Lecture #3: On the Jewish People - Letter 44, Section A

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot




This week of Torah learning at the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion is being sponsored by Ronni & Nachum Katlowitz in honor of Ronni's mother's birthday - Happy Birthday Mrs. Lucia Pasternak!



Lecture #3: On the Jewish People - Letter 44, Section A



In this shiur, we will begin studying Letter 44. This is a long letter, with many “heavy” topics, so I have divided it into sections. Our study will accordingly be split up over many shiurim.


Through this letter, we will be able to address several basic theological and ideological elements of Rav Kook’s teachings, and we will thus expand on several matters that will form the basis of further study.



The letter’s addressee


This letter was written to R. Shmuel Alexandrov. R. Alexandrov was one of the more unique of Rav Kook’s correspondents, and he does not fit neatly into one of the categories of Rav Kook’s correspondents (leaders, regular rabbis, disciples, etc.). R. Alexandrov was born in the same year as Rav Kook, 1865, and was apparently murdered by the Germans when they arrived in his town of Bobruisk in 1941. He was educated with a classic chareidi education, studied at the Volozhin Yeshiva, and was ordained as a rabbi, yet he saw himself as an enlightened freethinker and spent his life searching for a synthesis between these two aspects of his personality. He also had a Zionist outlook and participated in the first Mizrachi conferences. From a spiritual perspective, he was connected both with the Modern Western philosophies of Kant and Schelling and with Chasidic and Chabad kabbalistic sources.


This brief description demonstrates R. Alexandrov’s complexity as well as his clear similarity with Rav Kook in several ways – a similarity that was the source of their relationship. R. Alexandrov saw Rav Kook as a kindred spirit and placed great hopes in him. Their correspondence began in 1902, when Rav Kook was still in Bausk, and continued for about ten years, during which R. Alexandrov asked Rav Kook to help him clarify the profundity of philosophic and historiosophic issues in Jewish thought, especially in their practical context. Only a few of Rav Kook’s letters to him have been preserved, and they shed light on the evolution of Rav Kook’s views on central contemplative issues during his first fateful years in Eretz Yisrael. (According to the testimony of R. Zvi Yehuda Kook in his introduction, Rav Kook’s earliest letters to R. Alexandrov have been lost.)


R. Alexandrov himself published his letters to Rav Kook (under the title Mikhtevei Mechkar U-Vikoret), in which the views that Rav Kook discusses in his letters may be discerned. Alexandrov raised radical views regarding the essence of Judaism and the processes that it was undergoing, and Rav Kook’s responses are therefore particularly interesting, as we will see in detail in these shiurim.


The letters that R. Alexandrov sent to Ahad Ha’am during that period are also very important. Ahad Ha’am’s heresy seemed to R. Alexandrov, as it seemed to Rav Kook (as he cryptically alludes), to be an expression of the positive aspects of modern heresy, and he therefore felt particularly close to him.


The date and context of the letter


This letter is dated 5667 – 1907. At that time, Rav Kook was rabbi of Yafo and the surrounding communities, where he encountered all of the communal and educational challenges that the new Yishuv had presented him with. The immediate question that he and R. Alexandrov corresponded about was how religious Judaism could practically address the spiritual and educational challenges it faced, namely, enlightenment, heresy, and the new education. They both believed that something must be done on the educational plane. They also both felt that these issues could be engaged without resorting to polemic or negation of the “enlightened” and secular positions. They further agreed that the root of the practical response would be the rise of a new generation of Torah scholars who would create a new type of Torah-oriented spirituality with different horizons, a more exalted and relevant inner, contemplative world, and that, to that end, the new Yishuv needed a suitable institution of higher learning.


Their dispute was about the nature of such an institution. R. Alexandrov thought that something like a university should be established (a college for Judaism and science, something akin to Yeshiva University in our terms), where Torah scholars could acquire the best modern education in philosophy, languages, literature, and so forth, and thus renew their spiritual image and create new contemplative works. Rav Kook, in contrast, opposed such an institution and considered opening a yeshiva that would indeed have a fresh character in terms of curriculum and objectives, but would maintain the framework of the classical yeshiva; it would certainly not include a general education. (At that time, he spoke of setting it up in Yafo; ultimately, he founded the yeshiva, called the Central World Yeshiva and now known as Mercaz HaRav, in Jerusalem).


