Itzchak Evan-Shayish
Dedicated to sharing Rav Kook's lights with the world.

What Rav Kook says we must do immediately to save the world: Step 2 – Fix religion

The suffering of human beings and other living species is immense. Disease, war and violence everywhere. We are spoiling and destroying the world.

We must stop doing this and devote all our efforts to repair it, to perfect  it.

As the Midrash points out to us: “When HaShem  created the first human beings, HaShem led them around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabba 7:13)

In Chapter 1 of ‘Orot HaTshuva-Lights Of Return’, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook TZ’L outlines the three central life areas we must repair if we are to effect true tshuva in the world..

The first as explained in the Step 1 posting is to repair our physical and psychological lives by ‘obeying the laws of nature’.  (Please see the posting for more detail-

Rav Kook continues to the second realm: “After the natural physical phase of teshuva-return comes tshuva in the area of  religious faith. It is concerned with the world of tradition and religion which frequently concerns itself with tshuva.

The Torah promises the penitent forgiveness. The sins of individuals and of the community are erased through tshuva. The prophets abound with exalted utterances on the subject of tshuva. In a general way all the admonitions of the Torah deal with tshuva from the perspective of religious faith.” (Lights of Penitence; Chapter 1)

What must Israel and the world repair in our way of doing faith and religion?  Is there something wrong in our way of understanding and serving God?

In a revolutionary essay entitled  “The Pangs of Cleansing” Rav Kook discusses this at length. Let us review some brief excerpts relevant to our current situation in Israel and the world:

“All the ideological controversies among people and all the inner conflicts that every individual suffers in their world outlook are caused by confusion in the conception of God….

One must always cleanse one’s thoughts about God to make sure they are free of the dross of deceptive fantasies, of groundless fear, of evil inclinations, of wants and deficiencies. 

Faith in God enhances human happiness only to the extent that the greatness of God is probed and studied…

The foundation of religious faith is rooted in the recognition of the greatness and perfection of the Infinite….

All the divine names, whether in Hebrew or in any other language, give us only a tiny and dull spark of the hidden light to which the soul aspires when it utters the word “God”. 

Every definition of God brings about heresy, every definition is spiritual idolatry; even attributing to Him intellect and will, even the term -Elokut-Divinity, the term Elohim, suffers from the limitations of definition….

The greatest impediment to the human spirit, on reaching maturity, results from the fact that the conception of God is crystallized among people in a particular form, going back to childish habit and imagination. This is an aspect of making a graven image of a likeness of God, against which we must always beware, particularly in an epoch of greater intellectual enlightenment….

Since the thoughts concerning God in their basic elements are unclear, God’s being, as conceived by the multitude and even by individuals who should be their leaders, is that of a ruthless power from whom there is no escape and to whom one must necessarily be subservient….we have here a lower form of piety severed from its source…No grandeur of God is then manifest in the soul, but only the lowliness of wild imaginings, that conjure up a form of some deceptive, vague, angry deity that is dissociated from reality….” (Yisurim Memarkim-Pangs of Cleansing, essay in Orot)

Rav Kook is emphasizing to us that we must be very careful not to have ‘deceptive fantasies and groundless fears’ form our understanding and relationship with our Creator. Our Creator is not ‘a ruthless power, a deceptive, vague, angry deity dissociated from reality’. Immature childish understandings of HaShem are actually breaches of the Third Commandment:  ‘Do Not Take HaShem’s Name In Vain’!  (Exodus 20:7)

What happens in the world when this becomes widespread?  Atheism to the rescue!

“The tendency of unrefined people to see the divine essence as embodied in the words and in the letters alone is a source of embarrassment to humanity, and atheism arises as a pained outcry to liberate humankind from this narrow and alien pit, to raise humanity from the darkness of focusing on letters and expressions, to the light of thought and feeling, and finally to place their primary focus on the realm of morals. 

Atheism has a temporary legitimacy, for it is needed to purge away the aberrations that attached themselves to religious faith because of a deficiency in perception and in the divine service….The violence of atheism will cleanse away the dross that accumulated in the lower levels of religious faith, 

and thereby the heavens will be cleared and the shining light of the higher faith will become visible, which is the song of the world and truth of the world….

As long as a person orders their life on the basis of a fixed pattern, they will not be able to escape their intellectual, moral and practical deficiencies, and how will they be able to mend themselves? We must not permit habit to be the primary factor in our social or personal life.” (Ibid)

Religion must not be a habitual activity that one does ritualistically and thoughtlessly. It must not become a force of competition, hatred and war. Rav Kook is explaining that atheism has emerged historically as a  legitimate response to low and empty ways of doing religion.

“Religion is corrupted through the decline of the higher Torah, through which one gains the recognition of the greatness of God, the higher perfection that is infinite and beyond assessment. Thus our religion does not yield the noble fruit it ought to yield, it does not raise the souls from their lowly state….

On seeing such convulsions people believe that religion is dying, that the world is being overturned. In truth however, the shadows are stirring, they are in flight in order to make room for the light. If religious faith is to be revitalized, a great effort is needed to deepen the knowledge of God, to follow the most subtle paths of mystical thinking through which one rises above every kind of limitation in God….

Then religion will regain its strength, it will rise out of its darkness toward a great light, and it will become the life giving force to the highest and the most sensitive of souls.

We must proclaim that indeed the letters, the words, the actions, are not the essence of the light, but they are vessels, the organs of a living body, which bears within itself a soul….

Raise up religion, elevate thought, acclaim the real life…It is a divine service through life, through the Torah and through the commandments.” (Ibid)

Rav Kook is expressing very strongly to us that in order for religion and faith to be a truly Divine force in the world, it must direct and support its practitioners to place their primary focus on the realm of morals. We are here to perfect our behavior, to be agents of absolute good. Thus we will truly and fully actualize the ‘tzelem Elohim-Divine image’ that we are and must be.

“וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד- And Elohim saw all that He had made and behold, it was very good.”  (Genesis 1:31)

BeMhera BeYamenu-Immediately In Our Days

Prepared by Rabbi Itzchak Evan-Shayish,

About the Author
Rabbi Itzchak Evan-Shayish (Marmorstein) is a passionate student of the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865- 1935) He is doing pioneering work in bringing Rav Kook to the public through classes, writings and creative musical and dramatic presentations in Israel and all over the world. He is the gabbai and educator at Beit HaRav Kook Synagogue in Jerusalem. He is the chairman of Ohr LeRayah, a Jerusalem based organization dedicated to sharing the universal teachings of Rav Kook with the whole world. ( He is a musmach of Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, Z"L , Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach Z’L and Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi Z'L.
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