An Analysis of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook’s
Orot ha-Emunah (Lights of Faith)
Ours is an age of externals-glitter and tinsel. How do you look? How do you talk? How do you dress? What do you profess to believe? What do you eat? If that’s o.k., then you’re o.k. The world is much too complicated for us to look deeper, to see beneath the surface; not enough time, and not enough patience.
Also, there are too many dangers. We must stay strong to keep the outside out. We must be able to easily identify the enemy, and our friends. We need constant encouragement that we are in the right place. We want to be able to check often and quickly, to make sure we are not being insidiously infiltrated by the outside. How do you look? How you talk? What do you eat? That’s enough for me. I am secure.
…And in my security, I succumb to a terrible danger, the danger of superficiality, of inaction, and of weakness of the will.
…And the world grows cold for me, and loses its excitement and its freshness, as I move along the surface of life in increasingly intricate patterns, but always moving, alas, only on the surface. No adventure for me, no discoveries, no surprises.
Ours is an age of lack of self-esteem. we don’t trust ourselves. We want to be protected, for we feel small, afraid, far from the center of spirituality. In being humble, we think we are modest, but really we are weak. In being excessively cautious, we think we are being exceptionally frum, but really we just don’t trust ourselves. We see ourselves as vulnerable enclosures whose boundaries must be clearly demarcated, whose territory must be secured, whose way in the world must be defensive.
“Excessive fear of sin destroys the goodness in a person, and makes of him a lowly creature, who does nothing but lie there, shaking.” So writes Abraham Isaac Kook, in the opening paragraph of Orot Ha-emuna. “A person must believe in his life, in both his physical and moral powers.” The lack of emunah in oneself is the greatest of all the curses in the Torah, “Your life will be in the balance…and you will not believe in your life.” You will be plagued by self-doubt (Your life will be “in the balance”) and lack inner confidence. Because of this inner anxiety, “In the morning you will say, ‘Who will give evening?’ and in the evening ‘Who will give morning?’ “katnut ha-emunah,” “insufficient emunah,” is a lack of confidence in oneself, and “comes from the inability to raise one’s own self-worth to the point of understanding how he is deserving of the Divine Greatness.”
When we believe in ourselves we are not afraid-cautious, yes, but not afraid. And when we are not afraid we can look at the world again, and see in it the kaleidescopic possibilities of existence. We can look outside, and see beneath the surface. And beneath that surface, we may even find something of ourselves.
Orot Ha-emunah was written by Rav Kook more than 50 years ago, but only now has been published for the first time. Who can guess why it has been withheld from the public all these years? Not a book in the usual sense, but a loose collection of separately written paragraphs constituting a kind of spiritual diary, Orot Ha-emunah is one great call not to be afraid, to look below the surface, and to ascend thereby to great spiritual heights. “When a person believes in himself he discovers great contentment in his spiritual endeavors, and ascends upward.’’ In this work Rav Kook explores emunah by comparing and contrasting it with kefirah (atheism, denial), avodah zarah (idol worship), and “minut,” which is the term favored by him to refer to Christianity, and by examining its relationship to the doing of mitzvot, and to general culture.
From these writings there emerges a profound teaching that belief in oneself is conceptually and existentially inseparable from emunah in God. For first and foremost, for Rav Kook, emunah is a state of being. As he writes elsewhere, “Emunah is the most basic self-revealing of the essence of the soul.” And this self-revealing is really the Divine within us made manifest: “Too much fear spoils emunah, because one doesn’t trust himself and his understanding, thereby diminishing his awareness of the Divine spark in his soul.” The essence of emunah is an awareness of the perfection of the Infinite and that “whatever experience of the infinite] enters the heart is but a minute spark of what can be imagined.” Emunah, then, is a self-affirmation in which one experiences one’s own self-revealment as the revealing of the Divine within. Emunah is a state of being.
It follows that emunah is not constituted by an act of “belief” or by a linguistic, cognitive affirmation. The latter are important both as external expressions of emunah, and as a means of bringing to emunah.
