Lecture #21: Foundation of Rav Kook's View of History - Introduction (Part I)

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot


Dedicated by the Wise and Etshalom families
in memory of Rabbi Aaron M. Wise, whose yahrzeit is 21 Tamuz.
Y'hi Zikhro Barukh.



Lecture #21

Foundations of Rav Kook's View of History – Introduction (Part I)



In the next few shiurim, we will set aside discussion of Rav Kook's letters themselves in order to devote some attention to the foundations of his view of history, which we have touched on already.


Letter 89 deals with the relationship between the Torah and its laws and historical development. The basic assumption, which we have already encountered, is that history does indeed involve a process of development, which is expressed in the contexts of morality, technology, and culture in general.


This point is one of Rav Kook's greatest philosophical contributions. We will attempt to examine which principles he drew from existing Jewish philosophy and what he himself introduced, and how his innovations in the understanding of fundamental kabbalistic and metaphysical concepts influenced his view of history.


Before commencing the discussion, we must advance one methodological assumption crucial to understanding of Rav Kook's teachings. There is no doubt that Rav Kook's discussions on this subject, as on other subjects, are deeply rooted in the kabbalistic sources attributed to the masters of Jewish mysticism who preceded him. On the other hand, it is clear in the discussion here – once again, as in other places - that while the kabbalistic background is a necessary condition for understanding what he is saying, it is not a sufficient condition. Rav Kook's innovations have new dimensions and depths that go beyond the sources upon which he based them. Some are the result of his own interpretations based on the sources themselves with an attempt to solve problems and to understand the reality; some are interpretations based on sources in general philosophy; some are ideas born of his own original genius.


Our discussion requires an understanding of several fundamental concepts in kabbalah, a system whose wisdom Rav Kook himself instructed should be taught to the entire nation. I will explain the concepts necessary to the best of my ability, and especially in accordance with the references of the Nazir in Orot Ha-Kodesh.


The Purpose of the World and of History


This heading already contains a dimension that sounds pretentious and threatening. The purpose of reality is a very great question – perhaps too great – and we usually prefer to ask questions on a more modest scale. What is the purpose of our society? What is the purpose of my own existence? What is expected of me this year, in this place where I find myself? Are we at all capable of answering the huge, all-encompassing question in the heading?


It is doubtful whether the Torah provides an answer to the question of the purpose of the world or the purpose of history. Parashat Bereishit describes the Creation (and that in a manner that conceals more than it reveals); it does not explain or justify it. The Torah does not tell us why God decided to create the world. It does state that the world is "good" – even "very good" – but what does this mean? In relation to what aim is the world good? When I say that something is good, I mean that it realizes, to some degree, some known purpose attributed to it. "This is a good oven" means that the oven bakes food well and quickly, without burning it; that is its purpose. In what sense is the world itself "good"?


The Torah provides no answer to this question; it suffices with a definition of the role of man: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the world and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, and all living things that creep upon the earth" (Bereishit 1:28), and afterwards: "And He placed him in the Garden of Eden, to cultivate it and to preserve it" (ibid. 2:15). We know, as Adam and Chava knew, that that is what we were commanded to do, but we do not know for what purpose. We do not know why there is significance to all of this activity, only that that is what God has done and said.


Indeed, for both philosophical and exegetical reasons, the Rambam concludes in his Moreh Nevukhim that the question of purpose is beyond human comprehension. The "good" that the Torah speaks of in Parashat Bereishit is, to his mind, a functional good –every creation was good in terms of its own purposes: the vegetation grew and was able to keep growing; the sun and moon and stars were well suited to their task of illuminating the earth; and so on. But we have no way of knowing what the purpose was of Creation in its entirety:


I have already told you the view of our Torah in this matter, and which it is proper to accept: it is not unreasonable to posit that all of these works [of God], their existence and their [preceding] non-existence, are the result of His wisdom, but we are ignorant of many of the ways of His wisdom in His works. And it is upon this principle that the whole teaching of Moshe [the Torah] is based. It begins with this: "And God saw all that He had made, and, behold, it was very good" (Bereishit 1:31) and it ends with this: "The Rock, Whose work is perfect" (Devarim 32:4). Know this. (Moreh Nevukhim III:25)


