Jewish Living

Jonathan Blass


HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook’s understanding of what makes Am Yisrael God’s Chosen People had practical as well as theoretical relevance for his generation and continues to be vitally important to this day. It formed the basis for his cooperation with the non-religious and anti-religious pioneers of his period (see Iggerot HaR’Iyyah, Iggeret 555) and underlies the belief of his disciples that the founding of even a secular Jewish state has not only political but also religious significance. Rav Kook teaches us that what distinguishes Israel from the nations of the world is its neshamah–its national essence.

To understand this further, let us look at the individual human being. The identity of an individual is not the sum total of either his character traits or of the beliefs he professes. Nor is it the history of his actions. These are but expressions of his identity, which may vary over time. For example, if over the course of his life, a person becomes more generous, impulsive or thoughtful, or if he chooses to alter his behavior—his identity, nevertheless, remains unchanged; he has not become someone else in the process. A parent who in his later years suffers from Alzheimer’s has not lost his identity along with his mental faculties. He has not been replaced by another. He is the same human being—the same parent—now ill and intellectually handicapped. For this reason he remains entitled to that same respect from his children that the Torah granted him when he became a parent.

A human being is a single, indivisible, spiritual reality. This reality (when not frustrated by external obstacles) is expressed in one’s character traits, which is then manifested even more externally in one’s actions. Identity expresses itself in character traits; character traits then reveal themselves in action.

Similarly, on a national level, the identity of Israel is a given reality. It is this fundamental identity that sets Israel apart from other nations. This neshamah also influences our national character: Chazal say that Jews are “believers, children of believers” (Shabbat 97a), and are “bashful, merciful [and] charitable” (Yebamot 79a; Devarim Rabbah 3). Thus, whereas one might think that it is only the mitzvot that set Israel apart; according to Rav Kook, the mitzvot are the external expression of Israel’s existing spiritual identity. For example, the Torah’s “righteous laws” (Devarim 4:8), which mandate justice in labor relations and in the payment of damages, were not artificially imposed at Sinai on a nation to whom this behavior was foreign. This group of laws was a Divine codification of “the probity inherited from Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov” (Guide to the Perplexed III, 49). Rav Kook writes:

One might think that the entire difference between Israel and the nations is that difference [in the realm of action] which is given prominence by the active observance of mitzvot … This view is mistaken.… It is the element of neshamah that sets Israel’s character apart as a distinct unit, unique in the world. From that difference spring all the differences in behavior [i.e., mitzvot], and even when these last are impaired [by lack of observance], that impairment cannot touch the … psychic element from which they derive. Therefore the difference between Israel and the nations will remain forever (Orot Yisrael 5:7).

What is the nature of Israel’s national identity? What is Am Yisrael? Rav Kook teaches that Israel’s identity is one with God’s Wisdom and Will. By its nature, Am Yisrael strives to realize those truths embodied in the Torah. As Rav Kook writes: “The Mind [sechel] of Israel, because of its Divine spiritual source, is a Divine Mind, and its Will is a Divine Will” (Orot Hatechiyah 11). “The aspiration to fulfill the Divine Ideals … has manifested itself in Israel, in the nature of its national neshamah” (Da’at Elokim, Ikvei Hatzon 136).

But what of those Jews who are seemingly anti-religious? Aren’t there Jews who identify with the nation of Israel but who deny the existence of God and whose behavior is antithetical to that which is prescribed by the Torah? Are they also included in Rav Kook’s definition of Am Yisrael?

Unquestionably, yes. Rav Kook taught that the identity of Israel is inseparable from the God of Israel, so much so that “even Jewish apikorsut (heresy) is filled with faith and sanctity, far more than all the faiths of all the Gentile nations combined” (Middot HaR’Iyya, Emunah 10).

This is because Israel cannot disengage from God. The reality of a Jew’s being links him to God immutably. Everything he does is influenced by who he is—a neshamah whose most natural expression is pure faith in the God of Israel. At times, when the neshamah, hindered by external influences, is frustrated by its inability to assert its essence in its most natural way, it manifests itself in apikorsut against what it sees as obstacles to its self-expression.

The beliefs, ethics and actions mandated by the Torah are the full and true manifestation in the physical world of an existing metaphysical reality, the Jewish neshamah. These principles cannot exist in this world independently of the Jewish nation, a people for whom they are not an artificial imposition but a natural expression of their very being.

Only Israel is capable of accepting the faith in the true God—“The Lord is one” (Devarim 6, 4)—in its entirety and goodness….The Gentiles have not yet reached that point and what has been introduced of faith in God into their environment from the light of Israel, not through an evolutionary process suitable to their natures, is in conflict with their individual personalities and strikes at their culture.… Eventually their sense of alienation will triumph … and, as a result, anti-Semitism will increase (Orot Hatechiyah 54).

