Lecture #23:Foundations of Rav Kook's View of History ֠Introduction (part III)

  • Rav Tamir Granot



By Rav Tamir Granot


 Shiur #23: Foundations of Rav Kook's view of history
 – Introduction (part III)



At the end of the previous shiur, we began to discuss Rav Kook's view of history, after reviewing its sources in the kabbalistic teachings of the Arizal and its important developments in the approaches of Ramchal and the Ba'al Ha-Tanya.


In one of his diaries, the Rav Ha-Nazir wrote that he had spoken with Rav Kook about the connection between the Rav's views on the concept of perfection and the writings on R. Azriel of Gerona, one of the great Spanish kabbalists of the 13th century, on the concept of the Infinite (Ein-Sof). Rav Kook acknowledged the connection, and we shall start here with a quotation from R. Azriel (cited in Avodat Ha-Kodesh by R. Meir Ibn Gabbai, part I, chapter 6):


The questioner continued to ask: How can you prove that there are ten sefirot? For I argue that there is the Infinite One alone! Answer: The Infinite (Ein-Sof) is perfection with no deficiency. If you say that He has unlimited power, and no power that is limited, then you are diminishing His perfection. And if you say that His boundary is this imperfect world, you have detracted from power that has emanated from Him, and since we cannot detract from his power, we are forced to say that He is without boundary, and the boundaries that emanated from Him are the sefirot, which are the power of perfection and lacking. When they receive the flow that comes from His perfection, they are complete; when that flow is stopped they are incomplete. They therefore have the power to act in perfection and in lacking, and this perfection and lacking distinguishes between things.


            The question here pertains to one of the most fundamental issues in Kabbalah. Kabbalists throughout the generations have always agreed that Divinity (Ein-Sof) is manifest through ten sefirot, which embody certain limited aspects of the Infinite reality that is revealed through them. What philosophical justification is there for this description of atzilut, of Creation? Why can we not assume, as some of the philosophers do, that God Himself is exalted above any limitation – for after all this is the essence of His Infinity – and Creation is outside of Him, not any sort of self-revelation of God? Why is it necessary to think about Divine self-manifestation in terms of limitation?


            R. Azriel's answer concerns the essence of the concept of Ein-Sof: if the Ein-Sof cannot appear and act in a bounded reality, this is an inherent contradiction, because such inability is a fundamental limitation on His Infinite power. In other words, God's appearance and influence within boundaries and tzimtzum are part of His Infinite perfection. The sefirot are the mode of manifestation in which God proves His strength within boundaries as well, and they may be in a state of perfection or in a state of deficiency, in accordance with what the Divine Infinity showers upon them.


We are faced here with what looks like a theological paradox, but in fact is one of the greatest foundations of Jewish philosophy. Already in the prophecies of Yeshayahu, we find similar ideas – for example, "So says the Lord: The heavens are My Throne, and the earth My footstool… All of this My hand has made… to this man I shall look – to him who is poor and of contrite spirit, and trembles at My word" (Yeshayahu 66:1-2). From Midrashei Chazal, we might cite, for example, "'God's voice in strength' – in accordance with the strength of each and every one," (Shemot Rabba 5: 9); or God's strength is His ability to compress His Presence within a square ama (the space between the keruvim in the Mishkan), and that it is specifically in this way that His strength is revealed in full. (Shemot Rabba, 34:1). And as we saw in the previous shiur, Ramchal (in his teachings about yichud) and the Ba'al Ha-Tanya (in his teachings about malkhut) speak in a similar style.


But we must return to the concept of perfection, which is the central term in Rav Kook's discussions here. Unlike his predecessors, who addressed the manifestation of the Ein-Sof in finiteness, or in yichud that is manifest through the negation of its opposite, Rav Kook talks about perfection, which, if not also revealed in a dynamic manner, as attaining perfection, is certainly deficient. The ability to repair a deficiency, to be elevated, is an integral part of the wholeness of Divine perfection. God creates a world that is all possibility and potential; from the moment it comes into being, this world is in a perpetual movement of ascent and progress. As we have already seen in Rav Kook's teachings, we cannot speak of a world that is external to God; the world is Divinity. However, here Divinity is not actualized perfection but rather potential perfection – the ability to perfect itself, and also the will to attain perfection.