From this description of their disagreement, one might think that the issue was purely pedagogical, a question of curriculum. This, however, is not the case. It is clear that the debate about the education of Torah scholars was symptomatic of an attitude toward education in general, and consequently to even more fundamental issues such as the meaning of Israel’s chosenness, the difference between Jewish and gentile faith, and more.


We will address each of the issues that emerge in the course of the letter itself, and will, of course, point out the connections between them, which are never arbitrary in the thought of Rav Kook.


I have topically divided the letter into six sections:

a.            The essence of the Jewish People; the meaning of Israel’s chosenness; Jews versus gentiles.

b.            Establishing a rabbinical school that would include higher education; opposition; inward, not external, education.

c.            The difference between Jewish and gentile faith; the attitude of our faith to the science and ethics of human origins.

d.            Historiosophy of religion.

e.            Theology: epistemology and ontology.

f.              The attitude of the non-observant to tradition and Torah; the supremacy of philosophy.


Over the next two weeks, we will deal with Section A.


Thoughts before reading


The first section touches on one of the central question of Rav Kook’s thought and, in essence, of modern Jewish philosophy as a whole. In order to better understand the general background of the discussion, we will preface it with several points.


Early rabbinic and medieval Jewish thought generally perceived the confrontation between Judaism and other cultures as a confrontation between truth and falsehood, good and evil. The significance of Israel’s chosenness was also understood in context of the absolute truth that Israel possesses and of which the nations are unaware.


The exception to this rule is the encounter between Judaism and Greco-Arabic philosophy, as reflected in the works of great Jewish sages like R. Sa’adia Ga’on and the Rambam. These giants saw philosophy as the achievement of human understanding and human understanding as a medium for revealing the truth and the Divine truth in its totality. Consequently, they faced the following question: what special significance do the revelation to Israel and the resulting chosenness of Israel have? During the medieval era, this question was not linked to the question of national identity or social processes; exilic Jewish existence was segregated and apart from the surrounding nations, and the primary encounter was with the best of philosophical literature, not with culture, which was considered low and misguided.


This issue of the relationship between the Jewish truth and the truth of general philosophy or culture became sharper in the modern era, especially in the nineteenth century, due to several factors:

-        The rapid advancement of scientific discovery and the consequent technological success.

-        The great works of European thought, some of which had decisive cultural impact and whose dissemination was rapid and effective thanks to methods of printing and transportation.

-        The sense that Europe was at the cultural cutting edge – that it was not merely blessed with individual geniuses, but that the culture as a whole was generally superior.

-        The social and political opportunities that were opened to Jews, namely, the Emancipation and all it entailed, which allowed Jews to believe that they could be part of that culture.


The question of Israel’s uniqueness thus emerged at full strength, and it seemed to quite a few Jewish students of the Enlightenment that the best of human thought and culture are not necessarily found within the Jewish realm.


In addition to this intellectual-cultural perspective, the ideological context questioned the idea of Israel’s chosenness. European humanism denied a priori the possibility of essential distinctions between various nations. If such differences exist, this view claimed, it is the result of discrimination or historical lack of fortune, and one of the goals of humanity is to address them and nullify them. The idea of an essentialist chosenness of Israel was perceived, first of all, as a rejection of humanism, and beyond that as damaging the internal interests of the Jewish collective, who desired recognition and equal rights.


These are the main reasons for the fact that nineteenth century Jewish thought in Central and Western Europe dealt almost obsessively with attempts to redefine the idea of Israel’s chosenness and to adapt it to political-historical constraints and to new beliefs and opinions.


Moses Mendelssohn, in his Jerusalem, had already claimed that Revelation as a particularistic phenomenon (directed at Israel alone) was not intended to transmit metaphysical or moral truths, since those are the fruit of contemplation and thus, by definition, universal. The unique dimension of the Revelation to Israel specifically addresses, in his opinion, the normative plane, that is, the mitzvot. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch also claimed compatibility between the Torah and European values; in his opinion, the central meaning of Israel’s chosenness lies in the national dimension. The more radical students of the Enlightenment went so far as to restrict or even abolish the idea of Israel’s chosenness.