But even in their absence, emunah can be alive. And more, emunah can live even where there is no conscious awareness of one’s self divinity and even when one denies the Divine: “Sometimes you will find a kofer with an inner, shining strong emunah, flowing from the source of transcendent holiness, stronger than a thousand believers, who are “small of emunah.” How is this possible? Because “the inner spiritual basis of the holiness of emunah transcends all language.” A kofer can manifest the Divine power of his being even while denying faith with his mouth, and a believer can be lying, shaking with fright, all the while proclaiming his faith through chattering teeth.
Kefrah can itself even emanate from holiness. This can happen for example, when linguistic affirmations are rejected precisely because they are sensed to be inadequate, as but a weak shadow of the power of being. Thus, “there is denial (kefrah) that is like consent, and consent that is like denial.” Inadequate articulations of Judaism may force their own rejection, out of the depths of holiness. If we are to return the kofer to the practice of Torah, our elucidations of Torah contents must be adequate to the power of his being.
Rav Kook’s concept of emunah provides hope for our seemingly faithless world. For, “There are many apikorsim who are deniers, in accordance with the standards of Halacha. However, when we examine their soul we will discover in them a connection to the Divine content, in a hidden form. And that is why in our generation there is a tendency toward merit and kindness even toward absolute deniers.”
That does not at all mean that it does not matter for Rav Kook if you are atheist or believer, as long as the inner emunah manifests its power in you. Far from it. Linguistic affirmations of faith lead in the direction of transcendent truth, whereas protestations of atheism lead in the direction of falsehood and inauthenticity. He who is faithful to conceptual assertions of emunah has a covenant with God that he will merit that emunah which is beyond conceptualization and language From that high vantage point he will apprehend the correspondence between the elements of the conceptualized emunah and its transcendent counterpart.
Yet sometimes, when we look outside, and beneath the surface, we do see something of ourselves.
Idol worship, too, in its deepest essence knows the power of being of emunah, but covers it over with corruption and evil: “In the filth of avodah zarah great is the spirit of emunah, in its wildness and coarseness, its frenzy and horselike power. Avodah zarah knows the visceral, immediate engagement with the Divine in the world, and total, passionate, self-actualization and self-affirmation.
This “core of holiness’ in avodah zarah is passed into the Jewish people via Abraham, who began as a worshiper of idols. It is written “From the womb of the morning, yours is the dew of your youth.” Bereishit Rabba interprets this as being addressed to Abraham. He too was afraid and self-doubting, because of those years he had spent in the worship of idols. He is told, “Just as dew is the blessing for the world, so too are you a blessing for the world.” We might think the Midrash means to encourage Abraham in spite of his worshiping of idols. But Rav Kook quotes the Midrash differently: “Just as dew is a “good omen” for the world, just so, those years you worshiped idols are a good omen for the world.” The source of dew is in the heavens. Then the dew transcends to the ground, to a lowly place, to be raised heavenward by the rays of the morning sun. Just so, the core of avodah zarah is in the holiness of emunah, but avodah zarah plummets to the lowest forms of human existence from there to be raised back to its source, heaven ward. The passion and engagement that avodah zarah encompasses in self-affirmation is taken up by Abraham into the true religion. Avodah zarah is returned to its source.
Our history begins in disgrace, and issues in praise.” For in the beginning “Worshipers of idols were our forefathers.” The process of history brings the praise out of the disgrace. Thereby, and “God had brought us close to His service.”
Abraham first came to knowledge of God via contemplation of the world. Had it not been for the passion and engagement in the world which he inherited from avodah zarah, his religion might have been nothing more than an arid exercise in abstract philosophical reasoning. The power of Halacha with its life engagement traces its ancestry back to Abraham, the father of emunah.
Christianity, on the other hand, knows nothing of the power of life of ancient avodah zarah. Since it arose after the desire for avodah zarah was nullified, it is empty of life at its core. At its center, instead, stands an abstract, philosophical system of cold reasoning. As a result, “the general religion of the nations receives a form of shaking and weakness, which does not mix well with the breadth of life, but instead assumes the form of dark monasticism, which is less able to go with life than any sort of avodah zarah.”
Kohelet says, “And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands; whoever pleases God shall escape from her, but the sinner is trapped by her.” Our Rabbis identify this woman with “minut,” that is, Christianity. Thus, Rav Kook writes: “The Epicurean kefirah is death, whereas the distortion of emunah is worse than death.” What is the “Epicurean kefirah?”
