Lecture #18: Letter 90

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot


Lecture #18a

Letter 90



This letter continues its predecessors, both in biographical terms and in terms of its subject matter. It is a response to another letter from Seidel, and clarifies matters which had been covered in Letter 89. The importance of Letter 90 lies in Rav Kook’s treatment of the problems of changes in halakha (section 2, and especially section 5).


More than all the ideological and metaphysical questions aroused by the religious controversies in modern times, the major movements which arose during this period (such as Reform, the Positive-Historical school, Orthodoxy) addressed themselves to the question of the proper attitude towards halakha. The center of the debate among the various streams surrounded the openness of halakha to changes which may be introduced into it owing to the need to adapt it to the modern era – both culturally and in terms of the new needs and goals which it presents to Judaism, as well as arising from new external demands, whether economic, political, or technological.


The Reform movement (A. Geiger, for example) relinquished the principle of the eternity of Divine Torah, and thereby opened the floodgates: first it proceeded slowly and involved isolated points of halakha such as procedures and formulas for prayers; then the process sped up, until almost nothing was left of halakha.


More moderate movements, such as the Positive-Historical school (Z. Frankel, for example) accepted the yoke of halakha but claimed that halakha possesses mechanisms of change and amendment, and that it must use these tools, addressing the new historical reality and amending itself accordingly. The assumption guiding this movement was that halakha had developed from within a system of historical circumstances, and therefore there was no reason why it should not continue to develop in the same way. In general, the changes within this stream (which was the source of Conservative Judaism) were directed at rabbinical decrees or amendments, or even commentaries and midrashim, but not against the Written Law.


The polemic and confrontation with these trends led traditionalists to new modes of response, aimed at protecting authentic Judaism and halakha from these winds of change. In Hungary, the Chatam Sofer set down a series of radical principles for halakhic rulings, representing a sort of ultra-conservative barrier around halakha. A well-known example is his extension of the rule that “chadash is forbidden from the Torah” – (originally referring to the grain harvest, which may not be partaken of until after the 16th of Nissan, when the ‘omer’ is offered) – into a comprehensive rejection of any new practice, not on its own merits, but because of the fact that it is new.


Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch, the leader of Orthodox Jewry in Germany, also defended halakha in its entirety, and permitted only such innovations which were compatible with halakha and did not require changes within it. (Examples of such permissible innovations included secular studies, holding marriage ceremonies in the synagogue, having a chazzan and choir for prayer services, etc.)


The contrasting positions adopted by the various streams led to an acute rift, to the point where Rabbi Hirsch’s community in Frankfurt split from the local communal organization and viewed the reformers as having removed themselves from the Jewish nation.


Our generation, having grown up with this polemic which has grown somewhat less sharp, are accustomed to thinking that halakha and its world view is actually identical with conservative views which oppose change. This is quite ironic, since in earlier times halakha was actually subject to attack from the opposite direction: suffice it to mention part III of Sefer Ha-kuzari, in which Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi deals with the Karaite position. The Kuzari, who in that disputation represents the Karaite view, challenges the “chaver” with the following argument: You rabbinical Jews claim the superiority of Judaism because of its Divine law. However, most of halakha has developed over the course of generations, through midrash, [rabbinical] enactments and decrees, and it is therefore not Divine but rather man-made. Only Karaite fundamentalism, which negates the authority of the sages of each generation to make and interpret laws, regulates life in accordance with the original Divine law!


We shall address Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi’s approach elsewhere; for the present discussion we raise this question merely for the purpose of showing that identifying halakha with conservatism and lack of change is not a simple matter. In any event, this position was adopted by the authoritative rabbinical leaders as their main strategy during the 19th century upheavals. Against this backdrop, the questions posed to Rav Kook in general, and in the present letter by Saidel in particular, touch on the very heart of the problem, since Rav Kook, as we saw in the previous letter, views cultural changes in a positive light, and also recognizes that the Torah acts within history. Does the process of development of the world in Rav Kook’s thought also entail a positive attitude towards the development of halakha and deviation from the accepted normative positions of halakhic authorities of previous generations? This is the main question posed in this letter, and one paragraph in particular serves as one of the primary sources for understanding Rav Kook’s approach to this important question.


We shall try to understand Rav Kook’s approach by first reviewing the perceptions of halakha, and of the Oral Law in general, as represented by Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi and by the Rambam. Thereafter we shall address the kabbalistic background to the “developmental approach” which is central to Rav Kook’s teachings.


