WHAT KIND OF REPENTANCE? WHAT KIND OF REDEMPTION?
Repentance and Redemption
"The Lights of Repentance" by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, with introduction, interpretation and notes on the development of the idea of redemption in Jewish thought. Benyamin Gross, published by Reuven Mas, 223 pages, NIS 54
Reviewed by ISRAEL SHAHAK (* Note 1)
(Translation from Hebrew)
In 1952, when Stalin's regime still seemed stable, Leo Strauss published in English a book entitled "Persecution and the Art of Writing". The book dealt, mostly, with the manner in which three great Jewish philosophers - Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi (in his "Book of Kuzari") and Spinoza - wrote their works: writing that was filled with contradictions between various passages in the book itself, as well as with their other writings. Strauss showed, also from Maimonides' own introduction to his "Guide for the Perplexed", that the contradictions were deliberately introduced and that the style of writing parallels the style used by some writers during the Stalinist period. In both cases, the writers wished to show their true intent to only a small segment of their readers while at the same time concealing it from the general public and majority of their readers, who adhered to the prevailing theology.
Commenting on the books written by covert Sabbatian [belief in the false messiah Sabbtai Sevi] believers, Yeshayahu Tishbi, M. A. Perlmuter and others showed the influence of Sabbatian theology on books previously consider Orthodox. Tishbi showed in his essay "Between Sabbatianism and Hassidism", (included in his book "Between Faith and Heresy"), the deep Sabbatian tendencies of XVIII century kabbalist, Rabbi Kopel Lifshitz of Mezerich, who was venerated by early Hassidic leaders and whose books influenced all Hassidism. Rabbi Lifshitz, considered by many generations of Hassids as orthodox, was definitely a Sabbatian.
In my opinion, one must read most of the important works of later Judaism according to this model, because their authors felt, and still feel, that they are in danger of persecution. Only about ten years have passed since the Haredi leader, Rabbi Shach, found heresy in several works by Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz and ordered him to hand over the remaining copies to "gniza" [hiding]. Rabbi Steinzaltz submitted, and the "prohibited books" were buried in a Jerusalem cemetary on "Tish'a Be'Av" [fast and mourning day in memory of the destruction of the Temple].
After he came to Palestine in 1904, to serve as the rabbi of Jaffa and the settlements, Rabbi Kook had good reasons to fear persecution by Jews. After he published the "heter shmita" [permit to cultivate land during the sabbatical year, after it was nominally sold to a non Jew], whose principles are in effect until this day, he was attacked very harshly. In a letter to one of the rabbis who describes himself as his friend, Rabbi Yalakov David Ridvaz (Letters of Rabbi Kook, vol.. 2, p. 184; the letter was written in summer 1913), Rabbi Kook quotes him as relating that many rabbis said that Kook's "heter shmita" resembled in its evil the deeds committed in Sodom, and was worse than what was done to the concubine in Gibeah [see Judges, chapter 19; the mass-rape described there led to a civil war and became proverbial], because the sins of Sodom were done by a command of public authority, just as Rabbi Kook permitted the Jews to cultivate their land during the sabbatical year, while the rape of the concubine in Gibeah was not permitted by any public authority. Because of that "all the great rabbis and Hassidic leaders forbade drinking of the wine" that was produced from the grapes of that year. Rabbi Kook, in his response, apart of the "heter shmita" affair, tries to justify his good relations with the secular pioneers, of whom he writes: "they are 'the messiah's donkey', as is written [about the messiah] 'poor and riding a donkey' [Zechariah, chapter 9, verse 9]. This means [that the messiah uses something] like a donkey which externally has two signs of ritual impurity, and therefore impurity has a greater hold on it than on a pig and a rabbit which have one external sign of purity. Noneless, donkey has inner purity as attested by the fact that the firstborn offspring of the donkey is treated with special sanctity. This is what the Torah refers to when it writes [about the firstborn]: 'sanctify it unto Me', which is a very great sign. This refers to souls of those people [secular pioneers] where the special Jewish quality is revealed in the generation in which the footsteps of the messiah are seen [in which redemption begins] - and there is a remedy for those souls, even though their stench is great and darkness is ponderous and vast".
