Lecture #22: Foundation of Rav Kook's View of History - Introduction (Part II)

  • Rav Tamir Granot



By Rav Tamir Granot




Shiur #22: Foundations of Rav Kook's View of History – Introduction (Part II)


Introduction: R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto's Philosophy and Rav Kook


In the previous lecture, we looked at the fundamental structures of the Ari's kabbalistic system and the meaning that they give to history. In this lecture, we will focus on the philosophy of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal), which is explained at length in his various works, and especially in Da'at Tevunot.


There is no question as to the connection between Rav Kook and Ramchal, as noted by many of Rav Kook's closest disciples. In his introduction to Orot Ha-kodesh, the "Rav Ha-Nazir" (R. David Yehuda Aryeh Leib Cohen), the book's editor, names the Ramchal as a central source in Rav Kook's perception of history:


The concept of the continual, generational ascension of the world, which is based on mystical wisdom, has not been elucidated substantially except by the Ramchal in his Da’at Tevunot and 138 Gates of Wisdom. Based on these ideas, R. Kook made the concept of the ascesion of the world the central point in these essats, saying, “The Ramchal is worthwhile for this.” (Introduction to Orot Ha-Kodesh 8)


In other words, Rav Kook's views on this subject have no source in philosophy, and only sparse sources in original Jewish thought (we shall elaborate below). The only significant source for it is to be found in the works of Ramchal. Further on the Rav Ha-Nazir writes:


"Ascention of the world" – this principle may be new in our original literature; the idea of generational development is likewise concealed in mystical wisdom, in the principle of “shattering” and the world of “tikkun,” but it is stated explicitly and clarified only by Ramchal, in his work 138 Gates of Wisdom. (ibid, 12)


While he claims that the concept of "ascension" has its basis in the concepts of shattering and repair, which we discussed in the previous lecture, these concepts are not set forth explicitly there.            We shall therefore adopt the Rav Ha-Nazir's recommendation and turn our attention to the sources of Rav Kook's philosophy in the teachings of the Ramchal, with a view not only to understanding the source but also to discerning Rav Kook's innovations and unique voice.


Ramchal’s View of History –“Yichud


            The Ramchal wrote his Da’at Tevunot in a philosophical, rather than kabbalistic, style. In his other works – especially in his Sefer Ha-Kelalim and KL”H Pit’chei Chokhma (138 Gates of Wisdom), he presents the kabbalistic parallel and asserts that his entire teaching is simply a commentary on kabblistic concepts. We will examine excerpts from the relatively straightforward Da’at Tevunot and attempt to follow the philosophical development of the ideas.


            The Ramchal writes that we cannot have any real grasp of most of the divine titles and descriptions; we can understand them only through negative assertion (what God is not) or metaphor. The concept of “yichud,” however, is different:

But God’s “yichud” is, on the contrary, revealed and completely clear to us. Consequently, it is insufficient that it is clear to us; we are obligated to place our knowledge of it firmly in our hearts, to implant it in our hearts completely, without any doubts at all. This is what Moshe our Teacher commanded on behalf of God (Devarim 4:39): “And you shall know this day and place in your hearts that Hashem is God in the heavens above and on the earth below; there is no other.” God Himself attests and relates that everything that results from any of the causes that He manipulates in His world are a revelation of this ultimate yichud, as it says (Devarim 32:39): See now that I – I am He, and there is no [other] god with Me.” This verse is speaking after all the revelations of the earth that it will ever revolve, as all were included in the song of Ha’azinu, as the simple meaning of the text proves. This vision concludes with this language – “See, now that I – I am He…” This is explained explicitly by the prophet Isaiah (43:10-11): “So that you will know and believe in me and understand that I am He; before Me, no other god was created, and after Me, there will be no other. I, only I, and God, and there is no savior besides Me.” (Da’at Tevunot 34)


            We cannot grasp the essence of God’s attributes of wisdom, kindness, beneficence, etc, because in their positive senses, such descriptions are directed towards infinite perfection, which we cannot know or understand. The only description that we are able to grasp is that of “yichud.” This concept is drawn from the Shema – “God is One” – and according to the Ramchal, it implies the negation of the possibility of anything else existing unless it flows from and acts by virtue of God’s existence: “’And you shall know this day… that the Lord – He is God… there is none other.” Since the definition of “yichud” is principally through negation of anything else, we are able to grasp this concept, and therefore it is of central importance in terms of our religious consciousness.


