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

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot



Lecture #16b: Letter 89 – Part II – sections F-J (continued)



H. The Apparent Distinction Between the Rights of Jews and the Rights of Gentiles


I was compelled to cease writing my letter as a result of many responsibilities, and I therefore will conclude with brief comments that will suffice for one as wise as you, my dear friend.


Regarding the laws of the children of Noach,[1] know that a member of Israel, being the nation that God chose to serve as a light unto the nations, has certain unique rights that enable him to override a particular moral law[2] when necessary for his existence or the purpose of accentuating his stature. This is also for the greater good, which will ultimately return to the general rule. The determination of how much these moral laws can be overridden requires the Torah’s definition, either by way of the tradition or decree, and sometimes is even found explicitly in the Torah.


            The determination of which approach is preferable – that of joint ownership, which denies the justice of the rule “what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours,” or the delineation of individual rights – is one of the most difficult legal questions.[3] Regarding a lost object, the Torah determined that after the owner has given up hope of finding it, the group element overwhelms the individual element; the divine weight is placed on the communal side of the scale, which also contains within it the seed of good.[4] In the absence of despair of finding the lost object, there is room to see the Torah’s insistence on the benefit of using the power of ownership for the good and the just.[5] Therefore, between two Jews, the general rule is that use of the power of ownership is an equal value, and the power of individual possession still operates over the lost object.[6] If, however, the assumption is that the right to use this object is ultimately more beneficial to mankind when in possession of the one who found it rather than in the possession of the one who originally owned it, the claim on behalf of justice that argues for the communal side and the group is in doubt, even in the absence of despair of finding it. This is the basis for the prohibition of returning a lost object to a gentile. If it were not for this sense of the pursuit of ultimate justice,[7] not only would it not be prohibited, it would be considered obligatory to return it. Thus, in any situation in which God’s name may be sanctified – and sanctification of God’s name is accomplished, in truth, through external recognition that the power of Torah has authority over each and every individual of the nation to the point that they are willing to give up their own rights for the sake of the honor of the community, which is a greater value – in that case, the matter returns to its essential obligation. “The ways of peace” are thus based on the depths of the truth.[8] And in no manner whatsoever is “tzedaka”[9] to any other nation considered without a higher purpose.[10] Thus, the defenders of Israel were correct in their claim, “Do we not all share one father.”[11]


Moreover, we follow the opinion of the Meiri that all nations who are bound by proper conduct between man and his fellow are considered resident aliens in terms of all civil obligations.[12] Even if we are to follow the interpretation of other decisors, there is still no room for concern, as this is not an issue of discrimination based on essential categories.[13]


            Regarding teaching Torah - know, my dear friend, that there is no greater detriment to the perfection of human society than the influence of lofty matters on the masses who are not fit to accept them.[14] One who thinks that he will make all people successful by teaching them the morality of the Torah before they are ready for it has not understood at all the good divine intent.[15] The proof is that under the cover of “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” they established auto da fיs to burn alive people of impeccable morality.[16] This is all a result of the fact that the pure matters of Torah demand preparation; for those who are ready, she is an elixir of life,[17] but sinners stumble in her. It is therefore forbidden to teach Torah to a gentile. And if there is an exception to the rule, who has been benefited by the Torah, we cannot learn a general rule from him;[18] all the established laws were said about the majority.[19] Permission is granted to the great scholars to issue consent as a temporary measure, certainly when the matter involves an element of sanctification of God’s name or protecting a prohibition or the other matters that require it;[20] but this is not the place to explain them.


