Lecture #2b: Letter 20 - On Tolerance, Part 2

  • Rav Tamir Granot



By Rav Tamir Granot


Lecture #2b: Letter 20 - On Tolerance, Part 2



In Letter 20, Rav Kook deals with the issue of tolerance, especially one of its primary facets – the principle of freedom of expression. The discussion is not about the Truth or the Good within various opinions, but rather their very appearance and publication. The context of the question is fundamentally socio-political.


The Question

Of course, there is a connection between the question of freedom of thought as an intellectual stance, the question of pluralism as a philosophical position, and the question of tolerance. We will succinctly posit Rav Kook's stance on the other two issues.

  • Freedom of thought – Rav Kook sees intellectual freedom as a necessary condition for spiritual and intellectual development. Although he applies certain, primarily educational, limitations to it, he embraces the principle that thought must be free. This means that considering every opinion and every possible truth contributes to the development and advancement of understanding.
  • Pluralism – We will not dwell here on the precise meaning of “pluralism” that Rav Kook accepts (which, of course, is of primary importance). Rather, we will state simply that Rav Kook's epistemological assumption is that Truth reveals different and partial aspects of itself to those who contemplate it. The meaning of this is that different nations, factions, and even individuals arguing over opinions and beliefs each reveal a correct and significant aspect of a more comprehensive truth.

From his open letter, it is possible to conclude that Rav Kook draws a direct analogy from philosophy to politics; the desire for a monopoly over the thought of others stems from a monist (the opposite of pluralist) stance and from fear of freedom of thought. Since Rav Kook embraces opposing viewpoints, he also inclines toward tolerance and freedom of expression, which manifest the pluralist viewpoint on the social and political plane. Yet, R. Seidel asked, “Is this really Rav Kook's viewpoint?”


The Response

Rav Kook's answer is comprised of several elements. We will first reconstruct the flow of his argument, and then develop its main arguments.

The flow of the response is essentially comprised of two main parts:

I)  There is room to limit the freedom of thought, and thus also to negate the freedom of expression on the fundamental level.

II)     This limitation is irrelevant in the current historical context.


We will now survey the rationales and the flow in detail:

 I.         On the fundamental level:

 A.     Freedom of thought should be limited because:

1.    Tolerance of other opinions is not only a political stance, but also a spiritual attitude – a “virtue.” Any extreme virtue – that is, an unbound virtue – is certainly negative, and so tolerance also must have limits (general claim).

2.    The link between thought and action is immanent and necessary. Thoughts always lead to action. Since some thoughts cause unjust or despicable acts – and there can certainly be no absolute freedom in the normative realm – it is vital to limit those thoughts (specific claim).

 B.     The limits of freedom of thought are not universal. Rather, they depend on the substance of each society and the cultural and historical circumstances to which it is subject.

 C.     As a political principle, freedom of thought does not supersede the very existence of that nation. Therefore, if there is an opinion that can be said to damage the possibility of that nation's existence, it is illegitimate.

 D.     Only with regard to Israel is the link between its faith and its very existence so crucial that damage to its being the nation that calls out God's Name in the world endangers its very existence as a nation.

 E.     The conclusion of this determination is that even though the very need to limit freedom of thought is universal, the application of this limitation specifically to national religious faith is true only of Israel. A Jew who contravenes the fundamentals of Jewish faith is not the holder of a legitimate opinion or even simply misled; he is a traitor against his people because he damages its very essence.

 F.     In Israel, heresy can take one of only two forms, no matter what: (a) either it is an uncertain claim, in which case it can easily be dealt with by demonstrating its nullity and that it stems from intellectual, emotional, or moral weakness; (b) or it is true atheism (or at least denial of a Divine Torah) – an outlook that is opposed to the essence of Israel and that has no real basis. Therefore, it is necessarily wickedness, that is, manipulative use of opinions and beliefs to promote other ideological objectives.

Wickedness must, of course, be fought against, and the principle of freedom of thought does not apply to it in the same way that it applies to those who embrace their views naively.[1]

 II.        This limitation on freedom of thought is irrelevant today, since it is not the will of God that we limit freedom of thought nowadays. How do we know this?

A. Limitation of thought is a national act – a function of sovereignty. In order for the regime to operate with its full authority and function, national power must be complete (“national power” in the sense of its ideal spiritual strivings and the maximum attempt to realize them).

