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Lecture #21: Divinity and History

  • Rav Tamir Granot



In the previous lecture, we saw that Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook views the Holocaust as a necessary operation performed on the national body of Am Yisrael with the purpose of severing the nation from exile and creating the conditions for its full physical and spiritual redemption.  Rabbi Zvi Yehuda's position is between the traditional option - discussing the Holocaust within the framework of the usual categories of reward and punishment and personal justice - and its polar opposite – remaining humbly silent and awestruck and opposing any sort of explanation.  He views the Holocaust within a system of historiosophic coordinates, with a position on the significance of history in general and of recent history in particular, and he views the Holocaust as an event that finds its significance within a comprehensive perception of history.  The primary concepts comprising this discussion are exile and redemption, nationalism and individualism.


In this lecture, we will examine the broader context of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda's view – the historiosophic and theological assumptions upon which it is founded.


A. The Theological Necessity of Explaining the Holocaust


At the outset, I argue that Rabbi Zvi Yehuda had no choice but to propose this sort of explanation, since he was caught between a rock and a hard place: the rock – the fear that people would lose their faith in Divine justice and providence in the wake of the Holocaust; and the hard place – Jewish theology.  In other words, if a person were to choose the course of explaining the Holocaust in accordance with the principles of reward and punishment, and did so with intellectual honesty, he might end up leveling accusations at God.  And if he chooses to remain silent and insist that there could be no explanation, then he might end up denying God's Oneness.


The first part of the argument is clear and offers no special insight.  There is no doubt that viewing the Holocaust within the framework of the principle of reward and punishment alone leads to very serious difficulties in one's faith in God and trust in Him, perhaps to the point of losing them altogether.  But why does Rabbi Zvi Yehuda not choose the second option, leaving the Holocaust without any explanation, as has been done by many Religious-Zionist thinkers in particular, and the Orthodox camp in general?


He could perhaps have sufficed with the simple answer that this is how he saw things.  However, as we know, what we see is dependent on the spectacles that we wear; the lenses through which we observe history and interpret it are the fundamental assumptions of our view of history. A socialist views history as a series of economic power struggles and struggles for control because that is how his theory guides him to understand it; the lenses of reward and punishment lead the Rebbe of Satmar to view the Holocaust as a punishment for Zionism; and so on.


The spectacles that Rabbi Zvi Yehuda wears as he approaches history are comprised of historiosophic and theological assumptions that have their source in the teachings of his father, Rav Avraham Yitzchak ha-Kohen Kook.  The assumptions that are most pertinent to our discussion are to be found in Rav Kook's teachings about overall unity and about history.


His principle of overall unity rests upon two central pillars:


a.        In the dimension of religious experience: the quest for harmonious, synthesized experience that is above and beyond differences and contains all aspects of personality and of life, all of which are Divine.  Rav Kook teaches that this quest is not a Sisyphean task; harmonious experience and the synthesis of opposites are attainable.


b.        In the philosophical dimension: Everything is Divinity, and Divinity is manifest in everything – in the holy as well as in the profane; in faith as well as in heresy, etc.  Kabbalistic statements such as, "There is no place devoid of Him" (Tikkunei Zohar 91b; 122b), or "He fills all the worlds" (ibid.  5a; 6b; Ra'aya Mehemana, Pinchas 225a) assume, in Rav Kook's teachings, an interpretation that is pantheistic ("all is God") or, as the Nazir (R. David Hacohen, Rav Kook's great disciple) asserts, panentheistic, "everything is in Divinity:" every reality and every phenomenon, spiritual or physical, is some form of Divine manifestation.


The human view does not perceive the world as Divine because it is an individual, private, divisive view.  Human consciousness perceives itself separately and outside of the whole, and it extends this private consciousness and projects it onto everything else that it perceives.  Rabbi Zvi Yehuda's teaching of unity argues that this is indeed the result of the human view, or subjective existence, of the "I" – which, according to Kabbala, is connected to the sefira of malkhut, which is also called "ani" (I).


This view, however, represents only the external reception of reality as it is revealed to us – the world of phenomena, as Kant refers to it.  Beyond this world of divisiveness there is a world of unity – the world as it truly is.  This is a world whose parts and phenomena are all manifestations of a single soul, a single personality – the soul of God.  These are not two ontologically separate worlds; they are the same world, but it appears one way to us (as a collection of separate phenomena) while in fact it is a single, unified whole.


