Monday 22 February 2016


Rav Kook talking to Chaim Bialik

Within the space of about a week, I came upon two extraordinary pieces of writing by two very different but influential thinkers, Rav Kook and Rambam. They both write about the surprising exalted status of segments of society that we usually tend to look down upon. And they explore the limits and fallibility of scholarship.


Although very approachable and affable, Rav Kook has been described as almost living in an other-worldly realm. While most of us ‘ascend’ for prayer, he apparently had difficulty in ‘descending’ to pray in what he called ‘cages’ of words. 

His writings seemed to course directly from his soul. It is said that he didn’t actively sit down to write like most other scholars, instead the words flowed ‘not because he had the strength to speak but because he didn’t have the strength to keep quiet.’ And once he started writing he didn’t stop, often not even realizing that he had come to the end of the paper, and continued writing onto the table.

Also, he chose to write with pencil instead of ink which would have required numerous stops for refilling thus interrupting his thoughts. And remarkably, on inspection of his manuscripts, he never crossed out words or sentences, seemingly expressing himself appropriately the first time.

Rambam, on the other hand, was forced to flee from Spain and upon arrival in Morocco found the Almohad revolution had broken out there as well, so the family again fled to the Atlas Mountains where they lived in a cave for about nine years. It was during this uncomfortable time in the cave that he began writing his commentary to the Mishna. 

When he eventually arrived in Cairo, he became the physician to the Sultan, and writes in his letters how long and hard he worked during the day, meeting with people from all over the world and tending to the frail. Somehow he managed to make time to write so many works that were to become cornerstones of Judaism as we know it today. By looking at his manuscripts we see that he often did cross out words and sentences and then, as the different colors of ink attest, he seemed to have gone back to them some time later.

RAV KOOK (1865-1935):

Rav Kook said some amazing things in his lifetime. Many of these treasures are scattered and hidden amongst his various writings. Here is one such example of a dramatic piece of writing. (My loose translation follows):

“Ordinary people who are not scholars have many advantages over the learned. This is because their untainted (natural lit.) minds and normative sense of morality (and ethics) have not yet become corrupted (blurred lit.[tishteish]) by mistakes [shegiot]), which arise from study. 

-But this (corruption) does indeed occur (within the scholars themselves) as a result of the weakening of their (intrinsic and natural intellectual and moral) faculties, and the anger [hitkatzfut] that builds up in them as a result of the pressure (burden lit.) of learning.”

If that’s not enough, Rav Kook continues:

“And scholars need to constantly adapt [sigel] (and adopt) as much as they are able to, the natural traits (talents lit.) of ordinary unlearned people (amei ha’aretz). This (suggestion) would apply to (the scholars adopting) both (the ordinary people’s) general attitude towards life, as well as their natural affinity to (basic) morality (and decency). 

This way, (by learning basic morality and approach from those ‘less’ than them), the (scholars) minds will be opened and they will truly develop (and become elevated lit.).”

But Rav Kook is not yet finished.

He adds; “The same would apply to the requirement of tzadikim (righteous) to learn even from the rashaim (wicked). This is because we find that even within certain rashaim, the small amount of good still left in them, is built upon a profound natural sense of decency and (even) purity. And because of this, the tzadikim need to learn from the (good still evident within) rashaim.” [1]

This has got to be one of the most honest, provocative, profound and powerful short segments of modern Torah literature.

Rav Kook praises the natural and instinctive ability of non-religious people to maintain basic decency and normative and natural attitudes and thinking. He laments the fact that, in his view, this sometimes gets lost when people turn to religion and begin studying religious texts. And he urges people who are already better religiously versed, to actively learn from those they may ordinarily tend to look down upon. They need to do so, because although they may not realize it, their own environments may be somewhat ethically harsh and intellectually (although not textually) stark.
RAMBAM (1135-1204):

As an unexpected result of researching the previous article, I happened upon (yet another) dizzying piece of Rambam.  One wonders whether Rav Kook the mystic, did not find some inspiration in something Maimonides the rationalist, wrote some eight hundred years earlier. (My loose translation and paraphrase follows):

“One of the reasons why people are blind to the (sometimes obvious) truth is because they cling to things they were habitually taught when they were young. (Rambam seems to refer to what we today might call ‘brainwashing’.) These are the theological opinions to which we have become accustomed to from our youth. We defend these views so much and are so comfortable with them that we shun all other perspectives.

This stems from our long familiarity with the simple and literal meaning of verses of the Torah which we were taught as children. The way we were taught as youngsters, sometimes destroys our ability to understand Torah in a more sophisticated manner.

(As we grew older and started studying more technicalities) it was like our eyes had become accustomed to look at very fine things from too close - or at very far things that we couldn’t focus upon either - so that when we tried to look at other things with our ordinary vision, which should have been easily within our range, they became blurred.

If a person studies too much (text without context) he becomes confused. And as a result, (ironically) he will no longer be capable of understanding even ordinary things anymore.”[2]


The similarities between this Rambam and Rav Kook are all the more uncanny when we see, not only a reference to the mind becoming blurred, but also a reference to the scholar becoming somewhat confused .There is also a reference to; “Your eyes will become too weak to perceive what you were able to see before you excelled at your studies”  - which ties in with the notion of the scholar no longer being able to understand the basic things that were so obvious before.