Regarding the righteous among the nations, about whom the Rambam wrote that if a gentile performs the mitzvot as a result of logical reasoning he is not of the righteous among the nations, nor of their wise men – the proper text is “but rather of their wise men.”[21] And I am inclined to say that according to the Rambam, the level of “having a portion in the World to Come” is in fact a very low level, although it is also a great good – since even evildoers and the ignorant of Israel merit it, it is a low level in terms of spiritual accomplishment. In the Rambam’s view, intellectual conclusions lead to greater success than righteous behavior. Thus, those who attain the level of “possessing a portion in the World to Come” are specifically the righteous among the nations, who have not become great in intellect, for they accepted faith with the perfection of emotion and acted in a proper way as a result of their tradition that this is what God desires. But one who merits to attain the seven Noahide commandments through his own intellect is truly a wise person full of understanding; he is considered “one of their wise men,” which is a great level of wisdom. And there is no need to say that he has a portion in the World to Come, for he stands at a level of holiness that is expressed more completely than simply “possessing a portion in the World to Come.” Even if we interpret the Rambam’s words on the simple level, it would not be strange to argue that the category of the “World to Come” of which he speaks in his work is the unique category that the divine element in our holy Torah bequeaths to one who fulfills it. There are many other benefits that all good things can bequeath, but they are not referred to as the World to Come. That benefit comes from the power of the Torah and is unique to those who accept it with holy faith. This does not negate, however, other levels attained by all philosophy.


I. The Torah’s Laws of War


Regarding wars – It was impossible, at a time when all of our neighbors were truly wolves, that Israel alone would not wage war, for then they would have gathered together and wiped out their remnant, God forbid. On the contrary, it was very necessary to place fear in the hearts of the wild ones, even through cruel acts, with the hope of bringing humanity to the point where it is supposed to be, but not before its time.[22] Know that the Torah did not rule stringently at all regarding the laws pertaining to the public in order to push the spirit of the nation towards piety, for then the general piety would have become established and obligatory, and it is the intent of the Torah that intellectual matters[23] be established with the power of love and generosity of spirit.[24] This is the basis of numerous leniencies in the laws of the Torah regarding war. Abandoning idolatry is necessary to accomplish the general goal of Israel; of course, the matter was always given over to the court, which investigated the morality of the particular idolatry, and not all were treated equally.[25] Because of our great sins, these matters are not clear to us in detail because of the little practical application since we lost our national unit – until that time that God returns the crown of our glory, speedily in our days.


J. Attitude Towards Secular Jews and Evil Opinions


A person must overcome evil opinions through the power of his intellect. If he cannot clarify the issue on his own, he should nevertheless not discuss them with others, as they cause destruction to societal life. When he protects this, he will then come to realize the truth. The Torah compares one who curses the name of God to one who strikes a person or animal, for it destroys society, in addition to the destruction of personal intellect and morality.[26]


Regarding what you wrote about my words regarding secular Jews, let me explain: My intention was that we can also explain to them that we know from the testimony of experience – which cannot be denied - that our nation has been sustained until now through observance of the mitzvot, and that based on what we know, it is impossible for it or its spirit to survive without fulfillment of the Torah. They cannot claim that their opinions have been gleaned from long experience of the weight of our trustworthy experience. It is thus evil and foolish to place the nation – which they claim is also dear to them – in jeopardy. One who recognizes, even through logic, that there is a real soul and that no evil and corrupt matter can have a good end will understand that one who sets his hand against the survival of the nation, whether out of his desires or his opinions, is a conspirator of the worst destructive forces.[27] Notwithstanding this, I do not negate the claim to their credit that many of the mistaken ones in our generation are as if forced against their will because of the confusion of opinions and the paucity of positive influence to clarify the correct path to the perplexed.[28] And God should illuminate our darkness in His kindness.




I began to write this letter in Rechovot, when I received your letter, but I was then very busy until this past Rosh Hashana, thank God. And when my brother arrived I remembered to complete it in a great hurry. It would be wise to read my words carefully, and I hope that you will find what you seek. Please relate anything you have to say, and do not refrain from your wise comments, for young questioners of matters of the heart of very dear to me. I hope to clarify these matters, with the help of God, at a more opportune time. I conclude with blessings that God make you successful in His Torah and fear of Him, and He should expand your intellect to know His name; and you should succeed in all good matters.