Clearly, then, when some phenomenon or reality is perceived within our "world of divisiveness," it is addressed individually, in accordance with the good or evil that is inherent in it or that it causes to others.  When I isolate one phenomenon or event out of the whole, it may be negative, causing suffering or damage, and then in my perception there is some existence of evil or cruelty.


But this is not reality as it truly is.  From the perspective of the world of unity, no phenomenon or event should be isolated from the whole.  Everything is connected to everything else.  From this perspective, it is clear that there is nothing that is evil, since everything is part of the Divine soul.  What appears to us as evil looks that way because of our divisive way of looking at it.


The proper spiritual perception rejects the concept of division; it perceives only unity and singularity, and every detail is simply a part of a greater whole.  As such, it can only recognize good and bad in their generality, but "generally evil" is inconceivable.  This perspective of generality, even as it relates to particular phenomena, it does not view as isolated, but rather as parts of an overall complex.  As such, in this overall perspective, it will never perceive reality as evil, for the world is good, as the verse states, "And the Lord saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Bereishit 1:31). (Orot Ha-Kodesh, vol. II, p. 453)


Based on the assumption of Divine unity, the Holocaust may look like a black hole.  An episode such as this cannot be left outside Divine unity - for if there is so much as one single event that lies outside of the realm of Divinity, the entire structure collapses, both philosophically and experientially.  If reality includes some event – and especially an event as significant as the Holocaust – to which we refuse to award some positive significance, then what value are we giving to the principle of overall unity if it includes such satanic manifestations?


The Holocaust, then, presents a challenge to the entire theology of overall unity. Can the gas chambers be a Divine manifestation? Can the depths of Nazi evil be part of the Divine soul? How can the deaths of a million and a half children fit into the great puzzle of Divine goodness and kindness?


Rabbi Zvi Yehuda's response is a classic example of the concept that, while on the individual level evil is indeed unbearable, when viewed as part of the whole – of Jewish history, in this case – it fits into the Divine order.  In the dimension of individual experience, and from the view of the Holocaust as an isolated event, it is indeed the depths of evil, a quantity and intensity of suffering and absurdity that cannot be contained.  But when it is viewed through the spectacles of great historical processes, when it is removed from its isolation and located within the great process of the return to Zion, then it is suddenly illuminated in a different light.  The pain and suffering of individual experience remain true, real, and valid, but they are no longer absurd; the blind, arbitrary evil assumes a different appearance.  A cruel murderer wielding a knife and bending over a small child – this is an image that cannot be borne.  But if the same man wears a white coat, and suddenly the knife is seen for what it is – a surgeon's scalpel – then while the event remains just as painful, and will still leave a mark, we can bear it and understand its purpose.


B.  The Historiosophic Necessity of Explaining the Holocaust


One of the central pillars of Rabbi Kook's thought is his view of history as an ongoing current of development and perfection.  This perception has its foundations deeply rooted in Kabbala, and a brief explanation will assist us in understanding his teachings.


The principle of overall unity, viewing reality as a Divine manifestation, is forced to address the question of why the world is not only imperfect, but in fact full of evil.  If the world is all a revelation of God, then surely it should be perfect, and it should have been that way from the very beginning.


Rabbi Zvi Yehuda's response is to posit the dual principle of perfection; there is the state of perfection (shelemut), and there is the process of perfection (hishtalmut).  The process of perfection is the dynamic principle of adding to the perfection that is manifest in the world, in the revealed Divinity.  Perfection that lacks the addition of perfection is missing an aspect of perfection itself:


There are two aspects to the absolute perfection of God.  Perfection, on the one hand, means that there is nothing lacking, and thus nothing can be added; but this is itself a deficiency, for there is a perfection that comes from growth, for therein lie the perfections of yearning and striving for improvement.  Thus, divine perfection needs to include this latter perfection as well. (ibid. pp. 532)


Rav Kook's perception of creation assumes that the world was created, at the very outset, as deficient, and its Divine quality is precisely the ascent and development that lives within it and drives it constantly forward.  Therefore, from the very beginning, the world has always been in a process of development and progress – in nature, in culture, and in knowledge:


What we can understand of God’s hidden Will and purpose for creation is a plan for ascent with eternal improvement.  As such, absent deficiencies, there would be only completion and greatness, but neither growth nor striving toward an increase in blessing.  Despite the fact that static perfection, due to its infinity, is infinitely lofty, growth and striving add a further element.  Therefore, it is conceivable that absolute perfection is perfected by the striving toward greater completion.  This is man’s contribution to the divine. (Ibid., p. 530)


The principle of elevation and perfection as an immanent law of reality is therefore a theological necessity.  Were this not the case, then either God is not perfect – for His world is not so – or our reality is not Divine.  The principle of perfection, understood as a principle of constant and necessary ascent that exists in the world, affirms both reality itself and our activity within it as a manifestation of Divine perfection.