Despite this opinion of the Rambam, and despite the Torah's avoidance of any explicit statement on the matter, this question continued to occupy Chazal – the Sages of both the revealed and the hidden spheres. So long as we are unable to understand the purpose of Creation, we cannot attain a proper understanding of the significance of our own existence within it. A person will not be satisfied with the command, "This is what you have to do." He wants to know what he is thereby advancing; he wishes to understand the underlying purpose of whoever it is that is commanding him. Knowing the purpose imbues his labor in the world with meaning and the possibility of inner identification, raising it to higher dimensions. But in order to answer the question of purpose, we have to look at the matter from the perspective of the Creator – to understand why He wanted Creation.


The conventional wisdom on this matter is that God created the world in order to bestow good. In other words, Creation is an act of bestowing goodness. From the Divine perspective, what this means is that God's essential goodness is incomplete until it is realized in Creation, which is an act of bestowing goodness.


The problem with this simple formula is that it does not provide a satisfactory explanation for the empirical fact that the world is not necessarily good; it contains a mixture of good elements and evil elements. One of the well-known approaches to this problem is to posit that evil is necessary in the world in order to allow for free choice, as a homogenous world in which only good exists, leaves no place for choice and for dealing with a challenge. Free choice is in turn posited as a necessary condition for full bestowing of goodness – the goodness that comes to one who is worthy of it is greater (better appreciated, and hence experienced in a more complete way) than goodness that comes to one who is not worthy, and a person can become worthy only by exercising his free will and making good choices.


This position, which is one of the best-known and most important approaches to the problem of purpose, explains the Creation and the formation of man as a creature of free will, but it leaves the rest of reality as an arbitrary phenomenon with no significance of its own except for providing the arena in which man may realize his freedom in the positive sense, thereby justifying Divine goodness – the purpose of Creation.


We shall now consider the attempt by the kabbalistic masters at a broader view of the purpose of Creation, which recognizes the reality of evil, as well as the range of human and historical phenomena, in their own right, and not just as the arena for realization of free choice.


The Arizal's View of the Purpose of Reality


The approach of the Arizal to the significance of Creation was recorded by his great disciple, R. Chaim Vital. We will now examine its principal elements:


In his view of Creation (or, to use his own term, “Atzilut” –the manifestation of the Divine Infinity through its emanations), the Arizal discerns two main processes:


a.            Setting boundaries, materialization: The Divine Infinity brings forth from within itself defined, limited entities, certain attributes and certain existences which emerge from those attributes, entire constructions, etc. This is a measured, orderly process.

b.            Attempts at creation, followed by their collapse and shattering, resulting in existences or entities that are fragments ("sparks") of the Divine manifestation that was broken. Here, the guiding principle is lack of order, disharmony, and a mixture of different forces. The Divine light does not appear through a vessel able to contain it, but rather is scattered throughout reality.


The first principle is the source of orderly, law-abiding existence. The second principle is the source of the lack of order within existence: phenomena of injustice, eruptions of evil or of pointless but powerful material forces, etc. The Divine light that is scattered throughout reality gives its power to phenomena that are not orderly and are not even necessarily good; therefore, we encounter evil within reality:


Let us return to the matter that in atzilut, there is no screen at all.[1] But from “beri'a” downwards,[2] the light filters through a screen; the light passes through it and [then] illuminates. Know that when the 10 above-mentioned points[3] (nekudim) spread, the Keter[4] (crown) had the ability to hold this light, but Abba and Imma[5] were not equal, for Abba received the light face to face[6] from Keter, and was capable of bearing the light. But Bina did not receive the light from Chokhma, but rather “back to back,”[7] being unable to bear it…

This is the secret of “A wise man is praises his back,” for a wise man, meaning wisdom, praises Bina and illuminates through it through the secret of “back to back.”