But aren’t the Torah and the Will of God universal in scope (“Delve again and again into the Torah, since everything is contained within it” [Pirkei Avot 5])? Doesn’t Rav Kook negate this universality by identifying the Torah and the Will of God with the national identity of a single nation—Am Yisrael—and by asserting that the beliefs of the Torah conflict with the identities and cultures of the multitude of Gentile nations?

On the contrary, the Maharal teaches that the Gentiles rejected the Torah when it was offered to them not because the Torah is ethnocentric—suited only to the particularity of Israel—but for exactly the opposite reason (Derech Chayim 5:22; Chiddushei Aggadot Avodah Zarah 2b; Gevurot Hashem 42). The nations of the world refused to accept the Torah precisely because the Torah is universal. Chazal write, for example, that the nations descending from Yishmael and Esav rejected the Torah because it prohibits theft and murder (Sifri, parashat Vezot Haberachah). These rejections were not indications of the Torah’s lack of universalism, but rather of the fundamental inability of the nations of Yishmael and Esav to identify with the totality of the Torah’s universal truth. While Israel is universal and identified with the universality and Will and Mind of God, not limited by any particularistic inclination, the Gentiles are particularistic. Rav Kook follows in this tradition when he teaches that “Israel’s history is the epitome of world history; there is no movement in the world among any of the nations that does not have its parallel in Israel. Its faith is the epitome of faith, the source of idealism and goodness, which it bestows on all other faiths” (Orot Yisrael 1:1).

Rav Kook was aware of the reluctance on the part of many Jews to acknowledge the uniqueness and greatness of their national character (as opposed to most Americans who—certain of the universality of their national values and unafraid that these are tainted by ethnocentricity—believe that the superiority of the United States over all other nations, past and present, is self-evident). Rav Kook argues that this is a mistake:

It is a fundamental error to shrink from our preeminence, to cease acknowledging: “You have chosen us” [“Atah bechartanu”]. We are not only different from all other nations—different and separate by virtue of our extraordinary history that is unparalleled by that of any other nation—we are also better and greater than any nation. If we know our greatness, then we know ourselves, and if we forget our greatness—we forget ourselves; and a nation that forgets itself must be small and low. Only through forgetting who we are do we remain small and low, and forgetting who we are means forgetting our greatness (Orot Hatechiyah 5).

Because of the Divine, and hence universal, nature of Israel’s identity, the uniqueness of the Jewish national character does not negate the universal role the people of Israel play in history. Israel’s sanctity is an open expression of the sanctity of Man, a sanctity which is hidden and dormant in all people (Hakodesh Haklali 13) and which gives life to the particular character and culture of every nation, linking each of them to God.

Because Israel encapsulates Man at his ideal, love of Israel, asserts Rav Kook, does not engender a hatred of all others but rather the opposite: “Love of Israel [ahavat Yisrael] requires loving Man” (Orot Yisrael 4:5). “Loving man” does not mean loving evil men or Man’s evil, but rather it means loving those universal Divine qualities in each man that make him a Man.

Israel’s role, writes Rav Kook, requires it to be “both ‘a nation that dwells alone’ and ‘a light to the nations’”(Orot Yisrael 5:3). Israel carries out this role, not by blurring the distinctions between itself and the other nations, but by achieving a full national expression of its identity, “by being who we need to be” (Orot Yisrael 5:5). “‘A kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Shemot 19:6)… stand[ing] strong and free, having been restored to its completeness and to its happiness” (Yisrael Vetchiyato 15), Israel brings all of mankind to accepting and fulfilling God’s Will, with each nation joyfully making its own particular national contribution to the whole. Rav Kook writes:

Until the time of the future redemption we are teaching the nations of the world only of their obligations: morality and justice derived from knowledge of the true God…. But the world has no desire to accept obligations. If it does accept them, a residue of resentment is directed at whoever is most responsible for imparting that knowledge that prevents the barbaric spirit from pursuing all of its desires. But when it comes time for the light of the world to be revealed, the world will know that we have conferred upon it ways of life filled with joy…. Therefore “Ten men of all the languages of the nations will hold the garment of a Jewish man” (Zecharya 8:23) (Orot Yisrael 5:15).

Rav Kook teaches that it is Israel’s identity, the very reality of its being, its essential holiness, that distinguishes it from other nations. But it is this same essence—this special connection with God—that will enable Israel to confer on all of mankind a life alive with meaning, “a life filled with joy.”

Rabbi Blass, a graduate of Mercaz HaRav, is rabbi of the community of Neve Tzuf in the Shomron and heads Ratzon Yehuda, the Zionist kollel in Petach Tikva (named for HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook) for graduates of hesder yeshivot.

This article was featured in the Fall 2004 issue of Jewish Action.