Lecture #8: Letter 44, Section D ֠On the History of Faith and Religion

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot




This week's shiurim are dedicated by Rabbi Uzi Beer in honor of Rachel Beer.





Lecture #8: Letter 44, Section D –

On the History of Faith and Religion



In order to follow Rav Kook’s description, we will use a chart in which we will try to reconstruct the hypothesized trajectory of the history of religion. As I suggested in the introduction to the lecture, the development should be understood in relation to three vertices – theology, morality, and the particular mode of worship of the Divine (what I have called “the religious paradigm”):



The Religious Paradigm: Mode of Worship



State of General Culture




None - no concept of God

Primitive state. Man engaged in the immediate struggle.

Barbaric. Relates to nature only. No metaphysical conception.

Man begins to recognize the need for social order, for normalization.


“Lower fear:” subservience to God; religion motivated by fear and hope.

Paganism, polytheism. Natural forces are identified as omnipotent gods.

Religion assists the regime. Stabilizing the social order and the beginning of morality as the conquest of base impulses.

Culture is connected to nature. Undeveloped intelligence and the beginning of metaphysics and philosophy.

The need for normalization and governance causes the formation of idolatrous myths. Idols as forces of nature or as semi-human figures.


“Lower fear” (punishment)

Monotheism. God is a perfect entity in Himself. Transcendence.

The One God is the epitome of moral perfection. His claims are not aggressive, but stem from His goodness.

Philosophy, study of the world. There are metaphysical concepts. The true existence is the Divine, not the natural.

There is an internal proximity between morality and theology, since God is identified as a moral figure.


“Higher (superior) fear:” Awe of God’s exaltedness, feelings of glory and majesty.

Monotheism (as above).

As above. Morality is based on the principle of imitatio Dei, “and you shall walk in His ways:” Man wishes to be Godlike.

Dissociation of politics and religion. Morality is about individual perfection.

Not only is God moral, but man, too, strives toward a moral ideal.


Particular loves. God is still feared.

Monotheism, as above.

Morality is based on man’s love of everything, such as himself. Morality is immanent.

Morality based on love manifests as a social and even natural phenomenon. Romantic movement; Renaissance; Developed aesthetics.

The moral ideal is not external, heteronomous, but flows from man’s inner desire.

Sixth and Final

Love of God. Religion is an expression of essence and is manifest as a spontaneous movement.

Immanence, pantheism. The Divine element is both the source and the purpose of all love.

Morality is based on the love of everything. Experience of the Divine unity.

It is clarified that the root of all particular loves is the greater love of God.

Complete unification of the three vertices. Unlike fear, which is externally directed, love is immanent, and it unifies source with object.



Rav Kook’s present description of the evolution of religion is essentially a commentary to his essay “Worship of God,” which was published one year before he composed this letter.  The essay appears in his pamphlet Ikvei Ha-Tzon, to which R. Alexandrov referred in his letter. In that essay, Rav Kook distinguishes between what he calls “worship of the substance” and the worship of Godly ideals: they are two modes of worship that correspond to two ways of relating to existence.


Rav Kook describes the way in which a child relates to reality. A child relates to some objects directly; he attempts to touch it or taste it. He acknowledges only its substance. The child has no self-awareness and is not aware of the gap between that which is self and that which is external to self.


For a child, perception of and contact with reality are absolutely objective: the subject (the child) conceives of the object (something that exists in the external world).


The problem with this approach to reality is that a person who attempts to relate to some present entity as such will discover that he is essentially completely foreign to it. How can I conceive of something that is absolutely other than me in all respects? This problem pertains to the object’s material qualities as well as its essential features; there is an absolute Otherness.


The answer to this problem is a new understanding of the essence of consciousness. Adult consciousness understands that our knowledge is not of things as such, but of the manner in which they appear to us; we know something about out subjective relationships with them (and note that “subjective” does not necessarily mean “individualistic”). Feeling is a type of relation between ourselves and the object, and since we know our feelings toward the object, we may infer things about it indirectly. This is not direct knowledge of the Other, but self-knowledge, through which I make assessments about the nature of the source of those feelings. Thus, for example, when I face my dog, I do not know it. I have impressions of its appearance; I have sensations of its touch, movements, and scent; and I am conscious of its essential canine qualities. All of these (familiarity, conceptions, and feeling) are internal to man; the dog itself is beyond unmediated knowledge.


In the same sense, but even sharper, we have no direct knowledge of the “Divine essence.” The problem here is not only ontological; it is theological as well. Whereas in the world of objects we presume the existence of some object which transcends consciousness, something else that is the source of perception and sensation, with regard to our relation to the Divine, this presumption borders on idolatry, since it demands that we relate to God as though to an object, i.e., as something with substance, limitations, location, etc. That which in the domain of objects is naןve and childish becomes idolatrous, or at least touches its root, in the Divine realm.


