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Lecture #5: Socialism, Liberalism and Foreign Wisdom ֠Letter 44, Sections B and C

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot


Lecture #5: Socialism, Liberalism and Foreign Wisdom –

Letter 44, Sections B and C



We continue our study of Letter 44 with the next two sections.  The first specifically addresses R. Alexandrov’s program for establishing a sort of college for rabbis to attain a general education, which Rav Kook rejects in favor of a yeshiva with a new type of curriculum.  We will not elaborate on this section presently, but we will return to it when we study a letter in which Rav Kook deals more basically with his plan to establish a yeshiva and his practical educational outlook.


The second section continues his philosophical discussion from Section A, which we have studied during the past several weeks.  You are invited to read it now with its notes, and next week we will send the shiur on it.  This section is the second story of the edifice, build atop the foundations laid at the beginning of the letter.




We have already discussed the date, context, and addressee of the letter in the introduction to the first shiur on this letter.


Thoughts before Reading


In the previous shiur, we dealt with the idea of chosenness itself and the significance of Israel being a “holy nation,” that is, the essential content that forms the core of the nation’s spiritual identity.


In the present shiur, we will investigate the ramifications of the foregoing on understanding the relationship between Israel and the nations, and especially the relationship between beliefs and opinions originating among the nations and Israel’s belief-truth.  This is a general topic and, in certain respects, can be seen as a classic issue.  Numerous medieval philosophers have posited the relationship between revelation and philosophy as sources of truth as the key question of Jewish philosophy.  The Rambam, R. Sa’adia Ga’on, and others did not see philosophy at its best as a foreign culture, but rather as the pinnacle of the achievements of reason, which is, of course, universal.  In light of Section A, this question can be reformulated: Can Israel express a positive attitude toward beliefs and opinions of gentile origin, to be influenced by them or even to accept them, after positing that the essential character of the nation and its history are wholly other than those of the rest of the world?


R. Alexandrov raises this question with regard to the two great nineteenth century ideologies of liberalism and socialism – both totalizing ideologies that express views on economics, ethics, history, ontology, etc.  In fact, these are two worldviews, one of which (liberalism) ultimately conquered Western Europe, while its counterpart (socialism) conquered Eastern Europe.  Within the Zionist movement and pro-Enlightenment Judaism, there were those who gravitated toward each of these ideologies; there were parties and streams that saw both of these ideologies together, or at least one of them, as the basis for the re-establishment of Jewish nationalism.  Recall that during the Second Aliya, the period during which the present letter was composed, the socialist stream was dominant (led by Brenner, Katznelson, and others), and Mapai emerged as the ruling party.


R. Alexandrov viewed socialism as the greatest rival of Jewish faith, and he therefore completely negated it, while seeing liberalism as an eternal human truth and the future of the entire world:


It is completely impossible to unify the essence of Judaism with the essence of historical materialism because they are opposites, and virtually all adherents of Marxism never returned to Judaism… If we can find within Judaism a potion that kills historical materialism, we would truly be able to take pride in our treasures… (Mikhtavei Mechkar U-Bikoret)


“Historical materialism” is Marxist historiosophy, through which Marx proposed the idea of the proletariat seizure of wealth and nullification of the alienation of a person from his handiwork through its just distribution.


Later, R. Alexandrov writes:


Universal justice [this term relates to Rav Kook’s essay “Thoughts” in Ikvei Ha-Tzon] is the essence of Judaism and all of the various types of liberalism, which are rooted in love and sensitivity, their blessed source is in classical Judaism, making it easy for us to be true to the fundamentals of Judaism while being the most extreme liberals… (Ibid., p. 23)


In the present section and in the remainder of the essay, Rav Kook relates to these two major ideologies methodologically and specifically.  Recall that socialism appeared as a materialistic, and consequently atheistic, worldview.  Liberalism, on the other hand, had no such unequivocal theological identity, even though it was a major catalyst of nineteenth century secularization.  The difficulty of reconciling these two great idealisms with Judaism – especially in light of the understanding that “calling out in the Name of God” is the very soul of Jewish nationalism – is particularly great.


Letter 44, Sections B and C (end of p. 44 ff.)


