Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

This week at Yeshivat Har Bracha we celebrated the completion of publication of annotations on the books of Maran Rabbi Avraham Yitschak HaCohen Kook ztz”l,Orot‘ (seven volumes) and ‘Orot Ha-Teshuva’ (two volumes).

The annotations are a summary of lessons given at Yeshiva Har Bracha by my dear longtme friend, the ‘chacham ha-colell’ (all-inclusive Torah scholar) Rabbi Ze’ev Sultanovich Shlita, in the framework of the Har Bracha Institute.

The explanations exhibit a breadth of knowledge that makes it possible to understand the background to the words of Maran Rabbi Kook, and their exact meaning. They embrace wide-ranging knowledge in the fields of religious thought, Kabbalah, Jewish and secular philosophy, history, psychology, literature and art.

A selection of the annotations serves to get a taste of Rabbi Kook's thoughts:

The Relationship between Science and Morality, and the Tikun in Teshuva

Many times the introduction to the section broadens the readers mindset, and serves to focus his thinking on the issue that Rabbi Kook intends to clarify. For example, the opening of the commentary on Orot Ha-Teshuva 15:1:

“Rabbi Kook discusses two issues, which merge into one. The first is the appropriate relationship between science and morality in the new age … rapidly evolving science in the modern age greatly empowers man, but man’s level of morality has not increased at the same rate… as a result of scientific advances countries have armed themselves with the most deadly and destructive weapons… achievements in the fields of chemistry and biology have served monstrous ideas of cruel totalitarian leaders, thus, in the two World Wars, over eighty million people died and many millions were injured, fell ill, and became disabled for the rest of their lives …

"The second issue: the concept of teshuva (repentance) and e’dune ha’ratzon (refinement of strength of character), is needed specifically in this generation.

Teshuva makes it possible to connect all scientific progress to the Torah and kodesh (sacred matters), and all the development of human power, to good and righteousness. There were thinkers in the New Age who called for a return to ignorance, living in nature in innocence and simplicity, without any of the rationality inherent in progress. Such an idea may seem pastoral and pleasant, but it is false – if only for the practical reason: in the ancient world there was scarcity, disease, and suffering – much of it gone in the new world, on account of scientific development, and thus, it cannot be relinquished. Nevertheless, at the same time, one must recognize its flaws – if not connected to a more sublime value system. Consequently, teshuva is the precise solution.”

Teshuva in Israel, and the World

The opening of the commentary on ‘Orot ha-Teshuva’ 12: 1:

“All the intellectuals in the world, in all the different cultures, views and religions, know that teshuva elevates man above all the baseness in the world. As Rabbi Kook clarifies … the novelty in Jewish tradition is through tikun … in Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, when a person sins and desires to repent, he must abstain from life, abandon worldly affairs so as not fall into his sin once again. In contrast, Rabbi Kook says here, that although in teshuva a person transcends his baseness, he is not alien to the world, because there is no similarity between the iniquity of sins, and the world – it is baseness that man abandons, and not the world.

“In the various religions the main principle of repentance is that the world itself is lowly, and therefore everyone living in it, is reluctantly immersed in the filth of baseness, and in order to be purified, one must abstain from the world as much as possible … In Jewish tradition in contrast … not only does one not have to abstain from the world in order to repent, on the contrary, along with himself, he elevates the world and life as well.”

The Source of Sin, and the Tikun in Aspiration for Ein Sof

There is no tikun in abstinence from the world because “what brings man to sin is not the world in and of itself, rather, the tendency in the soul to sin. To be sure, society has an impact due to the temptations in the world… but the fact is that not everyone sins, because man has the ability to control his drives, and is accountable for himself … therefore, in teshuva, those same tendencies of sin are refined within him. He does not stifle the tendencies to sin, but rather, reveals them in the proper way.”

Later on in the book, it is explained that the foundation of sin stems from the strong desire to break through every boundary to ein sof (infinity), but when one commits a breach through sin, his life is hampered and defiled, and the boundaries continuously close in on him, until death. Teshuva allows one to rise indefinitely, albeit, under the guidance of Torah and its mitzvot, which does not “block man and limit him, but rather, protects him. This is the meaning of the various Torah prohibitions – they protect the sublime and vigor in man, in all its beauty … Like a mother forbidding her son to burst onto the road, out of concern for his well-being.”

Teshuva whilst Balancing Consolation and Tikun

From the opening of the commentary on ‘Orot Ha-Teshuva’ 12:10:

“By law, a person who has sinned deserves to be punished, and not be given an opportunity to correct his deeds. Hence, the active novelty in teshuva, to the point where even a rasha gamur (a completely evil person) has the ability and ought to change his deeds and be righteous – this is a tremendous chesed (grace) given by God… to do so, the sinner must employ consolations – to recognize that he has other good points, and positive sides … however, the chesed of teshuva is liable to be twisted, as in Christian culture, and cause morality to be completely distorted. Consolations are liable to become an obstacle … whenever a person sins, he will pacify his conscience in solaces, that there are people more wicket than he, or in various explanations and excuses, and will not amend his actual condition. Therefore, consolations must be used wisely: on the one hand, to recognize their importance – that they rescue from the abyss of despair and doom, but on the other hand, also be aware of the mishap liable to result from them, lest the pleasantness of consolation calm the person down and lead him to complete passivity, and consequently, fail to amend his distorted situation.”