B. It is clear that in our historical situation, national power is incomplete (there are, of course, many Jews who quake at the Name and Torah of God, but it is impossible to say that Israel as a national entity is working toward the advancement of its religious agenda).

C. Even if we would want to impose limitations of freedom of thought, we could not. The lack of ability is explained in two ways:

 a)     “Fear of the kingdom” – In the immediate context, this means concern for the Ottoman regime. In a broader context, it refers to the absence of a suitable international climate.

 b)     Halakhic constraints – “It is a mitzva not to say something that will not be heeded:” in defining the obligation of rebuke on the normative plane, the halakha makes certain conditions, including the effectiveness condition - that the attempt to rebuke someone for his sin can indeed help keep him away from folly. If this is not the case, and it is clear that the rebuke “will not be heeded” and the sinner will not repent of his actions as a result of the words of the rebuker, the rebuke, like any other act whose goal is to prevent negative thought or action, is transformed into a “prohibition.”

D. “Lack of ability” in a particular historical situation is not merely a random fact of history, the arbitrary result of the policy of some ruler or the enforcement of some legal minutia. It rather should be viewed as the intended expression of God’s Will in history.


To summarize everything that has been said thus far, there is a very important limitation relating to the first statements. At first glance, it seems that Rav Kook is saying that freedom of thought should be limited a priori, but be-di’avad or under extenuating circumstances, it should not be. In truth, his argument is further-reaching and is connected with two very important questions: the historical character of Halakha and the expression of God’s Will in history (“ongoing revelation”). We will defer the discussion of these aspects to other letters (89-90), and our discussion below will focus only on the first part of Rav Kook’s words, that is, the fundamental discussion of tolerance. We will begin with brief notes on his initial, general claims about tolerance and from there expand the discussion to address his main innovations, which have far-reaching philosophical implications.


On Tolerance in General

Tolerance as a “virtue” (Section A1)


Rav Kook’s claim in this regard is important both for understanding the concept of tolerance and for the doctrine of virtue in general. It emerges from Rav Kook’s words that tolerance is not only a moral or political value, it also affects a certain spiritual adjustment. The manner in which we react to problematic opinions is not only connected to the essence of those opinions but also to the very preparation of the personality to confront – or make peace with – opinions that oppose its character or conceptions on the pure ideological or philosophical plane.

At first glance, tolerance suggests coming to terms with (but not agreement with!) the existence of other opinions in public discourse, and from an emotional perspective it is likely to base itself on various emotional alignments, such as: apathy, cynicism and estrangement, confusion or lack of self-confidence, obsessive inquisitiveness (everything is interesting, and value is determined by interest, not correctness or goodness), and angst and coping (I suffer from another opinion, but accept the suffering willingly). Rav Kook’s claim seems to be that tolerance as an emotional stance that is capable of including any opinion without limitation is based on an inferior array of sensibilities; ideological or moral apathy or spinelessness – mental or intellectual weakness - necessarily underlie this type of tolerance.

In addition to this inner comprehension of tolerance, a more general theory, based on the Rambam’s principle of the “golden mean,” underlies Rav Kook’s words. The assumption is that a particular virtue is based on a complete set of sensitivities that enable one to appropriately react to any situation. Since the world by nature poses different and even opposing situations before us, a good virtue is one that can “create,” from within a set of healthy emotions, the proper reactions to those opposing situations. When all situations get the same psychological response, it indicates that the entire emotional system is defective, even if the reaction is the correct one in some situations. This is a result of weakness, not of good virtues. Thus, for example, giving charity boundlessly, rooted in a lack of boundaries between the self and the environment that is defective in its extreme lack of self-responsibility, constitutes a bad virtue not because the act itself (giving charity) is negative, but because it attests to a psychological defect. In the present case, tolerance rooted in apathy or cynicism is a defective psychological attribute. Therefore, tolerance (and in principle any virtue) must have a normative boundary, a symptom of the health of the virtue’s psychological root.


“Actions stem… from opinions” (Section A2)

There is certainly a relation between opinions and actions. Without getting into details, it is correct to say generally that ideological, nationalist, and moral stances are the root of social and personal practices. This point may be learned from the paradigm of the sefiriotic table: Atzilut originates in the sefirot of the “head” - chokhma and bina - and from them to da’at, which is the mochin (influence/ energy) that extends out from the sefirot of the head and passes on to the sefirot of “character,” chesed and din (emotion), until the final actualization, the sefira of malkhut.