B.  Therefore, I know with certainty, that if we propose a formal plan to establish a "rabbinical college," the matter will go wrong, and there will be more shell than content, and it will produce Jewish scholars like the rabbis who once came out of the "rabbinical colleges" of Russia and now Germany.[1]


For this reason, I find no cure for our malady except by means of an assembly, small at first, without any trappings of formality, but only with the mighty inner recognition that now more than ever it is our duty to revive the spirit of our nation, fainting from evil oppression and thirst.  The few called to this assembly should be people who are not old, who possess the qualification of divine holiness joined with clear knowledge, and a heart purified by the ethics of truth.  They should agree to institute the study of all that pertains to conceptions and thought in the Torah in all its great breadth, combined with education and guidance for a healthy body and spirit, including the proper use of the scientific knowledge of the time, in all its broad and far-reaching branches and sensitivities, so that their style will be sharp and their minds broad, so as to be able to establish, in proper spirit, good and vital literature based fundamentally on the source of Israel and with the general breadth of its advancement.[2]


Then will our children see our might and glory, our truth and spiritual richness, and by this their spirits will be refined and uplifted and they will be heartened to be exalted in the strength of our people and in raising the glory of our beloved land, the dwelling of our life and our hope for generation after generation.  From this modest beginning, which should be made only by forces which stand altogether inside,[3] a great tree of life will grow to nurture our salvation.  The matter may progress and broaden in such a successful manner that even the enlightened nations will awaken to the penetration of the great rays of light which will sparkle from the place from where the light emanated long ago: "And I will wait upon God, Who hides His face from the house of Yaakov, and I will hope for Him.  Behold, I and the children who God has given me are for signs and for portents in Israel from the God of Hosts Who dwells upon Mount Zion."[4]  And prior to this it is said, "Bind up the testimony; seal the Torah among my disciples."[5]


C.  Our great inner strength, when it awakens and becomes clear, will fear no heresy or despair.  It efficiently takes from everything its best content.  [This is] not because this [best content] is completely new to it,[6] but rather because all good and all truth is already rooted in the nation of Israel – this is the immortality and everlasting life planted within us by the Torah of truth.[7]


All the spiritual debilitation that has come into the world has damaged only the outer element in which the highest absolute spiritual wisdom clothes itself.[8] The entire world has only the garb and shell of spirituality – for paganism is no more than a shell enclosing a small and dark interior, and the religions which tried to make pagan nations into upholders of Jewish ethics, sanctified in a feeling of divine holiness, could not change the essence of the pagan character fixed in the churches of all human social groups:[9]


Moshe asked that the Divine Presence rest on Israel, and it was granted to him.  He asked that the Divine Presence not rest on idolaters, and it was granted to him.  For it is said: “So shall we be differentiated, I and Your people, from all the people that are on the face of the earth.”[10]


We do not know God from the world and through the world, but within our souls, from our divine characteristics, [with which] we begin and continue with to general characteristic of the entire nation; [then] adding [the nation's] historical light, and now equipped with all [we need], we proceed toward wide universal understanding.[11]


We do not grieve if some characteristic of social justice is constructed without glimmer of mention of the Divine, because we know that the aspiration for justice, whatever form it may take, is itself the most illuminating Divine emanation.[12] If mankind were to desire the establishment of a state of equilibrium in life, and serenity for the heart, devoid of any spiritual influence, we would [nevertheless] find there, even if [mankind] were unwilling to recognize it, the essence of [this] justice fixed by consensus, and, if only [mankind] could succeed, the greatest spiritual emanation.[13] "But he shall say, I am no prophet, I am a tiller of the ground, for a man taught me to keep cattle from my youth."[14] Should a man want to build a completely structured cosmology without the aid of any spiritual emanation, by the calculation of material necessities,[15] we may watch this child's game in perfect ease, since it builds a shell of life without knowing how to build life itself,[16] whereas we draw close and are strengthened more by this in the bond of the inner light of holiness.  "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt," and not "who created the world,"[17] and we draw closer to this divine light through the lofty recognition and the exalted certainty of the powerful, harmonious, and pure life itself: "And I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt, and you know no God but me, for there is no savior besides me.  I did know you in the wilderness, in the land of great drought."[18] With this we go out to the wide world and free it from the bonds of its enslavement, from the deathly sleep[19] it inflicted upon itself and all of creation, and then we proclaim, "Ah Lord God! Behold, You have made the heaven and earth by Your great power and outstretched arm, and there is nothing too difficult for You; you show loyal love to thousands, and recompense the iniquity of the fathers to the bosom of the children after them.  O great and might Lord! The Lord of Hosts is His Name, great in counsel, and mighty in performance.  Your eyes are open upon all the ways of the sons of men, to give everyone according to his ways and according to the fruit of his doings, Who has set signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, to this day, and in Israel, and among mankind, and has made you a name, as at this day."[20]