The other subjects that arise in this letter are a continuation of the previous one: some have already been discussed, some are parenthetical comments. It is difficult to understand this letter without reference to letter 89, and therefore it is recommended that that letter be re-read as necessary.


Letter 90

By the grace of God, the holy city of Jaffa, may it be built and established, 17 Shevat 5665.[1]


            Peace and blessing to by beloved and dear friends, distinguished students of Torah and wisdom, and the awe of God is their treasure, Rav Binyamin Menashe Levine and Rav Moshe Seidle, may their lights shine, and may you be exalted and rise for name, praise, and glory.  After wishing you well with much love.


            Due to the great amount of work and labor, and great sorrow over the situation of our brothers in exile, may the Rock of Israel, Jacob's portion and his savior in times of trouble, have mercy [on them] and quickly take them from darkness to great light, I did not have the time to properly answer your precious letters, and even now, that I forced myself to make some time for writing, I will have to be as short as possible.  Benyamin's letter, long life to him, is presently missing, and I have before me only Moshe's letter, long life to him, and my brief words will relate to it.


A. “One Day or Two”


            You made a wise comment regarding the fact that if the limitation of punishment if [the slave lives for] one or two days [after being struck][2] is a measure to protect one’s property, then the punishment of a father who killed his son should be limited to a similar degree.


            I must reiterate that my intent is not to present an investigation of the laws of proper character in a manner similar to halakhic discussion, in which we present a question followed by an answer, but rather to elevate our thought to encompass general worldviews through the depths of Torah. For the more we know how to elevate and expand our worldviews, the more we will be close to the light of truth and illuminated by the light of life of the Torah of the living God, may He be blessed. Thus, when we encounter any question in the course of our quest, our hearts should not fall and cause us to turn away from the generally enlightening path. Rather, we must attempt to reveal new light through it.


            From this you must understand, my dear friend, that when we come to speak about a general matter in Torah, if details become difficult to understand, we must distinguish between different matters. If these acts are practically relevant, we must explain them according to the words of our Sages and what we derive from their words. However, when we wish to understand the law regarding a matter that is not presently relevant, we cannot determine what the practical teaching would be based on the words of our Sages. For this type of understanding of the principles of the Torah – such matters and others like them or even much broader than them – was accomplished through discussion and argument among the judges of Israel, the prophets and the mighty, the Sanhedrins and their leaders, when we dwelt in the Holy Land and the spirit of God was with us and every court knew how Israel should act and how to derive the law in accordance with the depth of the truth of Torah. This was before the decree was made, before the descent of the generations and the scattering of Israel – “Bind up the testimony and seal up the Torah among my students.”[3]


            As a result, we no longer know those ways of discussion that the Sanhedrin, for example, would utilize if a capital case of a father killing his son were to come before them. We thus cannot establish which details would be brought in arguing for leniency based on our discussion of the basic principles of the Torah, which might limit the extent of punishment as a result of the factor of a father’s mercy based on the principle of “one day or two” regarding the slave. Because we lack the power of the judges, which requires the power of complete life of the nation in the place that God chose, we cannot limit the punishment in this way.


            In addition, the simple law is also true; the Torah always speaks of the majority, and not regarding strange, unnatural matters. The Rambam writes accordingly in a number of places in the Guide of the Perplexed.[4] Thus, we have no need to consider specifically the case of a father who killed his son; the matter is given over to the discerning investigation of every court in its time.


B. Natural Slavery and the Descendants of Cham


            Regarding your question of why the laws of slaves apply to descendants of Noach other than the descendants of Canaan, you did not understand my words properly. I said that there is a natural necessity that a portion of humanity be slaves, and the natural law will be upheld – heavy and humiliating work will be done by slaves. If there are no slaves according to law, there will be slaves because people will need to sustain themselves. Thus, emancipation of slaves has not accomplished anything for humanity except for the value of decreasing the necessity for the work of slaves in general, which results from development and progress in industrial methods with which man can better control nature. These matters progress in accordance with the laws of morality through the amazing providence of the Master of All, may He be blessed. Thus, the slavery of Canaan resulted from the fact that in his lineage, lowliness and weakness of spiritual powers were stronger, leading to slavery; indeed, most slaves were always from the descendants of Cham.[5] But any person who becomes a slave as a result of his situation will always be a slave, even if he has no master, for “his mouth [his hunger] urges him on.”[6] Through moral improvement appropriate to lowly individuals, slaves can become people of worth. Thus, Eliezer appropriately declared, “I am the slave of Avraham.”[7]


