Lecture #2: On Tolerance - Letter 20

  • Rav Tamir Granot



By Rav Tamir Granot



Mazal tov to Rav Tamir and Avivit Granot on the birth of a daughter, Chana Simcha.
She-tizku le-gadla le-Torah, le-chuppa, u-le-ma'asim tovim!



Lecture #2: On Tolerance - Letter 20


I. Background


The Addressee


            This letter is a response to questions raised by R. Moshe Seidel in a letter to Rav Kook. R. Seidel was one of Rav Kook’s closest disciples and he often asked Rav Kook philosophic and ideological questions. Several of the most significant philosophical letters were written as answers to his questions. In this letter, Rav Kook addresses him, as usual, with many terms of endearment and with a great showing of love.


            Here is some biographical information about R. Seidel:


Seidel, Moshe (From The Encyclopedia of Religious Zionism)

Born in Kierkels, a town in Lithuania near Courland, 7 Adar, 5646 (1886) – Died in Yerushalayim, 25 Kislev, 5731 (1970).

He obtained a Jewish education at the Telshe Yeshiva. Studied be-chavruta at various points with Rav Kook, R. Elchanan Wasserman, and R. Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan.

After studying in yeshiva, he left in 5665 to study in Germany. In 5667, he went to Switzerland, where he completed his doctorate at the University of Berne. He worked in the United States from 5673 until 5691 teaching Tanakh and Hebrew at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and he was superintendent of Jewish schools in Baltimore.

In 5691, he immigrated to Eretz Yisrael, and for twenty-two years he administrated the Mizrachi Women’s Teachers Seminary in Yerushalayim.

He published studies of Scripture and language in Hebrew and foreign-language outlets starting in 5671. Some of these were gathered into a collection called Chikrei Lashon. In 5722, for his seventy-fifth birthday, a festschrift called Sefer Zeidel, which included biblical and linguistic studies from various scholars, as well as a thirty-entry bibliography of his own writings, appeared. These were all collected into Chikrei Lashon, published by Mossad Ha-Rav Kook in 5746.

He dealt extensively with the parallels between different biblical books and introduced many novellae in his writings.


The Time and Setting of the Letter


            This is one of the first letters in the collections. It is dated 10 Nissan, 5665 (1905), just a few months after Rav Kook’s arrival in Yaffo to serve as the rabbi of the town and its surroundings.


            The progression of events that preceded the writing of the letter is interesting and important in and of itself, so I will expand on it a bit.


            The issue begins with an essay published by Eliezer Ben Yehuda in his periodical Ha-Hashkafa, which was the continuation of his polemic about the Uganda Proposal that Herzl had raised at the Zionist Congress two years earlier (1903). Ben Yehuda was one of the greatest proponents of the proposal, whose main principle, as may be recalled, was the (at least temporary) settlement of Jews in the remote British colony of Uganda, since settlement in Eretz Yisrael was unrealistic. When explaining his support for the proposal, Ben Yehuda wrote the following: “My interest in the Land of Israel is not for its sake, for the sake of the Land, but for their sake, for the sake of the people…” In the heat of his debate with the “Zionists of Zion” faction – who, as their name indicates, completely rejected the proposal and claimed that it ignores the entire Jewish past – Ben Yehuda wrote:


One other claim… the Zionists of Zion claim about the Ugandists that they… turn their backs on our entire past. There is much hypocrisy in this claim. Let us have no illusions… we have all turned our backs on our past, and that is our praise and our glory (Ha-Hashkafa, No. 48, 5665).


            This sentence incurred the wrath of Rav Kook, and he published an open letter against Ben Yehuda’s words, which he saw as blasphemous. The letter was formulated as a letter to young Jews in their defense against the charge that Ben Yehuda leveled at them. Many copies of the letter were published and even posted on city streets. Rav Kook came out against the generalizations used by Ben Yehuda and, of course, primarily against the claim of abandoning the past.[1] In his letter, Rav Kook contended that the different paths taken by the different Jewish movements are all connected to tradition and to the living soul of Judaism. He recalls the fact that there were even Mizrachi members who supported the Uganda proposal and, in contrast, many non-observant Jews vehemently opposed it. Since he dealt with views that opposed his own and even ideas that exceeded what he viewed as tolerable (the words of Ben Yehuda), Rav Kook added the following sentence:


Despite my love of learning and teaching the fundamentals of our thought, far be it from me to demand authority over anyone’s opinions; nowadays it is unacceptable.