At the end of the nineteenth century, with the success of the Zionist idea, this question arose once again. Zionism is, of course, a repudiation of the Jewish Enlightenment as a historical-political program, but its attitude toward the question of Israel’s status among the nations is not simple. One of the dominant ideas found in Herzl, Pinsker, Lilienblum, and certainly Berdichevsky is that of the normalization of Jewish history, which could, in their opinion, be realized through Zionism. According to them, Zionism was a political project to bring Israel into a framework of normal national politics. The success of this project would, as a matter of course, abolish Jewish uniqueness, which is a historical fact that ought to be gotten rid of. If these thinkers saw significance in the chosenness of Israel, it was primarily as an internal call for superior moral and social life, nothing more.


The Chareidi ideology completely repudiated the Enlightenment, of course, and sometimes Zionism as well, and therefore could maintain the classic position on Israel’s chosenness vis-א-vis the nations as the choice between good and evil or truth and falsehood.


Rav Kook faced this question in a most penetrating manner. On the one hand, he was linked to Zionism; on the other hand, he also saw European culture and Enlightenment as positive foundations for cultural elevation and advancement. Finally, of course, he was completely bound up in the traditional sources of Judaism, from the Tanakh through Chazal and philosophy, and including Kabbala. He was therefore unwilling and unable to view Israel’s chosenness as a marginal or anachronistic idea. Moreover, he perceived the return to Zion as a process of Israel’s return to its sense of self, even – and primarily – in the spiritual sense. According to him, it was necessary that this aspect of the essence of Israel feature even more prominently in light of the Zionist process.


Rav Kook’s nationalist outlook, which we will address in the next section of Letter 44, emerged from within this matrix of historical and spiritual forces.


You are now welcome to read the letter.  Please also relate to the explanations in the footnotes.


Letter #44 – Section A


By the grace of God, the holy city of Jaffa, may it be built and established, 13 Kislev 5667.

To my friend, the great rabbi, the wise and exalted, our teacher, the R. Shmuel Alexandrov, may his light shine.  Peace and blessing.

Your letters reached me a while ago and I wanted very much to reply, out of respect to you and because of the benefit to be derived thereof, but I have been caught in a web of constant concerns, and since I wished to respond at length, and with adequate clarity, a task which requires free time, I delayed.  When, however, I saw there was no end to the matter, and already owing a second reply, I decided to wait no longer.  I will write quickly, as much as I am able, [answering] each of your letters in order.  Even though I will have to be very brief, I hope it will suffice for one as wise as you.

A. I must begin with an introduction explaining the difference between those standing within the interior of the Divine light – the light of all of mankind, revealing itself in the light of Israel – and those whose ankles have tottered a bit, and who, unstable and ready to fall, need strengthening, healing, and assistance to support them,[1] in order that we be able to enter the portal of the house of Israel with all our being "to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to visit his Temple," and all evil spirits that seek to draw us out of the bounds of the holiness of God, blessed be He, who grants holiness to Israel, will thereby be driven away from us.

The true quality of the Jew, embedded in the recesses of the Hebrew soul, is the blessing of Avraham our father, may he rest in peace, attested to by the biblical verse, "the seed of Avraham, my beloved."[2] The essence of Jewish life is contained only in the love of God – a love for his blessed name as designated particularly in the name "the Lord, God of Israel."[3]  All other conditions of life, be they many and broad, detailed or general, are only effects or supplements of this foundation of authentic life.  This is our most important characteristic, which prevailed within us, in the first dewy days of our childhood,[4] and which accompanies us forever.  Although [our love for God] is concealed at times, it is exactly for this reason that it will again be revealed with greater intensity.  This is the rule for any great and powerful force subjected for a long period to an obstructive counterforce: when it prevails, it does so with thunder and great strength, with an explosion and torrent.  This characteristic has not changed and will not change.[5]  The procession of life and its external forms change at times, but not the inner content.  "I remember in your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, when you went after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown."[6]  This memory stays and endures forever: "God is not man, that He should lie, nor the son of man that He should repent."[7]