Not by dry logical necessity[21] and not through fear of robbery and murder will the light of the God of Israel shine in the entire world, but with the Lord's full Name on the full world.[22]  The outside world must be built with its consciousness and its cultures at their fullest strength.  After all this, however, it will still lack everything as long as it lacks the delights of the Lord and the light of the God of Yaakov.  It lacks the pleasurable, holy, powerful, and eternal life, which it is seeking, seeking but which it can not find except in the treasure of life hidden in Zion, the perfection of beauty.[23]


Only with reinforced courage can we securely say that pure science in its entirety is a true companion of light,[24] and complications are only the result of the impurities mixed into the divine idea by the wicked heart of man and by the folly of his imagination.  For this reason, mankind feels tied down by something oppressive,[25] but when the pure light emerges into the world, it will feel yet more the burden of the chains of negativity, of despair, of denial, that has no content and is nothing.[26] But then [the manifestations of negativity] themselves will join the harmony of the totality of ideas and forces, to purify and cleanse, which in itself is the character of the full and illuminating life, harmonious and clearly delineated.[27]


We need a great and pure spirit, a sacred and Divine will, and succor from all in whom the Divine spirit of God beats.  Even now, without much difficulty, we can examine well the total scope of science and make it greater than could earlier generations, affected as they were, even in the value of science, by the pressure of the exile.[28]



(Translated by Elli Fischer)

[1] This is essentially the practical question on which the entire letter hinges.  As noted, R. Alexandrov proposed establishing a rabbinical college where they would learn general studies.  Rav Kook proposed a flagship yeshiva that would indeed be of a new style, but would ultimately be designed on the traditional model.

[2] Rav Kook’s plan includes two aspects that were innovative vis-א-vis the traditional yeshiva model:

a.     in-depth study of Jewish philosophy as a main subject in the yeshiva;

b.     training Torah scholars as writers with respect to formal style and inner content.  To that end, he needed to inspire all the various forms of literary creation (plot-driven literature, philosophy, poetry, publicity, etc.).  Tools such as linguistic proficiency, rich language, broad scientific knowledge, and the like were required as well.

Aside from these two emphases, Rav Kook speaks about the fact that the Torah scholars in his yeshiva would not only study halakha or engage in casuistry, but also possess religious-spiritual talents that could become a source of inspiration and influence on the community at large.

[3] This sentence is also directed against the Enlightenment as a basis for the spiritual edification of Israel.

[4] Yeshayahu 8:17-18.

[5] Ibid. 16. Characteristic of Rav Kook, citing these verses is not merely intended for rhetorical flourish.  In this case, his intent is Rashi’s commentary, based on a midrash:

There is an aggadic midrash in Bereishit Rabba about Achaz, who seized (“achaz”) the synagogues and study halls so that the schoolchildren would not study Torah.  He said: “If there are no kids, there can be no he-goats; if there is no flock, there is no shepherd; I will cause Him to remove His Presence.” The prophet said to him: “For all that you bind up the testimony and seal the Torah to keep it away from Israel, you will not succeed.  ‘Behold – I and the children’ – these are the students, who are as beloved to Me as sons – ‘are for signs and portents,’ that the Torah shall be sustained in Israel through them.  (Rashi to v. 18)

In context of the letter, the interpretation seems to be: There is no reason to fear the diminution of the Torah; the Torah’s restoration and Israel’s salvation will come about through these “children” – i.e., through young scholars studying Torah – and this all issues from the center of God’s Presence, from the God of Hosts Who dwells upon Mount Zion.  We may further expound that the nations will also see the source of this great light, as it is written (Yeshayahu 2:3): “For Torah will come out of Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem.”  The reference to the verse “bind up the testimony…” alludes to the fact that the salvation that these “children” will affect is connected to the Torah that is engraved upon their hearts.

