"When I proclaim God's name, ascribe greatness to our God" (Deut. 32:3).
How does one go about 'ascribing greatness to God'?
The book Ikvei HaTzon, first published in Jaffa in 1906, contains two of Rav Kook's most philosophical essays, Da'at Elokim and "Avodat Elokim." These stimulating articles discuss the very core of religious belief. Who is God? How can we relate to Him? How do we serve Him?
Anthropomorphism in the Torah
It is surprising that the Torah often uses anthropomorphic expressions, attributing to God human emotions (anger, pleasure), senses (seeing, hearing) and even physical attributes ('outstretched arm'). Nothing could be further from the teachings of Judaism, and yet, the Torah uses such expressions freely. In fact, it is precisely the combination of these anthropomorphic descriptions together with the application of our faculties of reason and logic that can bring us to the highest and purest insight into God and Godliness (Elokut).
It is critical, however, that we do not limit our concept of God to a simplistic understanding as implied by a literal reading of the Torah. When a generation advances in general knowledge and makes significant strides in science and philosophy, and yet remains with a primitive understanding of God, widespread rejection of religion is a foregone conclusion.
The same holds true for our mental picture of avodat Elokim, service of God. This term is commonly understood as simply a synonym for religion and ritual worship, but it too needs to be clarified.
Our perception of how one serves God is influenced by our concept of God. On its simplest, most literal level, such a service denotes the labor of a servant as he serves his master. A person well-versed in ethics and general knowledge, but with a poorly-developed understanding of God, will likely feel tremendous inner opposition to this interpretation of serving God. He will naturally rebel against such servitude — why should I willingly forfeit my freedom and independence? However, as we refine our understanding of what Elokut is, this concept will also be refined.
Ascribing Greatness to God
We should not be afraid of advances in modern science and philosophy. On the contrary! All progress in knowledge and wisdom helps elevate the holy light of Torah, allowing it to shine with a purer radiance. The intellectual upheaval from new ideas helps clarify and refine our comprehension of Torah. These advances grant to all a more accurate understanding — an understanding that was previously the purview of the select few.
A more profound insight into God and His service was already known to the spiritual giants of past generations; but our generation's need to explain and bring sublime matters down to the level of general knowledge now allows all people to grasp these refined concepts. This advance in knowledge of the general public signifies the gradual fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, "All your children will be knowledgeable of God" (54:13).
The remedy for our times is to elevate God's name — i.e., our conception of Elokut — in sublime feeling and expansive thought. Our understanding of Elokut needs to be at least on par with the other great ideals of the day. This was Moses' charge, "When I proclaim God's name, ascribe greatness to God." We need intensive intellectual labor in the Torah’s esoteric teachings in order to refine and elevate our concepts of God and His service.
When Moses asked God for His name, God responded, "I will be Who I will be" (Ex. 3:14). What does this unusual name mean? This indicates that our concept of God changes and develops over time. According to each generation's advance in ethics and knowledge, the light and powerful beauty of God's holy name is revealed.
Renewed Study of Aggadah
It is incumbent upon the greatest scholars, and all who are blessed with talent and interest in elevated spiritual studies, to concentrate their intellectual efforts in the study of divine wisdom, including the Aggadah, the homiletic and allegorical teachings of the Talmud and Midrash.
The Sages wrote in Chagigah 14a that 'bread' is a metaphor for Halachah (Jewish law), while 'water' refers to Aggadah. Unfortunately, the study of Aggadah has long been forsaken. There is a great hunger in the land, 'not a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water, but to hear the words of God.... On that day, the beautiful young women and men will faint in thirst' (Amos 8:11, 13). This faintness is not due to famine. The basic staples exist — scholarly Talmudic research and practical Halachic study. Still, the youth are faint from thirst. They lack the water needed to revive their hearts and minds. The refreshing fountains of Aggadah must be opened before them. This is the sacred duty of great scholars, who have acquired Torah, awe and love of God, within their hearts.
Actualizing the Godly Ideals
It is well known that even God's holy names do not truly reflect His essence. Rather, these names are the divine ideals, God's ways and paths, His desires and will, His sephirot and holy attributes. Some of this Godly content is ingrained within the human soul, "whom God made straight" (Ecclesiastes 7:19). The most powerful desire planted in the depths of the soul is the drive to realize this hidden light, to actualize our innate aspirations for goodness and progress. We constantly strive to rectify the breach between the infinite perfection of the Godly ideals on the one hand, and the imperfect reality of life, for the individual and the community, on the other. This natural drive of the soul is the enlightened concept of avodat Elokim: the labor of children, acutely aware of their inner connection to their Father, the Source of good and life and enlightenment.
We may possess a sublime and refined image of God, but if we view avodat Elokim as the worship of some divine object, without recognizing the aspect of inner idealism in the service itself, then we have relegated this service to a primitive state that can only relate to objects. The preferred understanding of service to God must be expanded to reflect all human efforts to realize the Godly ideals, as we strive to integrate these ideals within the frameworks of our personal lives, our nation, all of humanity, and the entire universe.
Circling Back to the Simple Understanding
If serving God means the worship of a servant to his Master, then we are relating to an object. This can become an idolatrous concept, just as anthropomorphic expressions can lead to idolatrous misconceptions. In general, the notion that we can objectively perceive our surroundings is simplistic, belonging to the primitive stage in human intellectual development which fails to differentiate between objects and their perceived characteristics (noumena and phenomena).
Yet, at the same time, this same understanding of avodat Elokim may also be the most sublime. When we realize that we can only perceive reality in a subjective fashion, according to its appearance to us but not its true essence, we may then conclude that the relationship that is the deepest and truest is our inner connection to God. It becomes apparent that even the relationship to our own selves is subjective — Descartes needed logic to prove his own existence! — while our connection to Elokut is the very essence of life and the truth of reality.
Just as the perception of avodat Elokim as the service of a divine Object implies the ultimate realness of this connection to God, so too, the physical characteristics that the Torah attributes to God hint at the inner truth that God alone is the true, objective reality. As Maimonides wrote in Yesodei HaTorah 1:3,
"The Torah's statement, 'There is none besides Him,' means that, besides God Himself, no other existence can be compared to God's true existence."
Nonetheless, this elevated concept cannot lead to more than a dim inner emotion. It cannot create powerful feelings and great deeds. The rich treasury of thought and reason must be built on the basis of Godly ideals, through our descriptive and subjective connection to God via His attributes and manifestations. Yet, we find that the literal concept of divine service, relating to God as an object, is at once the most childish and most sublime.
One who speaks about God's essence will sense an unaccountable darkness and sadness. This is because any attempt to relate to God's essence puts our own existence in doubt. If, however, we do not speak of God as an object, but refer to the abstract property of Elokut and Godly ideals, we will be filled with strength and happiness. In this understanding of God, we find an expression for our most powerful inner drive, namely, our quest for justice and kindness and truth.
Rabbi Chanan Morrison of Mitzpeh Yericho runs ravkooktorah.org, a website dedicated to presenting the Torah commentary of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, to the English-speaking community.
Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 346-350. Adapted from Ikvei HaTzon, pp. 142-156)