The meaning of this insight is that when we identify a real connection between a certain negative social practice and the ideological messages that back it up, it would be appropriate to prevent the propagation of those ideological messages.

An interesting ramification of this insight can be linked to the debate that has emerged in Israel in recent years regarding the justification of the law against incitement. It would follow from Rav Kook’s words here that from a general and theoretical perspective, the law is justified, as it is based on the correct notion that there is a connection between opinions and the actions that they cause.


“There are differences between societies” (Section B)

Rav Kook presents the question of tolerance as a relative and conditional question. Its relativity and dependence on cultural context are related both to its manifestation as a virtue – for virtues certainly vary from person to person according to his basic disposition – and to its political aspect; there are opinions that are tolerated in one society that are not tolerated in another.


The Unique Place of Faith in the Jewish People (Sections C-D)

Section D contains what is essentially Rav Kook’s main argument. For the Jewish nation, negation of belief is an intolerable opinion due to the unique essence of the nation. This determination stems from the general claim that Rav Kook had previously developed - zeal against an opinion that undermines the foundations of the existence of society does not contradict basic tolerance, since self-preservation precedes and is more important than tolerance. A person or faction that opposes the independent identity of the nation injures its self-respect and disturbs its historical stability and is therefore not legitimate.

In a different letter, Rav Kook compared damage to the honor of Israel’s Torah within the Zionist movement during a speech at one of the meetings of the National Council with support of anti-Semitism or missionary activity:


Therefore, I hereby request of your esteemed selves that a law be passed at the National Council which will serve as a yardstick for the meeting of delegates, that the honor of the religion of Israel and the renascent Land of Israel must be preserved. Just as it is unthinkable that one of the speakers at the plenum of the meeting of delegates or the national council would suddenly jump up and speak, for example, missionary words of incitement or anti-Semitic opinions and he would be allowed to speak without protest due to the right of free speech, so too it is impossible that permission be given and that it be tolerated that one who, God forbid, insults and blasphemes the Torah of Israel at our national institutions be left even for a moment (Otzarot Ha-RAYH 4:198).


Thus, damage to the fundamentals of belief is damaging to the spirit of the nation just as an anti-Semitic speech is. In other words, we do not tolerate it not only because it is untrue, but because it damages national honor and identity.

Years later, Rav Kook responded to another letter of R. Seidel in which the question of tolerance was raised again. This letter, dated Shevat 5678, mainly deals with the zealous path of the Agudath Israel movement and its negation of Zionism. Seidel asked about the zeal of the Agudist stance, which did not see anything positive in the path of secular Zionism, and Rav Kook was forced to defend the Agudah. His claim is very similar to the present one:


When we closely examine the independent value of the Torah of Israel, of the word of God Who accompanies it along with His spirit and essence and all of Israel’s amazing longevity, we will immediately recognize that tolerance that blocks the path of the power of life to stand up against anyone who wishes to demolish the foundations of the spirit of the people and insert a spirit of chaos into its lifestyle is similar to the tolerance of a man who sees the honor of his home and family being trampled by every lowlife and hedonist, yet remains silent and stammering in his weakness. The details, where to draw the line and where to set the boundary, must be judiciously discussed. The principle, however, remains valid and true forever. (Iggerot Ha-RAYH 3:156)


Damage to the faith and Torah of Israel is damage to the honor and spirit of the nation. A person with a healthy sense of nationalism will react in shock to those things that damage the very soul of the nation. (Note that this is precise - Rav Kook is not talking about a person with a theoretical moral or metaphysical understanding.)

This claim involves several assumptions, several of which I wish to expand on here and several of which I will discuss later.

First of all, the community of Israel is identified with calling out in God’s Name, that is, with the will to reveal the Divine manifestation in all existence. This is the character of Avraham Avinu in a nutshell and the essence of the activities of all Israel throughout the generations, even if they were not always conscious of it (we will develop this philosophical fundamental through Letter 44). Thus, for the community of Israel, loss of belief means loss of its identity.

Two additional assumptions underlie the determination made in the last sentence: there is but one identity, and it is therefore not part of the tolerance “game,” and we know full well what the center of this identity is, and it therefore cannot be a matter of dispute.