The one who desires your happiness from the Holy Land,

Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook


Below is a paragraph from Letter 90, in which Rav Kook expands on the prohibition of teaching Torah to gentiles. Seidel questioned the prohibition based on the teaching of Chazal that the Torah was written on the stones, “Be’er heitev” (Devarim 27:8), in seventy languages (Sota 7:5) – which implies that there is some value in teaching the Torah to non-Jews.


Regarding your question about teaching Torah to gentiles based on the fact that Chazal say that the Torah was written on the stones in order to teach the nations of the world – we do not learn lessons for all generations from a one-time event. The level of preparation that the world achieved at the time of the Exodus and the giving of the Torah, which resulted from the upheaval of the revelation of the Shekhina and which thereafter revealed itself slowly among the nations to the extent that a large part of humanity left behind the traditions inherited from their fathers and came to recognize the God of Israel – this was a one-time event that did not continue. The general guiding principle is that light will infiltrate the world specifically through the light of Israel. Then the knowledge of God will be understood, as well as all matters of life pertaining to that great truth – whether for individuals or the public. But the idea thought up by the one who wished to teach the laws before the proper time to those about whom it is said, “He did not teach them laws,” caused that only the laws of faith were inscribed on their flag, without pertaining to their lives, individual or communal. As a result, they are corrupted, and they are thus perverted in philosophy, in which they are similar to idolatry, and in practice, as they have not been purified in character as appropriate for those who wave the flag of love and kindness, as they claim.


[1] On the differences between the rights of Jews and the rights of the children of Noach in certain legal and monetary matters, see below.

[2] In other words, the law which is practiced towards the other nations will be imperfectly implemented, from a moral point of view.

[3] The point of departure is that there are two opposing principles in the realm of property: one is the “capitalist” principle, based on the absolute rights of an individual over his property – the right of ownership; the other is the “communist” principle – i.e., that actually it would be proper for property to belong to everyone and to be shared equally.

[4] Once the owner has despaired of finding it, a lost article is acquired by whoever finds it. In other words, the element of joint ownership overcomes his individual rights.

[5] If there was no despair (of finding the lost article), it is preferable that the article return to its owner – and this reflects protection of the rights of the owner over his property.

[6] The reason for this is that the owner is a Jew, and therefore there is a general good that is achieved in returning the lost article to its owner; our assumption is that if a possession is held by a Jew, he will make beneficial use of it.

[7] Because in terms of its ultimate use, it is better that the article be in the possession of a Jew than in the possession of a non-Jew.

[8] “Ways of peace” is not a pragmatic excuse for avoidance of conflict with non-Jews over discriminatory halakha. Rather, it is a substantial consideration, based on the principle of “kiddush Hashem.” Rav Kook describes kiddush Hashem here in a sophisticated manner: since the dry law would permit the article to remain in the hands of the Jew, there is no kiddush Hashem in acting otherwise. Kiddush Hashem really consists of the individual’s actual readiness to relinquish his right to the lost article which he found for the sake of Jewish pride and the acknowledgment of Jewish generosity amongst the nations.

[9] Perhaps the intention here is “tzedaka” – charity.

[10] And only out of chauvinism or national interest.

[11] In a comment here, R. Tzvi Yehuda refers to a quote from Megillat Ta’anit in Rosh Hashana 19a: “On the twenty-eighth [of the month of Adar], the Jews received good news – that they would not have to abandon the Torah. For the evil kingdom [Rome] had decreed against Israel, upon pain of death, that they should not engage in Torah, and should not circumcise their sons, and should desecrate Shabbat. What did Yehuda Ben Shamu’a and his companions do? They went and consulted a certain matron who advised all the great leaders of Rome. She told them, ‘Go and proclaim [your troubles] at night.’ They went and proclaimed [their troubles] at night, saying: ‘Alas, in heaven’s name! Are we not your brothers? Are we not the sons of the same father; are we not the sons of the same mother? In what way are we different from every nation and people, that you pass such harsh decrees upon us?!’ So the decrees were annulled, and that day was declared a day of feasting.”

