Sin as Corrective: Rabbi Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook

September 1, 2008
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Shaul Magid

In his three-volume collection of essays, aphorisms, and diary entries published posthumously as Orot ha-Kodesh (Lights of Holiness), Rav Kook (1865-1935) buries what appears to be an incidental comment about sin in a longer discourse on messianism:

“Attachment to God, in its most exalted and pristine manner does not stand in opposition, in any way, to the world or life in general. Rather, attachment to God serves to both prepare and expand the world in all its facets. If Israel did not sin they would not have been presented with correctives from the outside [i.e., general culture], all of which are needed in order to perfect themselves in every manner of their existence. However, sin (also) caused the concealment of supernal thought. What remained was only a shadow of its [Israel’s] existence, which does not have the capacity to embrace the absolute nature of divine thought. These outside influences cannot serve to expand [and redeem] the world until they are directed toward accomplishing this attachment to God, a [synthetic] talent which is lacking [in Israel, as a consequence of exile]. Therefore, Israel needs to be scattered in exile (pizur hagalut) in order to correct this inherent lack in its own constitution — to absorb the best qualities in all the nations in order to perfect its essential character…”[author’s translation]

In this passage, sin is constructed as both a consequence of Israel’s weakness and an opportunity for its healing. I am taking license to translate Kook’s “general culture” (an enigmatic term in Kook’s writing) as secular culture, often viewed by tradition as something to avoid. Yet Kook suggests that exposure to this “general/secular culture” (and transforming it) is the very thing that will correct Israel’s constitutional weakness and bring it to its completion. He suggests that secular culture can provoke in the individual and collective a drive to create a synthesis, or at least a symbiosis, between autonomous human creativity (secularity) and the “religious” goal of fulfilling divine will (Judaism). The integration of one’s expanded religious vision — consisting of the best of what secularism has to offer (art, music, literature, free-thought, human autonomy) — is not a concession but a corrective to Israel’s sin.

According to Rav Kook, what Israel lost through its sin (apparently the sin of the Golden Calf) was its ability to comprehend how human creativity is not in conflict with human devotion. One of the ideational foundations underlying the rabbinic construction of “law” (halakhah) is to protect Israel from blurring the boundaries between the sacred and profane — that is, erecting barriers so that Divine demands are not undone by human desire. This even produces a rabbinic ethos of making “fences around the Torah,” ( Mishna Avot 1:1) encouraging supererogatory behavior to prevent the abrogation of the law. Rav Kook argues here that the dualism that too easily results from this perspective does not ultimately protect us from sin but rather perpetuates what sin produced. He suggests that sin, resulting in “the concealment from supernal thought” produces a society that moves — perhaps unwittingly — outside its impenetrable castle, becoming exposed to dimensions of “culture” that are required for it to recognize the false notion that the holy is self-contained. In his reading, the fullness of the holy is reached only by expanding rather than contracting the borders of the holy by taking from the secular and making it part of its collective devotional life. If we had not sinned, so the argument might be extended, we would continue to live in the illusion that Divine demands were sufficient to achieve our individual and collective goals. Here exile and sin are linked — the former as a consequence of the latter — but the former, and only the former, provides the tools for its own dissolution. Repentance from sin, therefore, is to “correct this inherent lack in its [Israel’s] own constitution” (a consequence of its exile) by “absorbing the best qualities of all the nations into itself.”

Turning to the High Holiday season, Rav Kook offers an intriguing meditation on sin and repentance. Our response to sin, he suggests, should not be enclosure but expansion. Secular culture is not a temptress, nor is our participation in it a concession. Rav Kook suggests a “holy acculturation” whereby a constructive engagement with secularism (this category remains under-defined in Kook’s writings) exposes us to the qualities of human autonomy and creativity that can enable us to integrate the world into our devotional lives and bring those sensibilities to matters of global concern. This expansive mode of “correction” in Kook may also extend to Israel’s relationship with the world. One reading may be that Israel should expand and become more deeply invested in the global community, closing the chasm between itself and the world, an unfortunate fissure produced, in Kook’s mind, as an artificial (if understandable) response to centuries of oppression and persecution. Sin exposes the weakness of our own constitution (and tradition) and (also) provides the necessary seeds for its own undoing.

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Shaul Magid, a Sh'ma Advisory Board member, is professor in the department of religious studies and the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Chair in Jewish Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of From Metaphysics to Midrash: Myth, History and the Interpretation of Scripture in Lurianic Kabbala and Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism, and Messianism in Izbica and Radzin Hasidism . He is the editor of God's Voice from the Void: Old and New Essays on Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, and co-editor of Beginning Again: Toward a Hermeneutic of Jewish Texts . He is presently working on a book, Becoming an American Religion: The Transformation of Judaism in Postethnic America.

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