Lecture #14a: Letter 89

  • Rav Tamir Granot



By Rav Tamir Granot



Lecture #14a:

Letters of Rav Kook – Letter 89



We will now begin to study Letters 89-91, all of which are addressed to R. Moshe Seidel, addressing similar issues and complementing each other.



You may read about R. Moshe Seidel in the introduction to Letter 20, which was also addressed to him.


We begin with Letter 89. This letter deals with several topics, all of which are related. Due to its length, I will divide it into two parts, each of which will be the subject of a lecture.


Introduction to Letter 89 – Part A


This is one of the earliest letters that we have, from Av 5664 (the summer of 1904), soon after Rav Kook’s aliya. (R. Zvi Yehuda explains in a footnote that these letters were discovered only later, after the first volume had been typeset, and so appear out of order in print.)


At that time, R. Seidel was studying in Europe, and his correspondence with Rav Kook includes, inter alia, issues that came up in the course of his studies. He writes to Rav Kook as a disciple to his master, and Rav Kook’s explanations are in turn lengthy and didactic, as befits a teacher instructing his pupil. It is clear from the letters that Rav Kook held this student in high esteem, and he even compliments R. Seidel for his understanding of Rav Kook’s thought.


The letters address topics that were close to R. Seidel’s heart, whether due to his “professional” occupation (Bible) or his familiarity with Western Europe.


Letter 89 deals mainly with ethical topics, and particularly with the morality of the Torah vis-à-vis gentile nations and the essence of the Torah’s moral expectations in general.


We are not in possession of R. Seidel’s letters, and so his questions can only be partially reconstructed.


I have divided the letter into sections based on the topics raised. The following is my division:


·          Section A: Introduction – The Importance of Spiritual Study and Clarifying Questions

·          Section B: Morality, Education, and History

·          Section C: Natural Slavery and Legal Slavery

·          Section D: The Slavery of Canaan – Slavery as a National Trait

·          Section E: Abolition of Slavery According to the Torah

·          Section F: The Law and Beyond the Letter of the Law

·          Section G: The Divine Design in History

·          Section H: The Apparent Discrimination between the Rights of Jews and the Rights of Gentiles

·          Section I: The Torah’s Laws of War

·          Section J: The Attitude toward Secularists and toward Bad Opinions

·          Conclusion


The following is an approximated reconstruction of R. Seidel’s questions to Rav Kook, in order of appearance:


1.        (Sections B-C) Slavery is permitted according to the Torah, and there is even a mitzva aspect of it (with regard to the Canaanites). How is it possible that the Torah permits (and even recommends) a phenomenon that we recognize as morally reprehensible?

2.        (ibid.) Moreover, it seems that the Torah is premised here on the moral basis of early historical eras. Isn’t the moral condition of the Modern Era superior? If so, the law of slavery that the Torah permitted should consequently be abolished, and thus the Torah is time-bound!

3.        (Sections D, F) The question of slavery is even sharper because the Torah relates slavery to the Canaanites specifically – and to the Hamites more generally – which suggests a racist taint and creates an impression that the Torah’s worldview is opposed to the values of humanism and equality of all people. Moreover, is it right that Noach’s curse should affect an entire race?

4.        (Section D) The law of “One or two days” (Shemot 21:20-21), which absolves a master who struck and killed his slave under certain conditions (“he shall not be avenged, since it was his money”), seems to discriminate between the blood of a slave, which is cheapened, and the blood of a regular person!

5.        (Section E) Should we support abolitionist legislation drafted by American Christians and European liberals?

6.        (Section H) Why do certain laws discriminate between Jews and gentiles? For example, Chazal derived regarding the mitzva or returning lost objects: “‘your brother’ – not a gentile,” i.e., the obligation applies only to the lost object of a Jew.

7.        (ibid.) Why is it forbidden for a gentile to study Torah? This prohibition seems to indicate a fundamental negation of moral development, for if Torah study were a matter of choice, what reason would there be to forbid it to them?

8.        (ibid.) The Rambam determines that the righteous gentiles, who have a share in the World to Come, are only those who observe the seven Noahide laws by virtue of the acceptance of the Torah. In light of the fact that the nations did not receive the Torah, is that fair? Isn’t this a negation of natural, voluntary human morality?

9.        (Section I) The Torah’s laws of war seem cruel and immoral (e.g., “let nothing live”), as were the martial norms practiced in the times of Yehoshua and David. Of course, this question arises primarily in comparison with the laws of war currently accepted by advanced nations.

10.        (Section J) The final question or questions deal with the liberal position that permits the voicing of any opinion, even negative or heretical, and values opposing ideologies equally. How can this be reconciled with the prohibition against voicing evil or heretical opinions, which Rav Kook supports, and how do we confront the legitimacy of the secularist option?


The main issue in the first part of the letter, which we will study this week, is slavery. To this letter I have also appended a short segment from Letter 90, in which Rav Kook clarifies some of his ideas in the wake of R. Seidel’s questions on Letter 89.