In its introduction to Sefer Bereishit, the Zohar interprets the verse, "These are the generations of the heavens and the earth at their creation (be-hibar'am)" (Bereishit 2:4) by exchanging the order of the letters – "Be-Avraham – in whom the world was created." We recall that Avraham received his name in the wake of the command to perform circumcision (Bereishit 17). In kabbalistic thought, Avraham represents the characteristic of abundant kindness. Circumcision, as we know from Sefer Bereishit, is connected to birth and fertility (it is following this act that Avraham is blessed with progeny), and it expresses the Divine outpouring from (inner) Yesod to (outer) Malkhut. While the world was not yet in existence, and Divinity existed in its closed perfection, this perfection was deficient. It is only the ability to bestow, to give life, to create a reality that is deficient but which is constantly moving towards perfection – only such an ability allows the completion of the Divine manifestation, both the state and the process of perfection.


Before going on, it should be noted that Chazal viewed this principle as moral guidance in the realm of perfection of one's character as well, as we read in the famous words of Ben Zoma in Massekhet Avot (4:1): "Who is wise? He who learns from everyone" – meaning movement, reaching for perfection, not remaining static. "Who is mighty? He who conquers his inclination" – again, constant movement and progress. "Who is honored? He who honors others" – not "he who is honored by others." Here again, what is needed is outward-flowing influence, creativity.


From "Created" to "Creator"


Let us now look at how Rav Kook understood the significance of the "breaking of the vessels" as a central process in Divine creation:


Shattering and Aspiring for Repair

The world of “tohu,” its shattering and repair, teach us that the strength of the will to repair, to improve, to bring into being – which are complete good – operates in very complete power.

Existence is not capable of receiving all of the good of the Divine Essence, the Powerful Ein Sof, in all its power. Fractured existence evaporates as a result of all the good, because of the power of life; it is  shattered by its great aspirations. Nevertheless, the good does not cease to go on its way; it returns to rebuild after the shattering, and the repaired structure is very beautiful, indeed priceless.

The measure of good is so much greater than that of suffering to the extent that it is worthwhile to suffer all of the pain of shattering, all the harm of destruction, in order to create these sophisticated worlds, which carry within them such a wealth of life that they are themselves above their power.

The Divine Essence does not choose a measured and limited path, appropriate to the abilities of existence. If He did so, the good would be limited not by the power of the Creator, but rather completely by the condition of weak Creation. (Orot ha-Kodesh II, p. 526)


This is one of the two explanations that Rav Kook gives for the phenomenon of the "shattering of the vessels" in the kabbalistic teachings of the Arizal. The world of tohu is the stage of atzilut (creation) in which reality has not yet assumed any orderly construction, and there are constantly repeated processes of creating vessels (the sefirot, in their primal form) – i.e.: outpouring – and the shattering of the vessels (the death of the “primal kings” – the sefirot). In the previous shiur, we noted the need to explain this strange coming-into-being, which lends the process of Divine creation a rather arbitrary and seemingly abortive character. To Rav Kook's view, the basis of this failure lies in the Divine desire for reality not to be static and limited within its boundaries, but rather to be constantly striving to be more than itself, to ascend upwards to its Source. How is this to be understood?


The essence of a vessel is its limitation; the Divine abundance enters a certain defined, closed place, and this delineation gives it a particular character. Hence, for example, there is a vessel of kindness and a vessel of strict justice; although both receive the same Divine outpouring, each lends the outpouring that enters its own special character. If the outpouring would be suited to the measure of the vessel, the world would be built as a complete, perfect, closed structure without any ability to break through beyond the given limitations of its constituent vessels. However, the Prime Mover (the Infinite Will or Line, in kabbalistic terminology) chose that the outpouring would be in accordance with His measure – thus, an outpouring that is above and beyond the capacity of the vessel (since the vessel of justice, for example, cannot receive any more than its measure by definition) – which results in shattering. Following this, the Divine light – the Divine outpouring into the vessel – is returned to its Source, but part of it shatters along with the vessel, and this is the source of the "sparks" and the "shells," the mixture of good and evil.