This is our established and everlasting quality, needing no research or philosophy, nor any preservative in the world, for its maintenance or existence. We broaden our knowledge and awareness and make them more sophisticated, in order to give wider space for this divine essential characteristic to expand and reveal itself more fully. By means of its external revelations – which are not at all similar to and are of a lesser degree than the essence of strength and clarity and the inner quality of the love of the Lord God of Israel hidden within us – it is this very quality of their weakness and dimness which allows us at times to rationally verbalize them and through them to participate with those exceptional individuals who remain[8] in the community of mankind.[9] Even though there can be men of God within any nation or tongue, it is nevertheless inevitable that every person, from whichever nation he may be, will contain within himself completely from the framework of a nation which has already established its own particular qualities, by the mere fact of appearing at its inception on the rostrum of nations. [10] 

The Jewish spark within us is, therefore, truly all our strength and joy, all our spiritual wealth and the essence of our being. All other spiritual possessions [e.g. righteousness, kindness, Torah, mitzvot] are subordinate to [the Jewish spark as manifest in the love of God] and serve it.  Even if [the spiritual possessions] seem to be of greater quantity than [the Jewish spark], they are null and void when compared to it terms of its essence and quality, just as all our material wealth – silver and gold, houses and palaces, the power and delights of kings – are subordinate to life's essence as revealed in the inner center of our lives, whether it is the center of our brains or anywhere else it may be according to any of the views of biologists. [11]

This is felt strongly and with all the soul's might by anyone who wants to be a true son of Israel. By [the love of God] Israel will be redeemed, both the individual and the community. All those who have been battered and washed away from the tents of Jacob are not willing to feel this essential fundamental. If, sometimes, a feeling of love for the Divine or for the nation, or both together, awakens within their hearts, they do not recognize the great intensity of [the nation's] distinctiveness and unity, and they desire to build the essence of life, the foundation of the Divine love itself, the love of the Lord God of Israel, which is the soul of the nation and the essence of its life, with superficial and artificial things. [12]For this reason, they fail completely in their quest, and they suffer more and more, until, if they are rotten at their foundation, they break away [from the people], or, if they have a proper and healthy Jewish base, it may bring them to a realization and an explosion of inner life and [lead them to] good, and subsequently, from the power of the inner point, more strong and firm than all else, [13]they will broaden matters, build [spiritual] structures, spread branches, see visions, study, and philosophize: "The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous run into it and are safe."[14] In this they will revive all those fit for revival. 

This inner characteristic can be maintained in its strength and purity only by that healthy guidance and nature necessary for its preservation. It therefore powerfully encompasses an immense and wonderful hot burning love for all the practical mitzvot in the written and oral Torah, mitzvot that are well-rooted in inner love, since this is their source: "From His right hand went a fiery law to them." [15]Wisdom and evaluation, pure philosophical research, refine and cleanse the ideas and conceptions of their ethical and intellectual impurities and set them on [the course of] their true nature, pure and healthy at its source. Therefore, a spiritual fundamental idea which will restore the fallen Tabernacle of David can never be constructed and established without these two interconnected conditions: [first], the heart's perfect love of the commandments of the Torah in its love for the Lord God of Israel, [who is] bound to them [the commandments] according to feelings, and [second], the foundation of life on the essence of the Divine nature implanted in us in eternal love.  Anything which seems to contradict these elements, [16]be it intellectual or practical, be it in the life of the individual or in the life of the community, may the most high hand of God, sent "from the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the cliff,”[17] forever prevail through the strength of the [main] point of our life, to resolve and ameliorate them in a way that will not only result in no diminution or weakening of the knowledge of life, through this seemingly contradictory encounter, but will even bring it [life's point] vigor through the triumph of truth by means of its overpowering [the seemingly contradictory theories] and which will actually come to light in the life of man and the nation, and spread through the life of all mankind.

[1]  This convoluted sentence is not arbitrary. Rav Kook formulates here, in passing, the proper psychological and intellectual attitude that is becoming of a Jew. The distinction here is dichotomous, and the intent of the dichotomy is to generate a definition. The best state is the state of those whose main nourishment is from Jewish sources and methods, “the light of Israel” – which is not perceived here to be a limited circle of opinions and actions but the best of the light of humanity, revealed especially through internal Jewish creativity, literature, and even emotion. The problematic state is that of those who seek their spiritual nourishment outside, whose spiritual identity is prone to fall since they have lost their rootedness in Israel and its wellsprings. Their method or attempt to shape a new Jewish identity is liable to lead them out of the realm of the transcendent sanctity of Israel. Regarding the meaning of these definitions, see below in the letter and the lecture.

