Lecture #6b: Liberalism and Socialism - Letter 44, Sections B-C

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot



This week's shiurim are dedicated
in memory of Mrs. Cela Meisels, Tzerka Nechama bat Shlomo,
whose yahrzeit falls on the 14th of Tevet.




Lecture #6b:  Liberalism and Socialism - Letter 44, Sections B-C



B. “It Begins with Division and Ends with Connection”


The two most significant ideological challenges that Judaism faced at the beginning of the twentieth century were liberalism and socialism. R. S. Alexandrov dealt extensively with these two totalizing theories, and his discussions on the relation between Enlightenment and Judaism are connected, to a large degree, to the apparent conflict between these two philosophical-cultural and normative systems and authentic Judaism. In what we have already seen, as well as in the continuation of the letter and elsewhere, Rav Kook deals with socialism and liberalism from the vantage point of our religious-national thought. Since we have already established the fundamental determinations, we have an actual methodology that determines how to approach these challenges. Let us look at Rav Kook’s words regarding socialism and liberalism as a paradigm for the relation between Jewish thought and any belief or opinion whose source is among the gentiles.


In our introduction to the section, we noted R. Alexandrov’s position. R. Alexandrov adopts a methodology of philosophical dialectic: he clarifies the positions of liberalism and socialism and finds one to be compatible with Judaism while negating the other. Rav Kook’s approach is fundamentally different. Let us see his words from later in the letter:


The good that is in historical materialism will itself stand by our side, as we confidently clarify how it is impossible for it to stand as a permanent doctrine, be it old or new, with all its branches and shoots, but is in need of pruning and weeding, refining and purifying, and its good part will last forever, like all that is compatible with Israel's light, its strength, and its eternity.


Universal justice, which we say and repeat, is inestimably higher than that limited characteristic of liberalism – born of a human idea at a passing moment of history – and it does not require cowardice and broken spirit, but rather lives with the cold logic of the mind as well as with the warm feeling of the heart, and with all of mankind as well as with the particular nation, family, and individual.


For this reason, I agree with you that we can see a spark of hope, and only a spark, in the midst of the great darkness surrounding us. But we know and perceive and with certainty that the light was once there. "It is not written, 'Let there be light' but 'There was light' – the light already existed," and the light exists in potential in our treasury. For this reason, that only a spark is now apparent does not bother us. We are certain that, by this spark, we will come to find great light, the flame of God, "until her righteousness goes forth like radiance, and her salvation like a burning torch." (Letters I, pp. 50-51)


It is impossible to say of liberalism or socialism that they are unequivocally good or bad. Each of them contains a positive kernel. They can be seen as part of man’s general striving for the ideal good life. Here we arrive at the second focus of this lecture: can liberalism or socialism be considered religious movements?


Essence and garb, kernel and husk – in the great “isms”


In conventional religious language, these movements are certainly not religious. Their ideals are not religious according to any accepted yardstick, and they certainly do not invoke the Name of God.


However, Rav Kook’s metaphysics are revolutionary in that it impacts the language of religion as well. According to Rav Kook, a movement or action can be religious irrespective of its relation to a particular normative system (the Torah or, le-havdil the New Testament); its worldview is likewise unimportant in this regard. The important question is: what is it striving for? What motivates it? When we see a striving to repair the world, for a just society, for a good life – we know that we are in the presence of a Godly movement acting in the world, even if it is not conscious of it.


This does not refer to the hidden hand of God, as would classical religious terminology. Rav Kook does not speak of “personal” supervision or of God running the world. He determines that the inner psychological or metaphysical foundations of these actions are Godly, meaning that striving for good and idealism themselves stem from the Divine dimension of existence, which is revealed in the human soul and in humanity as a whole as the moral and religious impulse that are the source of the beliefs and opinions of powerful social and political movements. The ideological or conceptual trappings of this Divine impulse (the striving for goodness and perfection) may have no connection to religion. Its interior, however, is certainly religious, and we accept it as an expression of the Divine in the world.


Rav Kook taught us not to relate to the external expression – the trappings – of beliefs and opinions. Trappings are a matter of style. Thus, for example, the presentation of Zionism as a normal national movement is connected with the development of nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century. The inner content of the movement, however, is the desire by the nation of Israel to return to its identity and to its spiritual and religious fullness, and to influence the entire world. Socialism appeared as a materialistic movement; this was its garb – not its inner content. Liberalism appeared in connection with the ideas of individualism and egocentric conceptions; these are its trappings, not its substantive core.


