1. The Vilna Gaon’s Concept of the Death
and Resurrection of the Jewish People
Rabbi Eliahu ben Shlomo Zalman, known as the Gaon of Vilna for his exceptional knowledge of Jewish tradition and religion, lived in the city of Vilna in the eighteenth century, towards the end of the second era in Jewish history. He was the spiritual leader of the Lithuanian Jewry, the most educated Jewish population of its time and a community particularly focused on the study of Torah and Talmud. To this day, he is considered the central pillar of the “Lithuanian” stream in Judaism. His ideas are relevant to our topic.
According to the Vilna Gaon, when the Jews were exiled from the land of Israel after the destruction of the second Temple and the defeat of the uprising against Rome, the Jewish nation died. Its corpse lay in the grave throughout the periods of the Babylonian Talmud (third to sixth centuries) and the Gaons (seventh to tenth centuries). In time, he says, during the period of the Rishonim in the late Middle Ages, the corpse began to fall apart, and eventually its pieces decomposed so that by his time, the end of the eighteenth century, the body had almost entirely decayed. However, like a seed thrown into the earth, which appears to disintegrate and rot but in fact germinates, so it is with the Jewish people. Its body, said the Gaon, appeared to have decomposed, but was, in fact, about to rise from the dead.
Let us try to interpret the Gaon’s words. First, what does he mean by “death”? The soul lives always; therefore, “death” must refer to the severance of body from spirit. In other words, a soul is “alive” while it has a body; it is “dead” in the bodiless afterlife. When the body is taken from the soul, we say that a person has died, even though his soul continues to exist.
This interpretation clarifies the Gaon’s meaning. When the Jews were exiled from the land of Israel, the Jewish people lost its body. That is, it lost its national/political structure. This was the death of the nation.
The Vilna Gaon goes on to say that during the period of the Babylonian Talmud and Gaons, the “corpse” of the Jewish people “lay in the grave.” A corpse resembles a person, but is not a person. Likewise, during this period, when the center of Jewish life was transferred to Babylon, the Jews had cultural and political autonomy. They had a social structure that resembled, but was not, a government. By the time of the Rishonim, there was no single center of Jewish life; the Ashkenazim and Sephardim had split – the corpse was falling apart. And finally, after the exile from Spain and the resettlement from Germany to Eastern Europe, the fragments themselves begin to decompose: the Jews gradually cease to be a single entity, even within the Ashkenazi and Sephardic groupings. Now every community lives independently of the others, and eventually the individual becomes independent of the community. No national organism remains at all–the corpse has entirely decomposed.
The resurrection from the dead
The Vilna Gaon concludes with the assertion that the Jewish people are about to rise from the dead. If we examine the two and a half centuries that separate us from his time, we see that his prediction has come true. A national body has arisen, known as the State of Israel. From this point of view, the Zionist movement and the State of Israel are not transient political-economic events; they are a pure and typical resurrection, a soul re-embodied.
Over the many centuries of exile, the disembodied soul of the Jewish people continued to exist, but now it is reincarnated. Israeli government, of course, is far from perfect; however, this is not determined by the body, but by the character of the soul that inhabits it. Zionism did not create the soul of Judaism – that lived always – it created a body for it. The formation of the State of Israel is a cardinal phenomenon in Jewish life, and an event unique in world history. The life of the Jews in the Diaspora was the life of the disembodied soul, and everything created by Jews in Galut is the work of the spirit beyond the grave.
Jewish life in exile as existence beyond the grave
If one were to ask of what Jewish life consists, or consisted, in any city in the Diaspora, the answer would be an enumeration of yeshivas, synagogues, theaters, and clubs. We equate Jewish life with Jewish culture. Over two thousand years of exile, the important figures in Jewish life have been those who wrote great literature, usually religious. No other people would view itself this way. If we were to ask someone to describe French life in any particular century, in addition to culture and literature we would be told about the physical aspects of life, the actions of the government: what it built and destroyed, what laws it passed and how it enforced them, with whom it made war and peace, what it seized and what it relinquished. Culture is only one aspect of the national life of a people.
Only in the Jewish exile do we see national life equated with national culture. Jewish life in Israel is another matter. It includes not only culture, but also social and political life, relations between Jews and other peoples, wars and truces, law and government, territories and boundaries. Culture, including literature, is merely one aspect of this life.