Here, it seems to me, we encounter one of the most difficult points in Rav Kook’s discussion. Let us first try to understand the difficulty.

The basic assumption of tolerance is that the truth cannot be monopolized; no person can say that he knows the whole truth regarding a given issue. The assumption that Israel’s identity is as Rav Kook describes, and therefore not open to dialogue, is itself an intolerant assumption. Why, then, does Rav Kook see the removal of this question from the realm of tolerance as being justified from an objective perspective, while other questions are part of the game? Indeed, by the same token, a disputant can claim that his own opinion is beyond the pale of dispute and that he is certain in their regard. In other words, is there some kind of external coordinates based on which it is possible to determine which opinions can be part of the range of possibilities to which tolerance applies and which cannot? (It is self-evident that opinions that we have negated due to their results must be excluded. Undermining the faith of Israel also has a practical outcome, but in order to know that, an “identity” must be posited, and that it the subject of the greatest polemic: what is Jewish identity?)

In order to answer this question, which is, in my opinion, the key to understanding Rav Kook on this subject, we must study in greater depth two essential topics:

a. the relationship between the concepts of liberty and freedom of thought and the concept of identity/sense of self;

b. the precise significance of defining the identity of the Jewish People as the one that calls out God’s Name in the world.


Liberty and Identity

In order to understand this point, we will address the analysis of the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin in his work Four Essays on Liberty, where he distinguishes between the concepts of “positive liberty” and “negative liberty.” Negative liberty is “freedom from…,” that is, the ability to act and think without external constraints and limitations. This is the concept of liberty that is common in political discourse and that is presupposed by the theory of rights in liberal democracies. According to this concept, liberty has no inner content; it merely expresses that all options are open to the subject. Of course, this liberty has practical limitations. Hypothetically, however, it is unlimited when it comes to the freedom of thought. In contrast, positive liberty is the “freedom to…,” that is, it is defined by substance or purpose.

The freedom of thought that Rav Kook speaks of here and in numerous other contexts is freedom as understood in the cultural context – the freedom to think and express any thought, without limitation – negative liberty.

In truth, however, Rav Kook thinks that this freedom is merely a weak and outer expression of the essence of freedom. If we attempt to define the essence of freedom in Rav Kook’s thought, we would say that freedom is the spontaneous outburst of the deepest primal will of the subject, constituting the most authentic revelation of the spirit, of the self. This freedom is not dependent on any multiplicity of options. It is above and beyond choice, and also above and beyond any theory of rights.

As a result, conflict is also likely. A personal or political situation of liberty can create a situation in which people act and articulate through free choice, but not out of fundamental freedom, i.e., far from their true identities. This does not necessarily suggest that their liberties should be limited as a result, and Berlin correctly warns in his essay against the dictatorial potential implicit in positive freedom. Nevertheless, it should be taken into consideration that exaggerated expression of liberty qua negative liberty is liable to operate not only in ignorance of inner identity but even against it. We know full well that liberty can turn into a mechanism for both personal and national self-destruction. In such a situation, Rav Kook explains, unlimited freedom of thought should not be enabled.

On the other hand, freedom of thought is an essential condition for constructing a personality and shaping its identity. When thought is not free, a person is subject to external and dogmatic influences that distance him from his self. In short, although these are two different conceptions of freedom, one is a precursor to the other, and Rav Kook’s strong warning is only against sustaining freedom that is far from the self (as he warns, for example, in the well-known passage of Orot Ha-kodesh 3, “And I am in Exile,” which addresses educators who supplement Jewish thought with foreign ideas and use the freedom of thought as their justification).

Let us attempt to summarize this chapter by understanding Rav Kook’s method for resolving the two extreme positions that he stood between. According to liberal thought, individual liberty is the supreme value. According to this position, liberty is a non-coercive existential environment within which a person can pick his choices, opinions, and actions at his whim from amongst many options. Classical thought, on the other hand, saw the supreme value as a specific “good,” some essence that stands above all – the state, worship of God, and the like – which gives value to the existence and choices of the individual. According to this view, liberty has no value, or at most instrumental value – it serves an ideal essence that lies beyond it. As a religious thinker, Rav Kook would be expected to identify with classical thought, but modernity, which he is also a part of, transforms liberty into a supreme value for him. The path that he takes to get out of the conflict between these two possibilities is the immanence of essence and the identification of liberty with the spontaneous manifestation of the self. In other words, there is no transcendent essence to which liberty is subject. Rather, there is an immanent essence, the identity of the nation or person, that liberty expresses. According to Rav Kook, liberty does not stand alone; it is a function of the “self.”


