A Soul Sang with a Unique Melody

By I. M. Oderberg

When I was young, a picture and its caption in an already old copy of the National Geographic Magazine -- the issue of December 1927 -- made a deep impression. In an article titled "The Pageant of Jerusalem," there appeared a photograph of the first Chief Rabbi of modern Palestine, Abraham Isaac Kuk (spelt Kook in a recent work [Abraham Isaac Kook -- The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, And Poems; Translation and Introduction by Ben Zion Bokser, prefaces by Jacob Agus and Rivka Schatz; 415 pp.; bibliography and index. Paulist Press, N.Y., 1978, in the series The Classics of Western Spirituality.]). The caption included a morning prayer of Isaac Luria (Isaac Luria was a famous mystic and Qabbalist of the 16th century whose profound influence still exists today. Rabbi Kuk came into the Lurianic stream in his twenties through a Rabbi Eliashev, a renowned exponent of Qabbalah. The main text of the school was The Tree of Life ('Etz Hayyim), in six volumes, dealing with the creation and structure of the universe and man.): "O God, grant that throughout this day I may be able to love my neighbor as myself."

Sensing that Rabbi Kuk was also a Qabbalist, I tried to discover more about him but did not locate anything where I lived, although he was evidently famous in rabbinic circles in Europe for his writings in Hebrew, on the body of Jewish oral law called halakah, and Qabbalah, and among secular scholars for his works in philosophy and poetry. After he died in 1935 of cancer, Rabbi J. B. Agus deemed the collection of the unpublished as well as printed material to be a veritable treasure trove that would fill 30 large volumes when finally edited and published. He assembled extracts from a sampling of them to support his valuable study, biography and collected personal impressions of Kuk's friends and colleagues, published in 1946 as Banner of Jerusalem (reprinted in 1972 under a new title High Priest of Rebirth).

This work gives valuable insights into a modern Qabbalist who not only was a student of the old classics but also was based firmly enough to venture into his own interpretations of these texts and concepts. His vast erudition was supplemented by his own inner experiences, especially a profoundly mystical one that occurred in Jaffa early in his rabbinate there. From his youth he was familiar with the works of Schopenhauer, the English philosophers Berkeley and Hume who analyzed the nature of human knowledge, and Kant, whose terminology he used at times, but from whom he differed on such ethical matters as the human criteria of justice. He felt that the Golden Rule and Kant's Categorical Imperative -- a moral obligation that is universally binding -- are approximations to the "spiritual current of freedom" that is rooted in the divine essence or consciousness of the universe.

It is evident that Rabbi Kuk was a combination of the fundamental Orthodox and also a genuine mystic, an unusual blend of monotheist and pantheist. The monotheist stressed the transcendent aspect of the Deity and, as Rabbi Agus comments, this "represents an incomplete account of Judaism and is therefore only partly true." The pantheist saw that divinity permeates the entire universe and that therefore everything is an expression of it; in a sense, the seeming separateness of entities is an illusion. Because of this immanence of divinity, the way to reach toward it is to cultivate those traits of human nature that are godlike. Among the terms used by Rabbi Kuk to illustrate this immanence was "light," which referred back to the emanation of everything that composes our visible universe and is to be found not only in early Qabbalistic literature but also in Neoplatonism.

"God said: 'Let there be light!' and there was light." That is, sound was the first emergence from the quiet of the Unmanifest, for speech is sound which is really motion. Yet they are equally first. "The emanation of light and vitality from Him, may He be blessed, from potentiality to actuality, resulting in the creation of worlds and their revitalization, is called 'speech'" -- from Tanya (ch. 21 ), a mystic work of the 18th century with which Kuk was well acquainted.

Rabbi Kuk felt that religion per se should be concerned with bringing "all life under the discipline of divine ideals." And the test of this would be in the inspiration it provided to live in accordance with an aspiration towards ethical and moral perfection. As a true Qabbalist, he looked to the "Inwardness of things," and he wrote that "whatever contributes to the 'perfection of the world' is divine in origin." Just as one of his teachers saw in the true Qabbalah a way to experience the "Immediacy of God," so Rabbi Kuk felt that the path to share such awareness of the presence of the godhead in all creation began in the same "received tradition." For him, "all things . . . were a crust with an inner essence, a divine dimension; seen aright all things have the capacity to reveal the light of holiness." And Professor Bokser comments further in the recently published anthology, "Rabbi Kook's writings are the direct outpourings of the soul as it contemplates the mystery of being, as it feels the stirring of God."