When the light thereafter emerged from Bina to the six corners,[8] Da’at emerged first,[9] but it was then nullified; this is the first king, Bela ben Be’or.[10]

Afterwards, Chesed emerged, but it also could not bear the light, and its vessel was shattered and descended. Afterwards, Gevura emerged, and so too all seven.[11] These are the seven kings[12] that died… and these seven vessels were nullified, for they did not have the ability to contain the light that poured into them from one sefira to the next. Even though one was nullified at [the shattering of] Chesed, the light did not stop emanating to all the lower seven [sefirot], for perhaps it would not die and could bear [the light] due to its distance, for whatever is farther away can possibly bear more. But because the lowest vessel is smaller than the higher, it too could not bear the light, even though it was farther.[13]

When the light reached Yesod, there were two lights – one meant for it, and one for Malkhut. It could not bear its own light, as it was great, and it was nullified like the others, but the part that was designated for Malkhut remained within it and was not nullified. This is the secret of, “The son of Jesse lives upon the earth,”[14] and it is therefore called Yesod Chai.[15] When Yesod than gave Malkhut its light – had it done so through a “pipe,” Malkhut would have had the power to accept it, but once Yesod was shattered, the light was revealed; the light emerged powerfully to Malkhut, and it too shattered.

The meaning of the “death of the kings” is that the lights were removed and taken upwards, back to their place.[16] Nevertheless, some sparks of holiness remained in the vessels. These shattered vessels fell downwards, and they are the source of the kelipot.[17] Although the good was separated from the bad and ascended upwards,[18] the sparks of holiness remain within them. (R. Chaim Vital, Etz Chaim, sha’ar ha-kelalim)


This classic passage describes the processes of Divine atzilut, and the “inner difficulties” which it encounters. Its primary importance, however, lies in the fact that it supplies a theological explanation for one of the great perennial questions in religious thought: How is it that Creation, with its Divine source (according to the kabbalists, even Creation itself is a revelation of Divinity) does not operate with order and harmony, but rather is full of conflicts and perpetual crises? Moreover, how can a world with a Divine source have forces of real evil existing within it?


The process of Creation, including within itself the "shattering of the vessels" (“death of the kings”) is the theological explanation for our historical and ontological reality. The source of the disorder and evil lies in internal processes that took place within Divinity and brought about a situation in which parts of the Divine influence (the "lights") appear in our reality with no order or hierarchy, as catalysts for fragments of phenomena or essences. These are the "sparks" which are captive within the "shells."


Obviously, we must provide a satisfactory explanation for what seems to be described here as a Divine "failure" in the process of bestowing the light: why does the light not influence proportionately, in keeping with the capacity of the vessels (“nekudin”) to contain it?


The Ari explained that the shattering is a deliberate act, its aim being to allow a reality of evil and disorder in the world, such that human free choice between good and evil becomes possible. Along with them, reward and punishment are also possible; they come about by virtue of the “sparks” (the source of reward) and the “shells” (the source of punishment):


Lest one ask: Why did the Supreme Bestower not make these partzufim from the outset, rather than making them “points” which break? Was it not clear to Him that as “points” they would not be able to bear the light?


The answer is that the intention of the Supreme Bestower was for man to have free choice and will, since there would be good as well as evil in the world. For the root of evil comes from broken vessels, while goodness comes from the great light. If this were not so, there would be only good in the world, and then there would be no reward and punishment. But now that there is good and evil, there is [also] reward and punishment – reward for the righteous, and punishment for the wicked. Reward for the righteous – for through his good actions the holy sparks which descended are lifted up from among the “shells.” And punishment for the wicked – for through his evil deeds he brings down the great light into the “shell,” and the “shell” is itself the strap for whipping the wicked one, causing him anguish. (ibid., chapter 2)


But the Arizal's intention is not only to describe and to explain. Based on the understanding of the disorder within reality and the dispersion of the Divine lights, he also seeks to teach us the manner of Divine service in the world:


In order to understand this, we will explain the matter of the forbidden labors.[19]

We have already explained that everything began with the seven kings[20] who died in the land of Edom.[21] Because they died, we must raise them up and give them life, for we unite male and female[22] and through our prayers and good deeds, we raise those seven kings,[23] under the aspect of “mayim nukvin” (female waters),[24] to their source, and they are then given life once again. This continues until the days of the Messiah, for when these seven kings are repaired and all the good and holiness within them is purified and cleansed, the vessels will remain in pure form.[25] Then, “death will be swallowed forever.” Thus, through our prayers and deeds in this world, we can cleanse and purify the seven kings.