            Yichud” expresses not only the impossibility of any other Divinity, but also relates to nature and to human will. Nature has no essence independent of God; it operates by virtue of Him. The laws of nature camouflage the Divine law that operates within everything, and nature appears to have its own, closed system of laws, but in truth, the laws of nature are simply part of the overall creation of a reality that appears to contradict God’s “yichud” but whose purpose is ultimately to rule out the possibility of any such reality. Human will also appears to have power and entail possibilities that are not subject to God’s control, but this is similarly only external; human choices are part of God’s plan, which is sometimes revealed, but more often concealed.


            The primary expression of “yichud” is in the realm of history. The Ramchal brings a verse from Ha’azinu to make this point: “See now that I – I am He, and there is no [other] god with Me” (Devarim 32:39). The song of Ha’azinu essentially sets forth the complicated unfolding of history, including Jewish suffering and subjugation and the prospering of the nations. The verse tells us that “now” – looking backward after the entire historical process has been completed – it turns out that all of its events were directed and controlled by God.


            History creates the illusion of being conducted on the level of human choice, or “reward and punishment” in the Ramchal’s terms. But this level is only an external illusion, the result of our fragmented, partial vision. In truth, the Ramchal argues, the realization of history – i.e., bringing the world to its ultimate purpose – is dependent upon awareness and consciousness, not on an actual change of reality. When God’s “yichud” is universally recognized, the history of reality will reach its end:


But this is not the end of the clarification of yichud. In the end, the power of His perfection will lead to the lack of absence; everything will be perfect as a result of the rule of His goodness, which will reign alone. Then His yichud will be actively revealed.

Indeed, see what will result from this, for this will certainly cause the result that even though the creations were created with lacking, these blemishes will not be permanent, but rather transient, blemishes that will one way or another be removed, although there will be many means of doing so.

Understand the root of this matter – for that lacking resulted only from the hidden face of the Master, may He be blessed, Who did not wish to illuminate His face upon His creations immediately from the beginning, so that they would be perfect from the beginning, but rather concealed His face from them and left them lacking. For the light of the face of the King is certain life, and its concealment is the source of all evil…

Indeed, this is the purpose of the divine yichud alone – to demonstrate the power of His complete reign. For any time that He wishes, He lets the world stew and follow the course  of time, and evil rules in the world. Moreover, He does not stop this evil from doing everything in its power, even if the creations reach the lowest level possible as a result. But His world will not be lost as a result, for the rule belongs to Him alone; He does, He bears, He binds, He heals, and there is no other besides Him. (Ibid., 40)


            The Ramchal’s concept of lacking parallels the Arizal’s conceptualization of "tzimtzum" (contraction) and the space that was vacated as a result of it. Lacking is the hiding of God's face, His withdrawal; it is essential for a revelation of His “yichud,” since it makes room for activity that is seemingly non-Divine, thereby placing God's “yichud” in question. The seemingly independent conduct of the world, severed from any Divine cause, is paradoxically the purpose of the world; it is only through negation of the hypothesis of non-Divine activity (negation achieved by bringing history to the point of the final redemption and the final good) that it becomes clear that there is no such possibility. Were it not for the creation of the world, this knowledge would be merely hypothetical. Creation provides the hypothesis with a tangible platform, which is negated at the end of history through the conduct of “yichud.”

            The conduct of “yichud” is identical with the appearance of the "kav" ("line") of which the Ari speaks, the deliberate, orderly Divine conduct in the internal aspects of all the worlds that follows tzimtzum, when He acts within the worlds to bring them to their ultimate purpose.


            The Ramchal goes on to explain that this understanding is of great importance in Am Yisrael's ability to cope with the storms of history. As the chaos of history accumulates, as suffering is prolonged, and as the impression grows that reality conducts itself very far from any sort of Divine guidance and that Am Yisrael is rejected and suffering, the “yichud” of God is able to appear in full, and Divine rule is proven even in the greatest situation of absurdity:


Behold, this is a strong beam of the faith of the Jewish People, whose hearts do not become weak as a result of the length of the exile, nor from its difficult bitterness. On the contrary, the Holy One, blessed be He, permitted and allowed evil to do everything in its power, as we have explained. In the end, the more that the evil increased the suffering of the creations, the greater the revelation of the power of His yichud and the strength of His rule, that He is the All-Powerful, and from the depths of many evil sufferings will certainly sprout salvation from His great power. (Ibid.)