What emerges from the earlier work by Rabbi Agus and that published last November by Rabbi Bokser is the portrait of an unusual man, strong but gentle, of extreme tolerance and understanding of the young, yet of vast learning in Talmudic and other source material of his religious inheritance, plus a solid grounding in Western philosophy. Creative in his interpretations and applications of texts to the issues brought before him, he based his judgments on a true philosophy of religion, adapting them to modern conditions. Within the framework of the traditional beliefs he held undeviatingly, we find gems of mystical insight that are of universal relevance; they transcend the narrow confines of a rigid orthodoxy. We do not see only a theologian skilled in all the dialectics of the Orthodox Rabbis of old, but also one possessed of the broadest sympathies for all men, imbued through and through with the very spirit of pure mysticism. He exhibited a delicate sympathy for the feelings of others, never hurting them, but encouraging good points wherever he found them, suggesting improvement or reorientation when concepts seemed misunderstood or veering in a wrong direction.

Whoever reflects on divine ideas in their purity cannot hate or despise any creature or talent in the world, since everything manifests the grandeur and might of the action of God. . . .
The love for people must break out from the source of compassion; it must come to us not as a prescribed statute. Otherwise it will lose its most luminous element. It must come as a spontaneous movement of an inner soul force. -- Bokser, pp. 237-8

Perhaps what impresses one most is his unbounded optimism and abandonment of his own personal desire for the life of a scholarly recluse so that he could serve others. When he was in "exile" in London in 1916 because of the war, he wrote his son: "My soul yearns and is thirsty for inner reflection, while the stream of distractions drags it to endless conversations, discourses, expositions and thinking about finite matters. . . ." It is this quality of sympathy, indeed empathy, with others, combined with insights gained from daily self-examination, that makes his writings so illuminating. As he says in one of his poems:

I am bound to the world,
All creatures, all people are my friends,
Many parts of my soul
Are intertwined with them,
But how can I share with them my light?

We feel moved to wonder what was the underpinning of such a philosophy of love for all beings?

The foundation of his beliefs was the Qabbalistic view of cosmos and man, ensouled with "pulsating energies emanating from the divine source of all existence." This implies a continuing process, not a one-time creation in a remote past. As Bokser comments, Rabbi Kuk "saw the divine illumination as an ongoing outpouring of divine light upon those sensitive to receive it." The Rabbi saw, however, that the humanist ideal and his high view of what life could be were not met by the average, daily living process. The essence of much of his self-questioning seems to have been the wonderment that the universal viewpoint proves for so many people a difficult task to realize; that so many men are bound to parochialism or cling blindly to self, showing indifference or even hostility toward others. It is this polarization of modern life that provides for some the greatest anxieties, the most suffering and tragedy. In our technological age, the mystical life is imagined as impractical, nonproductive. But in reality it is the "dynamics of the psyche," to use a phrase of Dr. Agus.

Rabbi Kuk himself refers to two currents in the created universe, often interpreted as "opposing," but which only appear such for they operate in succession and not simultaneously. He calls the first "expansion," and the second, "unification," by which he means the process whereby "reflected light" returns to its source. The expansive force issues out of a reality that seems to be made up of disunited or disconnected entities and, seeking its divine source, it harmonizes the "sparks of holiness" scattered throughout the cosmos during the expanding phase of the cycle of existence.

