5 Minutes of Rav Kook at the Conservative Yeshiva (Part 4)

Rabi Kook (Harav Kuk} street, Jerusalem - Old ...

Rabi Kook (Harav Kuk} street, Jerusalem – Old Quarter “Beit David” in Jerusalem (Named after the philanthropist David Reyes). House of Rav Kook and first location of Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the second paragraph of Zironim (Chapter 1), Rav Kook says as follows:

The place where we may find peace is only in God. God, however, transcends the existing world, making it impossible for us to grasp any aspect of Him in feeling or thought. This makes Him, as far as we are concerned, nonexistent, and the spirit cannot find contentment in what does not exist. It is for this reason that wise men who devote themselves to the quest for God are, for the most part, spiritually weary. When the soul aspires to the most luminous light it cannot be content with that light which shines in the quality of justice in the best of good deeds, or in the measure of truth in the most precise body of knowledge or in the attribute of beauty in the most exalted of visions. It then sees the world as trivialized. The soul has become so ascendant that the entire world, its material as well as its spiritual manifestations, appears to it as an imprisonment gripping us in its choking atmosphere. Such men seek what is beyond their reach, what, in their condition, does not appear to exist, and to change the nonexistent to an existent is even beyond the will to entertain. It is for this reason that there is often a weakening of the will as well as of the other life-forces among people whose inner disposition is directed toward the quest for God. (trans. by Bokser)

אבל האלהים הלא למעלה מכל המציאות אשר יוכל להכנס בקרבנו ממנו איזה רגש ורעיון הוא, וכל מה שהוא למעלה מכל רגש ורעיון בנו הוא לערכנו אין ואפס ובאין ואפס לא תוכל הדעת לנוח. על כן ימצאו על פי רוב תלמידי חכמים מבקשי אלהים יגעים ועיפים ברוח. כשהנשמה הומה לאור היותר בהיר אינה מסתפקת באותו האור הנמצא מהצדק גם במעשים היותר טובים, לא באותו האור הנמצא מהאמת אפילו בלמודים היותר ברורים, ולא בהיופי – אפילו בחזיונות היותר מפוארים, אז מתנול העולם בעיניה: היא כל כך מתרחבת בקרבה, עד שהעולם כולו עם כל גשמיותו ורוחניותו גם יחד, עם כל גילוייו החמריים והרוחניים, נדמה לה לבי עקתא ואוירו נעשה לה מחנק. הם מבקשים מה שהוא למעלה מכחם, מה שהוא לעומתם אין, ולהפך אין ליש אין יכולת גם ברצון לרצות, על כן יחלש לפעמים כח הרצון וכל עז החיים באנשים אשר דרישת אלהים היא מגמתם הפנימית.

In the first paragraph in this chapter (that we studied yesterday), he said that only in the “divine air” may the soul find peace. In this paragraph, he presents the problem that the rest of this chapter deals with: God transcends everything we know, and that which transcends everything that we know is, for us, non-existent. If so, how can the soul find peace?

Without an answer to this question, says Rav Kook, the soul grows weary and grey. Paradoxically, it is specificially those people who seek God most who become most lost and depressed. Since they seek a higher good, something so sublime that it transcends the world, they find no delight in the good and beautiful things of the world. They seek a good so perfect that they can’t see the good in the world, and since they can’t grasp the transcendent God, they fall into the greyness of depression.

The solution, says Rav Kook (in paragraph 3), is to recognize that all the good and beautiful things in the world are partial revelations of the transcendent God. Love, beauty, creativity, justice and so forth are “revealed divinity” (elohut). By grasping firm onto what we know is good in our concrete experience, in spite of all imperfections, we can feel our way towards their transcendent source in God.

In our earliar discussions, we tried to approach what Rav Kook means by “revealed divinity” and its transcendent source in God. See our discussions of paragraph three and paragraph four for details.