One may assume that had secular pioneers known that Rabbi Kook considers them stinking and benighted, he would have been persecuted by that camp too, and therefore he did not tell them overtly what he thinks about them using the quoted language. This is also the practice of his followers of Gush Emunim until the present day. Their settlement activity exists now thanks to defence provided by the Israeli army, where their supporters are a small minority. Thus, the situation today resembles the one that existed in the time of Rabbi Kook: the process of redemption relies on the "donkeys" whom those who know the secret of redemption use for their own needs. In 1913, when "all the great rabbis and Hassidic leaders forbade drinking of wine" that Rabbi Kook permitted, who were the people who drank that wine and strengthened Rabbi Kook's position? The number of religious Zionists was very small then, and one must assume that only the secular Jews were not frightened by the prohibition of the rabbis and did drink that wine. This process can take place, however, only if the donkey does not know the intentions of his messianic rider. Thus, those who rode the donkey had to write in such way that the donkeys would understand the opposite of what was written, and this is how Rabbi Kook wrote.
As Gross notes in his introduction, Rabbi Kook did not write "The Lights of Repentance", but only "the preface and the first three chapters". The remaining chapters were compiled by his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook from various [unpublished] writings of his father. The book was first published in Rabbi Kook's lifetime and with his enthusiastic consent, and must be seen as expressing his opinions and that of the members of Gush Emunim. There is a great ideological importance in understanding this ideology in the light of other writings of Rabbi Kook, most of which were compiled by his son and other students; and also in understanding of the Lurianic kabbala of which Rabbi Kook's writings are a part.
"The Lights of Repentance" was not written to move Jews to repentance. It resembles texts of any authoritarian cult or totalitarian movement which are used to recruit members who already tend to the tenets of the cult or the movement. Religious Jews who do not accept kabbala as authoritative cannot use "The Lights of Repentance", which states as self-evident truth that repentance begins with the "sefira" [one of ten embodiments of God in kabbala] of "Binah" and reaches the "sefira" of "Keter" [the highest one]. The Haredim [ultra-pious Jews] who accept Lurianic kabbala, but who do not believe that the present generation is generation of redemption, are also unable to use this book for their own repentance. The intention of this book - and even more so the intention of Gross - is to reinforce the belief in the special principles of Rabbi Kook. The secular Jews can understand from this book, using the help of other writings of Rabbi Kook, the main principles of his thought. Without such understanding they will continue to lose in every political struggle against his followers; and will continue to be, as Rabbi Kook wrote, only "the messiah's donkey".
The main principle of Rabbi Kook's teaching is the division of mankind into two parts, which are not only different but, by their nature, of an opposing character: the Jews and non Jews. Secular Jews will disappear with the full redemption because they will repent, but the difference between the Jews and non Jews is eternal. In order not to shock the new believer too much, this difference is explained in "The Lights of Repentance" only in one paragraph. Let us preface its discussion by two quotations from "Lights" ("orot"), by Rabbi Kook that was also compiled by his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook. In chapter five of that book, entitled "Jews and the nations of the world" we read (paragraph 10, page 156): "The difference between Jewish soul, its unique inner character, desires, strivings, quality and attitudes and that of the souls of. all the nations of the world is greater and more profound than the difference between the soul of a human being [who is not a Jew] and that of an animal. Between the latter two there is only a quantitative difference, whereas between the former two there is an inherent qualitative difference". Already the next paragraph explains that even though the mankind will be united after redemption, the difference between the Jews and non Jews will remain and the non Jews will be dominated by the Jews. "All the nations will be one unit, but above them there will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation [synonyms for the Jews, see Exodus, chapter 19, verse 6], endowed by a special quality among the nations, as God has spoken". The concept "above them" is explained by Rabbi Kook (Letters of Rabbi Kook, vol. 1, pp. 95-97) rather fully.