Section F, which deals with the status of “beyond the letter of the law” (lifnim mi-shurat ha-din) is not an integral part of the discussion of slavery and will therefore be addressed in the second lecture.


You are welcome to read the letter and make use of the notes.


Letter 89

21 Av, 5664


A: Introduction – The Importance of Spiritual Study and Clarifying Questions


To my beloved friend, delightful and pleasant, imbued with understanding and knowledge of the awe of God, sharp-witted and learned, our teacher, R. Moshe Seidel, may his light shine, and in all that pertains to him, shalom.


Your precious words gladdened my heart while I sat in the pleasant fields of the colony of Rechovot in Judea, with the view of the Judean hills before my eyes, and I was inspired as I contemplated the glory of God that crowned us here in days gone by and that will continue to crown us with His benevolence in days to come, as his words do not go unfulfilled. Indeed, we must prepare ourselves with the spirit of God for our glorious future, with the spirit of knowledge and the light of God, which will have the power to unite all the forces of renewal in our nation and ready us for a healthy and perfect life, life which will be an example for all the nations of the world in their strength and courage, and in the glory of their holiness and grandeur,[1] so that we then will be able to fulfill the mission befitting the nation of Israel in the land of Israel. This is impossible except by combining all the good found in the lives of both the fathers and the sons,[2] in such a manner that not only will the good in one way of life not oppose the good of the other way, but that both sides will also strengthen and exalt one another. This is the principle of returning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers. These are the thoughts which occupy me, and thank God that everything I believed outside this land about what needs to be done for the good of our nation and our land is in keeping with what I see here in our holy land, inspired by a spirit of purity which will invigorate all actions, so that we may say, "O house of Jacob, come, and let us walk in the light of the Lord."[3]


And here, I was thinking of the thirst for the word of God, taking in our generation the form of a fainting thirst.[4] Only in the most fortunate and those closest to holiness has this disease of thirst not turned longing into revulsion. I know, without a doubt, that only to the extent that we spread the work of God and the light of the Torah in a language known to those with parched thirst will our might increase. Thus will we be fit to wear our splendor and the raiment of our glory, and deserving redemption and salvation, as we return to God and his holy word in love, a love born of recognition and understanding. "And from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him, if you seek with all your heart and all your soul." And this request made with one's entire heart and entire soul can not be fulfilled except after the removal of all the darkness of confusion which blocks the light of Israel, so that it cannot be revealed in its majestic splendor. Only when we recognize our own value, the merit of having the spirit of God upon us, only then will our sublime might return to us and [enable] us to know how to live in our holy land after all the many difficult trials [God] imposed on us to teach us knowledge and wisdom.[5] For this reason, I see in any youth who comes, seeks, asks, and speaks of his confusion the likeness of a precious stone, onyx or jasper, destined to be set in the gates of Jerusalem:[6] "And I will make your windows of rubies, and your gates of beryl, and all your borders of choicest stones. And all your children will be taught of the Lord, and great will be the peace of your children."[7]


Therefore, all my longing and desire is that our talented youth should study, first to gain familiarity [with the texts] and then in depth, the ethical and philosophical part of the Torah,[8] the Torah of the heart, compiled in concise principles by the pious one in his book.[9] This study imparts ever-increasing enlightenment if time is set aside for it, an hour or two every day, sufficient for the acquisition of a proper outlook and inner sensitivity for the ethical and philosophical part of the Torah. This study makes the spirit gentle and delights the soul, until one finds oneself ready and able to inquire and examine, filled with courage and strength, for "the Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?"[10] Occupation with laws of opinions in the Torah bears fruit so that debate, explanation, examination, and innovation in these topics will become common to all talented youth, to the degree that he shall be well-versed in the practical parts of the Torah. This will be beneficial in that even the practical side of the Torah will be heightened and broadened. For this reason, when I saw your comments on the study of Torah thought, with the questions you presented me, I was happy and thanked God that my voice has not been a voice calling in the wilderness, and I hope that "many will run to and fro, and knowledge will be increased.”[11]


But I think it best to remind you of the need to proceed gradually — in other words, to acquire proper proficiency in any work of ethics that comes your way, the simpler ones first, because they all come from the hearts of great scholars, wise and most pious, and many matters of philosophy cannot be fully understood if one's emotions are not also adequately prepared. That is why the Torah is also called a poem, as it is called a mitzva. For this reason one needs to call on the help of that special strength to feel the words of the living God, which are clear only to a pure heart, and this demands the moral aspect [of the Torah], which deals not so much with [philosophical] inquiries, as with establishment of the soul on its inner foundations. But one should not stop [there], but go on [to philosophical inquiries]. "Let us therefore know, let us follow on to know the Lord; his going forth is as sure as the morning and he shall come to us as the rain, as the latter rain that waters the earth."[12]


B: Morality, Education, and History


This brief comment completed, I turn to your wise remarks. Even though these and similar questions have been asked in previous generations, they need further clarification in ours. But the content of this clarification must he to raise the intellect to wider concepts, the purpose of both practical and theoretical antitheses, and with a truer, more generalized view the light of truth is revealed, making specific answers for every detail unnecessary.[13]