Rabbi Kook offers a positive definition of history as ascending essence and the modern era as the climax of this process.  He viewed 19th century culture as an accelerated process of ascent.  Emancipation, liberalism, socialism, moral refinement, political progress, art, literature, science and technology – the meteoric development of each of these fields shows that the positive forces embedded in the world from its beginning are being revealed, and this is a clear expression of the redemption of the world – that is, the realization of the Divine potential inherent in it. 


The beginning of the redemption of Israel came into existence because the world was already almost prepared for and worthy of it.  There is a clear correlation between the redemption of Israel, which is a process of realizing the latent potential in the nation, and the parallel process going on in the world at large.  It is equally clear that there is a historical connection between these two processes, since only the new perceptions born in Europe in the 19th century could facilitate the renewed recognition of the right of Am Yisrael to a national home, leading to such landmarks as the Balfour Declaration.  The birth of Zionism in the mind of Herzl was likewise the result of his involvement in the political developments in Europe and of the adoption of universal concepts and ideas in the Jewish context. 


These ideas are given extensive, repeated expression in Rav Kook's writings.  In our context, attention should be paid to two important aspects:

a.        the full faith that Rav Kook awards to human culture in general as an immanent revelation of Divinity in our reality, as well as the thought that modern culture is indeed progressive and involved in a process of redemption, in terms of both morality and values;

b.        the optimistic perception of the era as one of ascent and essential development of the world in general, and especially of Am Yisrael, on the path to their redemption.


The Holocaust may be viewed as the shattering of Rav Kook's optimistic view, in terms of both the internal processes of development and ascent and the view of world culture as something developing and ascending.  The Holocaust revealed the most evil elements to be seen in humanity perhaps in all of its history, as well as a great and dramatic step backwards for Am Yisrael.


Rabbi Zvi Yehuda's teachings bring his father's perception back to its primary path.  The Holocaust, he explains, was indeed a catastrophe, but it does not lie outside the process, nor does it disprove it; rather, it is part of the process.  It is not an external catastrophe halting the ascent, but rather a necessary and deliberate surgical operation to facilitate its progress.  Hence, the interpretation of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda turns out to be unavoidable when viewed from his historiosophical spectacles - the optimistic philosophy of history espoused by his father, along with his understanding of processes of recent generations as processes of redemption.


C. Summary Thus Far


a. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook died in 1935.  He did not live to see the Holocaust, and therefore could not have explained it.  His perception of history and of redemption is fundamentally optimistic; although it assumes that there will be crises and difficulties along the way, it does not foresee anything on the scale of the Second World War or the Holocaust, neither for Am Yisrael nor for Europe and its culture.  I believe that Rabbi Zvi Yehuda's interpretation of his father's teachings takes the extra step that is necessary in order to explain the Holocaust within the framework of the same philosophical coordinates. 


b. The claim of a connection between the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel is not unique to Rabbi Zvi Yehuda.  It has been raised by several Religious-Zionist thinkers, but each of them awards this connection a different degree of strength.  Concerning the view of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, we may say that he awards the Holocaust a "strong connection" with the establishment of the State, for he views it as essential for the severance of Am Yisrael from their exile and for turning the State of Israel into the center of Jewish existence.  The connection between the trauma of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State is direct, and these two events may be viewed as two sides of the same coin – the coin of redemption. 


In contrast to Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, there were Religious-Zionist thinkers who perceived the connection as a "weak" one – that is, they perceived a connection between the two events, but regarded it as neither essential nor expected, and the two events are not dependent upon one another.  A prominent exponent of this latter approach was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik; other representatives include Prof. Emil Fackenheim and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits.


In the next lecture, we will examine the very different position presented by Rabbi Soloveitchik. 




Translated by Kaeren Fish