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Lecture #4: The Election of Israel - Letter 44, Section A

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot




This shiur is dedicated in memory of Israel Koschitzky zt"l, whose yahrzeit falls on the 19th of Kislev. 
May the world-wide dissemination of Torah through the VBM be a fitting tribute to a man
whose lifetime achievements exemplified the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.




Lecture #4: The Election of Israel - Letter 44, Section A



The issue that we will expand upon in this lecture, having read the first section of Letter 44, is the election of Israel. We will address two main points: the idea of chosenness itself and the essence of Jewishness.


Additional aspects of this section will be raised in future lectures.


The Election of Israel


The first question that must be discussed is the fundamental meaning of our being “chosen.” what, essentially, is the meaning of the phrase, “You have selected us from every nation and tongue”? To clarify, we are not asking about the results of this selection, nor the rights and responsibilities that stem from it, nor how or when it occurred. Our question is more basic - what is it?


Rav Kook’s position on this issue develops the conception of R. Yehuda Ha-Levi (Rihal) as propounded in the Kuzari, and in certain respects the conception of the Maharal as well. In the first part of the Kuzari, Rihal explains that the election of Israel was not a historical fact but a natural fact. In other words, He “Who chooses His nation Israel” did not establish Israel’s uniqueness through an act of election – not through His calling to Avraham and not through the Exodus from Egypt. Rather, He merely made known what was already present in the very nature of the nation. The concept of “segula” as developed by Rihal means that Israel is essentially different, that the difference between them and the gentiles is a natural difference.


The position of Rihal contrasts with the view of the Rambam and, to a certain degree, of R. Sa’adia Ga’on as well. They saw the election of Israel as a historical act that established Israel’s special status. According to the historical view, defining the difference between Jew and gentile is expressed in terms of assignment of a role, exclusive covenantal relationships, and so forth. Rihal, for his part, maintains that the natural difference lies in Israel’s, and only Israel’s, spiritual readiness to receive theophany, that is, to attain prophecy, the holy spirit, and individual providence, an ability that Rihal categorically denies gentiles. (“One who joins us from the gentiles may convert, but will not become equal to us” is what the scholar answers the Kuzari’s question about the possibility of his conversion – Kuzari, Essay 1.)


Rav Kook accepted Rihal’s view that the election of Israel was something “essential,” a national quality that is implanted in the nation’s personality and its overall character, which is revealed in variable qualities among its individuals.


Rav Kook, however, was not and could not be content with Rihal’s theory of natural capability. In part, this is rooted in factors described in the introduction to the letter, the introduction regarding European culture and humanistic and enlightened values in general.


More importantly, Rihal’s view, simply stated, is difficult from a theological perspective as well. A conception of Divinity as being connected to the world through Israel alone implies viewing all other expressions of reality, human or natural, as expressions external to God. Such a view is possible within the worldview of classical monotheism, which distinguishes between the existence of the world and the entire universe from Divine existence. According to this system, Divinity is separate from and completely other than the world, and the connection between the world and the transcendent Divine occurs through intermediary entities - the Active Intellect, the Divine Presence, etc., and, in our context, though Israel and its prophets.


Rav Kook’s theology is, of course, different. We will expand on this in other lectures, but, in a nutshell, Rav Kook’s worldview is absolutely monistic: all existence is a singularity, and that singularity is Divinity. In other words, all existence, with all of its expressions, should be seen as various manifestations of God’s singularity. That being the case, it is impossible to say that the Divinity is essentially connected with Israel alone, not with other nations, since “there is nothing other than Divinity and no place is devoid of Him,”[1] and this holds true, at least in potential, regarding the gentile nations as well. This leads to the conclusion that the definition of Israel’s uniqueness should not be sought in static metaphysical terms, since any positive metaphysical definition of Israel’s character necessarily implies its negation with respect to gentiles, thus entailing an element of Divine limitation.


This seems like an intractable problem: something has to give – either theology or chosenness. Rav Kook solves this in his usual way. He constructs his view on the basis of opposing ideas and finds the solution to this opposition in an additional dimension, which unifies both of the seemingly opposed ideas at a higher level.


In the present discussion, the added dimension is the principle of reality’s constant development and elevation. This is a central tenet of Rav Kook’s thought, and we will expand on it in future lectures as well. For the present discussion, it need only be said that all levels of reality (nature, technology, culture, religion) are engaged in a process of constant development. This developmental process is necessary since it stems from the tension, inherent in existence, between actual manifestation and potential perfection. In actuality, existence is full of flaws; the True and the Good are only partially revealed in it. It is incomplete! In reality, however, it is Divine existence; the most basic impetus of the universe is its potential perfection. This is because the hidden, undisclosed essence of existence – its Divine essence – is perfect. This tension is the source of the constant, incessant motion of development and elevation of all creation.