Now, during the weekdays, there is labor – for all labor indicates that there are things that require repair through action. For had God created the world in the way that it will be in the future times… man would not have to perform many actions in order to produce food to eat. But now, we must plow and plant, etc. remove the grains from the chaff, and then prepare it through use of fire by baking and cooking; only then is the food complete. The same is true of the other labors as well, as R. Akiva told the evil Turnus Rufus…[26] 

We have thus explained how all that exists in all of the worlds emanates from the secret of these seven kings, and there is nothing that does not emanate from them. Now, had these kings not died and become shards, they would not require cleansing, for they would be clear in and of themselves; they would require no repair at all. But now that they have died and they require repair, they need our prayers and good deeds so that they will rise like the mayim nukvin.

One who wishes to plow must fulfill the command, “Do not plow with an ox and a donkey.” One who wishes to plant fulfills the command, “Do not plant mixed species. This is true of all of the labors, in the manner of “Know Him in all of your ways.” All of this is in order to cleanse those kings through labor and the power of the practical commandment entailed. When the bread is complete and man eats it, it is cleansed and becomes a life force, part of man’s body; the same is true of all things. This is clear to anyone who wishes to know the truth. The conclusion is that even mundane labors of this world serve the purpose of cleansing the kings… and the gematria of melakha (labor) is “E-l Ado-nai,” which is the world of action. (R. Chaim Vital, Ta’amei Ha-Mitzvot, Parshat Behar)


R. Chaim Vital returns here to the well-known concept taught by Chazal, that the world was created deficient and that it must be perfected, and that the job of perfecting it falls to us. But the perfection is not only in this world; it has ramifications for Divinity, as well, since it returns the sparks that were lost to their Source, and metaphysical order is thus restored. The idea of perfecting the world here assumes a broad metaphysical basis.


If this is the practical meaning of man in history, then we can understand the meaning of redemption (the end of history) as the completion of the process of raising up the sparks – that is, restoring the Divine forces to their place and the operation of the world in complete harmony.


In order to attain a fuller picture of the Arizal's teachings about atzilut, we must add to the above-mentioned principles his concept of tzimtzum (contraction), without which it is impossible to understand the reality we face and its relationship with the Divine:


Know that before the emanation emanated and the creations were created, there was a simple divine light that filled all of reality, and there was no free empty space; everything was filled by the infinite light, without beginning or end – one simple light, completely equal, which is called infinite light.[27]

When it arose in His will to create the worlds and to emanate the emanations and to bring to light the perfection of His actions and Names –  which was the reason for the creation of the worlds, as we explained[28] – then he minimized His infinity (tzimtzum) in the middle point, in which the true light was found.[29] He minimized that light and distanced Himself to the periphery around that central point, and there was then empty space…[30]

After this tzimtzum, through which there is created empty space in the middle of the of infinite light, there was room for the emanations and the creations.[31] Then, one straight line emerged from the circular infinite light, on top and below,[32] and it emanates in stages downward toward this space. The highest point of the line continues until the Infinite itself and touches it,[33] but the end of the line does not touch this light. Through this line, the infinite light emanates downward. In the empty space, He emanate and created and formed an made all of the worlds. This line is like a channel, through which the divine light of the Infinite is drawn into the worlds that are in that empty space. (Etz Chaim 1:2)


The significance of the Ari's description here is that the edifice of reality is connected to the tension between a positive manifestation of the Divine and the deficiency and absence that are the essence of our reality. The empty space expresses the aspect of deficiency and preparation,[34] while the “line” (channel) expresses the manifestation of Divine completion – infinite light.


