Rav Kook on Religious Neuroticism and Obsession with Sin

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Writing in several places in the mystical journals collected in his Shemoneh Kevatzim, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook addresses the psychological dangers of excess religious stringency and concern for sin. Such a religiously driven fear of making mistakes, when improperly calibrated, prevents one from thinking critically and having the confidence to act. While we should be motivated to always do our best as we strive to live up to what Judaism expects from us in every situation, an excess of religious tension is both unhealthy and counterproductive.

The original Hebrew and my translation and comments appear below:

ר׳ אברהם יצחק הכהן קוק, שמונה קבצים א:רסז

החסרון היותר גדול שיש בתכונתה של יראת שמים, שאינה מחוברת יפה באורה של תורה, היא מה שבמקום יראת חטא, היא מתחלפת על יראת המחשבה, וכיון שהאדם מתחיל להיות מתירא לחשוב, הרי הוא הולך וטובל בבוץ הבערות, הנוטלת את אור נשמתו, מכשלת את כחו, ומעיבה את רוחו.

R. Avraham Yitzḥak HaKohen Kook, Shemoneh Kevatzim 1:267

The greatest deficiency in the makeup of fear of heaven, when it is not properly connected with the light of Torah, is that fear of sin is exchanged with a fear of thinking. And since one begins to be afraid of thinking, behold they wallow in the mire of ignorance, which does away with the light of their soul, weakens their strength, and clogs their spirit.

It is a tragic and all too common phenomenon that concern for weakening of religious fervor and belief often leads to intellectual narrowness. When one’s fear of heaven, perhaps best translated as religious consciousness or God-awareness, is disconnected from the true light of the Torah, every “outside” idea looms as a threat. Such paranoia leads to ignorance and spiritual dissatisfaction, ultimately leading to their Judaism becoming irrelevant for the modern world.

ר׳ אברהם יצחק הכהן קוק, שמונה קבצים א:רלא

רעה חולה היא, כשרגש המוסרי מתעדן יותר מדאי, עד שלא די שהוא משמש בתור כח עוצר בבא תור המעשה, שלא תשולח יד לעשות רע, אלא הוא מאיים תמיד ביראת עונות הסובבים את האדם, במעשה ובמחשבה. הפחד הנפרז מכל חטא, מאבד טובו של האדם, ועושה אותו למין בריה שפלה שאינה עושה דבר, כ”א שוכבת ורועדת. האדם צריך להאמין בחייו, להאמין בכחו החמרי ובכחו המוסרי יחד. האמונה היא כוללת הכל, כמו האהבה. האמונה בחיים היא ברכת ד’, כמו שאי האמונה היא הקללה היותר איומה – ולא תאמין בחייך. כשאדם מאמין בחייו הרוחניים, הוא מוצא קורת רוח בעמל נפשו, והוא הולך ומתעלה.

R. Avraham Yitzḥak HaKohen Kook, Shemoneh Kevatzim 1:231

It is a grievous illness when the ethical sensitivity becomes overly delicate, such that it does not merely function as a constraint upon action, that one have no hand in evil, but it constantly threatens as a specter of sin surrounding man, in deed and thought. The exaggerated fear of all sin leads to one losing all goodness, turning into a lowly creature who can do nothing but cower in trembling. One must believe in their life, to believe together in their ethical and material strength. Faith contains all, just like love. Faith in life is a blessing of God, just as lack of faith in life is the most threatening curse — “And you will have no faith in your life.” (Deuteronomy 28:66). When one believes in their spiritual life, they find resolve in their life’s endeavours and proceed to rise up.

Here Rav Kook speaks of fear of sin not as a general religious consciousness, but as a literal obsession with the possibility of sin. Such a neurotic state strips one of their dignity, transforming them into a “lowly creature who can do nothing but cower in trembling”. Additionally, a hesitation to act allows injustice and evil to continue unabated, if no one has the courage to take action. We are directed to have self-confidence in our human faculties and our ability to do good. Our confidence is truly a blessing from God.

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4 thoughts on “Rav Kook on Religious Neuroticism and Obsession with Sin

  1. Chazak Veametz!
    Sam, this Torah is very nicely written and is presented in a clear format. Kol Hakavod!
    It’s refreshing to see someone endeavor to spread the teachings of Rav Kook. His teachings are as relevant today as they ever were, but are unfortunately overlooked by many, including myself.
    May Hashem grant you the strength to continue spreading the Or HaTorah!

    Like

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