For Jews in exile, Jewish life is reduced to culture alone. Like a disembodied spirit, lacking life and breath, it is taken up entirely by its own ideas and humors. It is a life that cannot be called real.
The distinction between life and culture is like the gulf between the person who lives and solves real problems, and the person who reads a novel in which problems are solved in theory. The reading of a novel may be a fully absorbing occupation, but it cannot be compared with life in its entirety. Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel returned to the Jewish people the possibility and necessity of a real national life; it has placed us in a situation where we must decide real problems, not simply compose and read novels about them. This is a resurrection from the dead.
We then conclude with posing the following question: during which of these two periods – the time of the Land of Israel or the time of the Diaspora – did the Jewish people make a greater contribution to world culture and civilization? Many would answer with barely a moment’s thought that it was during the time of Diaspora. But as soon as we ask what specifically the Jewish contribution consisted of from the third to the nineteenth centuries, we find ourselves stumped. Can we name even ten great Jews from that period who made an essential contribution to world culture and civilization? Well, say we name Maimonides and Spinoza. With some difficulty (concerning whether their contribution can be considered essential), we add the Kabbalah, Chassidism, Mendelssohn, Heine, perhaps Rothchild, and, let us say, Karl Marx. That completes the list, and it turns out to be much shorter than we had anticipated. Not much for a “chosen people.”
We could, of course, lengthen the list by widening our time span: if we include the twentieth century, we can add Freud, Einstein, Wiener and, a rung below, some Nobel Laureates. But here problems arise: first, it is difficult to assess just how great these names will be in five hundred or a thousand years. When we speak today of the greats of the fifth or tenth century, we realize that these must indeed be truly outstanding individuals for their names to be known a millennium later; it is not clear whether today’s Nobel Laureates will appear quite so impressive fifteen hundred years hence. Furthermore, it is a bit odd that all of our claims to importance over the entire period of the Diaspora should be concentrated in the last hundred years. What were we doing for fifteen hundred years before, why did we not make a fitting contribution to the development of civilization? Despite the fact that the first era is separated from us by two millennia, any educated western person can easily name dozens of great Jews of that time, from Moses to David, King Solomon, the prophet Isaiah, and so on. This is the period when the world received the Bible, an unprecedented contribution to world culture, through the Jews.
The Bible is the foundation of Western and, hence, world culture, the basis of the entire Western worldview. The idea that man is made in God’s image (on which Western civilization is founded), the Western view of man’s place in the universe, of his freedoms and rights, of morality and ethical values, all spring from the Bible. It would be difficult to overrate the Bible’s influence on world culture.
2. Rabbi Kook’s Analysis of the Potential for Chochma and Bina in the Diaspora and in the State of Israel
A new approach to Kabbalah
Rabbi Kook’s entire approach is based on Kabbalah interpreted at a new level. Rabbi Kook’s Kabbalah is a Kabbalah of God’s dialogue with the Jewish people. He examines the Jewish people as a single organism, applying the conceptual model of Kabbalah to interpret the dynamics of social processes within it, thus generating a sociological projection of Kabbalah. In addition, Rav Kook interprets us not as empty vessels, containing nothing but the light that we have received from above; he emphasizes the personal nature and unique quality of every individual – the “I” of the person and of the nation. Realizing its individual creative potential, the person and the nation find meaning in life. This realization is the essence of religion.
Chochma and Bina
The concepts of chochma and bina are familiar. They long ago migrated from the Kabbalah and Chassidism into mainstream Jewish and European thought. However, their true meanings and application are not widely understood.
Both of these terms belong to the realm of understanding and intellectual attainment. It would be incorrect, however, simply to translate chochma as wisdom and bina as understanding, as these meanings are specific to the Kabbalah. In a European context, it would be more accurate to define chochma as illumination, and bina as the analysis of that illumination. Chochma is the first stage of enlightenment, the blinding flash. Bina develops and structures the ideas grasped (the word bina comes from the root bone, meaning to build), putting them into a logical system. It is worth noting that as the Divine light descends from the uppermost spheres to the world below, chochma is a higher stage than bina.
The potential for attaining Chochma and Bina
in exile and in the State of Israel
We will turn now to Rabbi Kook’s own ideas. Speaking of the creative potential of the Jewish people, he states that in exile, they can rise no higher than the level of bina; only in Israel can they attain chochma. Therefore, no authentic Jewish creativity is possible outside the land of Israel. Only in Israel can the Jewish people receive truly new revelations; in Galut, they can do no more than analyze, systematize, and explore old ones.
