Lecture #7: History of Religion ֠Letter 44, Section D

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot


Lecture #7: History of Religion –

Letter 44, Section D




We continue our series on Letter 44, and one might say that we are approaching its climax. Rav Kook now turns to a contemplation of the history of religion and faith in general in order to understand, against this background, the uniqueness of the Jewish faith – which will, please God, be clarified in the next section.


The notes on the actual letter are lengthy due to the difficulty and unfamiliarity of some of the concepts, and I hope that the notes will assist in the study.


Background and Context


R. S. Alexandrov and his correspondence with Rav Kook were discussed in the introduction to the first lecture on this letter.


Thoughts before Reading


Rav Kook presently provides a sort of survey of the major phases in the development of the history of religion until modern times. Of course, this is not an empirical theory; it is essentially a philosophical and anthropological hypothesis, whose main interest is not to provide historical perspective but to define the major forms of religion and the relationships between them.


Rav Kook’s claim is that the various paradigms of worshipping God are dialectically linked and can be understood as developing immanently from each other, sometimes by generating an antithesis and sometimes through synthesis that includes and transcends the prior paradigm.


The history of religion was a favorite topic of scholars of religion and anthropologists at the end of the nineteenth and throughout the twentieth centuries, for two reasons. First, they were attracted to the new opportunities to encounter primitive religious cultures. Through them, these scholars attempted to understand the basic forms of religion and its motivations. Second, during this era religion began to be perceived as a cultural phenomenon, not as rational truth. Therefore, the proper method for understanding it was no longer historical, but historical-anthropological.


Here, Rav Kook takes a modern approach in order to express his ideas on religion and in order to clarify the uniqueness of the Jewish faith as part of his overall theory of religion and its development.


It is important to note that viewing religion as part of man’s cultural development does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that religion has no objective framework. The explanation that links the development of religion to psychological or social processes is neutral with regard to religious truth. It is possible that as a result of social circumstances or processes people will create myths that have no objective value, but it is also possible that they will discover scientific or metaphysical truth and portray it in various forms. Of course, Rav Kook believes that our certainty of God’s existence is cardinal and unimpeachable. However, at the beginning, human culture was not mature enough to recognize God’s existence. Even now, it has not yet grasped the significance of God’s existence in its highest and purest form, even though it has recognized the cardinality and necessity of faith.


Rav Kook does not address, in his present description, the phenomenon of secularization, which was so characteristic of the nineteenth century and seemingly opposed to the advancement of religion as part of cultural advancement. If religion indeed constantly progresses, how is it that the height of cultural advancement is accompanied by profound and wide-ranging heresy and not a higher level of faith? Rav Kook deals with this question extensively in his letters that discuss the phenomenon of heresy, and so we will leave it here as a question for thought.


In order to understand Rav Kook’s theory, we preface by saying that he tries to understand the essence and development of religion by describing the relationship between three vertices:












The religious paradigm



Theology is “the study of the Divine:” how is God portrayed, what is the “image of Divinity,” in Rav Kook’s language? The religious paradigm is the primary religious motivation, the dominant religious feeling and the manner in which it shapes religious experience – what we regularly call “worship of God.” The third vertex deals with the relationship between faith and all levels of morality, beginning with the very formation of a normative social order and culminating in the ideal morality.


As will be seen in the letter, Rav Kook’s primary contention is that a change to one of the vertices influences the other two as well, and therefore a full understanding of religion is only possible through contemplation of the status of these three vertices and their internal relationships.

Letter 44, Section D


D. In the beginning, before the world was secured[1] by the great abundance of prolonged development, or at least by its depiction, which affected it and greatly improved it,[2] at a time when man was savage and no seed of inner ethics actively stirred within him, it was necessary for him to control his evil appetites by a multitude of fears,[3] which were the various types of pagan worship.[4] Into this deep darkness dawned the light of Israel,[5] and declared that no particular fear can bring help or salvation, nor can they bring either the individual or mankind as a whole to that peace and tranquility which it deserves.  This, of course, could be said only after these fears had had an opportunity to function to some extent, in accordance with that previous low state.[6]


Indeed, part of mankind had already risen above this, to the point where it no longer needed this multitude of fears. One mighty all-encompassing fear is sufficient – the awe of the one God.[7] Once the gates have been opened for this eternal idea, this universal justice,[8] all the gates beyond it open in turn. A total and comprehensive belief would not allow man to remain debased, but would lead him from virtue to virtue.[9] As long as this fear was particular and fragmented, it could not be raised to an eternal height, but now that it is united, built on a complete world, it could pass from the fear of punishment to the awe of Divine exaltedness, the awe of [Divine] grandeur, of moral and intellectual glory, of endless perfection.[10]