Thus, specifically because ideas require purification and refinement, Israel’s inner point of origin is so important. If we accept a single idea in its initial form, its values and ideas will occupy disproportionate space and manifest themselves in a skewed manner. From the perspective of the over-arching unity, these two grand theories will indeed need to live with each other, and each will need to contribute its core of goodness and shed its husk.


The problem is that this is very difficult: the ideologies seem to contradict each other, and both of them seem to contradict faith.


Socialism attempts to solve human problems by addressing the economic-material dimension. It demands the relinquishment of competition and of ownership in favor of the collective ownership of the proletariat. Its ethics are the ethics of an egalitarian society that enforces just distribution. The concepts of justice and philanthropy are not relevant to it. According to it, justice is the invention of human culture that was also designed to serve the proper material order.


Liberalism sees freedom as its highest value. It does not limit cultural or material life. According to it, social development is contingent specifically on the rule of egoism. Self-esteem is the greatest source of creativity and development. Liberalism, however, does not reject morality, but rather views it as the foundation of a good human life – a distinction that allows R. Alexandrov to accept liberalism while rejecting socialism.


We will now attempt to solve this difficulty vis-א-vis these two movements.




As noted, it is possible to analyze socialism and divorce it from its materialism. Social justice need not be encased in materialist trappings, and even historical materialism can be refined. Its true point is the understanding of immanence, the understanding that reality is driven by natural forces.


However, Marx only understood the outer shell of reality – materialism. Materialism is correct when it points out the importance of material motivation, but it misses the mark when it becomes totalizing. It is possible that the historical failure of socialism is precisely rooted in the fact that it aligned itself with atheistic (heretical) materialism. Since, from a material perspective, the liberal and capitalist West was far more successful, socialism, which was founded on a materialistic worldview, lost its justification. In truth, as a conception of social justice, ideal socialism as a moral outlook is correct in principle; liberalism is cruel from a socioeconomic vantage point. It can thus be said that the materialistic context of socialism is tragic.




What about regarding liberalism? One year later, Rav Kook wrote to R. Alexandrov:


You find hints of moral liberal anarchism in Judaism. Indeed, all ideas can be found in the source of truth. Truth cannot be partial; the truth must be all-embracing, but its singularity is that it overturns everything in its true shining light.


Not only does the anarchism of liberalism find its source in Judaism, in the light of Israel, but also the anarchism of material individualism, but it too will be purified where it touches the bounds of purity. The highest consciousness of unity, alone in its loftiness, must pass judgment on the whole process of particulars being a false illusion, an inadequacy of the field of our vision. Our limbs are organically connected, so that when one is wounded they all feel pain. In the same fashion we have a self-love that is partially anarchic, branching out “skin over skin,” by the same channels that transmit feeling from one to the other.


Such relations are seen in a spiritual, experiential sense in the bonds of loving souls that form the foundation of the family so that, if it were not so difficult to free ourselves from habit, we would find that the difference between that feeling of pleasure or pain that spreads from one limb to another is not significantly different from the feeling that spreads from son to father and from lover to beloved.


When these channels are broadened, the feelings flow more strongly and are more tangible and evident. When the national body is in its wholeness and perfection, it too is constructed on the model of the family. Development requires only the widening of the channels; individual solidarity broadens into the nation. From nation to mankind is but one step. From humanity to all life is one more step. Concern for the inhabitants of one planet to a serious and profound interest in all of existence in its widest sense is only one move, indeed a far off one, but eternity is in no rush. The matter continues to a sublimation of the whole cosmos into a single individuality.


Thus, we have no need for anything but anarchy, a tremendous, great, mighty, and developed self-love. The paths that lead there, though, are the ways of life that emanate from the source of unity of the one, the life of the universe, Judaism. When higher sparks like these fall down, they descend and sink, sink into the deep mire of life. These are the “fallen ones” of old.


Therefore, we must reiterate that Judaism encompasses everything in the widest and best possible sense, but it actually guides us in accordance with its unique ways, living and enduring for us and for our children. When their inner light breaks through, we will not need to seek anything, and the night will shine like day for us, and the sun will shine like the morning light. (Letters I, p.140)


In other words, even liberalism in its radical form (anarchism), based on the absolute reliance on human spontaneity and human nature, can be purified and refined and is rooted in holiness.


The argument that Rav Kook develops here is an excellent example of the purifying power of Jewish thought – the though of over-arching unity.


Liberalism’s weak point is its disjointed and atomistic worldview. Its ontology is pluralistic. As a result of this worldview, freedom (cherut) leads to competition (tacharut): every individual who wishes to express his freedom thus threatens the freedom of others, and vice versa. The identity of the individual emerges from the soil of egoism, and is therefore not moral. The only love that exists is man’s love for himself.


