Lecture #16a: Letter 89 - Part II - sections F-J

  • Rav Tamir Granot



By Rav Tamir Granot



Lecture #16a: Letter 89 – Part II – sections F-J



We now turn our attention to the continuation of Rav Kook’s letter. The issues discussed in sections F-J are as follows:


1. Section F – The concept of “beyond the letter of the law”

2. Section G – God’s role in history

3. Section H – Why do certain Torah laws discriminate between Jews and non-Jews? For instance, Chazal teach concerning the mitzva of returning a lost article to its owners: “‘Your brother’ – [meaning,] not a non-Jew” – that is, the obligation applies only to the lost property of another Jew.

4. Section H continued – Why is a non-Jew prohibited to study Torah? This prohibition seems to indicate a fundamental negation of moral development; if Torah study is a matter of choice, why deny it to them?

5. Section H continued – The Rambam teaches that the righteous among the nations, who are rewarded in the World to Come, are those who observe the Seven Noahide Laws by virtue of their acceptance of the truth of Torah. In view of the fact that the nations did not receive the Torah, is this fair? Is this not a negation of natural, voluntary human morality?

6. Section I – The laws of war in the Torah seem cruel and immoral (for example, “You shall leave no one alive”), as do the norms of warfare during the times of Yehoshua and King David. Obviously, this question arises mainly in comparison with the rules of warfare accepted among advanced nations in our times.

7. Section J – The last question pertains to the liberal position that permits the voicing of any opinion – even negative, heretical views – and treats opposing ideologies as having equal value. How is this position to be reconciled with the prohibition against voicing negative or heretical views, which Rav Kook supports, and how can one confront the legitimacy of the secular option?


F. Strict Law and Beyond the Letter of the Law


            Know further that the vision of character developing towards the good and the light through the Torah incorporates a tension between the degree that development should sprout from justice and law and the degree it should sprout specifically from good-heartedness and internal consent, without any external pressure, even moral in nature.[1] This is the principle through which we connect between the covenant of the forefathers and the most basic matters. It is the covenant of the Land of Israel that joins and strengthens the inheritance of the forefathers and the acceptance of the Torah. [2]


            The forefathers observed the Torah out of internal and free recognition, and this advantage should not be lost from moral existence. This is the principle of the hidden parts, which are revealed specifically in “middat chasidut” (acts of the pious) and “lifnim mi-shurat ha-din,” going beyond the letter of the law. If these matters were to be obligating halakha, they would blur the goal of the law’s guidance – to increasingly enlighten for all generations and to be a light unto all of the nations of the world according to their very different spirits. For the moral element that must be found in generosity of spirit and love of kindness must always have a known weight according to the overall positive moral value system, like the value of free air as compared to the cultural acts and institutions that fill it, which must by necessity be provided with wide expanses. What must be added through generosity of spirit and freedom of good will must thus remain “deeds of the pious.” We cannot even imagine the great loss that would result to human culture if these great qualities were established as obligatory. Only those matters that are essential for material and moral life in the present, whose absence would impact the chain of the future, are commanded by law. And one who is commanded and performs is greater [than one who is not commanded]. Those matters that target the depths of good as it spreads, like the dew of resurrection, are intended for the future and are considered acts of generosity and love of kindness.[3] This is the fate of going “beyond the letter of the law,” which will do much good at the time that man’s stone heart will be replaced with a heart of flesh.[4] Thus, those matters that are left as “beyond the letter of the law” must remain that way. As humanity is uplifted, the qualities of the pious will leave private property and become public property; they will be acquired by the entire nation – “And all of your sons will be learned of God.”


G. God’s Plan in History


            Know, my friend, that all historical events must be understood according to their cause – if they were brought about by divine providence to establish good and kindness in the end. Since we see that more slaves descended from Cham than from any other lineage, we recognize that they were appropriate for servitude to serve the purpose of the general perfection. If they were to be given freedom prematurely, their freedom, which is not fitting for them, would certainly have a negative impact on the human spirit and the communal and individual way of life. This is the meaning of Noach’s curse. This is the case regarding all of history; it was all orchestrated by God in kindness and wisdom.[5]


            This does not in the least prevent mankind’s desire for the right to repair the world as much as possible, according to what is revealed in every generation. On the contrary – were it not for the clear outlook that all past events were intended for a good purpose, only the power of the fist would have any impact; there would be no room for establishing justice. When we take into account that even the evil and foolish were for the good and for a purpose in the past, and therefore were not prevented, the basis of piety is understood well. When proper circumstances come about to be rid of moral harm, which is caused by evil use of good things, only then is the heart filled with righteous desire to uplift the power of justice and the right.[6]


            This does not prevent at all Israel’s fulfillment of its obligation to preserve the divine impression, the goal of building the world towards a time of greater morality, a world uplifted from the corruption of the distant past. This is Israel’s unique work, and through it specifically will the spirit of God to increase kindness and justice penetrate the nations in accordance with their worldviews. And it is appropriate for all those who truly fear God to strengthen the righteous of humanity and to expand the rightness of their opinions with perfection of worldview to differentiate between internal and external servitude.