Thus, the expressions of technological advancement and cultural and ethical sublimation are the necessary and meaningful steps that the natural and especially human world takes toward its own perfection. Although this perfection has not actually been fully achieved, it has been revealed through the course of history, especially during the modern era.


In light of this, the meaning of chosenness should be understood as follows: When God informed the people of Israel that they are a holy nation, He essentially told them, “You are already like that. With you, it is not mere potential. You do not require development. You are already holy, already Divine. This quality of Divine perfection is your essence.” Israel is already at the point to which all other nations are working. In other words, we do not require the development that the entire world needs and that it works toward through education and through social and pragmatic change. The principle of development does not apply to Israel because they bear, in their very essence, the element of the Divine perfection of existence.


“We are duty bound to praise the Master of all, to extol… for He has not made us like the nations of the earth… for they worship vanity and emptiness… and we kneel and bow and thank the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He… He is our God, there is nothing else.” For us, this is already the case. For the other nations, however, it will be true only in the future: “All flesh will call out in Your Name, to turn all the earth’s wicked toward You. All inhabitants of the world will recognize and acknowledge… and God will be King over all the earth. On that day, God shall be One and His Name shall be One.”


God and His Name are not yet One for the gentile nations, since they do not call out in his Name. The Divine element is within them, but it is hidden - it is not a Name (the expression, the explicit articulation). The nation of Israel, on the other hand, has called out in God’s Name since the beginning of its existence; Avraham “called out in God’s Name.” The fundamental quality of Israel is the revealed, actual manifestation of the Divine perfection of the world. The vision of “God shall be One and His Name shall be One” is the vision of the unification of the potential of Divine perfection (God) with its actual manifestation (God’s Name). Only Israel was granted the revelation of the explicit Name, the Name of the Divine that was given to them, as Rihal wrote (see the text of the letter and the footnote). This is not only because the Tetragrammaton is essentially particularistic-national. Being, which is the essence of the Tetragrammaton, is the inner being of all existence in its supreme, hidden perfection (see below, Section B). The Tetragrammaton, the Name of Being, is essentially universal, even cosmic. However, this essence was revealed only to Israel and remains with Israel exclusively. This is the precise meaning of Rav Kook’s words on the love of the Name of the Lord, God of Israel, which is the quality of Israel alone.


Rav Kook expresses this idea in his sermon on leaving Egypt hurriedly:


It is habitual to speak of “Jewish development” nowadays, but this is only one side of the coin. It is convenient to speak of that aspect in which there is equivalence between Judaism and the outside world, but when will we look after our own and speak freely of that transcendent side, through which we are differentiated from all nations on earth? How long will we continue to be so self-effacing as to view with suspicion all of the praises and high qualities stated about us in our most important sources? Had these things been said about any other nation or tongue, they would boast about it with great pride and arrogance and would know how to always point out their special feature. We, on the other hand, from the moment that the poison of external liberalism began permeating us, we know of nothing else but how to erase our truly prominent features, which differentiate us so essentially from all nations, a difference that cannot be reduced even one iota from the Kuzari’s definition of a “fifth species.”


No, everything develops. Humanity in general does until it realizes its character, but not Judaism. Judaism is the inner essence of humanity and of reality in its broadest sense, and development only controls style and attire, not the inner content.


The highest unity, as it shines from one end of the world to the other, also unifies psychology with general cosmology. The former must reach self-consciousness, until it is aware of its unity with the Highest Source, the source of life and strength, where the most resplendent freedom and morality are etched in all their delightful hues. That national psychological illumination flashed all at once, instantaneously, during that wondrous ascent of the Exodus from Egypt, an unparalleled event in the history of the world. This powerful psychological ascent was so strong that it affected the cosmological process, the world order, for the entire desert generation – a historical episode in its own right. We would be insulting ourselves if we were to falsify our great history and its unique power.