[6] This relates explicitly to R. Alexandrov’s model of internalizing the Enlightenment and its values; see the next note.

[7] Alexandrov speaks of the Tree of Knowledge as a metaphor for Enlightenment and of the Tree of Life as a metaphor for theology.  Rav Kook insinuates that according the birkot ha-Torah, God implanted eternal life within us by giving us the Torah, and the Torah is thus our Tree of Life.  In fact, the Rambam already alluded in Moreh Nevukhim (II:30) that the Tree of Life symbolizes eternal life that one acquires by cleaving to God by knowing Him.

[8] “Debilitation” refers to the various forms of heresy.  Rav Kook reiterates this in many places – heresy is not directed against faith itself, but against its various manifestations.  When the image of faith is unconvincing, vulgar, or otherwise weak, there is no wonder that the generation of the Enlightenment rejects it.  The specific explanation for heresy in Western culture follows immediately.

[9] Christianity mediated between Jewish monotheism and pagan nations.  However, the beliefs and opinions were absorbed according to the intellectual and psychological understanding of their receivers, and the pagan platform upon which the seeds of Christian faith were sown (most of the Church Fathers were pagans who accepted Christian monotheism) caused a situation wherein despite its holy source, the shells (pagan notions of divinity) predominate over the core (the substance of faith, the idea of God).  Rav Kook is certainly referring to the doctrine of the Trinity, which contains elements of unrefined pagan theology, as well as the world-negation of Christian dogma, itself rooted in semi-pagan myths.

[10] Berakhot 7a.  This midrash is based on Moshe’s request for the distinction between Israel and the nations (“so shall we be differentiated, I and Your people”), and consequently that what he asks for Israel be denied to the nations.  The important point for our present purposes is that Moshe’s request “that the Divine Presence rest on Israel” is directed at God’s offer in the wake of the sin of the Golden Calf that an angel, and not the Divine Presence itself, go before Israel and lead them to their land (“thus I will not go up in their midst;” see Ramban ad loc.).  From a theological perspective, the angel is a representation of the Divine.  The Sages (and this emerges from Scripture as well) speak of “guardian angels of the nations;” i.e., the nations of the world are guided by angels – they only recognize the representation but are no aware of God’s Presence itself.  If so, this is a midrashic expression of Rav Kook’s words about gentile faith.

[11] In other words, faith is implanted in the nation's very essence and also is manifest in its history.  Thus, Israel finds its faith internally in the recesses of its soul, and it issues forth from there to the world's attention – our faith is not dependent on the world’s recognition.

[12] In the distorted imaginings of the Christian faith, any spiritual, moral, or political movement whose goal is to improve man and the world but whose language is an irreligious in nature is viewed as a heretical movement, as an alternative to religion.  In truth, however, striving for justice is itself a religious striving, for it is the striving for the absolute, that which is beyond nature, and its impetus is the Divine element of human existence.  Thus, democracy, socialism, or liberalism, ideologies that penetrate the existence of just human society, stem from the absolute Divine element in mankind.

[13] In other words, even if the social movements have no spiritual pretensions and only seek a life of order and harmony, of inner and social balance, the Divine aspect is noticeable within them.  Indeed, a world that is inundated in chaos and disharmony is in opposition to its Divine character.  Man’s striving to attain equilibrium in his life also stems from the recognition of the basic organic unity of existence, even if it is not at all portrayed as a religious sentiment.  The ramification of the striving for unity specifically on the material and practical planes is, paradoxically, an extreme manifestation of the totality of Divine unity.

[14] Zekharia 13:5.  Rav Kook apparently interprets this verse positively, as a prophecy of comfort that states that specifically the turn to simple human ideals, not to clearly spiritual life (“the tiller of the ground,” not “the prophet” in the metaphor) is itself the perfection and unity of life.

[15] Rav Kook is referring here to Marxist historiosophy.  R. Alexandrov saw Marxism as the great enemy of Judaism, both because of its content and because of the dramatic influence that it had on Jewish youths in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century, in the years preceding the Bolshevik Revolution (1917).  Materialism is the attempt to understand history and ontology together; i.e., it sees all processes as data reducible to material causes.