Calling out God’s Name and the Idea of Tolerance

The second point that I wish to develop is comprehension of the inner connection between the idea that the nation of Israel bears God’s Name in the world and the idea of tolerance.

The problem that we resolved is the apparent contradiction between Rav Kook’s various arguments. Tolerance apparently means the readiness to recognize the possibility that a different definition of the same object, of the very same essence, can be truer than mine or at least claim a part of the truth. Yet, Rav Kook says that freedom of expression and thought should be limited when people are damaging the definition of the essence of Israel. Why is their view not worthy of toleration?

The answer to this question is connected to an important essay that was published in the pamphlet Zeronim (published as part of Orot), “On the War of Beliefs and Opinions,” in which Rav Kook related both to the definition of the essence of the Jewish People and to the two extremes of zealousness and tolerance. The essay deals with the zealous impression that the Jewish Torah generates (the wars of extermination against various forms of idolatry and the Seven Nations, the prohibition against syncretism, and others) as opposed to the relative tolerance that characterizes pagan religion, as well as with the apparent contradiction between this impression and the message of unity and peace (and, in the ethical-political domain, tolerance) of Israel and its Torah, a message that Rav Kook himself speaks in the name of constantly.

Rav Kook’s answer is surprising. Belief in unity, he explains, is the basis for all tolerance. Without the platform of the Divine unity of existence, there is no basis for tolerance. This leads to a simple conclusion. If one cuts off the branch of the Jewish People’s faith in the name of tolerance, he cuts off the branch upon which he sits. This can be compared to an anti-democratic party (fascist or racist, for example) that runs in an election and demands legitimacy in the name of democracy.  Democracy is a political and social platform that allows for the existence of various opinions and different communities, but it does not tolerate those who attempt to replace it with another platform. Thus, tolerance cannot tolerate those who act against it.[2] Since the foundation of tolerance is, according to Rav Kook, the belief in Divine unity, a Jew who attempts to disconnect the Jewish People from their faith identity acts against the very foundation of tolerance.

This claim is clearly not simple and requires explanation. Why is tolerance connected with and based on belief? Why does it depend specifically on the special character of the faith of the Jewish People? At first glance, this seems absurd. After all, people are used to seeing religion as the source of zealousness; the believer, of all people, is in possession of absolute truth and is willing to give up his life for it. Certainly one who disagrees with him is, by his reckoning, misguided if not deviant and sinful.

Rav Kook wrote the aforementioned essay against these widespread opinions. He first addresses the attempt to define the essence of Judaism specifically and positively. These words bear directly on our problem:


In particular, those who wish to define the soul and spiritual content of Judaism by familiar definitions are mistaken, even though it is possible to define its revealed and historically palpable content. It includes everything in its soul, and all spiritual tendencies, revealed and hidden, are concealed in it in its most sublime universal form, just as everything is contained within the absolute Divinity. Any such definition is akin to erecting an idol or statue to characterize the Divine. In this sense, the value of Israel, who carries Judaism amongst the nations, is similar to the value of man amongst all creatures. Many creatures have advantages that man does not have, but the universal combination of capabilities and their sublimation to the spiritual and the intelligence to use all powers contained within himself in actuality and in potential transforms man into the highest division in the world. So, too, there are many nations that are superior to Israel with regard to their unique abilities. However, Israel, as the concentrate of all humanity, gathers in all of the capabilities of all the nations and unifies them, in an ideal and holy manner, in sublime unity. (Zer’onim 6, “On the War of Beliefs and Opinions”)


The attempt to define Judaism by a formula such as “Judaism = monotheism” or “Judaism = the unification of belief with morals” or the like restricts its identity. The primary feature of the Jewish People as a living body and Judaism as a historical phenomenon is the ability to incorporate different features and opposing opinions into an inner unity. Perhaps the Jewish People does not excel in one prominent virtue. There are nations in which the law is more exact; some have a more successful literature; some have more beautiful works of art. Other nations have idealisms that are good and important, but ultimately particular and partial. Israel’s capacity is the concentrate of all of these capacities, which can be made manifest in national life in a more perfect manner than in their particularistic manifestations.[3] The essence of Judaism is the principle of unity and striving toward it – a principle that is its greatest motivator.