Summary thus far:


We have seen the fundamental concepts in the kabbalistic system of the Ari from within which the meaning of reality, the historical process, and the purpose of Creation in God's eyes, may be understood. In the generations that followed the Ari, kabbalists further developed his concepts in highly significant directions. In the next shiur, we will examine the teachings of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, especially in his work Da'at Tevunot, which seem to resonate with the teachings of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi. Thereafter, we will examine the teachings of Rav Kook and his innovations in this realm against the backdrop of these sources, which unquestionably served as the basis for his spiritual constructions.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  In the world of atzilu', the Divine light appears with no concealment; Divinity emanates in all its infinity. See n.2 below.

[2]  This refers to the world of “beria,” the second world. There are four worlds, from the highest down to our own: the world of Atzilut, the world of Beri'a, the world of Yetzira, and the world of Asiya (this world).

[3] The essential core of the attributes, like nuclear power, is concentrated at a single point, without structure and without division into details. The Ari explains the verses, "Ha-akudim ha-nekudim ve-ha-verudim" ("streaked, speckled, and grizzled;" Bereishit 31:12) as symbolizing three states of manifestation of the spiritual worlds. In the world of "akudim," particular elements cannot be distinguished; all the attributes are included within the unity of the Infinite. Subsequently, and emanating from it, is the world of "nekudim," in which every attribute of Divinity is manifest individually. The "ten points" are the 10 sefirot, which appear at this stage as "spots" or "points" – that is, individually, with no regular structure. For a discussion on the concept of sefirot see shiruim 10-11 of this series, on Letter 44.

[4]  The first sefira, the source of Divine will.

[5] The names of the partzufim (“faces”) that manifest the sefirot of Chokhma (wisdom) and Bina (understanding). Even though at this stage there are as yet no partzufi', which are already defined constructions, R. Chaim Vital invokes the well-known symbol. For our purposes, the reference here is to the sefirot of Chokhma and Bina. In the following sentences, R. Chaim Vital describes the influence of the light via the sefirot from Keter (the uppermost sefira) down to Malkhut (the lowest).

[6]  Where the influence is full and direct, with no limitation or concealment, in the way that the Torah describes: "God spoke to Moshe face to face" (Shemot 33:11), through a "clear glass" (Yevamot 49b).

[7]  Through concealment and covering, not the entirety of the light. Deeper consideration of this concept leads to the conclusion that Bina is the “back” or reverse side of Chokhma; it lacks its inner essence – the essential will of Chokhma – and receives only the content, delineated and differentiated, which is Bina.

[8] The “six corners” is a reference to the six sefirot from Chesed to Yesod, the sefirot of building – that is, the powers and building blocks from which the world was build. Bina illuminates Chesed, and from it the other sefirot.

[9] The original order of atzilut was Chokma-Bina-Da’at, but this order failed to operate properly and was nullified. This is the source of the Sitra Achra, “Bela ben Be’or.”

[10] See note 12 below.

[11]  This is the well-known process of the “shattering of the vessels.” What is the essence of this process. Despite the tzimtzum of the light in Bina, the illumination of the Divine light is too all-encompassing for the attributes, the limited sefirot, the nekudin that had previously emerged. The attribute-point cannot contain the Divine influence that wishes to flow into it. The Divine light attempts to emanate and build through the “vessels” – the limited attributes – but this attempt fails because the vessels are not “large” enough; they are not sufficiently complete to contain the Divine influence, and they therefore shatter.

[12] This is a reference to the seven kings who ruled in Edom before a king ruled in Israel (Bereishit 36), who kabbalistically represent the “ancient kings” – the sefirot of building in the earliest manifestation, which failed as a result of the shattering of the vessels. For this reason, the shattering of the vessels is referred to as the “death of the kings.” – the failed attempt to establish eternal Divine kingship.

[13] The emanation of Divine light is always greater than the ability of the Divine attributes to contain it, and they therefore shatter when it reaches them. Atzilut does not take place in a measured and organized process, but rather “accidents” take place throughout.