[16]  Materialism is the ultimate expression of rational philosophy, which perceives the universe objectively and is not prepared to assess that which is beyond experience.  According to the harsh standard of this philosophy, there is nothing but material existence, which is the fruit of experience.  Rav Kook agrees that the material exists; he does not claim, as the Alter Rebbe of Chabad did, for example, that material is only an illusion.  Rather, material is only the shell of life, and one whose encounter with reality is only superficial is ignorant of the core; he knows only the shell.  Like a child who knows nothing other than the sensory because he cannot imagine anything else, modern rationalist philosophy denies the possibility of the existence of anything that cannot be grasped by experience.  Its ontological edifice is thus like a child’s construction.

[17] This sentence is based on the beginning of the dialogue between the Jewish rabbi and the Khazar king in R. Yehuda Ha-Levi’s Kuzari, Essay A.  The Khazar is surprised that the rabbi sees fit to begin the description of his faith by recounting a historical narrative.  The Khazar will later understand that this is the essence of Jewish faith: God’s presence in history and reality.  The declaration “I created the world” represents here the classical philosophical option.  The problem is that when God is merely a function of the universe, it can be expected that at some point the function that He fills will become superfluous, as indeed happened in the new philosophy and physics.

[18] Hoshea 13:4.  The emphasis is on the fact that “I…” – God’s presence in history – is His “calling card.”  To reinforce this, Rav Kook will soon cite a verse from Yirmiyahu.

[19]  From a subjective perspective, the materialist world, in which there is no God, is considered dead, like a body without a soul.

[20] Yirmiyahu 32:17-20.

[21] He apparently alludes to Kant’s ethics, which strive to base moral obligation on the internal lawfulness of intelligence (see Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason).

[22]  He is alluding to the prophecy of Zekharia (14:9): “And God shall be King over the whole world; on that day, God shall be one and His Name one.”  In other words, gentile ethics, based on utilitarian conceptions (Mill) or on theories of social contracts (Hobbes, Locke) – which perceive ethics as a social arrangement whose purpose is to prevent mutual violence – cannot constitute a real basis for moral idealism.  The true motivation for morality is God’s Name, the inner, perfected character of existence, represented by the Tetragrammaton, which is, according to Kabbala, the sefira of Tiferet – the ideal, supreme source of existence.  The legacy of faith dependent on the Tetragrammaton is not just a religious issue; it is supposed to be the source for the emergence of the ideal life of all strivings for all of the unconditional goodness in reality, whose source is in its recognition of its Divine character.

[23] “From Zion, the perfection of beauty, God appeared" (Tehillim 50:2).

[24] This refers to the humanities as well, including ethics, history, and ontology.

[25] Liberalism claimed in the name of the idea of freedom and in the name of morality that religion imposes itself on man and negates his freedom; since the source of morality is the free will of man, and religion is heteronymous, religion thus negates morality as well (this based on Kant’s idea of autonomy).  Rav Kook explains that Kant’s claim is indeed true – but only with regard to Christian theology’s pagan image of God.  God, who appears as superhuman, demanding, threatening, and terrorizing on one hand, or takes on the form of a beaten and suffering human on the other, is, in either case, unable to become the source for internal moral striving.  In truth, as has been explained, faith is the source of all ideals that man’s free will desires.

[26] This refers to heresy, the falsehood of complete negation of Divinity.

[27] Here, Rav Kook refers to one of his basic ideas regarding the role of heresy in the world.  According to Rav Kook, heresy is not directed at the essence of faith, but rather at its insufficient and skewed imaginings; heresy is the negation of the image – not the negation of the source – and it even thinks so itself (on heresy, see the continuation of the letter).  Thus, heresy joins the historical dialectic of the development of faith and the sublimation of its concepts.  We will expand on this in the next section.

[28] The return to the Land could be the source of this reconciliation with global science, since it removes the pressure of exile from us, the threat of loss of identity and the connection between the ruling and pursuing nations and their science, a pressure that prevented us from meaningful, non-paranoid dialogue with global science.  This does not change Rav Kook’s basic attitude that the source of our spiritual and moral essence is not in the world’s science, since even according to this position there is not necessarily a contradiction or disconnection between these sciences and our internal sources.