According to him the Torah is eternal, and thus all its commandments, including those relating to slavery are also eternal with regard to the non Jews, especially with regard the descendants of Ham, 'who were cursed by Noah. "The very nature of the law of slavery is natural among human beings, and there is no difference between legal slavery and natural one which is permitted by the Torah". Slavery, according to Rabbi Kook, is rectifying the situation where masters do not take care of their workers. In a situation where the slaves are a property of the master, his concern for their lives and happiness is equal to his concern for his property, as it is written "for he is his money". This is the end of two verses (Exodus, chapter 21, verses 20-21) which read in full: "When man strikes a slave, male or female, with a whip and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished for he is his money". Talmudic law explains that this law applies only to a Cana'anite slave. [The term "Cana'anite slave" is used to describe a non Jewish slave, owned by a Jew.] If after a beating by his Jewish master the slave continues to live for a day or two and then dies, his master is exempt from any punishment. Rabbi Kook explains that because the Jews are now in exile, the institution of slavery has become corrupted. However, "after the Torah will come forth out of Zion" [famous verse much used in prayer and also in Gush Emunim slogans], the slavery will return to its natural character, for it is written: "In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the coat-tail of a Jew, saying: let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you" [Zechariah, chapter 8, verse 23]. Then, according to Rabbi Kook, the entire human society will recognize "that after correction of the heart, which will become pure, full of integrity, forgiveness, loving-kindness and mercy, it is fitting and proper for lesser among human beings to be given to domination of the superior ones, and to those who are righteous and wise of heart, whose concern for them will be like a concern for a possession, and in this they will find their happiness and security in life". Later on it is explained that "the relationship to the forefathers is still in effect, whether in terms of a material relationship or a spiritual one, even at great distance. For that reason the revelation of Ham's degradation has acted in such manner that those who are descended from his race are more suitable to be slaves than to govern themselves". Rabbi Kook has also an empirical proof for the above statement: "since we see that more slaves come from Ham than from the other two races". In his commentary on "The Lights of Repentance", Gross also emphasizes the importance of the Jewish race: "The more the individual clings to general race of his group, the more he is guaranteed [to get] the vital force of that divine source from which Torah derives its spirituality" (p. 171, note 52).
After this necessary introduction we may understand what is written in "The Lights of Repentance" about non Jews. "According to the principle of kabbala, every good deed of an evil person goes to the place of evil and impurity, even though God does deny the doer his reward and pays him in this world, even the reward for a petty good deed that he has performed. But all this is a part of Evil". Even more so we must understand this when dealing with a sin or misdeed committed by righteous person, about which [it is written] "it is requited on earth" (Proverbs, chapter 11, verse 31) and "round about Him a mighty tempest" (Psalms, chapter 50, verse 3) [needless to say both verses have a different meaning]; at any rate the guiding principle is that it springs from a predominant good quality, and it will strengthen and increase the light of the sanctity and the good. From this we understand a generalization about the other nations, that any good deed done by a member of an evil nation reinforces the universal Evil, [as it is written] "charity of nations is a sin" (Proverbs, chapter 14, verse 34), (* Note 2) while about the Jews [it is written] "the righteous nation which keeps faithfullness" ... Behold: any sin that comes from such source which is mostly good is a sign that in the innermost soul of that sinner there is "a great light and much salvation" (p. 129, paragraph 6). In simple language, this passage means that because of the essential difference between the Jews, including the Jewish sinners, and non Jews, including their righteous persons, good deeds of the non Jews reinforce the power of Satan, while sins of the Jews are filled with "a great light and much salvation". This doctrine, which Yigal Amir could have used, reminds us of the doctrine of the extreme Sabbatians about "alien deeds" [the worst sins], which they considered as bringing the salvation nearer [if committed by themselves].
The difference described here in evaluation of the good deeds of Jews and non Jews has, in addition to its fundamental importance, also a political importance. One cannot understand Israeli politics without understanding this difference. For example, the famous slogan much used by religious settlers [since 1981]: "Do not uproot what has been planted", is not understood by followers of Rabbi Kook as meaning "Do not uproot what the non Jews have planted" for good deeds of non Jews strengthen Satan and, therefore, delays the redemption. The correct interpretation, that it is forbidden only to uproot what has been planted by Jews, is understood by those who invented the slogan and not by those who are "the messiah's donkeys". Those persons on the Israeli left who [correctly] claim that many fathers of Palestinians in Hebron have saved Jews in 1929, do not grasp that this claim has no effect on Rabbi Kook's followers because a good deed of a non Jew "reinforces the universal Evil". One may also assume, that according to this doctrine the rescue of Jews by righteous non Jews during the Holocaust has also strengthened the power of Satan. The difference between the world view of secular Jews and that of Rabbi Kook and his followers can be illustrated if we postulate two doctors, a Jew and a non Jew, who jointly perform a surgery on a Jewish patient and so save his life. The secular Jew will assume that both did a good deed, and this deed is also strengthening the power of good in the world. The follower of Rabbi Kook "knows" that the Jew performed a good deed which strengthens the power of God, while the non Jew by his good deed, which will be rewarded only in this life, has strengthened the power of Satan, while both were saving a life.