The TaNaKh and Talmud as Chochma and Bina
In order to understand Rabbi Kook’s claim, we will examine the following example. The primary Jewish book created in Israel is the TaNaKh; those created in Galut are the Talmud, codes and commentaries.
What is the character of the TaNaKh in terms of chochma and bina? In every book of the TaNaKh we encounter new revelations. It is clearly a book of chochma. On the other hand, the Talmud, codes and commentaries – in fact, all of the culture of Galut – are directed towards what has already been said. The purpose of these works is to analyze, systematize, and develop prior revelations. Jewish culture in exile, with its constant mandate to cite its sources, is directed solely at preserving tradition, whereas the nature of Jewish culture in Israel is to advance, to make new discoveries. The TaNaKh, created in Israel, reflects chochma; this is why it, and not the Talmud, had such a cardinal influence on all humankind. Christian European specialists read the commentaries of Rashi – they were even translated into Latin at one point – but Rashi’s influence on this small group cannot be compared with that of the Bible, which remains the most important book in European civilization.
The TaNaKh is a book meant for every person on Earth. The Talmud is for Jews and specialists; it is not addressed to humanity as a whole.
The lack of study of the TaNaKh in yeshivas in Galut
in recent centuries
It is a remarkable and little known fact that over the last one or two hundred years, the TaNaKh was not taught at all in yeshivas; the Talmud was studied almost exclusively, along with the Halakha, the fundamentals of Chassidism, or ethical tracts, depending on the yeshiva. Everyone knew the Torah of course, especially as it was read on the Shabbat, as were the haftarot; people knew the psalms and the Five Scrolls; but as for the rest of the TaNaKh, even those who studied it in yeshivas did so for the most part unsystematically. They were familiar with it as fragmented excerpts mentioned in the Talmud, presented almost always in illustration of some logical argument or foregone conclusion, rather than in their original sense and significance. Yeshiva students had no substantive knowledge or understanding of the TaNaKh.
At first glance, this is shocking. How can it be that the Bible itself, the most important book given to the world by Jews, was not studied in the yeshivas? But the explanation is clear. Jews throughout the centuries have approached their sacred texts very seriously, seeking in them guidance for their actions and understanding of the world around them. What could the TaNaKh, and especially its histories, offer in Galut? Of course, the Torah has much to offer: it contains the commandments and laws that guide our behavior in life. But what can Jews in the Diaspora draw from its history of the Jewish people –
the kings, the wars, the relations between kings and prophets, the conquest and division of the nation, the spiritual-political history of the Jewish kingdoms – what could they feel for all this? Almost nothing. Those books were distant from the world they lived in; they dealt with problems alien to them; they were simply uninteresting. General interest in the the TaNaKh was revived only with Zionism. The new Zionist Jewish population of the State of Israel found it both interesting and essential. We will discuss the reasons for this in detail below.
3. The Connections between the Approaches of the Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Kook
The existence of the body demands action;
choice creates the potential for chochma
We now compare two periods in the history of the Jewish people: the era of the Land of Israel from the fourteenth century BCE to the second century CE, and the era of exile from the third to nineteenth centuries.
As we have seen, the Vilna Gaon holds that during the first era, the Jewish nation had a physical body and was, therefore, alive, while during the second era, disembodied, it was dead. Rabbi Kook adds another perspective to this analysis: during the first era we had the potential to attain chochma; during the second, we were limited to bina.
What is the connection between these two ideas? Why should a people’s ability to attain chochma be dependent on the existence of a government? After all, understanding is gained through reason, and the Jewish people never lost its power of thought. The landowner and the keeper of livestock lost their occupations, but the thinker and poet took their minds with them. Why cannot the mind in exile attain chochma? We see that it is capable of functioning at the level of bina – it can acquire and analyze information, draw logical conclusions. Why are new revelations beyond its reach?
Let us approach this question at the individual level by examining our own personal experience. We do not gain new insights when we sit in our armchair reading a book and scratching our head. Illumination, true understanding, arrives only when a person collides with reality in his own life – this is when sparks fly. These sparks contain the seeds of chochma. They need only be seized and examined.