The unique psychic national creation is indeed that of Israel; “she is the only one of her mother.” Yet afterward, when the brightness of this lofty psychic flash, influenced by the power of the faithful shepherd (Moshe), subsided, the process of development once again returned to Judaism, just as it is found in all other nations and tongues. However, the fundamental features of the highest Divine lofty exaltation shall never be erased from within it. The sudden uplift was laid low by the Golden Calf and the breaking of the Tablets, but they will return to their light in the future. (Letters I:140)


In other words, the Exodus from Egypt revealed, all at once, the potential hidden within the essence of Israel; it was implanted in the essence of the nations, and even if it was only awakened one time and was subsequently obscured by falls and degeneration, its impact cannot be erased. Indeed, Israel also needs development, but it is not the same as the development of other nations, since its fundamental character, its perfection, has already been revealed within it. Thus, Israel must find its inner joy only by turning inward to its spiritual treasures, in both the literary-educational sense and the psychological-spiritual sense; it must listen to its own soul. The fact that Israel also historically underwent the processes of rising and falling does not pertain to its inner character, only to its actualized expression in reality.


Regarding Rav Kook’s claim that the essence of Israel had already been revealed by Avraham, R. Alexandrov notes in his letter of response that there is an explicit verse: “I did not make my Name, YKVK, known to [the patriarchs]” (Shemot 6:3). This implies that the spiritual level of the patriarchs was lower than that of Moshe and the generation of the Exodus. Rav Kook responds that this very verse proves his point: The verse speaks of the manner in which the “Name” is revealed. Thus, it is a clear expression of Rav Kook’s claim that the Divine element is revealed in varying degrees of power and clarity, but the element itself is contained within the national spirit:


Your question, my friend, about the words I wrote, that the Israelite movement is virtually unchanged since the days of Avraham, from the explicit verse “I did not make my Name, YKVK, known to them” - I am amazed, for I have written that at times it is concealed, which implies that at times it shines with brighter light and at times with dimmer light. What further comment is necessary? Is it not true that the difference between the various Names of a single lofty concept is only a difference between the definitions of its illumination, between the level of bright light and the level of dim light, or according to the changes in the level of the details of illumination? The elementary movement, though, which is the Divine core, is not just a core but also the foundation of everything, which encompasses all objectives from beginning to end in a highly concentrated state, like a microcosm. This will not change, but will broaden and rise until its glory fills the earth. (Letters I:134)


Rav Kook’s view of the essence of the election of Israel can explain the basis of his disagreement with R. Alexandrov regarding the role of the Enlightenment in the cultural and educational shaping of Israel in modern times. The Enlightenment is both the source and the fruit of the elevation and progress of European culture. In light of this, and since he felt that the principle of development applies to Israel as well, Alexandrov thought that Israel’s continued development depends on acquiring an enlightened education and tailoring it to Judaism’s internal concepts (in his metaphorical words, connecting the Tree of Life with the Tree of Knowledge). Due to Rav Kook’s basically positive attitude toward Enlightenment, R. Alexandrov thought that he would find someone who shared this opinion with him. He was mistaken, however, because he did not understand Rav Kook’s nationalist thought, which consequently altered his historiosophy as well. According to Rav Kook, Enlightenment is vital to the development of the gentile nations, but harms the development of the Jewish People. It is vital to general culture, since by contemplating the world and the self one learns to recognize the world and its moral principles, and culture thus develops and becomes more perfect. Israel’s perfection, however, is implanted within them. They already possess moral and religious perfection, and Israel only needs to listen to its authentic self-expression. (In the next lecture, we will address the difference between gentile wisdom and Israel’s internal wisdom.)


The Essence of Israel

The second main point that emerges from this section is the question of the definition of the essence of Israel. Rav Kook speaks of a national attribute that can be viewed as the basis of the national character, as the prime motivator of its actions. This attribute is the love of God, and, according to Rav Kook, specifically the love of the Lord, God of Israel.


In the text of the letter we explained that here, too, Rav Kook’s words continue the distinction developed by Rihal (Kuzari, Essay 4) between the God of Avraham and the God of Aristotle. Rihal’s distinction is between a philosophical conception of the Divine, which sees God as a function of the universe, as its cause or form – that is, as a vital ingredient of the mechanism of existence – and the Jewish conception of God, which entails a personal relationship with God (the Tetragrammaton – God’s proper Name) and according to which the God of Israel purposefully operates within history. (In other words, he distinguishes between the Divinity of creation and the God Who is revealed to Israel through the words “I am God… who took you out of Egypt.”) Rav Kook’s distinction is between the theistic Divinity, God Who exists unto Himself, separate from existence and transcending it, and the idea of the Divine that is expressed in the Tetragrammaton, according to which Divinity is the soul of being and the source of its vitality, and the world with all its phenomena is only an expression of its Divine essence - in short, a pantheistic theology.[2]


Rav Kook formulated this spiritual identity in a paragraph of Orot:


Two things illuminate within Israel: Pure morality in all of its strivings in the entirety of the world, in man, all life, and all being; and the knowledge that everything stems from calling God’s Name … Morality without its source is inner, central light with no scope, no natural environment, and which will ultimately diminish, and its value and durability are also lessened. The spiritual manifestation of the Divine link, when morality and its value do not illuminate properly, is comprehensive content with no center. Yisrael and Yeshurun include both scope and interior, morality and its Divine source, which will be victorious, will tilt the balance of the whole world, and will shine the light of the Messiah. (Orot, p. 140)


Rav Kook is speaking here of two prominent features that illuminate within the people of Israel, features that are recognizable and revealed in the historical life of the nation – as opposed to those of other nations – and also constitute the main motivation for its actions, whether the action of its individuals or the actions of the Jewish community at large.


The first feature is:


A. Pure morality – morality is the striving for good. Rav Kook defines the essence of this striving as pure (as usual, this is only a metaphor; its purpose is to exclude other possibilities). This is an aspiration to do good and to be good that is sterile, that does not involve aspects of national or personal interest, that does not intend to aggrandize the ego, and is not utilitarian, but is pure – its essential character is the desire to do good. Rav Kook goes on to define pure morality as a universal and even cosmic morality; the moral impulse is not particularistic and is not limited – man and nation strive to be beneficent to all and to elevate all.


The second feature is:


B. The knowledge that everything stems from calling God’s Name – Calling God’s Name is the source of morality, the idea or the conception of reality upon which morality is based. Make no mistake about Rav Kook’s words - he is not speaking simply about faith. Rav Kook is not saying that morality is contingent upon faith, and the desire to do good need not stem from the fact that God commanded us to do good, and not even from the very fact of faith in God and the desire to imitate Him. In the spiritual sense, morality needs no justification. It flows independently from the individual or national good will. However, as an idea, morality needs an environment, an ideational context within which it can be based and rooted. The idea that grants morality the ontological environment within which it can flourish is calling out in God’s Name, in its precise sense. According to what we defined earlier, calling out in God’s Name means indicating the Divinity within existence, that all phenomena and existent beings, from inanimate to human, from greatest to smallest, are expressions of God (YKVK), Who brings all into being. God’s Name is revealed to man through descriptors and emotions. We comprehend different aspects of Divinity through our senses, imagination, emotion, and intellect. These aspects pass through the prism of our consciousness and all signify the supreme existence, which is their source.


Calling out in God’s Name is “the surrounding light” – the outlook or worldview generated through contemplation, education, and thought. Morality is an “inner light” – an essential natural tendency that bursts forth out of the core of the personality. Alone, these two lights are deficient. The monikers “Yisrael” and “Yeshurun” are respectively names for the surrounding light and the inner light – two pillars on which the House of Israel stands.


Regarding the significance of calling out God’s Name being the basis of pure morality, we will make do with a short explanation here and address it at length another time. Calling out God’s Name is essentially the exposure of the essence of existence as a single, great, Divine singularity. Existence is a sort of giant organism with a single soul, the various parts of which are the various limbs of the great organism: inanimate, vegetable, animal, and verbal. Rav Kook’s claim is that pure morality stems only from the conception-sense of the unity of being. As long as existence is grasped as an infinite proliferation of essences, entities, or personalities, the fundamental movement is survival – and therefore struggle – not morality. Within a fundamentally multiple worldview, morality can appear only if it is based on the welfare of the “self” (personal or national). Utilitarian ethics and eudaemonist (hedonistic) morality justify morality from the egocentric, subjective perspective; in this, however, they basically negate themselves, for one who acts on behalf of his own utility or happiness is not doing it because it is good, and this is therefore not really morality (this is why Rav Kook specifically relates to “pure morality”). Only recognition that the various details are not completely foreign to each other and that their separateness is essentially an ontological and sensory illusion can constitute a basis for the beneficent desire that will spread throughout human society and over the world as a whole, straying from the narrow boundaries of the self.


Rav Kook described the weakness of European morality. The European world attempted to construct a morality for itself based on all sorts of foreign elements, which presented it with various obstacles and challenges. These words were stated particularly about the period in which national (romantic) thought was renewed, since the “national subject” is focused on its own happiness and good, and its moral consciousness therefore progressively weakens. Christianity failed to establish morality because it viewed God as a transcendent idea and essence, not of this world, and did not really know God – the Lord, God of the world – and so the European nations despaired of their faith.