Know well, my friend, that when a person takes up a particular investigation or study, he must always prepare himself, as much as it is within his power to do so, to be intimate with the matter under study, and if possible to familiarize himself with the concept to the point where he feels it as [part] of himself, his soul, and the depths of his emotions,[14] for if he does not make use of this capacity he will lack the major one of the necessary conditions for the quest of truth. Therefore, when we turn ourselves to the study of how to understand the ways of righteousness hidden in the light of the Torah, which includes the vision of reality in relation to human morals, theoretical and practical, personal and general, social and political, from beginning to end, we need first of all the desire to discover the truth, to integrate the visions of life, each according to its power. In other words, [we] must not view moral levels according to the particular state of a special generation, but rather in accordance with the value needed to establish this moral [state] in practice, in accordance with its own [rules] and with the chain of events growing out of it, to the end of time, so that its effect will always be beneficial and enlightening.[15] This process must be done in carefully measured steps. If, in a particular period of history, the attribute of mercy is overabundant,[16] more than is necessary for the [desirable] outcome of the distant future, harmful and destructive forces will arrive in its wake, sometimes greater than those of an apparent injustice.[17] From this you should understand that, although we are not in any way permitted to neutralize [our] sense of justice, and the laws resulting from them, in relation to our current actions, in accordance with those same visions manifesting themselves in our emotions in the present,[18] we must not depend on them as if they were "what is above, what is below, what came before and what will come after."[19] 


We must understand life according to two standards: how it is and how it ought to be. The absolute [standard of] righteousness is always fixed at the point where life should be, while the [standards of] passing righteousness, more in line with present deeds, are built on the point where life actually is. The great and divine Torah can not be anything but a delightful vessel that directs and structures life for its proper state. But you must be careful not to think of these two dimensions as independent of each other; they are connected as are the successive horizons [seen] by the wayfarer on his distant path.[20]


[1]  Elsewhere (“Le-mahalakh Ha-ideot Be-Yisrael”), Rav Kook talks about the national idea and the Divine idea. The first is represented by strength and courage, and the latter by holiness and grandeur.

[2]  The sons will provide the strength and courage, and the fathers will provide the holiness and grandeur, and each will influence the other. The “sons” that Rav Kook speaks of here are the pioneers that he met in Rechovot, where he was then staying.

[3] Yeshayahu 2:5.

[4] “On that day the fair virgins and the bachelors shall faint of thirst” (Amos 8:13).

[5] These are words of encouragement and strength for Seidel, his young pupil, for his very questions, in which he wishes to clarify the Torah’s morality and justice in relation to the morality of the nations. Removing the confusion – that is, dealing with the questions from a place of faith in the truth and morality of the Torah – removes the barriers to the light of Israel that wishes to be expressed.

[6]  In his footnote, R. Zvi Yehuda refers to Bava Batra 75a: “As R. Yochanan was sitting and explaining: In the future, God will take 30 x 30 precious stones and pearls and engrave them 10 x 20, and set them at the gates of Jerusalem.”

[7] Yeshayahu 54:12.

[8]  The ethical part is the study of virtues and the soul.

[9] The inclusion of the study of Jewish thought in the yeshiva was a main element of Rav Kook’s curriculum. See Letter 44, which we have already studied, as well as his various writings about the yeshiva he wished to build.

[10] Tehillim 27:1.

[11] “You, Daniel, conceal these matters and seal the book until the time of the end; many will run to and fro, and knowledge will be increased” (=Daniel 12:4).

[12] Hoshea 6:3.

[13]  Regarding this principle, see the discussion of the unification of opposites in Letter 44, and especially Zeronim Part F: On the War of Belief and Opinion (in Orot).

[14] This principle is called “empathy” in hermeneutical theory - that is, identification with the object of study and understanding it from within.

[15]  There are two factors: The value itself, in its real action, and the results of its action in particular historical-sociological circumstances. This distinction is clarified later on in the letter.

[16]  See below. In general, this refers to a compassionate reaction to injustice or idolatry, for example, to practicing compassionate laws of war against evil nations and the like.

[17] Since the “apparent injustice” is at least known as such, and it can be fought against. On the other hand, evil that is rooted in good will or a positive value, and which hides behind that desire or value, is invincible.

[18] In other words, natural morality – the moral sense that is expressed in the spirit of man and its theoretical image – is indeed valid and we should act according to it, but it is not absolute, ideal, complete morality. Thus, in our attempt to understand the Torah, we should consider both the ideal, perfect morality and the relative character of morality as expressed in the spirit of man in any era.

[19] I.e., there is also a moral perspective beyond moral sensibility, which is contingent upon time and culture.

[20]  Torah and halakha oscillate between two poles: ideal, perfect morality and morality that adjusts itself to present circumstances, whether historical or social-cultural. The essence of the mitzvot of the Torah is a bridge between the present and future - they take the present human condition into consideration while simultaneously direct, guide, and even catalyze moral repair that will bring existence closer to a life based on the ideal, perfect morality.