However, if these good sensibilities of freedom, spontaneity, and love were to emerge from the soil of a unified vision of reality, they would have a completely different meaning. The idea of over-arching unity belongs to the field of ontology or theology. Understanding that reality is really an organic singularity of which God is the soul is ostensibly a matter of philosophy. However, we learn here that this over-arching unified theory also has epistemological (pertaining to the ways we view the world) and psychological (pertaining to the way we view ourselves and the limits of the ‘self’) ramifications.


Rav Kook’s words can be explained simply: A mother’s love for her children and her willingness to forego life’s pleasures on his behalf – money, time, and the like – is that altruism? Is this mother not egoistic?


The answer seems to be obvious: a mother who makes sacrifices for her children sees them as unmediated parts of her ‘self;’ their connection is organic. This is no act of self-sacrifice for another - it is the relinquishment of one aspect of a personality in favor of another aspect. From certain perspectives, the child is included within the mother’s ‘self.’ In a well-known story, R. Aryeh Levin informed the doctor that “My wife’s leg hurts us.” Of course, this psychological worldview can be found in context of national fraternity as well (as in the kinship that a soldier feels for his fellow soldiers or his homeland, which he sees as part of himself). Rav Kook says here that, in principle, a person can feel/see all of reality in an organic sense – from within. Plurality and multiplicity are illusory; unity is truth. In the next lecture, we will deal in detail with the epistemology on which this view is based. Regardless, it is clear that conceiving reality as a unity, even though it is not initially intuitive, is hypothetically possible.


If one has achieved such an existential experience, his self-love is no longer merely directed at the narrow boundaries of his skin, but toward reality or society as a whole. For such a person, love of society is not a normative act or a demonstration of sacrifice or concession, but a natural actualization of his feelings of love. His spontaneous freedom is not an expression of a lonely individual personality, but of the general will of being or society in general. Although this general will is expressed through the unique spectrum of his personality, it is clearly not egoism.


In such an atmosphere, liberalism is not only legitimate - it is ideal. It reveals Divine dimensions that operate in reality and it need not be rejected or repressed, conceding freedom or nature in order to accept the yoke of Heaven, which is seen as external to man and to reality.


The method that Rav Kook proposes here gives us, if only in its most incipient form, an opening to consider what lies beyond both of these previous concepts.


Both liberalism and socialism found their place in the unified vision after they were forced to give up the original environment in which they were created on behalf of the individual citizen and on behalf of society, and were repositioned, without their husks, as building blocks for Jewish religious thought. Proverbially, these systems are like saplings that were planted in poor soil, and moving them to good soil allows them to flourish and bear good fruit. Rav Kook’s thought here has a refining and purifying power. Contemplating liberal ideology from his vantage point (of Divine unity) raised its “spark,” the Divine content within it.


“The most noble of the nations… the nation of Avraham’s God” (Tehillim 47:10)


In conclusion, I wish to address an additional point that emerges from what we have learned. In the past two lectures, we have studied the concept of nationalism, and particularly Jewish nationalism. The humanist position, and global and universal contemporary thought even more so, relate negatively to the idea of nationalism. Emphasis of nationalism is considered chauvinistic, necessarily causing inequality, and consequently lacking in humanism.


In several places, Rav Kook writes that Jewish nationalism is on a different level. Thus, for example, the following passage:


The difference between the Jewish soul, in all its independence, inner desires, longings, character and standing, and the soul of all the gentile nations, on all of their levels, is greater and deeper than the difference between the soul of a man and the soul of an animal, for the difference in the latter case is one of quantity, while the difference in the first case is one of essential quality. (Orot, p. 156, para. 10)


Pitting humanism and universalism against the ideal of Jewish sanctity and chosenness from amongst the nations only intensifies this question. Rav Kook indeed states:


The universal quality always fills the heart of mankind’s noble spirits. They will thus feel suffocated if their spirits are confined to the limits of their own nation. (Orot, p. 152)


The solution to this problem is that, indeed, universalism is a higher level than nationalism. However, when addressing the nation of Israel, the dialectical opposition between nationalism and universalism is eroded, since the essence of the Jewish People is that they are a microcosm of all humanity, and it can certainly be contended that its particular (national) quality is absolutely universal. The purpose of emphasizing and deepening Jewish nationalism is to bring out and refine the general, super-national essence of Israel – “it begins with division and ends with connection:”


But the nation in whom true universalism is embedded in the depths of its soul, “the most noble of nations, the nation of the God of Avraham,” always requires actions that befit its model properly, deeply, internally. A multitude of noble, universal ideals applies to them abundantly. Their inclusion reaches the highest heights, to where the eye is weakened and whose heights only the abstract soul, full of splendor, can reach. Practical restrictions and spiritual broadening are together the main form of Israel’s character, a nation that dwells apart and simultaneously a light unto the nations. (Ibid.)