Europe rightly gave up God, Whom they never really knew. Humanistic individuals became accustomed to the supreme good, but no complete nation. No nation or tongue can comprehend how to aspire to the Good, for the All, and it goes without saying that it is unable to stamp the foundation of its existence with it. (Orot, p. 52)


As we explained in the text of this section, this quality of loving the Name of God is the fundamental quality of Avraham – the man of great love. Avraham, whose characteristic virtue was love, represents the sefira of chesed in the world; it is his essential quality. Avraham’s overflowing love was directed toward God and man. Love of every person and calling out in God’s Name – that is, announcing the Divinity that is revealed in existence – were two sides of the same coin for him.


Our relationship to Avraham is not only genealogical. Avraham’s quality is the basic quality of Israel, making him the father of the nation, whose every descendant is stamped with his seal.


Moreover, calling out in God’s name is the essential quality of Israel because it is the founding act of the nation. The Exodus from Egypt was the exceptional origin of the nation, and not necessarily because of its miraculous dimension. Nations originate within natural contexts - a particular tract of land, a characteristic culture, common economic and security interests, the need for a regime to impose order on interpersonal relations. These all provide impetus for the formation of nations. None of these factors were active in Israel’s formation as a nation; the Israelites lived within a different culture, under a powerful regime, and without a common heritage or common interests. The nation of Israel was born out of Moshe’s request, “Let us travel into the desert for three days and offer sacrifices to the Lord our God” (Shemot 5:3). Neither freedom from slavery nor political revolution established the nation of Israel. It was born of the demand to worship God! Moshe said to the people at the Plains of Mo’av, long before they inherited their land, “This day you have become a nation” (Devarim 27:9). The nation’s absolute undertaking to love God and heed His voice was the founding event of our nationhood. The faith of Israel is indeed the core of its national existence and not simply another value, cultural style, or the like.


In the next lectures, we will see that this basic quality of the People of Israel has many and varied expressions, but that this does not alter its fundamental definition.


How are we to establish this basic quality of loving God’s Name on its two lights (pure morality and calling out God’s Name)? Wisdom plays a role in this, albeit a secondary one. Rav Kook wrote in the section of the letter that we read that it is true that philosophy has the power to refine and develop ideas, and it is likely that there are, within Israel’s heart, excellent moral or religious feelings that are philosophically underdeveloped or unsophisticated. However, the main thing is to reinforce the heart – the authentic feelings and desires. These demand “hygienic preservation,” that is, natural and healthy Jewish life, not foreign nourishment. The natural diet of Israel is the loving fulfillment of mitzvot. The mitzvot are the uniquely Jewish manifestation of the love of God – the expression of love of the Divine within life itself. The mitzvot are the individual and national lifestyle of Israel, and their fulfillment is thus an expression of love for God (“‘And you shall love the Lord your God…’ How so? ‘And these things that I command you today shall be upon your heart’”) and simultaneously an authentic expression of life.


In conclusion, the path of Israel’s repentance and repair in a generation of heresy and skepticism is not through the adoption of theoretical philosophy, through enlightenment – even if the objective of studying them is the attempt to illuminate internal concepts – but through the reinforcement of the fundamental qualities of Israel, whose practical expression is: a. basing national and individual life on their Divine point of origin, the love of the Name of the Lord, God of Israel; b. educating and influencing toward the observance of all mitzvot lovingly as an expression of love for God, the nation’s authentic feelings.


Sources for further study within Rav Kook’s writings


1. The essay “On the Progression of Ideas in Israel,” pp. 102-118 of Orot, deals at length with the relationship between what Rav Kook calls there “the national idea” (the concept of nationhood as such, culture, politics, etc.) and “the Divine idea” (the source of religion and faith, absolute values). In that essay, Rav Kook expounds a complete historiosophical approach in which he explains all of Jewish history from the perspective of the relationship between the Divine idea and the national idea.


2. Orot Yisrael (printed in Orot), pp. 138-142. The selections that appear on these pages pertain to the issues we have addressed, some of which we will address in future lectures.


(Translated by Elli Fischer)

[1] This is a fundamental principle in the writings of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Chabad’s Alter Rebbe, and in the writings of Rav Kook.

[2] I am not getting into a precise formulation of this view right now, but I certainly do not mean that Rav Kook’s theology is the same as Spinoza’s, with whom the concept of pantheism is identified. We will examine Rav Kook’s theology with greater precision in the future. Suffice it to say for now that all existence is viewed as a singularity, as an enormous personality with a soul, and its soul, its essence, is its Divine source – the Tetragrammaton – which brings all into being.