Aleksandrov, Rav Kook, Buddhism, and Gentile Religion

I subscribe to the VBM shiur by Tamir Granot on the letters of Rav Kook. Currently, the discussion is a letter of Rav Kook to Shmuel Aleksandrov on the topic of modern philosophy and the wisdom of other religions. The shiur is entirely from Rav Kook’s perspective, I want to add a little background on Alexandrov and the give Alexandrov’s perspective.

The initial letter from him is in Samuel Alexandrov, Mikhteve meḥḳar u-viḳoret: al devar ha-Yahadut ṿeha-rabanut ba-zeman ha-aḥaron (Yerushalaim: M. ṿe-G. Aleksandrov 1931). The first volume of Mikhteve Mehkar from 1906 is readily available, but the 1931 second volume is missing from JTSA and YU, rumored by a catalog to be at Penn and seems to only really exist in the US at Harvard. However, it is available in several copies at JNUL. Most of the following is from Alexandrov’s letter.

Rabbi Shmuel Aleksandrov (d. 1941) had been a close friend of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in Volozhin, where they both studied. Unlike Kook, Aleksandrov never left Russia, and became a rabbi in Bobruisk. Until his death at the hands of the Germans in 1941, Aleksandrov was a spiritual leader to many rabbis, particularly during the severe religious persecutions of the 1920s and ’30s in the USSR.

Aleksandrov propounded a grand theory of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, containing deep roots in the Kabbalah and Maharal. According to Aleksandrov, of the two trees in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, the former is an exclusively Jewish possession, i.e. Torah, while the Tree of Knowledge belongs to the Gentiles. Among its fruits are scientific-technical progress, philosophy, and art. Nevertheless, there exists a mystical exchange of the fruits of both trees. By giving to the world the fruits of the Tree of Life, Jews consecrate the Gentile world, while simultaneously Jews receive from the Gentiles the fruits of vital knowledge and ideas.

Among these ideas of the nations, Alexandrov especially seeks to find a place for the wisdom learned from other religions, specifically the idea of Buddhist nothingness. Aleksandrov claimed that one universal truth forms the basis of all religions; hence, the Buddhist concept of nirvana and Hasidic concept of ayin point to the same concept in different words. He made this assertion based not on the study of texts nor from encountering Buddhists, but rather from the conceptualizations of religion found in the writings of Schelling and Schopenhauer.

Alexandrov postulates a universal religion given by Moses and reiterated by Plato,that overcomes the abstract intellect knowledge of contemporary knowledge by incorporating emotional and psychological knowledge, and offering individual salvation.

Aleksandrov reinterprets the thought of his forefather the Maharal to suggest a complementary movement between Israel and the nations, rather than an antagonistic struggle. For Alexandrov, the dialectic of Israel and the nations, presented by Maharal, will be overcome at the end of days when all national differences will be abolished by the coming of the Messiah.

Rabbi Kook found this approach to concede too much to universalism. Rav Kook responded to Aleksandrov’s universal claims with a inclusivist claim that all truth is from Judaism, and in other places states that Jews can elevate the light in other faiths. Here, Rav Kook presents his view of God as not the monotheism of the philosophers, rather the light, the spectrum of colors, and Edenic watering of the Zohar. Rav Kook accentuates the Schopenhauer pessimism of Buddhism and states that even Buddhists want to get beyond the pessimism of this world. (Google Schopenhauer and Buddhism for more details). I don’t have a scan of Alexandrov in my computer but I will cite Rav Kook as in the VBM shuir and another paragraph from latter in the same letter. He writes:

Monotheism is a fabrication of gentiles, an imprecise translation, a sort of self-contradictory comprehensible infinity, and therefore can lead to nothing. This is not the source of the name of the God of Israel, the infinite, incomprehensible root of all existence, because He is the existence of the world who can be comprehended and spoken of only through the nuances of colors through many deeds and abundant peace, his profusion of love and courage. Israel proclaims, “This is my God and I will adore Him,” and can see these [colors], not the barren wilderness of Islamic monotheism, nor Buddhism’s negation, only the highest existence which brings joy to all and gives life to everything, revealed through the subjective revelation of all hearts who seek and comprehend him.

As for the reality of nothingness in the statements of those of Buddhist leanings, it seems that they mean the reality of the force which aspires to negate and nullify absolutely…Jewish consciousness, however, in the goodness of God’s knowledge, brings about a recognition of the absolute reality. …Thus we find that even this contradiction between Buddhism and Judaism is not absolute opposites, because reality as viewed without God is everywhere evil and bitter, and in its midst lies the longing for absolute negation, which will in the end be fulfilled.