Here, nationalism is enlisted to defeat itself, in that it serves as a framework and ideological basis for the idea of universal perfection, which is the essence of Knesset Yisrael.


Rav Kook expressed this idea in a more extreme form in a letter that he wrote several years later:


            Yaffo, 10 Shvat, 5772


Dear Mr. S. Y. Horowitz, in response to your question regarding Judaism and its future, I hereby offer my opinion, gleaned from the publication of all that I have studied and thought on this matter. Knesset Yisrael is not a nation in the regular sense, but is an ideal microcosm of mankind, which fully displays itself as a social group with all of its conventions, which is metaphorically called a “nation” because all unique human groups are so called. It expresses its many manifestations in various forms in different eras. It expresses some of them autonomously and some of its expressions are actualized by other parts of humanity – at its instigation. It constantly strives to rise to this high level of spiritual breadth so that it no longer needs to spread its power thin through separate manifestations, time after time and place after place. Rather, it will all be expressed within itself, in a clear and prominent manifestation, all at once, through the creation of a new history. Then the nations will follow its light, and kings will be guided by the glow of its radiance, and it will be called by a new name that God will designate. Thus, a penetrating aggada states: “In the future, all of the prophets will sing a song in a single voice, as it says: ‘A voice: Your seers raised their voice; they shout for joy together. For every eye shall behold God’s return to Zion.’” Because of this future ideal of ideals that is promised to Knesset Yisrael, which is expected through the refinement of all life, the life of the nation in spirit and in practice, we embrace the stature of our position as the possessors of the soul of the great ocean to which all rivers flow. We will not go to pasture in foreign fields to look for drawn or swampy water. The ideal ocean is our future. So said the Godly Moshe in his prayer: “Satisfy us in the morning with Your kindness, and we will sing and rejoice all our days. Gladden us for as many days as You afflicted us, the years that we saw evil. Let Your servants see Your deeds, and Your glory by their children.” (Letters II, pp. 65-66)


It is clear, then, that even the concept of nationalism itself does not accurately express the status of Knesset Yisrael in reality; as a microcosm of humanity, it is essentially impossible to define particularistically, unless it is a mere metaphor.


In order to explain this paradox, we return to the segment that we began with and to the connection between the historical nation of Israel and the metaphysical Knesset Yisrael, which is also the sefira of malkhut.


Malkhut is an attribute, a unique aspect, amongst the Divine attributes. Does this mean that it has a separate, independent essence? Certainly not. On the contrary, malkhut is precisely the ability of the other attributes to work in harmony, organically. R. Yehuda Halevi expressed the historical dimension of this idea in his parable of the heart and limbs that appears in the Kuzari.[1] This metaphor emphasizes, on the one hand, the abundant centrality and importance of the Jewish People as the heart of the nations. But this parable has a flip side as well: the organic conception of mankind. Mankind is a complete body with various limbs, each of which has a different function. As the center of the circulatory system, which was also the seat of the soul according to the ancients, the heart connects all of the limbs. When the heart does not work properly, the world does not exist as a single personality. Were Israel to return to its function as the heart, humanity would become an organic being, a single family. This does not erase the differences between nations, but overcomes their divisions. The Jewish People will never cease to be the heart, just as the other nations will never ceases to be what they are; all that changes is the relationship.


We can introduce another metaphor to illustrate this. Humanity today, and throughout history in general, is like the violin in Picasso’s famous painting. This is a “cubist” reality – strips of a single entity that has been dismantled and scattered across the surface. One who contemplates it sees the mutual connections, the common source, but does not see harmony. Picasso’s Violin has tension and tempest on one hand, and perhaps, one might say, harmony on the other side, but it is certainly impossible to play it. Now we can ask: what part of the violin represents Israel? The answer seems to be: none of them. The Jewish People, in this parable, are represented by the ingenious and imaginative artist who has the ability to remove the cubist illusion, to convince that even though reality seems disjointed, it can be seen otherwise. Mankind is capable of being that whole violin that plays the Divine song.


Sources for Further Study in the Writings of Rav Kook


The issues are mainly found in pp. 138-143 and 151-158 of the collection called “Orot Yisrael” that appears in Orot.


(Translated by Elli Fischer)

[1]  The metaphor was originally intended to explain the apparent contradiction between the eternity of the Jewish People (the heart as the seat of health) and the excessive suffering that it endures (the heart as the seat of illness). I am interested in relating to a different facet here, although R. Yehuda Halevi did not make it explicit. I believe that it is central to his worldview.