            Regarding your question of why Canaan was set aside from the other children of Cham – lowly character and coarse desires, unrefined by the sense of self-respect or the like, are what make one appropriate for slavery, and these traits are prominent among the people of Canaan. The Torah itself attests, “Do not do act in accordance with the practices of the Land of Canaan,”[8] and the Sifra explains that they were more corrupt with abominations than any other nation.[9] Thus, the slave status of Cham was most obvious by Canaan in particular.[10]


            Regarding what you thought that a righteous and moral master will concern himself only with his slaves physical wellbeing, and not his spiritual stature – this is not the case. For every good person is capable of providing the degree of spiritual elevation that one appropriate for slavery requires. When the slave is more perfected in character and intellect, he will bring his master greater profit. But to concern oneself too much with the slave’s spirituality to a degree greater than his soul’s capacity – even though he might make him wiser, he will not change his basic nature. In that case, his wisdom will also be used to advance his slave-hood, and there will be “slaves riding upon horses and princes walking like slaves upon the earth,”[11] which is evil.


C. Teaching Torah to Gentiles


            You questioned the prohibition against teaching Torah to gentiles, [quoting] the Torah's injunction to inscribe the words of the Torah on stone so that the nations of the world may learn.[12]  One cannot extrapolate for all generations a law that was intended only for its time.  The same fitness which the world received at the time of the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation of the Torah, was a result of the great ferment caused by the divine presence [at Sinai].  [It was then] revealed slowly among the nations of the world, and manifested by the fact that a great portion of the human race abandoned their fathers' [spiritual] legacies and again recognized the name of God, Lord of Israel, blessed be he.  This, however was a temporary phenomenon.  But it is established teaching that the light of God will penetrate the world, particularly by the way of the light of Israel, and then the knowledge and the strength of the Lord will be understood [together] with all orders of life [the commandments], which relate to the great truth, whether individual or communal.  But the idea, conceived by one who went out to teach the laws before their time, to those about whom was written, "of such ordinances they know nothing,"[13] resulted in only the laws of faith being inscribed on their banner, with no regard to the orders of life, especially the communal orders.  Thus it was inevitable that they make mistakes, and hence the erred both in doctrine, approaching paganism, and in deed, by not purifying their behavior in a way worthy of those who claim to be carrying the flag of love and benevolence.


D. Development and Change of Halakha


            You said that according to my words the Torah is continually developing.  Heaven forbid I never said such a strange thing.  The idea of development, as most people understand it, is of change, [and this idea] leads to irreverence.  What I say is that the [divine] lofty knowledge which scrutinizes everything, from the beginning to the end of time, encompasses the entire Torah.  This belief is the true acceptance of God's absolute sovereignty, that all the causes which form and influence understanding, and the feelings leading to decisions in every generation, were prepared from the beginning, in the proper and correct way.  Therefore, the truth of the Torah can be revealed only when the entire nation of God is in its land, perfected in all its spiritual and physical manners.  Then the oral law will regain its essential condition, according to the understanding of the Great Court [Sanhedrin], that will sit in the place of the Lord's choice, to deal with matters too difficult for lower courts to judge.  At that time we may be certain that any new interpretation will be crowned with all might and holiness, because Israel is holy to the Lord.[14]  And if a question arises about some law of the Torah, which ethical notions indicate should be understood in a different way, then truly, if the Great Court decides that this law pertains only to conditions which no longer exist, a source in the Torah will certainly be found for it.  The conjunction of events with the power of the courts and interpretation of the Torah will certainly be found for it.  The conjunction of events with the power of the courts and interpretation of the Torah is not a coincidence.  They are rather signs of the light of the Torah and the truth of the Torah's oral law, for we are obligated to accept [the rulings] of the judge that will be in those days,[15] and this is not a deleterious "development."  But whoever wishes to judge in these times – when we are poor and our economic life is not ordered as it would be were the state of the nation in its proper form, according to the same exalted requirements, "it is ready for those whose foot slips."[16]  God save us from this view.  And every matter of present, past, and so on, which I always mention in the relation of [practical] deeds to the general principles of the Torah, all applies to the picture of the life of our nation and the land of our desire in its perfection, when our prince shall be our own and our ruler shall be from our midst,[17] our palace restored and our judges and advisors as in earliest times, and the land of glory planted with the ingathering of all her children to her.  Then all that goes forth from the spring of the house of the Lord will be holy to the Lord.  But in the time of darkness and decline, though there is still no restraint on a person behaving according to his most refined emotions, when he intends to uplift his soul and bring it close to the light of truth and justice, which is the light of God and his lovingkindness, but this is not the guidance of the Torah but rather a measure of private ethics.  If, therefore, its widening [application] damages the general good, as premature tendencies do, turning moral tendencies into things that cause damage to many people, any wise man and any benevolent person will understand that the loftiest and the most sacred obligation is to diminish the glory of his moral self according to his personal value, in order fully to support communal ethics, which is the foundation of eternal justice, as is written, "The people that walked in darkness have seen a brilliant light; on those who dwell in the land of the shadow of death, light has dawned."[18]