The full open letter was published in Iggerot Ha-RAY’H (I:18), and it is recommended that you read it in its original.[2]


            The aforementioned sentence caused R. Seidel to question whether this is a le-khatchila position (“din Torah” in his words) or if it stems from a recognition of the current reality in which there is no religious leadership with coercive power in the Jewish Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael. From this, Rav Kook goes on to discuss tolerance in general, its limits, and its special expression in context of the Jewish People.


            From a broader perspective, it seems that the question emerged in the wake of the unique situation that arose with the expansion of the Yishuv and the arrival of Rav Kook to Yaffo as the rabbi of the surrounding settlements. The Eda Chareidit in Yerushalayim never had to address the question of tolerance in the sense that it is being discussed here; from the outset, it adopted a strategy of separatism and did not maintain any meaningful relationship with those settlements. As such, it never had any claim to authority or sovereignty. Jewish existence in the Diaspora could raise these questions only on the personal or communal level, and the attitude toward a deviant or heretic was addressed in the framework of their damage to communal unity or the sensitivities of individuals within it. The new situation that was created along with the development of the Yishuv and, no less than it, the dream of establishing national sovereignty raised the question of tolerance to the national-political plane: What is the attitude of the present rabbinic authority (assuming it has any power) – or what should the attitude of a Jewish national government be – to those who express negative opinions from the religious, ethical, or national perspective? Must there be a censor, and should there be punishment in cases of clear deviation on the ideological or normative plane?


Thoughts before Reading


            Note that at issue here is not pluralism in the sense of relating to a multiplicity of truths as such, but to freedom of thought as a political problem. Pluralism as a philosophical stance addresses the possibility of the existence of different and sometimes contradictory truths simultaneously, as well as our intellectual relationship with that multiplicity of ideas. Tolerance is a problem of real human relationships, and it pertains both to the relationships between different ideological communities and to the relationship between the social majority and smaller ideological communities. On the political level, the question is posed to the government and its authority to silence certain opinions or even to punish those who espouse them. Pluralism will be addressed in a different lecture. Of course, there can be a link between a person’s being pluralistic and his actually having a positive attitude toward other opinions and, vice versa, between the negation of pluralism and opposition to free opinion in the state; however, this link is not one-to-one, as will be explained in our discussion below.


            The question of tolerance is one of the central questions addressed by modern political philosophy, and it is sufficient to mention the classic works of Moses Mendelssohn, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill, who are but three of many. Is the model of liberal democracy, which defends freedom of thought, possible from the perspective of authentic Judaism?


            The question of the Jewish or halakhic stance cannot, in this case, have a simple answer, for two main reasons:


1.    We have barely any philosophical or halakhic literature from the era when Jews had political sovereignty. Thus, issues pertaining to political life are addressed briefly and without connection to actual reality. Sometimes, they are not even addressed at all.

2.    The idea of freedom of thought as a political ideal is fundamentally modern. Even if we could point out Jewish or even general ancient sources that move in that direction, they are only sporadic examples that do not express any broad movement. Additionally, ancient social structures were far more homogeneous. Although the manner in which Chazal dealt with the Sadducee ideology or the early Christian heresy, for example, can be instructive for these purposes, the gap remains great.


(Translated by Elli Fischer)


You are now welcome to read the explained and annotated letter.[3] Next week, please God, the lecture on the main topics that appear in the letter will appear.


            The following translation is taken, with slight variations, from Rav A.Y. Kook: Selected Letters, translated by Tzvi Feldman (Maaleh Adumim, 1986).  The Virtual Beit Midrash thanks Rabbi Feldman and Ma’aliot Press for their kind permission to use this translation.  The translations of letters 44, 89, 90, 91 and 140 (in the continuation of this course) are also taken from Rabbi Feldman’s work.  The footnotes are my own (T.G.) and not those of Rabbi Feldman.