5 Minutes of Rav Kook at the Conservative Yeshiva (Part 3)

In Paragraph 1 of Zironim (in part 1 and part 2 we addressed paragraphs 3 and 4), Rav Kooks says as follows:

paragraph 1

אי אפשר למצא מעמד מבוסס לרוח כי אם באויר האלהי. הידיעה, ההרגשה, הדמיון והחפץ והתנועות הפנימיות והחיצוניות שלהם, כולם מזקיקים את בני האדם שיהיו אלהיים דוקא. אז ימצאו את מלואם, את יחושם השוה והמניח את הדעת. אם מעט פחות מגדולה זו יבקש לו האדם הרי הוא מיד טרוף כספינה המטורפת בים, גלים סוערים מתנגדים זה לזה ידריכוהו תמיד מנוחה, מגל אל גל יוטל ולא ידע שלו. אם יוכל לשקע באיזה רפש עבה של גסות הרוח ועביות ההרגשה, יצלח לו למעט את אור חייו לאיזה משך זמן, עד שבקרבו ידמה שכבר מצא מנוח. אבל לא יארכו הימים, הרוח יחלץ ממסגרותיו והטירוף הקלעי יחל את פעלו בכל תוקף.

מקום מנוחתנו הוא רק באלהים!

Rabbi Bokser translates Rav Kook as saying that we must live lives “oriented towards God”. Literally, Rav Kook wrote that we must live in “divine air”. What is this “divine air” that we must live in, if we are to find balance and peace in life?

In paragraph 3, we saw that all the things that we know are ultimately good, like love and beauty, are “revealed divinity”. In paragraph 4, we talked about how these things appear to us as bigger and more important than we are. They are bigger in that we feel how they transcend our understanding. And they are more important in that we feel (and judge) that being faithful to them is more important even than our own lives.

The way that things like love and  beauty transcend us and our understanding creates a sort of halo around them. It’s like we can see what they are, but we can also see that there’s something mysterious and enthralling and unattainable about them. I think that this “halo” is part of what Heschel means by radical amazement in the face of the sublime. Revealed divinity is concrete and real, but when we encounter it, we see that is framed by a glory and mystery that draws us close but which we cannot grasp.


I think that that halo of the mysterious sublime, in the face of which we feel radical amazement, is part of what Rav Kook means here by “divine air”. And he says that our desire to cleave to revealed divinity, and to be swallowed up in the divine air, is basic to what we are as people. He says that in our most basic functioning as human beings – knowing, feeling, imagining, wanting – we seek revealed divinity and its transcendent halo. When we turn our face away from these, we loose connection with the ultimate source of the meaning of our lives, and become “like a ship tossed about at sea”, without an anchor in the revealed divinity which gives direction to our lives.

5 Minutes on Rav Kook at the Conservative Yeshiva (Part 2)

A. I. Kook (d. 1935), Chief Rabbi of Palestine

A. I. Kook (d. 1935), Chief Rabbi of Palestine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the end of paragraph 4 of Zironim (Chapter 1) which we discussed in Part 1, Rav Kook says the following thing:

ולפרקים תפקדנו בברק עליון מזיו של מעלה מאור עליון שמעל כל רעיון ומחשבה. השמים נפתחים ואנו רואים מראות אלהים, – אבל אנו יודעים שזהו מצב ארעי לנו, הברק יחלף והננו יורדים לשבת עוד לא בפנים ההיכל כי אם בחצרות השם

At times, moreover, we are privileged with a flash emanating from the higher radiance, from that higher light which transcends all thought. The heavens open for us and we see a vision of God. But we know that this is only a temporary state, the flash will pass and we will descend to dwell once again not inside the palace, but only in the courts of the Lord. (Trans. B. Bokser)

I’m sure that Rav Kook had many experiences of God that I can’t fathom, and that he means by these words many things about which I don’t know anything. However, I think he also means here things that all of us have experienced and that we do know about.