[2] “And you, Israel, My servant Yaakov, the seed of Avraham, my beloved” (Yeshayahu 41:8). In the works of Rav Kook, kabbalistic doctrine is often absorbed into the words without being made explicit. According to the oldest kabbalistic traditions, Avraham is the bearer of the sefira of chesed (kindness), also called ahava (love), in the world. Simply stated, the meaning of this determination is that the Divine traits of love and kindness are entirely embodied within Avraham’s personality and are attributed to him. Avraham’s life is therefore interpreted as an ongoing revelation of the virtue of love, both between man and man (his “planting a terebinth” [Bereishit 21:33 – midrashically understood as opening a lodge for wayfarers], praying for Sedom, relations with Lot) and man and God (his sojourn, calling out in God’s name, the binding of Yitzchak, etc.): “Thus said the virtue of kindness: Throughout Avraham’s life, I did not need to do my work… he also caused them to repent and do the will of their Father in Heaven. Avraham did all this… he provided bread and water to everyone, would deal creditably with them and speak to their hearts: ‘Who do you worship? Serve the Lord, God of heaven and earth’ – and he would continue discussing with them until they repented.” (Sefer Ha-Bahir, para. 191).

The sentence “The true quality of the Jew [i.e., love of God]… is the blessing of Avraham our father” is also very precise. On the verse “And God blessed Avraham with everything [ba-kol],” Chazal offered the following interpretation in Bereishit Rabba: “Avraham had a daughter whose name was Bakol.” The kabbalists explained that “Bakol” is the Jewish People, which is the Divine sefira of malkhut (Kingship), known as a “daughter”. In other words: the attribute of love is infused into the sefira of malkhut, of which the Jewish People is the metaphysical embodiment. Avraham Avinu, the first to love God, thus bequeathed his offspring – the nation of Israel – the attribute of love as a principle of existence and a feature of life. On the metaphysical plane, we might say: The attribute of Divine influences the metaphysical whole of Israel and determines its primary identity (see also Sefer Ha-Bahir, pp. 78-79).

[3] Rav Kook is not speaking here of belief as a matter of knowledge or consciousness, but rather of love, which is a psychological-personal relationship. Love of God is not universal religiosity, but the unique expression of the Jewish People. The difference is in name as well, since the Name of the God of Israel is the Tetragrammaton and reserved for Israel alone (see Shemot 3; a fuller explanation lies beyond the scope of this venue). Since the Name is different, the love is different as well. In other words, this religious state of being differs from that which is found in other faiths. This position regarding the link between the singularity of the Name and the singularity of the experience of faith is based on the words of R. Yehuda Ha-Levi regarding the difference between the God of Avraham (the Tetragrammaton – a proper name) and the God of Aristotle (Elo-him – a general and universal name): “The Kuzari: Now I understand the difference between Elo-him and the Tetragrammaton, and I see how different the God of Avraham is from that of Aristotle. Man yearns for God (expressed by the Tetragrammaton) as a matter of love, feeling, and conviction, whereas attachment to Elo-him is the result of speculation. A feeling of the former kind invites its adherents to give their life for His sake and to prefer death to His absence. Speculation, however, makes veneration only a necessity as long as it entails no harm, but bears no pain for its sake. I would, therefore, excuse Aristotle for thinking lightly about the observation of the law, since he doubts whether God has any cognizance of it. The Rabbi: Avraham, in contrast, bore great burdens: his travails in Ur Kasdim, emigration, circumcision, the expulsion of Yishmael, and the distress of the sacrifice of Yitzchak, because his share of the Divine Influence had come to him through love, but not through speculation. He observed that not the smallest detail could escape God, that he was quickly rewarded for his piety and guided on the right path to such an extent that he did everything in the order dictated by God. How could he do otherwise than deprecate his former speculation? The Sages explain the verse: 'And He brought him outside' as meaning 'give up your astrology!' That is to say, He commanded him to leave off his speculative researches into the stars and other matters, and to follow faithfully the object of his inclination, as it is written: 'Taste and see that the Lord is good' (Tehillim 34:9). The Tetragrammaton is therefore rightly called the God of Israel, because this view is not found among other nations.” (Kuzari IV:16-17; based on the 1905 translation by Hartwig Hirschfeld).