            If we allow historical thought and imagination to run wild, it is almost possible to see here a certain historical interpretation of the connection between the Holocaust and Israel's redemption. The depth of evil attained by history in which Divine guidance is not visible at all (and indeed, according to the Ramchal, is truly hidden), turns out retroactively to play a role in the redemption of Israel. (Obviously, this is meant from the point of view of the intention of the wicked, whose intention was the opposite.[1])


            To summarize the Ramchal's approach: The Ramchal explains that in general, the names and attributes of God do not require the appearance of a reality in which there is freedom and good and evil because God could be manifest in all His goodness and kindness in a perfect world as well. Only the characteristic of “yichud” requires a reality that includes freedom, suffering, and seemingly non-Divine control. Indeed, the principle of “yichud” is the determining factor, since the unity of reality could equally be manifest through a multiplicity brought about by Divine law that contained no evil. Absence and the possibility of freedom have their source in the principle of tzimtzum and the “empty space;” “yichud” is revealed through the appearance of the "line."


            The Ramchal's approach, as the Nazir explains, provides a metaphysical foundation for all of history as coming to reveal God's yichud. But the meaning of history is not immanent to it; it becomes manifest at the end of history, through the negation of self-consciousness. The aim of history is a retroactive clarification of the illusion that it itself created.


The Approach of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Author of the Tanya


            In a different context, we previously examined what the "Admor Ha-Zaken," R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, had to say on this subject. We shall review here the essence of his view and its importance for our discussion.


            The Ba'al Ha-Tanya understands the manifestation of reality not through the concept of “yichud,” but rather through the concept of “malkhut.” To his view, the manifestation of reality is a precondition for the manifestation of the Divine attribute of Kingship. Just as the Ramchal argued that “yichud” cannot be complete within itself, the Ba'al Ha-Tanya argues that “malkhut” cannot be complete within itself. And just as the Ramchal held that “yichud” is revealed specifically through the nullification of its opposite, so the Ba'al Ha-Tanya maintains that perfect “malkhut” is manifest only through the appearance of a non-Divine reality, in relation to which God's Kingship appears. A king cannot rule over himself; he can only rule over someone other than himself:


It is known to all that the purpose of the creation of the world is for the revelation of His malkhut, for “there is no king without a nation.” The “nation,” “am,” refers to “dimness,” “ommamut” – the subjects are apart and foreign and far from the status of the king. Even if the king were to have many sons, he could not be said to rule over them; similarly, he cannot rule over the officers alone. It is only with a multitude of the nation specifically that the king’s glory is revealed. The name that reflects God’s attribute of malkhut is the name of Adnut (“mastery”), for He is Master over the entire world. Thus, this attribute and name make the world exist in the way it does now – there is something independent and not nullified. (Sha’ar Ha-Yichud Ve-Ha-Emuna 7)


            The purpose of the appearance of the world is thus the manifestation of God's Kingship over everything. In order for there to be Kingship, there must also be a nation – a reality with a separate, non-Divine consciousness. Thus, man's purpose is to acknowledge God's Kingship. In our recitation of the Shema and "Barukh shem kevod malkhuto," we are recognizing God's Oneness and declaring His Kingship, and thereby bringing reality to its final purpose. On the highest level, this consciousness demands a nullification of a consciousness of an independent entity, since the entire essence of this entity arises only from the principle of God's Kingship. By coronating God, as it were, this consciousness returns itself to its source. This is the essence of the “bittul,” the self-nullification that chassidut requires, and this is the purpose of reality.


            Here we encounter a philosophical structure similar to that of the Ramchal. The essence of the meaning of the appearance of reality as it is lies in its nullification. In the time to come, when all inhabitants of the world recognize God's Kingship, it will become clear that the consciousness of time and place and of our subjective thought were simply an illusion meant to reveal His Kingship. Thus, for R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, as for the Ramchal, history and God's workings within it have no independent, immanent significance; they are simply a transient stage facilitating the complete and perfect manifestation of God, whether through "yichud" or through "malkhut."


The Perception of History in the Teachings of Rav Kook – Fundamental Concepts


            Let us now examine Rav Kook's approach in this regard, although a development and explanation of his ideas will require a separate lecture. First, we will look at the fundamental concepts that Rav Kook invokes and see in what respects they are similar to or different from those of his predecessors:


Absolute Perfection and Ascension

What do we think about God’s purpose in creating reality? We say that it is the absolute perfection which itself necessitates reality. In such perfection, there is no potential, but rather every perfect quality is actualized. But there is also perfection that consists of adding perfection, and this is impossible for the divine, for absolute, infinite perfection leaves no room for improvement. So that this aspect of adding perfection would not be lacking in reality, our world had to be created and it had to begin from the lowest level – that is, from a state of utter lacking – and it must ascend continuously and consistently towards complete ascension. Reality was created with this quality, that it never ceases ascending, for this act is infinite.

In order to ensure this ascension in reality, it was created by the Infinite Light, and this light was greater than the measure that could actually be contained, although it could remain potential. Therefore, when it was revealed in reality, things were ruined, and the powers became intertwined with one another, and they are involved in a fierce battle until the time that the absolute, infinite thought, which is all good, will emerge victorious and repair everything… In this way, the creation perfects the honor of its Creator. (Orot Ha-Kodesh II, p. 531)


            We will explain the ideas in this excerpt in order of their appearance.