[12] The Meiri, in his Beit Ha-bechira, comments as follows on Bava Kama 113b: “Thus, it is forbidden to steal even from idolaters and those who are not categorized as believers, and if a Jew is sold to one of them, he may not leave without a ransom, and it is likewise forbidden to annul his loan. In any event, a person is not obligated to pursue his lost article in order to return it to him, and moreover someone who finds his lost article is not obligated to return it, since finding represents a partial acquisition, and returning the article is an act of piety – and we are not obligated to act with piety towards someone who has no faith…. In any event, if it becomes known to him then he is obligated to return it, and likewise for a lost article, so long as it would be a chillul Hashem to withhold it and not return it. All the more so if the person is from one of the nations defined as believers and worshippers of God; even though their faith is far from ours, they do not belong to the above discussion, but rather are completely like Jews for all such purposes…and all such matters, with no discrimination.”

[13] In other words, the discrimination arises not from a chauvinistic or racist position, but rather from the ultimate purpose of “tikkun olam” – repairing the world. When all the relevant values are taken into consideration, it turns out – as explained above – that it is better that the lost article remain in the hands of the Jew.

[14] See the previous section (section G) regarding the slave who receives a podium from which to sermonize.

[15] The reference here is to Paul of Tarsus, who taught Torah in Christian form to the nations.

[16] The reference, of course, is to the Inquisition.

[17] Shabbat 88b (according to a comment by R. Tzvi Yehuda). The same rule is invoked concerning the wicked among Israel, for whom the Torah is like a drug of death.

[18] What Rav Kook means is that while there may certainly be individual exceptional instances, the underlying general justification for the rule still holds true.

[19] See Moreh Nevukhim part III, chapter 34.

[20] Rav Kook enumerates various paths in halakha for instituting a takana – a rabbinical enactment – that contravenes the Torah when necessary.

[21] “Anyone who accepts the Seven [Noahide] Laws and is careful to perform them is one of the righteous of the nations, and he has a portion in the World to Come. This means that he accepts [those laws] and performs them because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded them in the Torah, and made known to us through Moshe Rabbeinu that the children of Noach were previously commanded concerning them. However, if the person performs them based on an intellectual decision, then he is not [eligible to be] a resident stranger, and is not one of the righteous of the nations, nor [according to Rav Kook’s version: “but rather”] one of its wise men.” The question of the correct version of the manuscript here is an ancient one.

It is not clear whether Rambam’s words about a person who performs the Noahide laws out of an intellectual decision (rather than faith in the Torah) are meant as praise or criticism. Rav Kook interprets the Rambam here as hinting that the level of one who performs the laws out of an intellectual decision is far higher. This interpretation sits well with the Rambam’s teachings in other places – that acting in accordance with what is true because it is true represents the level of serving God out of love, which is the highest form of perfection. See, for example, Moreh Nevukhim III: 51 and Laws of Repentance, chapters 8, 10.

[22] Therefore, there are rules of war in the Torah that are indeed cruel in terms of perfect morality, but they are appropriate to the moral situation that prevailed in the world and to the conditions of survival of Am Yisrael.

[23] An expression borrowed from Chovot Ha-levavot of Rabbeinu Bachya, meaning matters that are mandated by intellect.

[24] This idea was already been expressed earlier in the letter in relation to slavery. I formulated it as follows: The Torah’s laws are minimalist in nature, in order that morality can mostly develop voluntarily, not out of force.

[25] Some of the leniencies in the laws of war in the Torah, as well as certain actions which are explicitly described in Tanakh (such as norms of war described in the times of Yehoshua and David), are part of the battle against the pagan nations. The measure is left to the discretion of the leaders of the generations, and their considerations are not clear to us.

[26] This is the reason for the need to limit the voicing of negative views. This idea was further developed in Letter 20, which was written later than the present letter.

[27] Rav Kook voices a similar opinion in Letter 20. The yardstick is not the evaluation of the opinion itself, but rather the degree to which it harms the existence of the nation.

[28] The same view was expressed by several of the sages of recent generations, including the Chazon Ish and R. David Tzvi Hoffman in his Melamed Le-ho’il responsa.