Rabbi Kook notes ("according to the principle of kabbala"), that the source of his opinions about non Jews is the kabbala. The opinion that non Jews are satanic creatures appears in the basic texts of Lurianic kabbala, such as the writings of Rabbi Hayim Vital. In "Theory of evil and husks in kabbala of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria" ("Torat Ha'ra Ve'haklipot b'kabbalat Ha'A"ri"), Tishbi writes (p. 106) that Vital states, that in contrast with the Jews who have a soul which comes from a divine source, "the souls of nations of the world are only influenced by the husk [a polite name for Satanic forces] which is called 'evil' and is not good, and are made without knowledge [of God]". This view was accepted among almost all Jews in the era when Lurianic kabbala prevailed in Judaism, that is the period before the rise of "Jewish Enlightenment". It can be seen from the book "Whip of Morality" ("Shevet Mussar"), written by Rabbi Eliyahu Hacohen of Izmir, one of the most popular kabbalist books of morality, printed before 1709, how much this view influenced Jewish society. In chapter 24 (pp. 76-77) of that book it is written that a Jewish woman leaving the ritual bath after her purification, "must take care not to encounter creatures which are ritually impure, such as a non Jew, a dog or a donkey", before coming home and having sexual relations with her husband. The reason is that according to Lurianic kabbala, the devils who reside in either a non Jew, a pig or a donkey may enter into the woman and then the child which may be conceived in marital relations that occur after the immersion will be possessed by them. (I don't know whether this also applies to the Jews who are "donkeys of the messiah".) The founder of the Hassidic Chabad movement, Rabbi Sh'neur Zalman of Lady had also included the above mentioned doctrine about the nature of non Jews in the movement's basic text "Ha'Tanya". The current politics of Chabad, so similar to that of Gush Emunim, can be understood as being based on their identical view about the nature of the non Jews.
The ideology of Rabbi Kook and its central tenet that good deeds of non Jews are actually helping Satan, has many parallels in the present world. The opinions of Muslim fanatics about Jews (considered by many of them to be satanic creatures, the offspring of sexual relations between monkeys and pigs) is very similar to Rabbi Kook's ideas about non Jews. Also, the views of Muslim fanatics that the good deeds of the western world which "are truly intended" to corrupt Islam, recalls Rabbi Kook's doctrine. A similar view may be found in writings aimed at novices in Stalinist movements. In all of these cases there is a common factor: the premise that there is a person or group of persons who "know the truth" which leads to salvation, while no one else understands it. The role of the cult which is certain that it knows the truth, in our case the truth that redemption has already begun, is to force those who do not want to know "the truth" to act in such a way that will bring the process, in our case the redemption, to a conclusion. All these cults are essentially anti-democratic, and one can hardly exaggerate the danger they represent to any society which allows them to become influential, and give them a chance of taking over the government. The best way to prevent this danger is to recognize their true ideology before it is too late. Citizens of Israel, first of all the Jews among them, must learn the true principles of Rabbi Kook and his followers, and according to this knowledge decide on their attitude towards them.
Note 1: Editor's note. Professor Shahak is the author of "Jewish History, Jewish Religion", published by Pluto Press, London.
Note 2. The standard translations, except those intended for the Jews, are translating this verse quite differently, following the ancient Greek translation, which may used a different version of the text. The usual English translation is "sin is a reproach to any people". However, the standard Hebrew text means, without ambiguity, what was translated here.
[The Hebrew original was published in the Book Supplement to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz in May 2000, the translation into English is by Israel Shahak. Israel Shahak was invited by the editor of Ha'aretz to write this review.
Posted on Knut Rognes' website by permission of Israel Shahak on August 1, 2000