The conclusion of this train of thought is that our relationship with the Divine is only via the aspects revealed to us, the “relationship.” In kabbalistic terms, these aspects are referred to as “Names” or “Epithets,” or simply “Sefirot” – the revealed but limited aspects of Divinity that we are capable of apprehending. In philosophical terminology, this refers to Divine ideals - the good, love, truth, sanctity, etc.


Knowledge of God


Any apprehension, whether of something concrete or abstract, that wishes to position itself in a state of relational encounter with any tangible or abstract thing, immediately arouses a double feeling or thought – one that is two, from the aspect of the apprehended entity and from the aspect of its attributes that relate to the subject who is engaged with those entities. It is understood that through the assessment of sublime thought, the primary importance of the preciousness of the apprehended entity will depend on its very substance. In this sense, the most sublime thoughts correspond to the most childish thoughts, since low and superficial thoughts also cannot include any ideas that can make it deviate from its apprehended object, since childish thought has no idea of the laws of the senses and tangible objects nor of the ways of intelligence and abstract, theoretical object…


Thought that rises above the low surface already ascertains that the feelings and ideas about some chosen engagement will be an engagement with the attributes of the apprehended entity as they relate to it. In this it removes from itself all confusion and disorder caused by a strange object, since there is no longer truly a foreign object. Rather, it is engaged with an element of its own experience. And if the apprehended entity is something sublime and exalted, a wellspring that cannot be drawn from or quantified but is an ever-flowing spring, then thought will constantly be immersed in Edenic rivers, drawing new treasures of life close to itself and bringing itself light and joy, an aura of life and tranquility. And if this apprehended entity is such a subject that every aspect of it that is revealed through emotion or thought is a receptacle for all that is goodness and sweetness, all that is majesty and splendor, all that is love and power, all intelligence and light, all that is good and exalted, that is found within the thinking and contemplative soul – in such a case the natural exertion of the most exalted aspect of the soul’s desires will go forth to lay a path to expand and make constant the relationship of thought and emotion to that apprehended entity, whose attributes so closely approximate the highest and best aspect within it.

(“Da’at Elokim” in Eder Ha-Yakar, p. 130)


Rav Kook goes on to explain that the question is not the degree to which a concept is physical or refined; posing the problem only as one of the philosophical quality of a concept misses the point. As long as the religious relationship is a relationship with an object, it is linked to the theistic (God as an entity Who exists in and of Himself) and transcendent (He is external to the world) theology.


It is worth noting here that Rav Kook views Spinoza’s pantheism as a relation to the Divine essence and its identification with nature (i.e., a sort of cosmic idolatry) and as producing a form of God worship that is akin to slavery – based on feelings of subjugation and fear:


However, as long as the concept of serving God remains one of worship that relates to an entity, bare and denuded of consciousness of idealism within the interior of the essence of the concept of servitude itself, despite the greatness of the scientific Divine portrait in a metaphysical and spiritual manner, though all of the philosophical and theoretical greatness in the world, the matter has not yet progressed beyond the childish worldview that only ever encounters objects. (Ibid., p. 145)


We sometimes think that the difference between polytheism and monotheism is about numbers. Although this is true, it is not the primary distinction. Furthermore, as we explained, the difference is not about whether God is more or less material. We are not afraid of metaphors; this is not the main issue. The root of true Jewish faith is relation to the various ways that God is manifest within existence, and the root of idolatry is relation to the Divine essence, as perfect and infinite as it may be.


This is the paradox to which Rav Kook refers later in the letter when he speaks of a sort of “infinite concept” in, for example, Islamic monotheism. Worship of God that is based on relating to an entity begets a relationship of servitude and subjection before Him and negates the importance of the world, which is not Divine. The need to be good does not derive from that which is inherent in man or the world, but from compliance to God. It is clear from here that if inner moral consciousness were to expand and natural moral feelings were to develop, but the religious relation would continue to point toward an entity that is external to existence, the gap between faith and morality would only grow:


The lowest form of the concept of “Divine worship” corresponds to the lowest human level of the general concept of the Divine – the servitude of the slave. It becomes greater to the degree that the inner image of knowledge of God becomes greater. If a person is on such a level that his moral and intellectual powers are properly developed according to his worth and generation, yet his inner knowledge of God remains at a low level, it is inevitable that he would experience powerful opposition to the entire concept of worshipping God. (Ibid.)


Faith appears as an inner factor in the shaping of values, sensibilities, desires, and culture in general only when it is focused on the ways in which Divinity is disclosed to us within the realm of our consciousness and feeling – for then it connects to life. God’s love can be comprehended because I myself know what love is. We do not perceive Divinity itself – only its Names, the various forms of its disclosure in the world that are reflected in human subjectivity and being:


It is well known that even the Divine Names do not signify, according to the Torah’s depths, the Divine essence, only the Godly ideals, God’s ways, desires, nobility, Sefirot, virtues, manners, paths, gates, and facets, whose ideal qualities are also, in part, engraved and set in the spirit of man, created directly by God. The most powerful and profound desire of the depths of man’s spirit is to constantly bring that hidden light from the potential into the actual, to bring it ever closer to that unrestrained perfection of Godly ideals within the forms of life itself, of the person, of society, of action, and of desires and ideas.