[4]  This also refers to Avraham, as stated above, and also to the beginning of Israel’s national existence after the Exodus. See below.

[5] This is one of Rav Kook’s most important determinations: The principle of development that applies to all of nature and culture does not apply to Israel. On this he has a major debate with Alexandrov. See the main body of the lecture.

[6] Yirmiyahu 2:2. See above, n. 4. This is his intent: Love – of which the chosenness of Israel is the flip side – is already rooted in the earliest days of the nation in the desert. The quote from Yirmiyahu is not meant simply to enhance the metaphor. Rav Kook’s words later in the letter have an actual implication regarding the continuation of that prophecy – Yirmiyahu’s rebuke of Israel for abandoning God, the “font of living waters,” in order to “quarry broken cisterns that cannot contain water” refers to the “cisterns” of the Enlightenment.

[7] The prophecy of Bilam, Bamidbar 23:19. The meaning is: God’s memory is eternal – it expresses essence – and therefore if God remembers this love as a bride, it means that it is embedded as a feature of the Jewish People.

[8] This is an allusion to the prophecy of Yoel (3): “Among the remnants that God calls,” namely, the individuals who call in God’s Name. Nevertheless, the simple meaning there is that it refers to Israel, and Rav Kook himself understood it that way elsewhere.

[9] This refers specifically to gentile religious philosophy, and more generally to the value of the Enlightenment as a “foreign import.” Alexandrov was greatly influenced by the German philosopher Friedrich W. J. Schelling and the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, who were both also linked to Kabbala. He even wrote to Rav Kook that the latter’s own views were essentially Platonic (referring mainly to Rav Kook’s theological meditations in his work Ikvei Ha-Tzon). Rav Kook responded that the attribute of love of God – which is part of Israel’s essence – is translated into a general philosophical language, and certainly when there is an attempt to popularize it, it has much in common with the best gentile works of religious philosophy. This commonality, however, is merely superficial, stemming from the inadequacy of language to express full emotion and power of religion, leading to what Rav Kook calls “the weakening of the light,” namely, the diminution of the powerful feelings and ideas when expressed in the general and spoken philosophical language.

[10] Personality is comprised of several spheres: the personal-individual sphere, the national sphere, the human sphere, and the natural sphere. These spheres nourish one another, and just as a person cannot create a work or express an idea that is not human, so, too, he his unable to create anything disconnected from the national sphere to which he belongs. National identity is something innate, not chosen, and it is even reflected in the works of the most outstanding individuals. This idea is based in Kabbala and is well-suited to the mainstream of European Romanticism that was then flourishing and that highlighted the unique-particularistic aspects of the various national cultures and saw them as facts of nature. Thus, the impression that we are expressing similar views when speaking of faith or love of God is the result of shared language (a superficial factor) and not of shared essence (an internal factor).

[11] Rav Kook avoids getting into the physiological problem of the center of personality and contents himself with “to each according to what he believes.”

[12] This refers to the ideological or metaphysical constructs of Ahad Ha’am or Gordon, for example, who attempted to define the essence of Israel with all sorts of definitions that they drew from general literature (“the Hegelian spirit,” “Tolstoyan nature,” and the like), and which are the result of failing to absorb the essence of Israel from its foundations, from those who bear it.

[13] This is an important tangential note. Rav Kook’s writings on proponents of Jewish Enlightenment and secular Zionists are sometimes interpreted as though he has some kind of mystical belief in a Jewish spark that will be revealed and ultimately be victorious regardless and irrespective of the practical and ideological path of the specific Jew. It is true that Rav Kook believed this on the national level, and we will yet address this, but this is a mistake on the personal level. In his opinion, heresy and abandonment of Judaism are tolerable, and there is hope that they will be repaired, only if a strong and firm Jewish foundation underlies them, that is, only if that person has a strong national connection and faith in the importance and uniqueness of Israel – even if he disputes the content of these values. However, if the national sense is, God forbid, weakened and identity becomes superficial as well, there is certainly the unfortunate possibility that a few or many individuals would be completely cut off from the Jewish body.