Obviously, this is not the end of the process. The attempt to build continues, and each time the vessel grows closer to the measure of the light that fills it; reality progresses and builds better vessels, which allow it to receive greater quantities of light. Thus, the shattering is a necessary result of the primal Divine wish for reality not to be built in closed, static regularity, but rather to progress and ascend towards its Infinite Source. The crises and tribulations of the shattering are therefore a condition for its progress.


Even before we proceed to the second explanation, it should be pointed out that this idea, too, is of profound significance for us in our quest to imitate God. An educator affects upon his students an outpouring of wisdom or conduct that he wants them to internalize. Some educators pursue a steady, prudent path – they give over only that which their students are able to absorb, in accordance with their level; they reveal knowledge and fear of God only at the level which the students are cognitively and psychologically able to take in. Such a teacher avoids crises, with the hardship and suffering that they entail. He fears that if he reveals too much, a crisis will inevitably erupt. He therefore limits the light and holds it in check.


On the other hand, there is a different sort of educator who gives of himself according to his own measure. The students, who are incapable of containing everything, do indeed “shatter:” their conception is shattered, their manner of understanding and organizing reality is shattered, their wisdom becomes confused. This educator is not afraid of crisis. He wants to give the students the ability to venture beyond themselves, knowing that to achieve this it is necessary to “shatter,” and that crisis or shattering entails suffering. However, “It is worth undergoing all the suffering of shattering for such sophisticated worlds to come about.”


Of course, this subject is worthy of much more extensive discussion, since it contains a great truth not only for educators, as we have seen, but also for leaders – who, in a similar way, should lead not in accordance with the limited measure of the nation, but rather “pour out” all that they are able to.


Let us now address Rav Kook's second explanation of the purpose of shattering:

The Limited and the Unlimited

What is the purpose of the shattering? The divine gives according to its power, and the recipient is limited. Thus, the end good would be limited. He therefore gives good without measure, according to His ability, and it is limitless divine power, even though the created recipient cannot accept it without shattering completely. He is built up by his desire to return to his limitless source, to reunite with the divine. In this way, the created being creates himself and achieves the level of perfection of the Creator. He is raised above the boundaries of Creation, which would have been impossible were it not for the emanation of all the good above his ability to receive it. In that case, he would have remained on the level of a created being, not at all the level of the Creator (ibid., p. 537)


In this passage, we find an additional – and more important – explanation for the idea of the "shattering of the vessels." Rav Kook starts out by repeating what he said in the first excerpt we quoted above: the Divine outpouring is in keeping with its essence (the measure of the Giver), rather than in keeping with the vessels (the measure of the receiver), such that the outpouring is infinite, and the shattering is inevitable.


But here we find a new twist: while the first excerpt focused on the attainment of perfection of Creation (the vessels), this excerpt notes that the rebuilding of the vessel grants freedom to Creation, elevating it from the level of "created" to that of "creator." The first vessels are the handiwork of Divinity; Divinity itself gave its power into them, and for them everything is determined from the outside. The shattering grants freedom to reality because it dismantles the fundamental lawfulness of its operation. The situation is no longer one of light and a vessel able to contain it; now, being must build on its own powers, producing new vessels in order to receive the Divine abundance.


Here, the freedom of will of reality as a whole and of its constituent parts finds expression. Reality is not a "front;" it is not a robot that acts automatically at the command of its Creator. It has a character of its own – and of course, along with this general character, there are also a great many smaller characters, multiple freedoms of action and creation. It is specifically because reality is not determined from the outside, specifically because it creates itself, that it has the freedom to transcend itself, to exceed itself. This is the essence of freedom. So long as something or someone acts in accordance with its own lawfulness, it is not free. But there are holes in this lawfulness; it contains disorder: it contains a shattering which takes apart the construction of its lawfulness and regularity, and that character which creates itself can then build a new, greater vessel. It is not only capable of doing so but also, at least on a basic level, willing – because the desire to receive Divine outpouring is the source of its vitality.


