Repentance = Freedom?
In the thick of the month of Ellul, nearing Rosh Hashanah, penitence is or should be in the air. Also recently marked was the 75th yahrzeit of the great mystic, jurist, and theologian Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935). As it turns out, Kook's teachings on the meaning of repentance are among his most striking, stamped with his distinctive mix of piety and audacity. In his eyes, teshuvah, generally translated as "repentance" but literally and more powerfully "return," signifies not only a deepened and renewed commitment to religion and commandments but, paradoxically, nothing less than a new birth of freedom.
Kook's ideas on the subject are chiefly laid out in the volume Orot Hateshuvah ("The Lights of Return"), first published in 1925. Like nearly all his works, this is less a systematic treatise than a collection of reflections, aphorisms, and poetic and mystical flights culled from his spiritual diaries. Again, like all his works, it is deep, transporting—and problematic.
This, in sum, is Kook's vision: all of existence, individual and collective, high and low, is rooted in God and will return to Him. God is the source of the élan vital coursing through the universe, a force expressing itself in all aspects of human creativity and freedom, even those that at first blush seem to run counter to conventional religion. To engage in teshuvah is, so to speak, to catch the wave.
While touching on powerful currents of modern sensibility, Kook's thought is rooted above all in Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. Central to that tradition is the doctrine of the Sefirot, the nodal points of divine energy that, taken together, constitute the deep structure from which all known worlds have emanated and to which they and we will return. Crucial to this process of cosmic unfolding is the sefirah known as Binah ("Insight"), also designated "the maternal sefirah": the metaphysical womb out of which emerge the cosmos and all its souls. It, too, is designated "teshuvah."
Repentance, in other words, is return to the very womb of creation—a "place without boundaries" in the words of the author of the 13th-century kabbalistic treatise Shaarei Orah. Its connection with freedom was spelled out in the 16th century by Judah Loewe, the Maharal of Prague, who wrote that "when people undertake teshuvah and return to their beginnings, the world too returns to its beginning, to restore and repair every ruined thing in the world."
Writing in the early 20th century, Kook was striving to make sense of a deep paradox: on the one hand, the collapse of much of traditional society in secularism and revolution; on the other hand, the stirrings of Jewish national, cultural, and perhaps spiritual renewal in the land of Israel, itself the work of secular Jews and rebels against rabbinic authority. He was also drawn to the modern beliefs in progress and in the power and primacy of self-expression. In the kabbalistic understanding of teshuvah, he found a way of weaving these themes into the fabric of tradition:
Teshuvah derives from the aspiration of all existence to be more refined, stronger, and better than it is. Hidden in this desire is a life force that would overcome the limited dimension of being and its weaknesses. And the particular teshuvah of an individual, and all the more so of the community, draws its strength from this fount of life, which continually exercises its strength in never-ending action.
But if existence, with all its promise and imperfections, originates in God and is driven to return to Him, what then is sin? To Kook, it is that which obstructs the divine light, "the illumination of the higher Wisdom whose revelatory path proceeds through the simple harmony of a soul given to understanding the wholeness of all being and its heavenly source." Release from sin thus requires not only a practical commitment to Torah and commandments but also a relaxation of the sorrows, and the guilt, that create blockages in the soul. As he writes in an amazing passage: "One who grieves constantly for his sins and the sins of the world must constantly forgive and absolve himself and the whole world [emphasis added], and in so doing will draw forgiveness and a light of lovingkindness onto all being and bring joy to God and to His creatures."
This passage resonates with Kook's dissent from the religious view that identifies repentance with submission and the breaking of one's own will. Yes, the will must be disciplined in action—Kook was no less a jurist than a mystic—but "the will deriving from the power of teshuvah . . . is not the superficial will, which grasps only the weak and external sides of life, but rather the will that is the innermost nucleus of the foundation of life, the very selfhood of the soul."
What he is describing, Kook recognizes, is an ideal, not the reality: "There is still no true freedom in the world, which is not yet liberated from its slavish fetters." Still, he insists, "there are levels, levels," and these are realizable in "the extent to which each personality can grasp, through good inclinations, acts, and longings, its choice and its heavenly freedom." And there is something that can lead the way—namely, the "national renaissance" of the Jewish people. This powerful phenomenon is, for Kook, "the foundation of the great edifice of teshuvah, the higher teshuvah of Israel and of the entire world that will follow in its train."
An extraordinary conception indeed. As for its problems, one may usefully invoke Isaiah Berlin's classic essay distinguishing two senses of freedom: negative freedom, freedom from the restraints of government and social coercion, and positive freedom, the freedom to be one's own best imagined self. The former is the humbler ideal, the latter the more thrilling—but also, when too tightly identified with the collective, or too loosely connected with ethics, a source of great human suffering.
Kook was clearly thinking mainly of positive freedom, and his ideas are prey to its characteristic deformations: a romantic apotheosis of the self and of the individual or collective will in pursuit of its own untrammeled fulfillment. Kook's belief in progress and the inevitable moral improvement of the world, a belief very much a product of his age, would also come in for severe pummeling in the ensuing decades.
Kook was a deeply dialectical thinker, and his ideas should be approached with care. But it does not require the erasure of his vision to appreciate how its cosmic exuberance should be balanced by a contrary motion rooted in structures able to counter, contain, and, ultimately, sustain it. After all, central to the kabbalah that was so central to him is the idea that, in order to shine into this finite world, the divine light must be contained in vessels. The ceaseless interplay between radiant energy and the structures that bear it is the very essence of the life of the spirit.