What is the path leading towards the recognition of God? The path, according to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, begins with the realization of the complexity and significance of the lives of people other than oneself. Once one has appreciated the other, there is room for God in one’s life.
Before presenting Rav Kook’s words, it is helpful to examine two Talmudic sources which serve as a foundation for his thoughts.
In the Talmud Yerushalmi (Nedarim 9:4) it is written:
ואהבת לרעך כמוך (ויקרא יט יח). רבי עקיבה אומר זהו כלל גדול בתורה
“Love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)—Rabbi Akiva said: This is a fundamental principle of the Torah.
Rabbi Akiva’s teaching is easily identified with the “Golden Rule” which lies at the heart of many of the world’s religions: Treat others how you yourself would like to be treated. This is a high ethical standard, establishing fairness and mutual respect as the bedrock of society. We shall later see how Rav Kook interprets this tenet.
The Talmud Bavli (Sotah 5a) records the following striking statement:
אמר רב חסדא, ואיתימא מר עוקבא: כל אדם שיש בו גסות הרוח – אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: אין אני והוא יכולין לדור בעולם, שנא’: מלשני בסתר רעהו אותו אצמית גבה עינים ורחב לבב אותו לא אוכל (תהלים קא:ה), אל תקרי אותו אלא אִתו לא אוכל.
R. Hisda said, and some say it was Mar ‘Ukba: Every man who is haughty of spirit, the blessed Holy One declares, he and I cannot both dwell in the world, as it says, “He who slanders his friend in secret I will destroy; The haughty and proud man—him I cannot endure.” (Psalms 101:5) Do not read “him I cannot endure”, but rather “with him I cannot endure.”
One who is arrogant cannot see beyond their own greatness, leaving no space for God to be present in their life. Furthermore, such a person is liable to mistreat others, behavior antithetical to Judaism’s ethical core.
Rav Kook writes, in a notebook dated to the period immediately following his immigration to Israel, as follows:
ראשון ליפו פו
הרבה צריך אדם לעמול עד שיצוייר לו כראוי שיש במציאות עולם זולת מציאותו הפרטית של עצמו. וכשידע זה כראוי, רק אז יוכל להשיג את בוראו. אם כן מה שואהבת לרעך כמוך היא כוללת כל התורה כולה, היינו גם כן יסוד האמת ודעת השי”ת.
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, Rishon L’Yafo 86
One must strive greatly to properly render to themselves the existence of a world apart from their own private existence. Only when this is sufficiently known can one apprehend their Creator. If so, [the Rabbinic teaching that] the commandment to love one’s neighbor like themselves contains all of the Torah is itself a reflection of the foundation of truth and knowledge of God.
God is understood to be an entity existent beyond the individual. Having the ability to see beyond oneself, namely recognizing internally the existence of other people, is a prerequisite for coming close to God.
Rav Kook’s teaching bears some similarity to Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogue. As extensively depicted in I and Thou, Buber taught that every human relationship which truly recognizes the other as a subject, or “Thou”, is rooted in one’s relationship with God, “the eternal thou”. He states, “In each Thou we address the eternal Thou.” (I and Thou, 2004, pg. 78) While for Buber our human relationships derive their power from “the eternal Thou”, for Rav Kook the formula is reversed, as forming relationships with others leads to one to recognizing life beyond oneself, allowing for the recognition of God.
It is worth noting Rav Kook’s innovative reading of Rabbi Akiva’s teaching quoted above. The commandment to love one’s fellow as themselves is “a fundamental principle of the Torah” not because of its core ethical value, but rather because it generates a broad-minded consciousness receptive to allowing room for God in one’s life. Every interaction with another person is an opportunity to broaden one’s perspective. As one succeeds in better understanding others they will find themselves spiritually enriched.
I would like to conclude by citing two non-Jewish sources which articulate the vastness contained in the call to “render to [oneself] the existence of a world apart from their own private existence.”
Novelist Annie Dillard writes (For the Time Being, 1999, pg. 47):
There are 1,198,500,000 people alive now in China.
To get a feel for what that means, simply take yourself – in all your singularity, importance, complexity, and love – and multiply by 1,198,500,000.
See? Nothing to it.
Writing in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, John Koenig describes a moment of realization he terms “sonder”:
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
In summary, Rav Kook teaches that the ability to perceive God depends upon our ability to see beyond our own individual existence. The path to doing so is through recognizing the significance of the lives of others. It is for this reason that Rabbi Akiva taught that the commandment to love one’s fellow as oneself is “a fundamental principle of the Torah”, for it is in forming respectful, sensitive, and meaningful relationships with everyone around us that we are lifted beyond ourselves into a connection with God.