Rav Kook continues and explains that it is specifically the universal character of this principle that is the source of its certainty:


For every revelation of universal spirit, based on the strength of its universalism, certainty is strengthened within it based on the degree of its certitude. Just as it leaves no space for doubt, so too it does not extend the right to others to collaborate with it. Universalism, certainty, and singularity depend upon each other… So too in spiritual manifestations, idolatry was tolerant and the acknowledgment of singularity was zealous: since it is universal and not particular, certain and not in doubt, it is singular and not composite. (ibid.)


In other words, the more an idea (scientific, moral, or metaphysical) incorporates more phenomena (scientific or spiritual), the more its certainty is reinforced, since it has the power to illuminate and explain larger segments of reality. Particularistic ideologies each refer to a certain dimension of reality: economics, sociology, the individual or the collective, material or the spirit, and so forth. Judaism attempts to include all of these phenomena within itself, and therefore its unique capacity is to extract from every revelation of human spirit their true and productive aspects without letting them control all of existence and meaning, which would make them more harmful than helpful.

Universalism and certainty, however, are also connected to unification. As explained, the more universal an idea, the less room it leaves for partial explanations, for idealisms that refer to individual values or objectives. To the extent that it includes more perspectives, it is intolerant of isolated perspectives. This is the root of the zealousness of the unified view.

Had we stopped here, we would be forced to accept the conclusion that the great truth of the Divine unity of all existence cannot accept tolerance. However, there is a more inward perspective:


Universality is not tolerant according to the superficial form of tolerance, but the essential basis of tolerance is to be found in its zeal. Weak tolerance, which weakens life, comes from within particular expressions of spirit that are not nurtured by the dew of universalism, and the cursed zeal comes from presumptuously considering these particular discoveries of spirit to be the most sublime of all universals; since they are merely particular expressions, they cannot animate all the varieties of spirit outside their domain, and due to their disdain for other expressions, they are unable to include them. They only minimize the expansion of life and diminish the manifestation of spiritual expressions. The highest universalism, however, specifically through its breadth and certainty, offers a sublime attribute by insisting on singularity, which brings with it a blessed zeal that engenders spiritual grandeur, which removes from its path any weakness of particular trivialities, any doubt, and any syncretism. “God alone will lead them, and there is no foreign god with Him” (Devarim 32:12). Since it is universal, since everything is included within it, it is naturally unable to remove anything from its domain and universality, and it gives everything its place. In this, it only increases the appearance of light in all lifestyles and expressions of spirit, and its fundamental tolerance wishes to give a place to every inclination toward light, life, and spiritual manifestation. It knows that there is a spark of light in everything, that the inner Divine light shines in each of the different religions, as different educational orders for human cultures to repair spirit and matter, time and world, individual and community, but they exist on different levels. (Ibid.)


In other words, there is a distinction between two concepts of tolerance – weak and strong (or fundamental) – and also between two forms of zeal - blessed and cursed.

Surprisingly, Rav Kook explains that weak tolerance and cursed zeal are essentially two sides of the same coin. One whose tolerance is the result of seeing reality as an infinite multiplicity of possibilities and opinions which are difficult – and perhaps unnecessary – to decide between, and of the spiritual or intellectual weakness that is bound to this conception, due to which he cannot be sure of himself, his path, and his opinions – such a tolerant person is not only forgiving of the views of others, but of his own views as well. Tolerance that is based on non-truth, on a pluralism based on uncertainty or apathy, in the postmodern style for example – such tolerance weakens life! Can such a tolerant person fight, or even make an effort, on behalf of his opinions?

Cursed zeal grows from the very same position, but appears in context of pride and imaginary self-confidence. According to this approach, the multiplication of spiritual expressions in the world is cause for war, since according to the zealot only his view is complete and correct. Such a position can be the result of closed and dogmatic thought, but it is often the paradoxical expression of weakness of the same type that is expressed by one who is “weakly” tolerant – a weakness that in a prideful personality or a bellicose society or culture would take on the form of zealousness, which is an expression of the inability to fearlessly adopt an opinion or belief.