The world became more firmly based and began to sense that the awe of the divine majesty borders on love,[11] and, in general, the demand for love grew in proportion to the level of intellectual and ethical development.[12] For this reason, the human race began its many loves, and this is romanticism, and even though it ebbs and flows, it will not lose its effect on the already mature spirit of man. [Man's various] loves, although fragmented, without any fundamental basis, without a higher recognition that unifies all, function to ameliorate man's debasement in the same way that his fears did.[13] But man will not forever remain in his humble state. He will cast aside these idols of love as well, just as he cast away the idols of fear, and will recognize the all-inclusiveness of the highest, perfect, all-encompassing love, which Israel proclaims in the world – the love of the one God.[14]


The same distinction between eternal awe and that fear which must be eliminated[15] exists also between [these two kinds of] love. The debased fear will be uprooted from the heart of man with the uprooting of all particular fears, which can not be united with the general and all-encompassing awe, which will be replaced with the awe of the glory [of God], which refines, purifies, and adds strength and happiness to the world,[16] and which is the substance of the highest love, which molds its shape.[17] The various loves will also be stripped of their debased forms, their weak content of low morality and lack of wisdom and reasoning.[18]  Then the love of God will appear in its fullness, in its purity, in its splendor, which in its unity brings life to all the good particular loves, and adds to them courage, grace, beauty, righteousness, justice, and integrity.[19]


This process depends, of course, on how much the source of the highest love will be revealed, and how much Israel will manifest more of its original power – not in borrowed garments but from its own source and spring. Anything that originates in mankind's wisdom is not borrowed. It is ours as much as the whole world's.[20] But that which mankind cannot give – the lofty love of God fixed in a nation's history as a red thread encompassing all that it has, from the beginning of its existence as a distinct nation, with its ascents and descents – this is not found in mankind. Mankind is not yet ready for it; it is still in its swaddling clothes, until Israel releases its bonds. This requires, therefore, [Israel's] original power, always available to it. In our times, "the plants wait just below the soil;"[21] Israel's light is very near to being revealed. If we truly want to be wise, righteous, and penitent through love,[22] we will bring the end of our redemption and the salvation of mankind – largely dependent on us – much closer.[23]


(Translated by Elli Fischer)

[1] In a note here, R. Zvi Yehuda refers us to the origin of the expression “the world was secured:”

R. Yitzchak said: “It is written (Yeshayahu 30:26), ‘And the light of the moon shall be like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall become sevenfold, like the light of the seven says’ – what are the seven days? These are the seven days of creation.” R. Yehuda said: “These are the seven days of milu’im (prior to the inauguration of the Mishkan).” The milu’im – certainly, for at that time the world will be secured and return to its perfection, and the moon will no longer be deficient due to the sin of the snake, about whom it is written (Mishlei 16:28), “A shifty man stirs up strife…” When will that be? During the time about which it says (Yeshayahu 25:8), “Death will be swallowed up forever.” And it similarly says (Zekharia 14:9), “On that day, God will be One and his Name – One.” (Zohar I:34a)


According to this context, the world was secured by the great light of God’s manifestation, by whose light one could see existence for what it really is. In general, though, we are immersed in darkness - our grasp of reality is limited and partial – and it follows that religion and morals are also on a low level. Later in the lecture, we will see the significance of this citation for understanding Rav Kook’s entire approach in this portion of the letter.

We also note that the metaphor for light and darkness are conventional within modern discourse in general, such as in the contrast between the “dark” Middle Ages and modernity’s “enlightenment” and related expressions.

[2] That is, today we can already speak of an enlightened era of immanent morality; however, even prior to this the depiction of light, the knowledge of the moral ideal, had a positive impact on culture.

[3] The word “fear” in this context refers to the Chassidic-Kabbalistic term “lower fear,” or fear of punishment. Rav Kook, however, gives this concept new meaning and explains that the distinction between various levels of fear is not only psychological but also theological; it is not only connected with a type of feeling that develops toward the Divine, but also to its object, that is, man’s conception of God. (Later, he will discuss the awe of God’s exaltedness, the “higher fear,” and the emotions that are regularly associated with it: esteem, admiration, honor, and the desire to emulate.) In a nutshell, Rav Kook’s claim here is that “lower fear” presumes a personal, theistic, willful God with an Existence that is outside the world, whereas “higher fear”, and certainly love, is connected with God’s immanence.

