An Open Letter to Rav Kook: Help! I Am Becoming a Panentheist!

Dearest Rav Kook,

Rebbe, again and again, I pine for greater understanding of your metaphysical teachings. While I try to understand your seraphic cosmology, I desperately need assistance. Once again, I am deeply persuaded by your ideas and, yet, I feel stuck and need your guidance.

It is clear that you are not a pantheist (equating the world with God) but rather striving for a panentheism (God is the world but also indomitably beyond, literally embracing that “all” is “in” “God”). God is in the world and the world is in God. As I also embrace this theology, I now see God as the only Being, the only redoubtable Reality, the only true empyrean Existence (ain od milvado) in the ein sof — this world and the world beyond. The ethereal veiled Presence is everywhere; the diaphanous inner force hidden within everything. The interconnected relationship between everything is infused with the spark of God; a monistic reality.

Thankfully, I also have no inclinations toward pantheism where we lose God. Our goal is to recover God in infinite expansiveness. Our service through the physical — avodah b’gashmiut — discovers that the Divine Presence is truly pervasive, a ubiquitous single organism, one great living Being. Separation, a mere illusion, begins to fall away as we desperately cling to the immaculate scent of your immanence and transcendence. rav kook image 2

I have more firmly approached the panentheistic leanings you share. You suggest a demanding ontology, one that I wrestle with intellectually and emotionally: “All existents are nothing other than tiny sparks in the light of that supernal reality” (Orot HaKodesh I, 214). I am challenged by the existential quest: “It is the unification of all moral claims which enter the heart of every creature, which embrace all human communities and unite all worlds” (Orot Hakodesh I, 11-12). And your intense epistemology suggests that it is not only in all being but “in every subject of study, there is a spark of the general light which is manifest in all existence” (Orot HaTorah III, 18).

When I study your texts, I am awed. Your words are beautiful, your thoughts inspired from the gossamer whispers of the Divine. But I am, on some level, afraid to invest more deeply. My questions are manifold: How can we handle the moral burden of seeing God everywhere and in everything? If I am obligated to Jews of every persuasion and every type of human, how can I ever pause from my service? If an animal and a plant participate in “Being,” how can I, in any way, be involved in preventing their harm? If there is the spark of truth everywhere, how can I ever feel at all stable with what I know? My rationalist side gives me comfort that there are limits and boundaries to my commitments and to God’s light but this mystical dimension shows that we are indeed immersed within Divinity and must break free from the illusions which give us structure; comfortable vanity? Is kenosis and radical self-emptying part of our goal? If God’s infinity includes the finite as well and Divinity’s eternal essence is complimented by a responsive dimension, where will embracing the Hegeilian dialectical historical panentheism lead us next?

If nature is a part of Divinity then our natural morality is completely binding upon us. The force of intuition and conscience is enormous. How can we remain rationally grounded if we’re fervently committed to seeing your Presence everywhere? How much can we allow the external voice of God codified be influenced by the Voice within. Further, I am so committed to tzimtzum (space created for human freedom) and I am so emotionally committed to a personal God. I am afraid of where radical pervasiveness, inspired by your philosophy, will lead me. How are we to root, epistemically, any commitment to the identity of the non-divine? How are we to maintain a constant awareness of the radical Presence infused in all consciousness?

The burden of the Jewish soul is to comprehend the vast cosmic potential of the universe within the limited realm of the temporal world, but how is one to reconcile this great disparity? Your words, clear and lucid, help guide me in my own journey towards ultimate understanding. But how do we break through our inhibitions to truly understand more deeply? Our partners in this journey are unconsciously everywhere yet consciously nowhere. The desire to know and to give so greatly exceeds our capacity for fruitful actualization and we must live within this painful paradox. If we tap into the All, can we receive help from above to achieve the near impossible?

You shared that “all human perception and knowledge…is laden with “obscurity and error” (Orot Hakodesh I, 11-12) and my humble conceptions are certainly included. Please help, Rebbe! We named our son “Kook” in order that fragments of your gilgul might be incarnate within him but he is yet to speak.

I am scared. I am ready.

With deep admiration and love,

Your student desparately searching within and beyond,


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of nine books on Jewish ethicsNewsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.