II. Letter #20

            In reference to my words in the open letter,[4] where I stated that I do not seek to control anyone's opinion, you asked whether this is out of necessity or also the law of the Torah.

            Indeed, in my language there is no ambiguity, since I stated "because in our time it is unacceptable." So it follows that had it been acceptable, such a requirement would have its place. The issue, however, requires great mountains of study to clarify its boundaries, and since it is impossible for me to write at length I will write briefly and hope it will suffice for someone as discerning as you.

            You should know that common sense is always a very important principle in law, be it applied law or legal theory. We therefore always have to reach the core of the truth, and when we see a truth contradicting another truth, there then must be a determining factor, and this will be the place for new study. Thus we will see how far the limits of freedom of thought, considered a basic truth by most enlightened men in the world today, extend according to reason. Perhaps you say it has no bounds – that, however, cannot be said. For one, because we do not have even one virtue in the world which extremism will not harm.[5] Furthermore, the nature of the matter requires that there be a limit to freedom of thought, for if there is no such limit, every person would cast away all obligations of accepted morality until he reaches in his own mind an understanding of what he stands for, and then the earth would be filled with corruption; a total separation between opinions and deeds is impossible, because actions to a small or large extent necessarily stem from opinions. For instance, for a person to accept at heart that there is no wrong in murder is definitely a sin, for if this acceptance flourishes, the existence of the world would be destroyed, and the same is true for other examples. Thus we learn there is a limit to freedom of opinion, but the difficult issue is to determine this limit.

            It follows that the limit is not identical in every society. For example, the full consensus that there is no harm in walking naked in the streets for one who consents to this and calls for people to actually behave in this manner is a sin in our society, and deservedly so, but this would not be a sin among the savages on the islands of Guinea, for example.[6] As there are necessarily differences between societies, the differences are not static, but rather continue to differentiate in accordance with the multitude of conditions.  With regard to religion, there is a marked distinction in this matter between Israel and the rest of the world.  Were there a nation in the world whose main being and continued existence as a nation were dependent on a particular idea, then it would be completely legitimate and even obligatory that with regard to that idea there be no freedom of thought within that nation, for that would not be freedom, but laziness in defending itself due to the nervous tendency of a few people. It is true that sometimes individuals should rebel against their nation, when they find that the idea that unites and sustains their nation is harmful to mankind, in which case they must renounce their nation for the truth. If, however, the idea which strengthens the nation is in no way harmful and all the more so if the idea is both beneficial outside its borders and essential for the nation's own existence, then there is no room for tolerance, and someone who is tolerant in this matter deserves the contempt of the whole nation and all mankind.

            There is no other nation in the world whose acknowledgement of the name of God, blessed be He, as the Lord of the universe, keeper of the covenant, lovingkindness, and all ways of righteousness, which are attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He, is the basis of its national life, and a unique condition of its restoration to its land and the establishment of its rule. Israel's conditions are such that is cannot exist without these exalted ideas. All greatness of soul is associated with a parallel deficiency, and Israel certainly has those deficiencies as well,[7] which lead it to the necessity of the virtue of bearing God's Name[8] as its common identity. Therefore, whoever undermines through thought, and all the more so through deed, the idea which vitalizes the nation, is a traitor to the nation, and his pardon is folly.[9] There is no other nation or people in the world whose national character is connected in the nature of its being with the knowledge of God in its midst and in the world, nor with the tenets of any other faith. Even if there is an exceptional nation which has a base faith, and its faith is national, that faith is surely so small that its very expansion will bring harm to all of mankind. Furthermore, such a nation cannot possibly survive, because this nation's destruction is imminent and its individual cannot be required to fulfill the duties obligatory to its existence. This is the basis of true zeal of God, the possessors of which are worthy to be given the everlasting priestly covenant;[10] in contrast with the hasty zeal which stems from lack of wisdom and weak character.[11]