Why is the freedom of reality of such importance for Rav Kook?


First, because he truly believes in the greatness of man and in his power of creation. He educated with all his might towards creativity and freedom in Divine service and in education, as we noted in the shiur on slavery (Letter 89).


But there is much more to it than that. Without freedom, the world cannot demonstrate the aspect of Divinity that is attaining-perfection. Only a world which is manifest as a free will – like the Divinity which creates it – can be truly Divine. The movement of ascent that constantly appears in it is proof that the Divine attribute of perfection also includes the aspect of coming to perfection. If there were no freedom in the world, the world would exist only as something created; it would be a projection of the perfect Infinite will, and nothing more. It is specifically the “shattered” world which is truly Divine.


The metaphor of the teacher that we invoked previously may help to explain this point more clearly. A teacher wants to create people in his own image, insofar as he believes in the goodness and truth within himself. However, he fears a crisis. Why? Not only because of the hardship and suffering involved, but because crisis is also a loss of his own control. So long as there is no crisis and he acts within educational regularity, he can mold his students after himself. Crisis causes the regularity to collapse, and then the students are in the hands of a threatening freedom. What will become of them? How will they turn out?


Even more threatening than the crisis is the freedom that lies behind it. However, a true educator knows that without freedom and without crisis, his students will not truly turn out in his image. If the source of influence acts only in accordance with the measure of the vessel, then he does not allow the vessel to exceed itself, and the students will be no more than objects that have been stamped with the impression of the educator subject; they will not be subjects who are like him.


Thus, the shattering of the vessels is not an accident; it is a stage of atzilut that allows reality to come into being in a manner of freedom. Almost all theologians, Jews and gentiles alike, have argued that the fingerprints of the Creator are discerned in the wisdom and order of Creation. Rav Kook teaches something altogether paradoxical: it is specifically the disorder, the absence of regularity, the mixture of good and evil, which reveals the Divinity of the world. The revelations of good and of kindness in this shattered world, its development and its elevation, are evidence that the Divine will is the driving force behind all of Creation and is revealed through all the particular wills within it.


The Principle of Attaining-Perfection – A New View of History


In what way has Rav Kook changed our view of history by explaining it, along with the reality of the world in general, through the principle of "attaining-perfection" as a necessary aspect of Divine perfection?


According to the Arizal, history is a process of raising sparks out of the shells that surround them. In the “shattering of the vessels,” the Divine light was broken and reality was filled with fragments of Divinity that were dispersed in it. Our role in the world is to raise these dots of light, which appear within an evil or material, general and human reality. When we perform an action commanded by God or have spiritual intentions in our actions, we are separating the Divine kernel out of the shell in which it is captive, and this separation is the purpose of reality. The end of history is the completion of this process, for then the shells (the evil and material aspects) of reality lose the source of their vitality and cease to exist, when the Divine sparks return to their place.


According to the Ba'al Ha-Tanya, reality proves God's Kingship (malkhut), and its source is in the sefira of Malkhut. How is this so? We recall that Malkhut is perceived from the outside – there is no king without a nation of subjects – and our ability to accept God's Kingship arises from the illusion of independent existence that Divinity lends to reality. The purpose of reality, by which it ultimately justifies itself, is the recognition by everyone in the world of His Kingship. The acceptance of God's Kingship means the negation of reality as an independent existence (since its source is in the Divine) – i.e., the purpose of reality is actually the nullification of the consciousness of itself as a separate entity.


To Ramchal's view (and this is the most important position for our discussion, because of its close proximity with Rav Kook's teaching, as pointed out by the Nazir), the purpose of reality is to reveal God's yichud, which is achieved through negation of the possibility of any control or power in reality aside from God's rule. In order to reveal His yichud, God makes room for the world and for humanity to conduct themselves as though through free choice, but in the future it will become clear that the whole of history was guided all along by God, in accordance with the Divine plan. The various choices by man, political decisions, social movements – all of these actually exist not for the reasons or purposes which they imagine, but to further the Divine purpose, which is often hidden.