Epicurus taught an austere physicalist ontology, including only physical entities and physical interactions between them. He was an arch anti-metaphysical philosopher. On the other hand, Christianity the “distortion of emunah, ” knows the intricate structures of the ‘science of God,” systematic theology. Yet Epicureanism is death, while Christianity is worse than death! To be anti-life is worse, far worse, than being anti-metaphysical! The power of life can exist hidden, deep within the dead body of the anti-metaphysician, to be aroused and awakened in a resurrection of the dead. But there is no life at all in the forces of anti-life. For this reason, Divine Providence has allowed the spread of materialist philosophies of kefirah, as a defense against something far worse.
Because so divorced from life, Christianity makes impossible demands that have no chance of being implemented. She has no concern for the realities of life. “Therefore, she says to offer the other cheek in return for a slap. Obviously, people can only believe that this is a sublime trait, but cannot attain it.” The result is inevitable failure and perpetual guilt. In a subtle inversion, chesed metamorphising into din! The aim of Christianity then becomes the alleviating of guilt, by the granting of forgiveness. But the forgiveness is not a prelude to a holier life. “Forgiveness becomes the whole goal.” The believer/sinner (for they are one) needs the Church to receive forgiveness. “By the sinner is trapped by her.”
To believe that which can be practiced is the special genius of Jewish spirituality. This is the “balance of the Torah” which knows how to weigh the ideals against possibility of implementation.
Emunah is an ineffable state of being. How does it relate to the details of Torah practice? “Emunah is the highest poetry (shira) of the world, with its source in the Divine nature in the depths of the
soul. High poetry is unstructured, without meter and rhyme. It has total freedom of imagination without restrictions. It is a spontaneous outpouring of individual creativity. The Torah is the translation of the higher poetry into measure and beat, into conventions and rules. Torah is the poetry of emunah in its practical rhythm. “There are those filled with the glory of the poetry, who are pained by the restrictions of the practical life, but they accept the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.
But there are also impatient souls “who cannot bear the measure, and they are full of rebellion. But even in this rebellion the Divine pleasantness lives, albeit in an unclear way.”
Rav Kook once wrote ‘ Just as there are laws in poetry, there is poetry in laws.” When one loves a poem, he does not experience the restrictions of its form. The possibility exists to live a life of mitzvot as a form of poetry.
The poetry of emunah is not to be found exclusively in Torah. It informs every aspect of human endeavor that is “Divine creativity”: “The pure understanding sees the appearance of the Divine in every improvement of life … It is all included in Divine creativity.” The realization of our humanity is included in the power of emunah— “Everything is included in her, and everything exists in her.”
The bifurcation of reality into that which is the Lord’s, and that which is Caesar’s, originates in the anti-life of Christianity which severs the material world from its foundation of holiness. This poison has also infected the body of the Jewish people. For there are those amongst us who in their zealousness to fight evil believe we must suppress science, arts, and political activity because they are not part of the Divine aspect of the world. Hence, “They hate culture, the sciences, and statecraft, in Israel and in the world.” This is a lack of emunah.
The Jewish people excels at integrating opposing forces into a balanced whole, the power of Torah, the power of Tiferet. Therefore we must not stifle any talent, any human propensity, from developing to its fullest. It must first be allowed to exhaust the individuality buried within it. Once its full nature has been revealed and drawn out, then, and only then may the Jewish genius for integration and synthesis, including the rolling back of excessive development, be brought into play. If we impede the power of human creativity in the name of “faith” we sin against emunah.
“The enslavement of human reason and its silencing destroys the world. The holier the source of enslavement, the greater the damage.”
What are we to do? It is not enough for intellect and emunah to dwell side by side within our soul. For we must not allow emunah to settle in a corner of ourselves where our intellectual powers have not reached. Our emunah would then be weak, and not worthy of us. We must unite intellect with emunah, so that in proportion to our intellectual achievement, emunah will be raised up.
“This is true not only of the individual, but also of the nation in general, and of the whole world, in the generality of humankind.”
These are the teachings of Rav Kook in Orot Ha-emunah.
. . . and the world grows warm for me, as the increasingly intricate pat terns of reality reveal themselves in the rays of the morning sun, in an on going adventure of discovery. Orot Ha-emunah—the lights of emunah.