the main task is philosophical reason.  The possibility of reaching unity is implicit in finding the rational regularity through which all specific processes and ideas in existence can be grasped at once.  The dialectical principle of theses, antithesis, and synthesis – the advancement to a higher stage that contains the two opposing elements – that continues indefinitely is the methodological principle with which we approach the task of best using reason, i.e., the unification project.  Note that in Hegel’s method, one of the opposites is progressive and process-oriented; reason continues to develop toward its perfection.  At any given stage, there are oppositions and there is no unity, but the law of dialectics promises that unity will ultimately be revealed through progress.


Schelling, as we described, saw opposition as part of the essence of being; it constitutes the dynamic force, the live force of existence.  Consequently, it does not need to be nullified, and unity derives from the understanding of opposites as expressions of the basic unity of the Absolute (the Weltgeist or Divinity), which expresses its unity through the opposites that exist at different levels of balance, which are themselves the bricks from which reality is constructed.


What about Rav Kook? There is no doubt that, like Chabad, he is also seeking unity through the nullification of individual, divisive consciousness, which is imagination or blindness, as we saw in the previous lecture.  But the acosmist approach (the nullification of reality, seeing it as an insignificant illusion) is unacceptable to him.  The unity of opposites is a methodological and metaphysical principle that can transform the reality of here and now – the reality of Malkhut (the world of phenomena) – into a harmonious, perfected existence by including all ideal and real opposites into a higher and more perfect practical and ideal framework, which becomes more and more possible as the process of redemption progresses and as Divinity gains ever more expression through the garb of reality.


Rav Kook uses expressions that recall the Hegelian position of finding syntheses that stem from the opposites alongside constant dialectic progress.  Other expressions of Rav Kook are similar to Schelling’s position, which upholds the opposites in proper balance as the vital force of being and has the goal of striving to find and uphold this proper balance between opposites and poles within practical and spiritual life.  As I noted at the beginning of the lecture, Rav Kook’s teachings themselves contain many oppositions: between the individual and the collective, between the sacred and the secular, between isolation and sociality, between prophecy and Halakha, etc.  From this perspective, the existence of these oppositions does not constitute an internal contradiction within Rav Kook’s thought, but an expression of the fact that perfect unity will be attained specifically through the harmonious coexistence of opposites, not by the nullification of one of them.


We conclude this discussion even though we have not exhausted it because we have not yet dealt with Rav Kook’s philosophy of history and what emerges from it regarding world development.  These topics are essential background on this matter.  We will discuss this later, in Letters 89-91.




One who reads this lecture may be impressed by the great similarity between philosophical sources, Kabbalistic sources, and the writings of Rav Kook.  As we saw in previous lectures, Rav Kook himself emphasizes the exclusivity of Jewish thought.  We may thus ask - are these ideas really so similar?


I wish to answer this with two opposing but complementary answers:


1.  For the purposes of the lecture, we indeed emphasized the points of similarity, but it must be recalled that this is only a partial picture.  Thus, for example, as the consistent conclusion of his method, Hegel sees reason as the ultimate end.  Obviously, this position is unconscionable in our context and it opposes the centrality of life and action in the Torah and Halakha, as well as in the thought of Rav Kook.


2.  For some of the philosophers, the similarity arises from direct influence.  Kabbalistic ideas were very widespread in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and at least in the case of Schelling, his basis on the Tanakh and Judaism needs no proof since he declared as much himself.  The fact that Rav Kook was familiar with his ideas definitely influences the manner in which he formulated some of his own thoughts, certainly in his non-kabbalistic writings.  This explains the linguistic and stylistic similarities.  As we have seen, Rav Kook himself said that there are individual gentiles who can indeed attain the highest thoughts and virtues, and here we have at least a partial example of this.


Questions for thought after the letter and the lecture


I wish to cite a passage from the nineteenth century philosopher Fichte on the essence of philosophy:


…The essence of philosophy would consist in this: to trace all multiplicity back to absolute oneness… so that he reciprocally conceives multiplicity through oneness and oneness through multiplicity… The error of all philosophers prior to Kant was in their secretly placing multiplicity at the fore of their methods, instead of true oneness…[2] (The Science of Knowing: J.G. Fichte’s 1804 Lectures on the Wissenschafteslehre, translated by Walter E. Wright [the last sentence – “the error...” is my translation of Bergman’s Hebrew translation – EF])


In light of the last two lectures, explain how Rav Kook would respond to Fichte’s “philosophical” challenge.


Sources for Further and Broader Study


Studies on Rav Kook


Eliezer Goldman, Mechkarim Ve-Iyunim, pp.  201-207.


Yona Ben Sasson, “Ha-Re’aya Kook Ve-Hagri”d Soloveitchik: Yesodot

Metodologi’im Ve-Hashva’atam,” in Be-Oro, C. Chamiel (ed.).


Avinoam Rosenak, “Halakha, Aggada, U-Nevu’a Be-Torat Eretz Yisrael Le-Or Achdut Ha-Hafachim Be-Mishnat Ha-Re’aya,” in Ha-Tziyonut Ha-Datit I, A. Sagi and D. Schwartz (eds.).


Idem., “Chinukh U-Meta-Halakha Be-Mishnat Ha-Rav Kook,” Da’at 46 (5761).


The last two articles apply the methodology of the unity of opposites to Rav Kook’s own teachings.


Other sources


1.  It is worthwhile to study the tenth essay of R. Sa’adia Ga’on’s Emunot Ve-De’ot.  One who studies this will find a nice development of a philosophical-moral model that contains opposites for metaphysical reasons.


2.  On Chabad, see Rachel Elior, The Paradoxical Ascent to God: The Kabbalistic Theosophy of Habad (1992) (relevant chapters).


3.  On philosophy, see Samuel Hugo Bergman, Ha-Filosofia Ha-Chadasha, vol. III, pp. 140-164.  These pages deal with the topic of our lecture.  I strongly recommend also reading the continuation of Bergman’s discussion of Schelling, which is informative, until the end of the volume, where he indicates the connection between Schelling and Rav Kook in a different context.


[1]  I find it fitting to cite here a beautiful homily of the Apter Rebbe, author of Ohev Yisrael, on the hymn “Shalom Aleikhem,” which expresses Divine perfection in a manner that differs somewhat from the principle of the unity of opposites: “This is why we recite ‘Shalom Aleikhem:’ It is written, ‘He makes peace in His heavens’ (Iyov 25:2) because there is an angel from the power and element of fire and there is another angel from the power and element of water.  They are opposites and rival each other, but when each one contemplates and understands his origins and sees that he is from the Creator without Whose influence they are like nothing, each unifies himself with the Creator.  Once they achieve this, there is no contradiction, for all of their opposition is unified in a wondrous unity.  This is the meaning of ‘He makes peace in His heavens’ – he specifically ‘makes’ it, meaning that God Himself, when the angels become nullified to His essence, as it were, He makes peace between them.  Similarly, when sanctifying the month, we unify the power of all objects, i.e., the Name ‘Elokim’ with which all of the upper and lower worlds were created, to His essence.  Then there is peace upon you (shalom aleikhem) and there is no opposition” (Ohev Yisrael, New Collection, Teruma).

[2]  Multiplicity can be in the duality of matter and spirit, being and consciousness, finite and infinite, etc., each of which stands alone.