[14] Mishlei 18:10. The emphasis here is on God’s Name specifically, in the sense of Israel’s unique religious attribute, which is the source of Jewish strength and creativity.

[15] “The Lord came from Sinai and arose to them from Se’ir, appeared from Mount Paran and came forth from the holy myriads, from His right hand went a fiery law to them” (Devarim 34:2). God’s revelation to Israel is linked, from its very inception, to the giving of the “law,” the Torah and its mitzvot. The allusion here seems to be the connection between “law” and “fire” – between the attribute of love, which is likened to fire, and law, which is an expression of that love as well as a means of its preservation. “’And you shall love the Lord your God’ (Devarim 6:5)… and how does one love Him? By ‘and these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart’ (Ibid. 6)” (Based on Sifrei ad. loc. and Rambam, Sefer Ha-mitzvot, positive commandment 3).

Several years later, the great Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig would write in his Star of Redemption that the mitzva of loving God is the major principle, and essentially the “only mitzva” – and that everything else is its extension and expression. Everything reduces to one thing; the root of Judaism is love, not just faith, and love is revealed and reinforced through action. We have attributed this principle to both Rav Kook and Rosenzweig, despite the differences between them.

R. Alexandrov believed that the main problem of Jewish identity in our generation is beliefs and opinions (we will expand on his comprehensive view of mitzvot in a lecture on a different letter), and here Rav Kook opposes this understanding of the problem.

[16] The raising of this problem is connected with one of the fundamental issues that Rav Kook and R. Alexandrov discussed. As will soon become clear in the body of the letter, Alexandrov believed that Judaism’s main problem was the challenge of global Enlightenments, which was also its weak point vis-א-vis internal proponents of Enlightenment. Response to this could only come, in his opinion, in the form of philosophical efforts, and first of all with real familiarity with general philosophical literature and continuing with attempts at synthesis.

The problem is that in his earlier statement that commonalities with general philosophy are only superficial and his advice to draw on the internal and not external sources of spirituality, Rav Kook seems not to provide any tools for dealing with the emerging contradictions between scientific or philosophical conclusions and the fundamentals of our thought, and not even the tools to resolve conflict on the practical level, such as potential conflicts between adherence and dedication to keeping the Torah as it is and the renascent historical and sociopolitical reality.

In fact, however, Rav Kook rejects the problem and expresses faith that by focusing on those powers that lie within the Jewish essence, everything that appears as a contradiction will not only be shown to be non-threatening to our worldview, but even serve as a source of internal clarification that will result in the truth prevailing and emerging victorious, i.e. raising our worldview to a higher and stronger point than existed prior to the contradiction and conflict. From this, the nation’s self-confidence will also be enhanced through its own sources. Dealing with Enlightenment in the manner that R. Alexandrov proposes and as many Jewish proponents of Enlightenment have done and continue to do even today causes, according to Rav Kook, loss of faith in our truth and gives Enlightenment more space than it deserves, ultimately causing more harm than good.

[17] Based on Shir Ha-shirim 2:14. In connection with this quote, note the statement by the Zohar (84b): “’My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the cliff’ – ‘my dove’ – this refers to the Jewish People; ‘in the clefts of the rock’ – this is Jerusalem, which is higher than the whole world. Just as the rock is stronger and higher than everything, so too Jerusalem is higher and more powerful than everything; ‘in the secret places of the cliff’ – this is the Temple, the place called the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim, the heart of the world. Thus, it says ‘the secret places of the cliff’ because the Shekhina is hidden there like a woman who maintains privacy but for her husband and who stays home and does not leave the house, as it says (Tehillim 128:3): ‘Your wife is like a fruitful vine in the innermost parts of your house…’ So too, the Jewish People do not leave their place in the secret places of the cliff except in times of exile, when they are inundated by exile, and since they are in exile the other nations have greater good and tranquility.” Here, Rav Kook alludes to the idea that the character of the Jewish People is inward and not displayed outwardly. When Israel is in their glory and on their land, the spiritual influence will be at its fullest; but when Israel is in exile and disconnected from the source of their vitality, they are weakened and it seems that the nations have a greater influence over them. More to the point, Rav Kook insinuates here that specifically upon the return to Zion the power of internal inspiration must grow, and not nourishment from external sources of enlightenment.