Years ago, I tried to make sense of an experience that I’ve had when looking at my wife’s face. Its happened to me that I’ve looked at her face, and all of a sudden I’m so enthralled by how beautiful she is that I can’t think. It’s like all of the beauty in the world, as well as my love for her and for my kids, and for the life that we’ve put together, well up at once and cause my brain to freeze.

I think of this as more or less what happens when I open too many hyperlinks in Firefox: there’s just more information than my computer can handle, and so it freezes. In that moment when the full meaning of my wife and family and life, and all the beauty and pleasure that I know, all come up at once before my eyes, my brain freezes because it just can’t handle it, my regular thoughts are shut out, and I see the meaning of my existence.

After trying to describe this experience in words, I ran into Abraham Maslow’s characterization of a “peak experience”. One of the things that he says is that in peak experiences, people feel like all the beauty and goodness that they know come together in one visual symbol for just a split second, and it just knocks them over. While I’m sure that Rav Kook meant lots of things by “the heavens opening up” that I don’t understand, I think he also means this kind of peak experience. What happened when my brain froze was that I saw, in my wife’s face, the face of God.

I think that everybody reading these words has had some variety of this experience. And thus we have all been inside “the palace” of God (as in the quote from Rav Kook above). At the end of the section, Rav Kook says that we don’t regularly live inside the palace, but rather just in the courtyards of God. That’s because we don’t live in peak experiences but rather in our day-to-day state of mind. But the Elohut, the absolute value, that wells up in those peak experiences, is what sustains us all the time. It is revealed Elohut that gives meaning and direction to our lives. That’s why, while we don’t live inside the palace, we live in the courtyard.

5 Minutes of Rav Kook at the Conservative Yeshiva (Part 1)

Notes on Rav Kook‘s Zironim (זרעונים)

Over the next month I’ll be giving a short talk on Rav Kook each morning when we begin studying in the beit midrash. I’m thinking through this material as I go and I’d love to hear what people think….

A Thirst For the Living God (צמאון לאל חי)

English trans. by Ben Zion Bokser.

I’ve changed the order of the text and skipped some sections.

Paragraph 3

image001 image002  Rav Kook gives a list of things in which elohut – divinity – is revealed: beauty, glory, consciousness, life, culture and state, the sea and the sky, thought, creativity, imagination, courage. What does it mean that these things reveal elohut? As we’ll see, for Rav Kook, elohut is the source of all good things. Every time we encounter something ultimately valuable, like life and love, we encounter a revelation of elohut.

In other places, Rav Kook explains that the reason that people so often confuse good with evil is due to the fact that the faculties that allow us to perceive elohut are often underdeveloped. Our lack of development – cognitive, rational, spiritual, moral, scientific, philosophical – distorts our perception of elohut and sends us in the wrong direction.

Paragraph 4image003

image004 Here Rav Kook describes elohut as like a great sea that’s far off in a distant land so that we can’t see or reach it, but which sends rivers of life, consciousness, beauty, justice and all the other good things into our lives.

In what way are these things like rivers flowing from an unknown sea? I think this image reflects the way we experience them. Love, beauty, justice etc. are like rivers because we draw from them the meaning of our lives; they irrigate and sustain us. And they flow from a great unknown sea because we feel that even as they are the reason we live we cannot fully understand or grasp them. They are both beyond our grasp and bigger and more important than we are. But even though we can’t see there, we can feel in what direction they point. They point at more perfect love, justice and beauty than we can know; they point our minds towards the place from which they appear. And so it’s like they are rivers that flow from a great mysterious sea. The image of the sea and the rivers is a metaphor. The thing itself is the way elohut functions in our minds.

Let’s conclude with the first sentence of paragraph 4 again. Rav Kook says that even though we can’t reach the great sea from which elohut flows, we want to: we want to be swallowed up into it, we want to be gathered to its light. We feel with our very being that in the place from which love, justice and beauty come, there is something more sublime than we can imagine. And we know that if we draw close, it touches and changes us, it draws us higher.