What are these "sparks of holiness"? Bokser's explanatory note applies the term to

the divine dimension that is present in all things but that often remains in a submerged state until man fulfills his vocation to liberate it and activate it as the dominant force in all life. Even in its lowest manifestation, even when under the sway of evil and negativism, life is also inhabited by these "holy sparks." -- p. 132

But the "sparks" further suggest the monads of the ancient schools of thought which Ammonius Saccas of Alexandria nearly 2,000 years ago attempted to unify. The great library of that city was more than a collection of books. It was a center of fermenting ideas in the early centuries of our era, providing a meeting place for the fusion of Eastern and Western thought and teaching, influencing new religions and philosophies coming to birth at that time. The concept of monads was well known to the Gnostics of the various schools in the Middle East during those formative years of both Neoplatonism and Christianity, and of the Hellenizing of Judaism as evidenced by Philo and others. Out of this milieu came the essence of what later became systematized under the name of the Qabbalah* -- the mystical source from which Rabbi Kuk drew his inspiration.

(*Qabbalah is the "received" doctrine or theosophy conveying the hidden or inner meaning of the Old Testament scriptures. An alternative name is the "Secret Wisdom" -- Hhochmah Nistorah or esoteric system of the Jews, claimed to have been first taught in Jerusalem by the Tanaim or initiated sages of the 3rd century B.C. The writing of the Zohar or "Splendor," the elucidation of the five Books of Moses, has been ascribed to Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai around 80 A.D., but modern scholars assign the work to Rabbi Moses de Leon of 13th century Spain. The latter, however, claimed merely to be a collator, editor and translator of previously scattered works. There are indeed a few references connected with the 12th and 13th centuries A.D. in the accepted redaction of today, but there are also concepts of an archaic cast, obviously belonging to a much older source, a few commentators detecting even a Babylonian flavor.)

Its chief topics deal with: 1) the nature of divinity or godhead as the fountainhead of all manifestation; 2) the birth and structure of the cosmos and the hierarchies of all manifested beings; 3) the destiny of man and the universe; and finally, the interpretation of "Holy Scripture" seen as the outer garment of a profound teaching. The analogy chosen is that of a human being, in the sense that behind the literal text of the Torah is the body; and inside the body a soul; within the soul a spirit, and in the spirit -- divinity.

The first creative impulse emerges from within the Boundless Light or Ain Soph Aur and becomes a center through which emanate entities that are both intelligences and vortices of energies. Each emanation is the channel for the next and more materialized one that follows, the total number being ten. These ten Sephiroth, as they are called, interact among themselves, and the known universe is the fruit of their activity. The ten as a whole constitute the "Sephirothal Tree," also called the Heavenly Adam or Spiritual Man, i.e., the soul of the universe. This pristine model of the collective Host or Sephiroth, in the image of whom earthly man was made, inspired Rabbi Kuk in his reflections upon the universal realms of being and the dimensions of the divine. This is why, for instance, he stressed the need for the universal approach, to lift people involved in selfish pursuits or entangled in matters causing physical and even spiritual distress.

The light and warmth of his nature just shine through his poems -- he had a very individual view of poetry and its role. He likened it to the study of mystical themes, arising from the nature of the soul, and he wrote of the nature of the imagination in a way strongly reminiscent of the English poet William Blake:

In the treasury of imagination, all truth and greatness are contained; these become manifest little by little through the restrictive, filtering channels of reason. Our rational faculty is but a humble disciple.
. . . All praise is due to the vital force of our higher imagination . . . which unites with the higher Reason.
The power of imagination is the "chair" on which the light of wisdom and of the higher life rest. -- Banner of Jerusalem, pp. 162-3

Dr. Agus comments that the higher reason, out of which imagination draws its inspired knowledge, is the "Divine Reason, from which the phenomena of prophecy and the Holy Spirit are derived." It can also be said the concept reminds us of the role of the Greek nous -- the spiritual pole of the mind -- as recorded in Plato's Republic and other works.

Rabbi Kuk compared a poem to a parable, a "faithful translation of the soul's vision in its realm of inwardness. That is its natural language." While much of his own poetry gives voice to his mystical experiences, ever and again he returns to the theme of human relationships:

Within our souls lights divine arise
In multiform shapes, according [to] our minds.
The One, Eternal Truth,
Before the One,
In depths of Holy Truth,
Revealed is He.
Within us dominant,
Ruling our inner soul,
The soul of all creation.

For him the "world soul is full of souls hidden, treasures of the holy spirit."

  • (From Sunrise magazine, February 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press.)

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