The Problem of Relativism and Rav Kook's Concept of "Perfectible Perfection"
One criterion that can be gleaned from R. Kook’s thought for accepting the notion of revelation as a God-driven message is an instrumentalist one, serving decidedly human purposes. R. Kook’s personal writings consistently refer to the ultimate object of religion with abstractions, such as “the divine” (Elohut), rather than God (Elohim). He prefers terms like “the highest sanctity”, “reason”, “will”, “the all-inclusive unity”, “the essence of being”, “perfection”, ”the source of the spiritual”, etc. He rarely employs more colloquial references to Hakadosh Barukh Hu, and Ribbono Shel Olam beyond the framework of institutionalized prayer.
Nevertheless, R. Kook explicitly defends the personalist, theistic view of God as an indispensable “chamber and reception hall.” In other words, such a view functions as a necessary stepping–stone, eventually leading us to apprehension of an ultimate reality that transcends such distinctions. But another criterion that R. Kook adopts for favoring a dialogic mode of relationship with the divine is more theocentric. This second criterion provides a new twist to the dialectic between outsider and insider perspectives.
Appropriating Mitnagdic “realism” in acknowledging that created beings can never exceed the limitations inherent to our Stage Three sense of selfhood mitzideinu, yet unwilling to forgo the Hassidic yearning to experience a greater sense of unity with that which lies beyond, R. Kook develops a model of God mitzideinu that is necessitated even mitzido.
In a seminal passage entitled “The Inhibition of Good and its Purpose” (Meniat ha-tov u-magamata), R. Kook begins by introducing a classical theological question: What was God’s motive for creation? In consonance with what might be construed as a basically constructivist orientation, R. Kook first takes the wind out of the sails of the very question by pointing out that such a discussion is legitimate only from our point of view, since all talk of motive and purpose only makes sense in a world which includes the perception of lack. As he formulates it:
Every purpose must be preceded by a lack. Therefore, there is no room for querying the purpose of existence without assuming some primordial lack… But at the heart of the matter, we are forced to conclude that our soul’s inability to put the riddle of the world’s existence to rest and its need to assume some lack (as motive) arises only from the negative aspect of reality, because of the existence of evil in the world. In the context of God’s perfect reality, the value of existence is self-evident and requires no justification…”
Thus we must realize from the outset that it is not merely the question that is legitimate only from our point of view, from within the context of human perspectives and concerns (legabei didan).  By the same token, any response to this question must also be regarded as merely of palliative, explanatory value, because it too relies necessarily on (illusory) assumptions of lack and evil drawn from our imperfect this-worldly experience. In God’s infinite reality, where all possibilities are actualized, both the question and the answer are redundant.
After establishing these caveats (limiting the question to human perspectives and limiting the ability to achieve an adequate response), however, R. Kook is still prepared to discuss the question, recognizing that even an “as if” solution must be formulated in a way that will picture God for us in as dignified and intelligible a manner possible.
He begins this effort by contending that the pantheistic acosmic reality (or Shlemut) that we attribute to God from God’s point of view must always appear imperfect from the perspective of created beings, because “infinite perfection leaves no room for improvement, or perfectibility “ (Hishtalmut). From the point of view of a limited imperfect reality, God’s infinite existence lacks the property of lack, which is in effect the necessary impetus for creativity, free will, improvement and growth.
But although as created beings living in a finite world, we can never attain total identification with that infinite state of being, we can – as against this – enhance and improve upon what appears to us as the limitation of its static perfection. We do this by consciously relating the seemingly barren infinity which is God’s to the multitude of this-worldly experiences that it generates. Precisely because we are incapable of connecting to God in a manner that renders the divine completely independent of our limited perceptions, we possess the freedom to replicate and infinitely expand upon God’s original unity from our point of view via the never-ending dynamic of the world of appearances. The resultant Shlemut mishtalemet(perfectible perfection) provides a further intertwining between the objective and subjective point of view.
R. Kook frankly acknowledges that his theology of a perfectible perfection (Shlemut mishtalemet), which views the lack of room for improvement and growth (Hishtalmut) as the cause of creation, is a decidedly human construct. Even when promoting this particular image of the divine mitzideinu, he accompanies its endorsement with the telling phrase “we will profit much” by picturing God thusly. It is as if R. Kook were inviting us to his private workshop for the fashioning of theological systems, and frankly laying his cards out on the table. In this maneuver, Rav Kook is essentially weighing up the various answers to a serious theological issue on no more objective grounds than the very anthropocentric consideration of: where will this picture of God’s shlemut requiring completion in human hishtalmut lead to in terms of profit to man?
But even with this R. Kook has not yet played his final hand. Instead, he takes this blurring of boundaries one step further. For Rav Kook, this way of viewing the world was not just a matter of perception. It also had practical implications. Adopting increasingly inclusive models of reality was to his mind a method of “world-making,” overcoming the limits of human creativity.
When mind-body, religious-secular, reason-imagination and other such polarities are broken down and viewed as a continuum, phenomena that formerly seemed miraculous might now appear as elements of natural process. All this without diminishing the infinite possibilities of the supernatural still waiting to be discovered.
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March 25, 2014
November 4, 2020
Prof. Tamar Ross is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Jewish philosophy at Bar Ilan University. She continues to teach at Midreshet Lindenbaum. She did her Ph.D. at the Hebrew University and served as a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard. She is the author of Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism. Her areas of expertise include: concepts of God, revelation, religious epistemology, philosophy of halacha, the Musar movement, and the thought of Rabbi A.I. Kook.
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