E. Return to the Vegetarian Vision


            As for what you asked about my article on the subject of wool and linen,[19] why is linen different from cotton? I need to explain further the general way of inquiry into the reasons behind [the laws of] the Torah.  The commandments are like letters and words, by which we understand concepts, and if one world suffices, can one ask why no other words were added, teaching the exact same thing?  To be sure, a word imprinted in the light of the world must be distinguished by utmost clarity, and here we must pursue the knowledge of the Lord.  And surely, this sublime thought must symbolize something connected with eminent people, and connected with the attribute of respectability granted by clothing, that is, for honor and beauty, and not only with [their property of] covering shame and protecting from cold, which is the lower and weaker aspect of man, which is also the result of a decline of ethical values which we hope will be elevated by the power of the Torah.  Thus shesh, which is linen, the most exquisite garb in ancient times, is what this noble thought should unite with, rather than with lower materials, which are the products of necessity and weakness.


F. Rights and Free Will of Animals


            As to what you wrote in regard to Rashi's commentary,[20] that God remembered the animals, since they did not become corrupt: the matter of merit is the basis on which they and not others were worthy of existence, and because they were not corrupted in their ethical tendencies.  Therefore, they were worthy of existence, and because they were not corrupted in their ethical tendencies.  Therefore they were worth of settling the world – and this has absolutely no connection with free will, as in the case of the merit of the patriarchs [zechut avot], where there is no choice.[21]  Indeed, there is no basis [for believing that] animals have no choice; it is certainly not as wide as man's, but every living thing has choice according to the level of its abilities, and this is the basis for their perfection in the future, when "They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain."[22]  And new research on animal life increasingly demonstrates this truth, which has already been dealt with at length by the Torah and the prophets, and the word of our Lord will stand forever.


            Dear Binyamin, at present your precious letter is not before me, so I can not answer it now.  Please forgive me.


            Write me, my dear friends, of all that you do, for good and blessing.  May God pardon his people and raise our glory, and the glory of his people and his land will blossom in our days.


            And I conclude with peace and blessing, with your precious souls and those of they who value and love you, and solicit your happiness, sending you blessings from the desired land.


Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook


[1]      23 January 1905.

[2]      Shemot 21:21: “But if he lives for one day or two, he shall not be avenged, for he is his asset.”

[3]      Yeshayahu 8:16, according to the interpretation in Sanhedrin 103b: “Achaz stopped the Temple service and sealed the Torah, as it says, “Bind up the testimony and seal up the Torah among my students.”

[4]      See Guide of the Perplexed III:34, 41.

[5]      In other words, there is a connection between the reality of lowly culture and the social need for slavery. On the other hand, there is a connection between technological development, which decreases the need for slavery, and cultural progress among the lowly nations.

[6]      Mishlei 16:26 (comment of R. Tzvi Yehuda).

[7]      Bereishit 24:34.

[8]      Vayikra 18:2.

[9]      Sifra, Acharei Mot 13: “‘Do not act in accordance with the practices of the Land of Canaan, to which I bring you’ – Do they not know that they are coming to the Land of Canaan?... Rather, the verse tells us that the practices of the Canaanites were more corrupt than those of any other nation, and the place that Israel was arriving in was more corrupt than any other.”

[10]    One must further take into account the story regarding Cham in Parashat Noach, wherein he is portrayed the prototype of the nations that descended from him.

[11]    Kohelet 10:7.

[12]    Deuteronomy 27;2,3,8.  See also Sota 35b.

[13]    Psalms 157:20.

[14]    Jeremiah 2:3.

[15]    Deuteronomy 17:9

[16]    Job 12:5.

[17]    Jeremiah 30:21.

[18]    Isaiah 9:1.

[19]    This is a reference to Rav Kook's article, "Afikim Banegev."

[20]    Genesis 6;20.

[21]    See letter 19.

[22]    Isaiah 11:9.