[14]  Shmuel I 20:31.

[15] Malkhut is not truly a continuation of atzilut, and therefore can stand on its own; it lasts forever, although in concealment – within Yesod – through the revelation of God’s kingship in the world in the presence of the Shekhina or in the kingdom of Israel. Therefore, “David, King of Israel (=Malkhut) is a live and exists” – “The Son of Jesse lives upon the earth” – even if Malkhut is not actually recognized.

[16]  The Divine light, which could not be absorbed, returned to its source.

[17] This is the explanation for disunity and the existence of evil in the world. Had the world emerged in the proper order from the Divine Infinity, all of existence would have been illuminated with Divine light; its disparate parts would have joined together in their revelation of the Divine light within them. The shattering of the vessels created a reality of disharmony – the Divine lights are held captive in the shards of the incomplete attributes, which do not join in unity. The absence of this hierarchy, disorder in reality, is the source of the existence of evil, which is rooted in disunity of the Divine influence and its disorganized revelation. The kelipot – the powers of destruction and negation – are the essence of the existence of evil in the world.

[18] In other words, most of the light returned to its original place.

[19]  The reference is to the forbidden labors of shemitta and Shabbat (this homily was for Parshat Behar).

[20] The seven sefirot.

[21] That is, in the world that preceded our world – the land of emptiness (tohu).

[22] “Unification of male and female” refers to the unification of the sefirot of Yesod (male) and Malkhut (female). Since Malkhut is the source of all reality, this unification is essentially the joining of the world with its source. In the broader sense, this phrase refers to the unification of the higher sefirot that emanate through Yesod with Malkhut. “Unification” refers to the creation of unity after separation.

[23] The kings are the shattered sefirot, which manifest themselves in this world as sparks held captive in the shards.

[24]This is a symbol of emanation and blessing that comes from below, from the word, which arouses positive divine emanation from above. At the same time, through redemption of the divine sparks from the shards in which they are confined, emanation from below is aroused. In this sense, the interaction is like that of two relatives who reveal their relationship after a long period of separation – their love is reawakened for one another.  

[25] This refers to the status of the vessels after their divine power is removed and they have no more life giving force.

[26] This is a reference to the famous dispute recorded in the Tanchuma, Tazria 7: Turnus Rufus asked R. Akiva why the Jewish people circumcises their children – do we not believe that God created a perfect world? In his response, R. Akiva made an analogy to grains and bread and flax seeds and linen – God created a world that requires repair. According to the Ari, this is the secret of all labor, even mundane ones.

[27]  The concept of infinite light refers to divine reality before emanation, which is perfect unity, as in the view of the Rambam – it has no beginning or end or special boundary. In this state, there is no space for any other existence other than God, for God’s perfect reality negates the existence of anything else.

[28] We saw above that there are two purposes to creation: God’s goodness and His will to manifest in perfection, implying that God will create (emanate) everything that can be.

[29] Tzimtzum does not occur in expanse; in the state of infinite light alone, there is no expanse. Tzimtzum creates expanse – an area where there are boundaries. This is an ontological phenomenon – the divine reality, which is originally unified, makes room for the non-divine, in which God can manifest Himself in a minimized form.

[30]  The point is “central” in that divinity surrounds the space entirely on all sides; all existence is enveloped in divinity.

[31] At this stage, however, they did not yet actually exist. At this point, ontic space was created so that they could plausibly exist.

[32] The light is circular, for the geometric circle represents perfection; there is no difference or distinction between its sides. It also symbolizes the inevitability of divine nature, which is closed and has no change or development. The line, on the other hand, represents willful and directed emergence; it has a target and orientation. The line is the source of the building of all reality, and it reveals the divine attributes. The manifestation of the sefirot takes place within the line.

[33] The creation brought about by the line result from the Infinite itself, which is manifest in condensed form in the empty space and creates reality.

[34]  The Ari also speaks of the “reshimu” (the residual “impression” of the infinite light) which remains in the empty space after tzimtzum. All the processes of shattering and manifestation of the sefirot take place within this line or channel.