From this perspective, we can understand the connection between the three vertices of which we spoke: theology, religion (mode of worship), and morality.


Worship that is directed toward the Divine essence, whether in its vulgar, pagan version or, not to compare, in its purest monotheistic version, will be based primarily on “fear” because man stands in the presence of absolute Divine perfection and feels paralyzed and submissive in the face of emotions that oscillate between simple psychosomatic terror of God’s judgment and total submission and negation that accompany the adoration of something so completely different and other than man and the world. God’s foreignness to man does not exalt man or effect any inner change within the complex of his emotions, virtues, or society.


Worship that is directed at Divine ideals, i.e., God’s immanence in existence in its various limited forms, connects man with Divinity. We recognize God in His manifestations as a loving God because the quality of love is revealed in our personalities as well and because there, too, it is rooted in the Divine love within existence. Through self-awareness, I can recognize that which is beyond me. This is not familiarity with that which is completely external to me, but with the unified essence of existence, which reveals the link between the individual and everything. I can recognize my freedom as part of the great, Divine freedom movement that is expressed in reality. Love and romance are based on our unmediated consciousness of the good, the right, and the beautiful that exist within us and within the world in general. The faith that man places in himself, in his spontaneity, and in his natural feelings has its roots in the true recognition of goodness that exists in reality.


The problem is that the emerging human culture (the Renaissance and Romantic periods) did not understand that it was expressing true Divinity. It perceived each piece of goodness or beauty separately and did not sense the overarching context of their discovery. This can be compared to one who discovered a treasure but remains unaware of what he has discovered. There is a Chasidic tale about a father who showed his son a treasure, but the son did not know what to do with it; for him it was nothing more than a game. Romantic love is such a treasure; perception of the value of the immanent (natural morality, art, enlightenment, and society) is of tremendous value. But humanity, which discovered this treasure, did not know its origins and therefore did not know what to do with it; it thought that it could now be self-sufficient and therefore squandered the treasure. The analogue is modern atheism, rooted in the manifestation of immanence (Romanticism, morality, humanism, etc.) and in thinking there is no longer a need for transcendence, as though the Father has become unnecessary, Heaven forbid. Rav Kook therefore asked: What can we learn about God from a Europe that never knew?! The God that the Western world abandoned is the essence of God, a pagan deity in monotheistic clothing.


Only we, the Jewish People, have always known the secret of God’s unity. Only we, whose existence is not rooted in idolatry, over whom development has skipped (as explained in the previous lecture), recognized the Divinity that is disclosed in the world; we recognized the world as being Divine. Therefore, the Jewish People in particular can notify the world of the unity of the idea of God and the idea of morality. The desire to be good and the desire to cleave to God are, at their root, the same thing:


When life flourishes, when it has the worthy revelations of creation and science, it is totally impossible that opinions should be set by only one stamp, by one style. The formation of life’s character always goes from lower to higher, from lesser life-content to higher life-content, from a weak glow to a powerful, brilliant glow.


But all this is when life has, together with free creativity and science, the basic foundation of the singular spirit of the nation, the aspiration to the Divine good that is lodged in the nature of its soul. Europe rightly gave up on God, Whom it never knew. Individual humanists adapted to the sublime good, but no entire nation. No nation or tongue could understand how to aspire to the good, the all, let alone how to stamp with this the foundation of its existence. Therefore, when in our day nationalism grew strong and penetrated the system of philosophy, the latter was forced to place a big question mark over all the content of absolute ethics, which truly came to Europe only on loan from Judaism, and as any foreign implant, could not be absorbed in its spirit.


The question of ethics does not prick us at all if we will be what we are, if we will not force ourselves to be cloaked in foreign clothing. We feel within all of us, our total nation, that the absolute good, the good for all, is that for which we should yearn, and upon this foundation it is worthy to found a kingdom and conduct politics. We see from our flesh that the absolute good is the eternal, Divine good that is in all of existence, and we yearn constantly to follow in its tracks in the national and universal sense. Therefore, love of God and cleaving to God is for us something essential that cannot be erased or altered… (Orot, pp. 150-151 in the English edition)


The identification of the longing for God (for the all) with the longing for good (absolute morality) is the essence of Israel. The rupture between God and man, between faith and morality, is the fallacy of post-pagan monotheism. Now that the ground of human culture has matured to a point at which it can autonomously articulate values and morals, Israel can announce God’s unity – which also announces the singularity of faith, morality, and worship in the manner of Divine love – to the entire world.


In the next lecture, we will address another point that emerges from this section: the difference between individuals and a nation. Rav Kook says: “Individual humanists adapted to the sublime good.” What is the significance of this statement for his conception of nationalism? We will expand on this, God willing, next time.


Translated by Elli Fischer