There is a further reference to the requirement of the scholar to ‘admit the doubt’, which brings one to a state of ‘pure humanity’[3]. This corresponds to Rav Kook’s reminder that scholars are not infallible, and sometimes need to learn - from ordinary people - the basic things which they may have overlooked. If the scholar loses his grounding with ordinary people, he will ‘deceive himself’[4]  and create ‘illusions’[5] which may eventually lead to ‘despicable behavioural patterns’.[6]

An overemphasis on learning can sometimes make the scholar intellectually and morally poorer, not richer, and at that point the ordinary person overtakes him.


Rav Kook did (very politely) record his view of Rambam’s rationalism as expressed in Moreh Nevuchim, as follows; “There are some people who are influenced by certain ideas and then there are others who find different ideas that bring them closer to the sublime and holy.”[7]

Speaking perhaps a little more to the point, he writes elsewhere that; “I cannot satisfy my soul with the love that comes from reason.”[8]

On the other hand, Rambam finds spirituality within his rationalism, which he regards as not just an approach to Torah thinking, but the very essence of it.

Although Rambam and Rav Kook are two very different people living in different eras and with very distinct philosophical approaches, the amazing thing that emanates from our two texts is that, in this case, they both express a very similar sentiment[9]:

They believe that when it comes to learning simple universal truths, ethics and attitudes, we usually tend to look for them in all the wrong places.

Yet these truths are so primal, universal and inherent that they cannot be found in books or teachers, but are instead sourced deep within the very fabric of unencumbered ordinary human beings.

[1] Shmona Kevatzim 1. 463.  See also 1. 75
[2] Moreh Nevuchim, vol.1, end of ch. 31 and beginning of ch. 32
Rambam goes on to explain that overindulgence in learning is similar to overindulgence in eating food that is too sweet; ‘Just as too much honey irritates the stomach and makes one sick.’ And then quotes from Mishlei (15,27); ‘Do not make yourself overwise. Why should you destroy yourself?’
[3] ‘shleimot ha’enoshi’
[4] ‘toneh nafshecha’
[5] ‘dmiyonim’
[6] ‘hamidot hamegunot’
[7] See Maamarei HaReiyah 14-15
[8] See Igrot HaReiyah 2, 12
[9] See a similar view as expressed by the Kotzker Rebbe here.
One also hears echoes of The Baal Shem Tov’s philosophy where he too sees fallibility in scholarship and therefore places more emphasis on ordinary people.

Of course, many ordinary people are immoral and do lack intellectuality. Nevertheless, there is still a significant groundswell of others who although not necessarily observant, do exhibit the basic values of common decency, common sense and positive attitude. This is the segment of ordinary society they are obviously referring to in our two texts.

To be accurate; Although both Rambam and Rav Kook do strongly point out the inherent moral and intellectual risks associated with an overemphasis on scholarship, and do show that ordinary people often have advantages over scholars – Rav Kook calls for scholars to actively learn from non-scholars while Rambam focuses rather on the fallibility of viewing scholarship as an end in itself without overstating the need to actively learn from non-scholars, although he certainly does imply it.

Interestingly, Rav Kook talks about the irony of 'mistakes' occurring as a result of the overemphasis of scholarship, while Rambam appears to be more forthright, referring to active 'deceit'!

One wonders what Rav Kook's take would be on the popular kiruv or outreach movements of today. They do wonderful work although their focus is very much on what they can teach the less knowledgeable, without any space for learning anything from them. Imagine opening the dialogue and allowing for more of a two-way transfer of things both sides could learn from each other.


The following is extracted from the writings of R. David Bar-Hayim of Machon Shilo:

"I believe that most intelligent, educated Jews who 'reside' in the world as we know it, as opposed to those who view reality through a medieval prism, discount such things, just as they discount tales about demons and evil spirits. 

The Rambam, very much ahead of his time, explicitly rejected many notions that are mentioned in the Talmud and were once widely believed by the masses, and even by many scholars, such as demons and astrology. 

It is difficult to convey to the modern reader how radical Rambam's positions were at that time when all civilizations grave credence to such claims. 

Nor do I believe in spontaneous generation, even though at least some members of Hazal did. How could I when the reality is clearly visible under a microscope? 

I know that many Orthodox Jews are reluctant to express their thoughts on these matters for fear of being labelled unorthodox. This is a great pity, a tragedy in fact: it misleads many to adopt the view that to be an Orthodox Jew one has to be primitive and unschooled, or alternately exist in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. One can only guess at the number of Jews who have turned their backs on Tora Judaism for this and related reasons. 

Modern understandings and scientific advancement are not enemies of Tora, and we should embrace all knowledge based on fact. 90 years ago Rav Kook z'l pointed out that the increase in human understanding should encourage us to expand our minds, which will in turn lead us to a more profound understanding of Tora and knowledge of HASHEM. 

Rav Kook points out further that old and obsolete theological understandings must be relinquished in order to make way for the newer, deeper understandings that our present state of knowledge demands. He likens it to the seed planted in the earth which must first begin to rot before it sends forth the new shoot of life."

See: Truth, Authenticity, Tradition and Reason: Who Wrote the Zohar? Written by Rav Bar-Hayim Sunday, 26 February 2012.

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