[4] Rav Kook presently begins to develop the core of his theory on the history of religion. According to him, there is a profound connection between faith and morality. Paganism is the first and most primitive stage of religion, and it should be viewed as a projection of vague moral impulses (the sense that man’s evil impulse should be vanquished) that take the form of anthropomorphic and vulgar divine figures. The pagan deity is a persona with moral claims on man. These claims are not necessarily essentially correct, but at their foundation lies the expectation that man overcome his evil nature, an expectation that obviously arises from the fact that religious culture imagines the deity itself to be this way. Since the claim of morality is not yet mature and has not yet been realized as an inward claim, it is perceived as the violent claim of an external force that if ignored will result in immediate punishment (a natural disaster or the like) and if heeded will result in positive reward (wealth, fertility, etc.).

[5] According to the Zohar (I:52a), this is the light that shone on Moshe’s face (“and she saw that he was good” [Shemot 2:2; see Rashi ad loc.]) and later during the revelation at Mt. Sinai – in other words, the light that appeared during the formation of the nation of Israel.

[6] In other words, paganism positively influenced the formation of social and ethical orders, which, even if partial, was certainly a sign of human progress. The necessity of paganism stemmed from the lack of autonomous moral motivation, as a result of which only the threats that the gods imposed on their subjects were able to have a significant impact. This also underlies the profound link between paganism and politics in the ancient world. What the prophet Shmuel saw as being contradictory (the request for a king, which is a request for liberation from God’s yoke) was viewed in many places as being identical – the king as a deity, a demigod, or the son of a deity. The idolatrous view of kings gave them the power to impose social orders in the name of the hidden moral nucleus buried deep within them.

[7] As is well-known, paganism attributed divine status to natural forces (and thus had sun-gods, storm-gods, sea-gods, etc.). The name “Elokim” means “Who incorporates all of the powers” or “Master of all powers.” In other words, the stage that follows paganism, which is polytheistic, is monotheism, which is indicated particularly by the name Elokim. However, the name Elokim remains linked with the concept of the Divine within nature (the numerical value of “Elokim” equals that of “ha-teva” – nature), and is still perceived in terms of power. Nevertheless, the very essence of monotheism – control of all powers – really implies transcendence; the Divine is no longer associated with a particular element of nature, but with absolute control over all of nature. The idea of God’s unity thus dissociates His essential description from any natural definition and, in lieu of that, describes Him in moral terms – good, just, etc. Put differently, monotheism identified Divinity with the ideal of moral perfection. This theo-ethical leap introduces all the next phases of development.

[8] The expression “universal justice” (“tzedek olamim”) is mentioned here because it was discussed in R. Alexandrov’s letter, consequent to Rav Kook’s use of it in his essay “Ikvei Ha-tzon.” This expression refers to Jewish idealism, which is eternal and perfect and not merely a cultural fashion linked with a particular need or zeitgeist.

[9]  Recognition of God's unity is the gateway to all of religion's refinements. It is true that there are levels and phases even within monotheism, but the very conception of unity already includes the subsequent phases within itself – although they are still in need of intellectual and cultural-emotional refinement before they can be revealed.

[10]  Unlike the fear of punishment, awe of God’s exaltedness does not refer to the Divine aspect of power, but to His description as being perfect. Moreover, as explained in note 3, there is a theological shift here. Feelings of respect and esteem are not directed toward someone’s abilities, but toward his personality. The awe of God’s exaltedness does not really relate to God as all-powerful, but to God Who is good and bestows good. Adoration and respect inspire ethical sentiments because there are directed toward the idea that describes the Divine, and thus they cause a person to want to emulate the object that he adores and venerates as being perfect.

[11]  Awe of exaltedness and love thus belong to the same family of emotions. If I adore someone, I want to become close with him and spend time with him; this is a gesture of coming close, just like love.

[12]  Not necessarily in the religious realm. During the renaissance, love was viewed as an ideal – a higher state. Love is an immanent gesture. It originates in natural-spontaneous impulses, not in coercion or even external thought. A person begins to wish that his choices, beliefs, and essentially his entire approach to life, be the result of inner striving and not of superficial concepts or approaches.