Wavering is Based on a Pagan Conception

Here, Rabbi Ze’ev goes on to clarify the words of Maran Rabbi Kook that the foundation of giving up on teshuva stems from the defect of idolatry in emunah (faith):

“The wavering in avodah zara (idol worship) stems from the conception of divinity in it. From the depths of his soul, man desires the One God, sublime and abstract of all human definition, but it is too difficult and removed from man. In the meantime, he sees the sun and the moon, the miraculous forces of nature, and takes comfort in it; if he cannot grasp the supreme conception of divinity, at least he is able to admire the bodies of heaven, the wind, or the sea. The spiritual waiver of the sublime, most inclusive aspiration, leads to a moral relinquishment of a person’s relationship to others, and to the whole of being.”

Thus, was created in the Christianity the concept “which waivers the exacting law, and is satisfied with will and good, general intent … this method leads to every murder and every lewd act … every murderer will claim in his defense that he had a good reason to murder … or suffered from mental difficulties and problems … this is how in practice, in the name of Christianity, terrible injustices were done."

The world is based on accuracy and law, “and just as a surgeon cannot miscalculate the exact amount of centimeters he must cut in the body he is operating on, the same is true in the process of teshuva. If the consolations do not serve as a basis for precise, practical correction, they have no value … Throughout the ages, Jews were accused of excessive meticulousness in halakhic details … however, reality has proven that this is the only thing that has managed to maintain a moral system, which in actuality, has existed for generations.”

The Hidden and Revealed, Religion and Science

Opening to ‘Orot Ha-Techiya’, 59:

“In simplistic thought, the nistar (hidden) is the main foundation on which religion is built, and the galuei (revealed) is the main foundation on which science is built. It seems as if there is an intrinsic contradiction between the nistar and the nigleh … It seems as if man must choose only one of the two foundations, the hidden or the revealed, but in this chapter, perhaps more than elsewhere, Rabbi Kook clarifies that the contrast between them is not absolute, and there is also a complementary side.

“The essential problem that exists in the rational thinking of science … philosophy … is in relation to things that are difficult to describe in words, but they do fill the chambers of mind and soul … consciousness describes only what is present in a defined pattern, but not the sources and motives, the aspirations and passions. .. Every human feels that beyond his knowledge and ability, there are things sublime and hidden from his understanding … thus, in relation to what surrounds him … he does not even know himself completely … to a large extent, the sources of religion and emunah are beyond the threshold of consciousness. They are not visible and rational, rather hidden – similar to the drive of instinct or will, aspiration, or movement…

“If the New Age is marked by rationalism, then in these words, Rabbi Kook marks the future age, marked by human understanding of the nistar, mystic meanings, which requires a special kind of knowledge, different from the path of simplistic rationality, which demands exclusivity over everything … In the words Rabbi Kook: ‘The nistar will conquer the world in its freedom, which will not know the limit of distress'”.

Rabbi Ze’ev continues and explains the great work of the philosopher Kant, who criticized rational consciousness, which is unable to know reality as something of itself, but only its manifestations. “Yet, in Kant’s conception, there also lies a big mistake, not only because it denies the capacity for cognition, but also its origins,” the hidden side suggesting the thing itself. “Due to his great pride in the intellectual attainment he had achieved, Kant did not criticize himself, and ruled out the possibility of divine revelation as well.” Consequently, there is a profound contradiction in his position – if it is impossible to know about the thing itself, from where do we know that it exists?

Here, incidentally, we encounter one of the advantages of Rabbi Ze’ev’s commentary, which clarifies the philosophical theories needed to understand the words of Maran Rabbi Kook ztz”l. Fichte tried to solve the problem by defining “things in themselves” as the borderline concept, but did not explain what is beyond the borderline. Schopenhauer tried to define “things in themselves” as ratzon (will), but Rabbi Kook criticized his words, because the concept of ratzon is also human. “Instead, Rabbi Kook speaks of ratzon ha-ratzonot (‘will of the will’) and ‘chai ha-chaim’ (‘the life of lives’)'”.

From this, Maran Rabbi Kook clarifies the need to combine the sod ha-nistar (the mystic meaning) and what is perceived in the mind, with the divine revelation and intellectual critique, for out of a combination of their influences, a solid foundation will be built for the appearance of the divine light.

May the words of the prophet be fulfilled in us by the publication of these precious books: “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11: 9).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.