Aleksandrov had observed that Jews throughout history acquired knowledge from the wisdom all of nations during the exile, and claimed that contemporary Jews can continue this process through study of Buddhism and other religions. Rav Kook, on the other hand, found all of religion in Judaism, minimizing any need to study other religions.

This debate played itself out in their differing concepts of religion. For Aleksandrov, an infinite inner core of the Divine resides behind the particular Jewish commandments; the current versions express the infinite by limiting it to concrete forms. In contrast, for Rav Kook, the commandments in their concrete particular forms contain an infinite essence that needs to be brought into daily life.
For Aleksandrov, Judaism and its commandments are themselves limits on the infinite Divine, while for Rav Kook the commandments are the very conduits of the infinite.

Once we move beyond the 19th century German idealism of the debate – what value does this debate hold for today? Any Thoughts?
On the subject of Buddhism and Judaism, here was one of my very first posts on this blog – The first Jewish reference to the Dalai Lama.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

8 responses to “Aleksandrov, Rav Kook, Buddhism, and Gentile Religion

  1. I seem to remember that Ehud Luz had an article in DAAT about Rabbi Alexandrov. Also, IIRC, Steven Schwarzschild had something about him in Judaism. A most interesting and unfortunately negleceted thinker.

  2. Do you know where I could find Schwarzschild’s piece on Alexandrov? I didn’t see it in the archives of Judaism.

  3. Kevin Rothman

    several of alexandrov’s works are available at hebrewbooks.org. also, the second volume of mikhtavei mekhaker u-bikoret is at jnul. it is currently unavailable for photocopying because it is actually still under copyright, but i have bee told it will expire in a year. also, many articles written by him are available in the digitized versions of ha-tzefirah and ha-magid at jnul (though you must sift through the papers one by one as the search engine uncovers only a few of the many articles he wrote). I think that part of the reason he was neglected is that he took the notion of the absolution of jewish law in messianic times quite literally and, while never outright recommending it, seems to suggest that this will occur naturally over a long period of time (i.e. not by divine intervention and sanction, but by progressive secularization). This, combined with his implicit unitarianism leaves a judaism without any distinctive features: neither in practice nor in doctrine. He left no room for judaism. yet, his thought was so tied into its jewish framework (despite his drawing upon schelling and schopenhauer, whose thought he cited but ultimately added nothing to) that it also had little to offer the non-jewish world either. I think that his story is an interesting one and that his attempt to give religious justification to the breakdown of religion may have been comforting to the rabbis of his generation despairing over that very dilemma. However, it is ultimately a negative view, it does not offer a path through the destruction to some resurrection (e.g. like levinas does, incorporating atheism into the heart of his theistic discourse), he teaches only that the destruction is, somehow, ok. So, no, i do not think alexandrov has much to offer us today.

    • Kevin,
      Are you working on him? Do you have more on him? Even if he seems a dead end, many people follow his route even if they do not write.

  4. Kevin Rothman

    I have been tossing around the idea of writing on him for some time. I was initiallyl attracted to him because he seemed to present himself as an anarchist to rav kook (or at least sympathize with anarchism) and I am interested in the idea of radical left politics somehow coinciding with orthodoxy. I still may, but, as i said, i think there are some very significant limitations to his theology and so whatever i would write would come out as more of a history of thought rather than a contribution to the present… which I am not sure I want to do. I have several copies of various works of his in PDF form. I also have copies of many of the newspaper articles I mentioned… i sifted through many years of the magid and some of hatzefira (though there are many more that should still be gone through). I dont want to post my email publicly, but if you can think of a way that we can discreetly share contact info i would be happy to share what i have

    • Once you start writing you will find many things and will offer a statement of what is not useful. It may excite someone to disagree.
      About sharing the texts, you can send them to me and I can host them here.
      Can I get a guest post from you on radical politics and Orthodoxy? or Alexandrov? or one of the articles?

  5. Kevin Rothman

    I hear you on that. I think you are right, thank you for re-framing it for me. Right now I am working on PhD application essays etc. so I am a bit bogged down. I can definitely send you the PDFs (will do in a few hrs.). I would love to do a guest posting on alexandrov and radical politics in orthodoxy in general, but I cant do it right now. Thank you for the invite! perhaps when I have my affairs a bit more settled I can get something on paper for you. as for the articles, that too will have to wait b/c I would have to scan them to email them to you, which would take much longer than just popping them in a xerox machine and sending by snail mail.

    • When you send the pdf’s give a few words on the text or the content. It wont be a full post but a few words of what is in the text.

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