            In order for us to realize national sovereignty,[12] it is necessary that the powers of the nation reach complete perfection.  But in the meantime, to avoid national rule totally is also impossible, because the spiritual character of the nation is, blessed be God, always alive: "David, King of Israel, is alive and enduring."[13] Hence this is the counsel of the Lord, who is wonderful in counsel, and great in wisdom, that the nation's capacity [to control opinion] diminishes to the same extent that the nation's [spiritual] powers weaken,[14] and that this inability [to control opinion] is a sign of God's will. There are many ways to do this:  sometimes it is a practical obstacle, such as the fear of the state, and so forth; sometimes it is a spiritual obstacle, such as the obligation not to say things which are unacceptable.[15] We accept obstacles such as these gladly because we recognize that it is divine providence in our times. And this is why we find in the Jerusalem Talmud that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was glad that the power to enforce the laws was removed in his time from Israel, "because we are not wise enough to judge."[16] That is what is pertinent to understanding my words.

            As for the law, you should know that even though it is utterly prohibited and diseased for one to doubt and wonder about matters of perfect faith, we do not find the Sages applying the law of heresy [in such a case], but only in the case of an unbeliever, that is, one who definitely affirms the opposite.[17] And absolute belief in the opposite can be found in Israel only amongst those who are inherently wicked and deliberate liars, because even the greatest evil [influence] can only cast a doubt in weak-minded persons; therefore someone who dares to say that he is unequivocally an atheist is completely wicked and is fit to be judged according to all the explicit laws, since there is no justification to the argument that he was compelled to think thusly.  And if the atheistic idea in our generation was genuine, it would always claim uncertainty[18] and its doubts could easily be clarified; but it lies deliberately and claims certainty at a time when even he most weak-minded are at most doubtful [of the existence of God]. The atheistic idea is in brazen pursuit of malice, and is thus liable to all the laws in the hands of man and heaven in accordance with the harm it does.  Clarification of the details of this law would, of course, require many lengthy books.  This is clear; that whoever reaches the understanding that any denial of faith, in relation to Judaism, is nothing but a feeble argument of doubt, a combination of a lack of actual knowledge, lack of feeling, and shortcoming in virtue, will immediately become whole with his faith and God fearing. The more he attaches himself to Torah scholars, true seekers of God, the more he will be exalted and filled with an unshakable faith of wisdom and knowledge: "No weapon formed against you shall succeed; and every tongue that rises against you at law, you shall condemn. Such is the lot of the servants of the Lord, such their triumph through me, declares the Lord."[19]


[1] It is interesting to note that several years later, Ben Yehuda's son, Itamar Ben Avi, bore the brunt of a proclamation published by Rav Kook, after the former claimed that the Jews actually brought anti-Semitism upon themselves in some form or another. The son’s hatred of the Diaspora, the past, and everything related to them was even more virulent than his father’s.

[2]  Additional documents relating to this matter were published by R. Neriya in his work Chayei Ha-RAYH (Tel Aviv, 5751), pp. 123-131.

[3]  Letter 20, Iggerot Ha-RAYH, pp. 19-21.

[4] This refers to Iggerot I:18, in which Rav Kook issued a sharp statement against the Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who wrote about all Zionists: “We have all turned our backs on our past, and that is our praise and our glory.”  See the first part of this lecture for historical background.

[5] Here, Rav Kook employs the principle of the “middle path,” which originates in the doctrine of virtues. See Rambam, Hilkhot Deot ch. 1; Shemoneh Perakim (Introduction to Tractate Avot), chs. 3-5. Tolerance is generally perceived as an ideological stance, and not as a matter of virtue. It is possible that Rav Kook believes that the principle of shunning extremes applies to opinions as well, although it is more reasonable (and it also emerges from his words, “there is no virtue”) that he sees tolerance as both an opinion and a virtue. See the discussion below.

[6] This example of the naked man is one of the Rambam’s classic examples of the realm of “conventions,” i.e., norms rooted in broad human consensus stemming from human experience and conditioning. See Moreh Nevukhim I:2 and II:30.

[7] The meaning is that without fulfilling the destiny of bearing God’s Name, the Jewish nation will not succeed in establishing its political and practical existence. The weakness of the Jewish People is apparently primarily the inability to live an independent political and historical life. National strength, honor, etc. are not vital to it in the same way that they are vital to other nations. The power of the religious life of Israel on the individual plane, which protected them in exile, is also the source of their weakness, which their exile made palpable; the disconnection of national life from their religious purposes caused the deterioration of national strength and thus to the loss of national independence (see, for example, the essay “On the Progression of Ideas in Israel” in Rav Kook’s Orot).