There is a great difference between the view of Rav Kook and all of the other approaches here. The other approaches all share the understanding that the world has no value of its own as it is; it is there to serve Divinity, and to do so through negation of existence as it appears. For the Arizal, this negation involves a separation of the sparks from their shells (a denial of the existing structure); for the Ba'al Ha-Tanya it is negation of independent consciousness and existence; and for Ramchal it is the negation of history as an independent phenomenon in favor of its perception as a deliberate Divine system.


Rav Kook, contrary to the manner in which he is sometimes understood, introduces a revolutionary idea: reality as it is, history as perceived by those active in it and making it happen, is its own purpose, because it is the other side of the two-sided coin of Divine perfection. Reality as it is, in its momentum of ascent and development, is a manifestation of Divinity, and therefore its purpose is not the end of history or, as others might suggest, the nullification of some illusion. Every step of development and ascent is in itself the true meaning of existence.


To clarify the difference between Rav Kook and Ramchal, whose approach seems closest to that of Rav Kook, let us consider two examples.


Let us suppose that we could ask Ramchal, "What is the meaning of socialism?" He would no doubt answer that there is no way of knowing, but in the future, it will be revealed. Today, looking back in retrospect, he would perhaps venture that socialism led groups of idealistic young Jews to realize their vision in Eretz Yisrael, and the encounter between the power of the workers' religion and the Zionist vision gave birth to the State of Israel. Perhaps he would say that socialism led to communism, and communism gave birth to Stalin, who fought against Hitler, and a moment after the Holocaust, a unique encounter of political interests and historical considerations caused the USSR to give its support to the establishment of the State of Israel. Either way, Ramchal would have attached no importance to socialism aside from these developments. Of course, it was not for these purposes that socialism arose, in the eyes its supporters, but Ramchal would say that it was a vehicle by means of which God pursued His plans.


Rav Kook, in contrast, would say that socialism is important for the same reasons that it created itself – i.e., as an important manifestation of a moral ideology and economic system whose purpose was to create a more just world. As such, it was another movement of elevation of human society and of the world in general. Owing to its being an act of human freedom, which then fought for human freedom, and because of its quest for principles of justice, we perceive in it traces of that primal Divine will. How can one say of Marx, the atheist, that he revealed Divinity? The answer is that we do not say this of his conscious awareness; rather, it is a general statement concerning motivations – the fundamental will of the movement and of those active in it. In short, while according to Ramchal socialism is merely a means, devoid of any value in and of itself, according to Rav Kook, socialism was a manifestation of Divine coming-to-perfection and therefore, like any act of development and ascent, its purpose is its very appearance.


As another example, this time on the individual level, let us contrive a fictional story (based on an all-too-common reality) of a religious Israeli girl who rebels against her parents, casts doubt on her religious obligations, and goes to India. Ramchal would say that this journey has some hidden purpose: for example, it might take her to the Chabad House in Nepal, where she might hear a Torah lecture that speaks to her and brings about a profound inner change of heart, which would never have happened in Israel. Thus, God acted through this girl's rebellion and flight to connect her to the fear of Heaven.


The approach of Rav Kook would explain the situation in a completely different manner. The girl's rebellion and flight would be viewed as a movement of freedom, its purpose being to discover her essence. This is a very exalted movement, because it seeks to provide room for and meaning to her "self," not that of her parents. Her search might, for example, be interpreted as the quest for a higher religious synthesis that does not negate faith itself, but rather the paradigmatic and/or coercive educational system which accompanies it. Either way, this represents a movement of inner psychological and religious repair and enhancement. For Ramchal, the ultimate purpose of the journey is revealed only at the end, and there is no connection between the true purpose (as he would see it) and the girl's own inner consciousness. For Rav Kook, the search itself, including the crisis that it entails, is part of the Divine manifestation of the quality of attaining-perfection – in this case, a particular manifestation, with its roots in the essence of reality. The purpose of the search and the crisis lies within themselves; it is freedom and attaining-perfection.


Translated by Kaeren Fish