            The general rule is that every place that you find the impression of racial attitudes in the Torah or in the words of Chazal, it is intended to justify a fact of reality, to recognize the acts of God in the process of history no less than in the goings on in heaven – the combination of “Remember the days of old” and “Raise your eyes to the heavens.”[7] Therefore, the nature of slavery in humanity should have been established in the most appropriate place, in accordance with spiritual inclinations. Reversing the order by freeing the slaves does no good, for the same number of people who must bear the burden of natural slavery will enter the general pool even from those who are comparable to the sons of Noach in terms of their character, and the world will thus be turned upside down – “Officers walking like slaves”[8] and “A slave who rules.”[9]


            Do not think that if we educate someone whose inner character makes him fitting to be a slave that he will thereby leave the category of slavery. It is not so – if that slave were to sit on a throne, he would nevertheless speak matters of which the traits appropriate to slaves are ingrained. This is the explanation of how we have seen great wise people speaking matters of foolishness and evil – for the poison of slavery cleaves to them.[10]


            If it were not for the fact that the evil masters subjugated their slaves more than was naturally necessary, matters would have developed according to their nature. The evil of man, however, resulted in the loss of their rights as a result of their cruelty, and the established knot of slavery was forced to be undone.[11] In its place, we are left with natural slavery, which certainly cannot be made to fit any sense of justice, until the time that salvation and light comes forth from Zion for all nations – to know what is obligated by the justice of God in accordance with the spirit of the Torah, with the strength of piety and generosity that fills the heart of the nation which is blessed with the spirit of God that never departs from her mouth and the mouth of her descendents forever. This is what awaits in the redemption.


            The elevation of one nation above another, which is established in the order of ascents and descents of the nations, is also built on the foundation of the ability of every nation to use its general spirit towards the goal of perfecting humanity.[12] This is the fundamental principle of the law that “Whatever a slave acquires is acquired by his master.” Noach recognized the necessity of a class of those who would serve man,[13] and he looked at the general nature of the world within the ark[14] and realized that the overall goal necessitated that there should also be a lower and lowly class of humanity, appropriate for slavery. Once that class is fitting for slavery, “the blessed cannot cleave to it,”[15] for mixing the qualities of slaves among the other sons of Noach will have a negative effect on the general structure of spiritual development.


[1] Rav Kook explains that there are values and feelings that are best left to develop naturally, spontaneously, as part of a process of elevation of moral feeling. In such instances, a law may prove destructive rather than constructive. If there were to be a law ruling out slavery, even if it was not a regular civil law but rather a law expressing a moral demand, it would still – like any law – be a force pressing and binding the individual and society.

2 The covenant of the forefathers is the voluntary, free element; acceptance of the Torah is the normative element, the obligation. See below, where Rav Kook notes Chazal’s teaching that the forefathers observed the Torah of their own free will, with no obligation. 

[3]  According to Rav Kook, the Torah adopts a “minimalist” approach: it suffices with whatever is necessary to maintain society in the present and facilitates a platform for the elevation of the world in the future. Additional moral qualities must develop voluntarily, as part of the ascent of human spirit and human morality.

[4] “And I shall give you a new heart, and a new spirit shall I place within you, and I shall remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and I shall give you a heart of flesh” (Yechezkel 36:26

[5] History itself has meaning. Cultural revelations, circumstances, and situations are part of the manifestation of Divine will. Therefore, even what appears to be vulgar culture or even manifestations of evil has a place and a role in the course of history. It is impossible to understand the past from the point of view of the present.

[6] The recognition of the positive worth of every cultural or moral situation need not lead to apathy or passivity. On the contrary, it should drive one towards “tikkun” – repair, positive action – in keeping with the possibilities available within the given cultural and historical circumstances. Were it not for this understanding, a person should have to fight and act with violence against any society which does not live an ideal life. It is specifically in light of the understanding that even a lowly moral situation has value – so that we may act in positive ways to improve the situation.

[7]     In other words, if the Torah or Chazal say something about the Chamite race, that is an interpretation of and proposed meaning behind a historical factual phenomenon.

[8]     Kohelet 10:7.

[9]     Mishlei 30:21 (according to R. Tzvi Yehuda Kook’s comments).

[10]    This does not mean that a person or an entire people (the children of Cham) are categorically unable to separate themselves from the “slave-ish” cultural influence to which they are subjected. Rather, it means that such a separation, were it to take place before its time through external intervention and in a non-natural manner, would change only the outward style, while leaving the previous psychological core unchanged. This claim is generally true of other cultural processes, as well. Europe remained barbaric long after formally accepting the values of Christianity; progress and enlightenment did not fundamentally change the cruelty of the German people, etc.

[11] In other words, the slavery of slaves is not evil in and of itself; the mastery of evil masters is what makes slavery evil.

[12] In summary: Slavery or servitude is suited to the human cultural situation and to the character of nations. It may be good or bad depending on how it is implemented. Servitude that is based on generosity and kindness, considering the above, is positive.

[13] The need for workers for service is universal; therefore, there must be a nation, or nations, that are fit for serving.

[14] The ark is a sort of microcosm. In the blessing and the curse that he utters, Noach describes what is proper for the world generally.

[15] For this reason, Avraham does not permit his servant to take a wife for Yitzchak from among the Canaanite women, according to Rashi and Chazal ad loc.