[8] The source of this motto of “bearing God’s Name” is, of course, the patriarch Avraham, regarding whom it is written in several places, “and he called out in the Name of God.” The connection to the covenant stems from the verse in Devarim: “God has affirmed this day that you are His treasured people…” and the corresponding verse: “you have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in His ways…” (26:17-18).

[9]  See note 5. The claim is that deficient religious knowledge, when it appears in a national context, negatively impacts the actual existence of the political power of Israel.

[10]  This is clearly a reference to Pinchas, who, as a result of his “being jealous with My zeal amongst them,” was given “an everlasting priestly covenant” (Bamidbar 25:11-13). Through his actions, Pinchas not only defended the norms, but the very existence of the nation, and therefore, according to Rav Kook, he was worthy of serving as a kohen, the nation’s representative before God, who is worthy of praying on its behalf and functions as its aide.

[11]  Lack of wisdom means lack of ability to see the true place of one’s own thought and the proper place of the thought of others. When lack of wisdom combines with weakness of character – that is, lack of self-confidence and inner strength – it leads to violent aggression against one who holds a different opinion and who, according to the narrow thinking of the zealot, threatens the stability of his existence. Zeal that is not on the level of the zeal of Pinchas is a weakness, not a strength.

[12] That is, the monarchy, the Sanhedrin, the priesthood, etc. In context of this letter, this refers to imposing sanctions against or preventing the activity of those who damage the spirit of the people.

[13] David represents the majestic aspect of the Jewish people, both in the sense of the kabbalistic sefira of malkhut, of which he is bearer (in the sefiriotic table), as well as by virtue of his being both the root of the Jewish monarchy and its hope for the future. In light of this, the explanation of this sentence is: King David of Israel is alive and enduring – is he not dead? Rather, between the past, in which the Davidic dynasty was active, and the future of his messianic dynasty, there is a limited existence of Jewish majesty that does not have an actual king.

[14] In other words, the spiritual weakness of Israel causes the lack of motivation (will) to defend the authentic spirit of the nation from those who damage it. There is an amazing correlation between the nation’s weakness of will and lack of ability, which is, of course, a historical fact – or a halakhic fact. See the notes below.

[15] “R. Ila’a said in the name of R. Elazar b. Shimon: Just as it is a mitzva for a person to say something which will be accepted, so too it is a mitzva not to say something that will not be accepted. R. Abba said: It is obligatory, as it says: ‘Do not rebuke a cynic, lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you’” (Yevamot 65b).

[16] “Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, capital cases were taken away from Israel [i.e., they were no longer adjudicated]. In the times of R. Shimon b. Yochai, monetary cases were taken away from Israel. R. Shimon b. Yochai said: Thank God! We are not wise enough to judge” (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 7b).

[17] See Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva 3:8: “Three are called heretics: One who says that prophecy does not exist and there is no information that reaches the human mind from the Creator; and one who denies the prophecy of Moshe; and one who says that the Creator does not know of human actions. Each of these three is a heretic. Three are deniers of the Torah: One who says that the Torah is not from God – even one verse or one word, if he says that ‘Moshe said it on his own,’ he denies the Torah; similarly, one who denies its interpretation, which is the Oral Law and who opposes those who recount it, such as Tzadok and Boethus; and one who says that the Creator replaced one mitzva with another mitzva and that this Torah has been superseded, even if it was from God, such as the Muslims. All three of these are deniers of the Torah.”

[18] I.e., “I do not know” or “I have no proof,” but not: “I know that it is not or that it never was.” The second type of claim is not part of intellectual inquiry; rather, it is evil, since from a philosophical viewpoint it is possible to plant doubt in faith, but not to negate it certainly. Thus, those who do so do not hold possible opinions, but are brazenly wicked.

[19] Yeshayahu 54:17. In other words, with regard to Israel, atheistic claims have no standing. Rav Kook’s emphasis is specifically with regard to Israel, which is certainly connected to what was said earlier regarding the fact that faith and search for God is a revelation of Jewish essence.