[13]  Rav Kook presently introduces a strange dialectic: The world progresses from a state of fear to one of love, but the new state appears within a pluralistic worldview, not a unified one. Here, Rav Kook identifies the power called love with the Romantic movement, which included an array of cultural phenomena that have dominated Western culture since the Renaissance. There are several principles of Romanticism. One of the most prominent is the adoration of nature in general and the nature of man specifically. Another is the importance of emotion in human life. The origin point, according to Rav Kook, is to view man through his innermost identity, his desire to live and to be, which is immanent within man and is the foundation of love. Within the realm of religion, the expression of this is founding religious life on feelings of closeness to God, on the joy of the experience of faith, etc. Thus, in art and music, works were no longer directed toward external objectives; the artist no longer creates for the king, church, or even for a living, but to express his emotion (for example, Beethoven in music, Van Gogh in art, etc.). There are many immanent sources, and they work in different directions. There is thus a surprising analogy to the first stage of transcendent fear, which was directed toward a multiplicity of powers.

[14] This statement by Rav Kook should be understood against the background that we explained at the beginning of this letter regarding the precise meaning of the expression “the love of the one God.” Love stems from and is directed toward the Divine unity of being. The love of the one God is the love of the Tetragrammaton, which is the Soul of being and its spiritual-ideal foundation. The various loves (of nature, aesthetics, art, freedom, etc.) are individual expressions of the Divine unity, which man can only know in a fragmented manner. Later in this letter, Rav Kook will formulate the philosophical framework of the relationship between the Divine unity that is expressed in the Tetragrammaton and its fragmentary manifestation.

[15] “Lower fear” is fear of punishment, which must be eliminated and which opposes the awe of God’s exaltedness, “higher fear” – the substance of and close to higher love.

[16] See above notes 4, 7, and 10. The psychological relationship shifts along with theology. In other words, the object of this attitude determines its substance (feelings of honor and glory versus feelings of fright and terror, adoration or fear).

[17] In the metaphor that Rav Kook uses, the form of the mold is immanent love, and the molded substance is the monotheistic recognition of unity, based on awe.

[18] The content is considered “weak” because this love does not stem from the soul, which leaves only a trace of itself in it. It is manifest as a particular emotion, which is not necessarily related to the total personality and certainly not to the whole of existence. The moral lacking is in the fact that the particular, non-Divine love stems from the individuality of its author, artist, or theologian, and therefore it can be egotistical or even narcissistic, as we know full well today.

[19]  This can be restated as follows: The ideal, redemptive phase that we are on the threshold of is the phase of unified love, which transcends particular loves. This phase is a higher synthesis of the two prior phases, unified awe and scattered love. It will take the recognition of unity from monotheism, which is rooted in the awe of the Divine, and the recognition of immanence (living from within, love) from the romanticism of creative Western man, the ‘lover.’

[20]  In his essay “Ha-Machshavot” from 1903 (printed in Ikvei Ha-Tzon”), Rav Kook distinguished three types of thoughts: thoughts that are exclusively Jewish and which have no common ground with that of gentile nations; thoughts whose style is similar and which therefore can have influence on others; and thoughts such as scientific conclusions or ideas that are the result of philosophical discourse, which are universal and in which there is no difference between Jew and gentile. In this sentence, Rav Kook refers to thoughts that belong to this latter category.

[21]  “R. Asi asked: It says ‘the land brought forth grass’ (Bereishit 1:12) on the third day of creation, and it says ‘no shrub of the field was yet on the earth’ (Ibid. 2:5) on the sixth day of creation? This teaches that the grasses grew until they stood just beneath the surface of the land until Adam came and petitioned on their behalf, and the rains came, and they grew. This teaches that God hungers for the prayers of the righteous” (Chullin 60b). The meaning of this metaphor in this context is that the ground is already prepared, and only a relatively minor gesture is sufficient to cultivate its spiritual crop.

[22]  One of the central ideas of Orot Ha-Teshuva – the first collection published from Rav Kook’s journals – is that our generation requires specifically repentance out of love. This determination is doubly validated and justified in light of the approach that Rav Kook develops in this letter, according to which love is the ethos of the era as a whole and the main expression of mankind’s advancement. Therefore, its repentance – its religious renewal – must be out of love in the sense that he means it here: it must stem from immanent wellsprings of personality, from the natural expression of man’s essence connecting itself to the Divine dimension of existence.

[23] Here, Rav Kook completes the circle that he opened at the beginning of the section. The hidden light that was revealed at the beginning of Israel’s existence and which is kept ready for the future will be revealed again through Israel. The world needs to develop in order to be able to receive this light, and as is clear from the description of the world’s development, we are approaching this age. See above notes 1-2.