To express it less picturesquely, the collision with reality is an existential crisis, the crisis of choice. We make many decisions in life: we rise in the morning, eat breakfast, leave the house, ride the bus, etc. Of course, each action involves an element of choice, but these are standard choices, within the norm. An existential crisis is a situation in which our decision-making apparatus ceases to function, and we face a complicated dilemma with no clear solution and serious consequences. Only in making such choices as these, and taking responsibility for their outcomes, does the soul mature and attain chochma.
Most important in overcoming an existential crisis is the exercise of the will, and will is, in fact, the higher part of the soul. However, the presence of the body is necessary in order for the crisis to exist and thus to demand action, or the realization of the will. For there to be a problem of choice, there must be the possibility for real action to be materially undertaken. If the question demands no physical action, we can discuss it ad infinitum, weigh its pros and cons forever, and never reach a decision. But the moment of choice is the existential breakthrough and the foundation for the attainment of chochma, and it is the body that creates the necessity for the soul to exercise choice. A person gains new insight when he is forced to act and to answer for his action with his life.
The will is the essence of the person.
The will matures through responsible decision making
For an additional illustration of this idea, we ask: what is the definition of a mature human being? The word mature is generally applied to a person who has had the experience of making conscious choices and taking responsibility for them. This, not accumulated knowledge, is the essence of adulthood. One may have read many books and yet remain infantile if one has never made a responsible decision. It is in the moment of decision that the soul is realized, as the essence of the soul is the will. The reality of the decision is what causes the spiritual breakthrough; necessity forces the soul to take action, and necessity depends on the existence of the body.
One can say that a person is defined by the decisions he makes. The true essence of an individual is not his knowledge, abilities, or even wisdom; it is his will, which is revealed in his actions.
Keter (will) as the highest level in the system of Sephirot; the disagreement between the rationalists and the mystics over whether the world is governed by wisdom or by will
It must be added here that in the system of the Sephirot, the Kabbalistic representation of the structure of the world and of the soul, the highest sephirah is keter, or will and not wisdom. Wisdom, chochma, is depicted as an outcome of keter. The Kabbalah thus asserts that the world is constructed and ruled not by wisdom, but above all by will.
This question of whether the creation and course of the world are determined by Divine wisdom or Divine will is at the root of the principal difference in views between two religious-philosophical ideas. Applied to humankind, the question becomes whether one’s life and actions are governed by one’s wisdom or one’s will. Which of these is the essence of the individual? Classical rationalists lean towards the primacy of wisdom, those who adhere to the mystical school, including Rabbi Kook, towards the primacy of will. For this reason, rationalists tend to expect people, nations, and humankind as a whole to behave rationally, whereas mystics note that in critical situations people and nations act in accordance with the higher call of the soul, often paradoxically, illogically, and irrationally.
As regards the parallel question of whether the world was created by Divine wisdom or Divine will, rationalists lean toward the former (this can lead to determinism, as wisdom acts according to truth, which is absolute); mystics emphasize Divine will and, accordingly, the spontaneity, open-endedness, and uncertainty of the universe.
This, however, is a large, specialized, and complicated subject, and we cannot here examine it in more depth.
A national body makes necessary the realization of the national will; this creates the potential for Chochma
The link between the existence of the body and the illumination of the understanding, or chochma, exists not only for the individual, but for the national organism as well. When there is a government, its existence forces the people to make complex and responsible decisions; this gives the people as a whole the opportunity for spiritual development. In the Diaspora, Jewish life is so ordered that only the individual has to make choices, face existential crises, and advance through acts of will. Thus, progress occurs at the individual level, but not at the national. The community serves to fill cultural needs; it does not make existential decisions for its members. The Jewish people may suffer as a group, but they do not make decisions as a unified entity, as no actions can be taken without a body or mechanism to carry them out – or to make decision necessary. Without national action, there is no national spiritual progress, and therefore in Galut, the Jewish people as a whole is without access to new realizations or discoveries. As a result, Jewish culture in the Diaspora is focused on bina, the analysis of existing ideas; it is not able to contribute new insights to humankind.
- It might also be noted here that this connection between will and material reality – the dependence of spiritual progress on the presence of the body – is presented in the Kabbalah through the peculiar relationship between the sephirah of keter (will) and the sephirah of malchut (realization) ↵
- Rabbi Kook emphasizes the particular importance of the parameters of Divine freedom as related to will, pointing out that the highest sephirah, keter, Divine free will, is the metaphysical source of man’s freedom of choice. ↵