            Rav Kook begins with a question about the purpose of existence. Like his predecessors, he too maintains that the purpose of reality is somehow connected to Divinity itself. There is a connection between understanding reality and theological questions; reality has a purpose from the point of view of Divinity itself.


            The first fundamental principle relates to our understanding of the concept of perfection. When we say of a person or a thing that it is perfect, we mean that it possesses every quality; it is not deficient in any way in terms of its essence. If we were to say of a sage that he is "perfect" in his wisdom, we would mean that he knows everything that can be known, understands everything that may be understood, and is missing nothing in this realm. If this is not so, we cannot say that he is "perfect."


            The title of perfection is a fundamental – almost tautological – description of Divinity. We attribute many different traits to God – wisdom, kindness, goodness, etc. – but in truth, we can have no real grasp of these attributes. The same cannot be said of perfection. The statement "God is perfect" is not the assertion of an attribute, but rather an assertion of definition. It is like saying, "A bachelor is someone who has not married." The conception of Divinity inherently includes the concept of perfection.


            However, Rav Kook goes on to explain, the definition of perfection as described thus far does not exhaust the full meaning of the concept. Why? Thus far, we have defined perfection as a static perfection; this implies that everything – all of God's goodness, justice, and all other attributes – already exist in reality, such that there is no room for change or progress. But the concept of perfection also includes a dynamic aspect, the aspect of "becoming perfect." A sage who cannot add to his wisdom is somehow deficient; goodness that cannot realize further good is likewise missing something. The concept of Divine infinity therefore requires that the world must have some possibility of addition, continuation, and development.


            At this point, an internal contradiction becomes apparent. Where there is perfection, there can be no deficiency, and therefore no room for addition. But the absence of any possibility of addition is itself a deficiency! The concept of perfection finds itself bound by this paradox.


            The resolution of the problem comes through Creation. Divinity that is beyond everything, the Infinite Light, has no room for change or addition. Creation, in contrast, while itself a manifestation of the Divine, does allow for the appearance of perfection through (a starting position of) deficiency – not only as an existing situation, but also as potential powerful movement.


            Thus, reality is not just the incidental existence of a multiplicity of objects and phenomena. Rather, it is the arena for the manifestation of Divine perfection. Therefore, the main principle of Nature and of human culture is the principle of "becoming perfect," which is the prime law – and, according to what we have said here, also the ultimate purpose – of existence. As Rav Kook puts it, "Through this [i.e., its ascension], Creation completes the glory of its Creator."


            In the terminology of the kabbalah of the Arizal, we might state this as follows: The appearance of deficiency is tzimtzum; deficiency is the "empty space" in which there is "reshimu," the readiness for the appearance of things. The purpose of tzimtzum is the complete revelation of the principle of "becoming perfect," and to this end, Divinity must appear in the form of complete deficiency. Rav Kook's teaching that "reality is created with this quality that it will never cease ascending" is an interpretation of the Arizal's teaching concerning the appearance of the "line" within the empty space. Through deficiency or absence, Divinity reveals its "attainment of perfection," which is an integral aspect of its perfection.


            In the next lecture, we will explain the last fundamental principle mentioned in the above excerpt – the intertwinement of goodness and evil within reality.


Summary thus far:


·                    The Ramchal explains the appearance of reality in terms of the principle of "yichud," which means the nullification of the possibility of any control other than that of God.

·                    The Arizal explains the appearance of reality as the Divine will for absolute revelation and beneficence.

·                    The Admor Ha-Zaken explains that the purpose of reality is the appearance of "malkhut."

·                    Rav Kook's innovation lies in his explanation of the orientation of Creation through the concept of perfection (sheleimut), which was not invoked by his predecessors, and his noting of the paradoxical nature of perfection insofar as it requires a movement of attaining perfection in order to be infinite.


Why did Rav Kook not simply follow the explanations of his predecessors? Is his presentation simply a matter of semantics, or does it represent a true innovation? Does the concept of "attaining perfection" lend history a different meaning?


            In the next lecture, we will attempt to answer these question and to follow the development of Rav Kook's teaching in this regard, which, although build on traditional foundations, also includes a definite aspect of innovation, as we have seen.


Translated by Kaeren Fish

[1] It must be emphasized that this explanation provides no comfort on the level of human justice – that is, the principle of reward and punishment. The Ramchal believes that the principle of “yichud” requires the appearance of human evil and historical disorder, since it is only their eventual negation that reveals God's unity.