The goal of the higher, fundamental tolerance is to grant a place to each of the particular expressions of spirit. For their part, they would need to give up their egos, that is, the notion that they alone are correct. Only then will they earn their existence within the broad eternal matrix of the Divine unity. This unity responds to those opinionated people who insist that they have a monopoly on truth with zeal. In short, Judaism is not zealous at all toward expressions of morals and values, cultural works, and even beliefs as such, unless, according to the thinking of their adherents, their faith or culture is the only possible full expressions of the truth.

This conclusion returns us to the principle that the Jewish People is indeed zealous about its faith, a faith whose essence is the idea of the Divine unity of existence. On the basis of this great faith, there is space for all of the partial opinions and values, and this is the root of tolerance. However, it is impossible to defend, in the name of tolerance, one who expresses himself against this fundamental identity of Judaism, since he acts against its essential basis.


A note on the “Divine unity”

Throughout our discussion, we have used the expression “the Divine unity” several times in various forms. The meaning of this expression in Rav Kook’s writings is that we are not speaking of classical monotheism, the belief in a single transcendent God, but of Jewish monotheism, which sees all of existence as a Divine manifestation. According to this idea, perception of reality as a multiplicity of material or spiritual substances and entities is only the superficial garb of the revealed Divinity, about which we state, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” There is therefore room for the various spiritual expressions, since they are all expressions of the Infinite Divine unity in which all opposites are contained.

These last words touch on Rav Kook’s pluralism, which can be termed metaphysical or Divine, and is one of the elements of tolerance. We will expand on the meaning of the unification of opposites and the theological aspects of “the Divine unity” in other lectures.


(Translated by Elli Fischer)


Bibliography for further study:

1.    Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, “Tolerance in the Thought of Rabbi Kook – a Reexamination,” in Al Derekh Ha-Avot: Sefer Ha-yovel Le-Mikhlelet Herzog (Alon Shvut, 5761) (Hebrew).

2.    Benjamin Ish-Shalom, “Tolerance and its Theoretical Basis in the Teachings of Rav Kook,” in Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Jewish Spirituality, eds. Lawrence Kaplan and David Shatz (NY, 1995), pp. 178-204.

3.    Rabbi Yosef Kellner, “Pluralism, Fanaticism, and Universalism,” Lectures given at the Eli Mekhina (Jerusalem, 5761).

4.    Tamar Ross, "Between Metaphysical and Liberal Pluralism: A Reappraisal of R. A.I. Kook's Espousal of Toleration," AJS Review 21:1 (1996), pp. 61-110.

5.    Daniel Statman, “Redemptive Religiosity and the Problem of Non-Condescending Dialogue between Religious and Secular,” Devarim 1 (5759), pp. 9-21 (Hebrew).

6.    Zvi Yaron, The Philosophy of Rabbi Kook, p. 323 ff.


[1] Note the connection between sections E and F. Had heresy appeared only as a form of skepticism, what is stated in sections D-E could not be applied to it. One who is caught in uncertainty cannot be accused of damaging the soul of the nation and the root of its existence, for he simply does not know, and lack of knowledge is not the result of choice, but is forced upon a person. On the other hand, Rav Kook claims that uncertainty alone can be dealt with. The doubting Jew can be rescued from the depths of his skepticism; thus, skepticism is not the real problem. The real problem is bold-faced denial, which is not, as mentioned, metaphysical speculation but simply wickedness. Since this manifestation of wickedness endangers the very existence of the nation, it is only natural to do battle against it and to censor its expression.

[2] For thought: in recent years, debate has emerged regarding the relationship of liberal culture to communities that are fundamentally different. The question is whether the multicultural paradigm can include even that which seems to be a paradox, such as support for a community that does not have freedom of expression or that does not give equal status to men and women. Our problem is different: it is not about the very existence of a different community, but about the attempt of that community to influence the central identity and to erase the current fundamental assumptions, the basis on which its existence is possible.

[3] For thought: This capacity of Israel has a downside as well. The participation of Jews in virtually every major ideological and nationalist movement that dominated various branches of culture and science, all while espousing diametrically opposing views, is one of the most prominent aspects of Jewish life from the middle of the nineteenth century through the end of the twentieth. This phenomenon is the manifestation of what Rav Kook is speaking about, only that the vessels are broken; there is no one large vessel of the nation that contains everything in unity, but fragments that are revealed in individuals and groups, each of which has gained prominence in a different matter.