Pairing Rhymes; On Ralph Waldo Emerson and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

Avinoam Stillman, Columbia University 

American Jews have yet to develop an American Jewish philosophy that is rooted in both the American and the Jewish intellectual tradition. One step towards an American Jewish philosophy, defined in those terms, would be to put comparable Jewish and American thinkers in dialogue; here, I would like to introduce R. Abraham Isaac Kook and Ralph Waldo Emerson to one another. I hope this juxtaposition will expose some common issues that concern us as Americans and as Jews. R. Kook was a Talmudic scholar and communal leader around the turn of the 20th century in Eastern Europe and Palestine. He synthesized kabbalah and philosophy in his visionary writings, and sensitively considered modern skepticism from a religious perspective. Emerson was ordained a Unitarian minister at Harvard Divinity School, arguably the intellectual hub of mid-19th century New England. He abandoned normative Christian doctrine to develop Transcendentalism, which placed the manifold human experiences of reality at the basis of spirituality. Both Emerson and R. Kook wrote prolifically and poetically, sometimes to the detriment of clarity. In the post-Kantian world, the traumatizing disclosure of the gap between human perception and the objective world led Emerson and R. Kook, like many Romantics, to a mystical view of the world as the divided manifestation of divine unity. Both extolled the ability of individuals to reveal this unity through aesthetic or spiritual authenticity. This model informed their calls for creativity in their respective national literatures; American and Hebrew writers were both asserting their worth against European standards.

Emerson and R. Kook share a vision of the essential unity of spiritual and material aspects of reality. In his essay “The Over-Soul,” Emerson writes:

We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE… We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.

Emerson contrasts human perception with the soul of the world, or “the eternal ONE.” Although physical phenomena seem irreparably divided, Emerson declares the existence of a spiritual whole. What we see as disconnected particulars are truly “the shining parts” of the whole. Beauty in nature hints to the ideal beauty, that of the soul, which unifies the particulars. Emerson’s “The Poet” elaborates the method for realizing his monism:

For, as it is dislocation and detachment from the life of God, that makes things ugly, the poet, who re-attaches things to nature and the Whole, —re-attaching even artificial things, and violations of nature, to nature, by a deeper insight,— disposes very easily of the most disagreeable facts. Readers of poetry see the factory-village, and the railway, and fancy that the poetry of the landscape is broken up by these; for these works of art are not yet consecrated in their reading; but the poet sees them fall within the great Order not less than the beehive, or the spider’s geometrical web. Nature adopts them very fast into her vital circles, and the gliding train of cars she loves like her own.

Emerson uses several terms to describe the world-unity: God, Nature, the Whole, the great Order. God is not a theistic, anthropomorphic figure, but rather the inherent order of Nature. The poet, through his “deeper insight” into beauty, can “re-attach” the parts of reality, many of which—like the factory—seem unnatural and even ugly, with “nature and the Whole.” In his 1836 essay “Nature,” Emerson writes that “all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE… .” Emerson’s Nature includes all things, whether organic or technological, that are not the subject.  In the eye of the poet, who sees “the life of God” in the world of objects outside herself, even railroads become part of the Whole’s “vital circles.”

The salvific role of the individual who returns particulars to the universal concerns R. Kook as well:

The strong spiritual root which is filled with the vigor of life and existence sends forth from herself innumerable branches. At times, when the soul wearies of the multitude of branches, she must grasp the root in its source, and her energy is renewed. She returns later to partner with all the branches with a new face, and fructifies many more branches, sprouts, and flowers which she previously could not have brought out to the light of the world. (Lights of Holiness, 1:37)

In R. Kook’s poetic language, the root is the nexus of the soul and the divine source, while the branches are the actions of the soul, her presence in the world. By returning to her source, the soul draws life from the source to her branches. Like Emerson’s understanding of soul, R. Kook’s soul returns the particulars of the world to the source. This ability to unify particulars is the essential difference for R. Kook between philosophical and mystical insight:

Philosophy embraces only a certain part of the spiritual world; by nature it is divided from whatever is outside its boundaries, and thus is, in its inner nature, essentially detached… [Esotericism] recognizes the unity in all that is, in its physicality and spirituality, its greatness and smallness, with an inner recognition. Therefore, it doesn’t perceive greatness or smallness, all is important, and everything is ordered with marked value. There is no wasted movement, no vain imagining. (Lights of Holiness, 1:7)

The “inner recognition” of R. Kook’s mystical scholar parallels the “deeper insight” of Emerson’s poet. While philosophers classify the world, divide it into categories, the mystic sees the unity of the physical and spiritual, the trains and the trees. Indeed, R. Kook’s student and editor, R. David Cohen “the Nazir,” interprets this passage as an oblique criticism of Kant’s critical philosophy. Similarly, “transcendentalism” takes its name from Kantian transcendental idealism; contemporary philosophers like Stanley Cavell have engaged the relationship between Kant and Emerson. For both R. Kook and Emerson, spiritually astute individuals unify the separate elements of reality into a productive order through creative insight.

The individual’s ability to perceive the unity of the cosmos underlies another central thread in R. Kook and Emerson. They both exhort the individual to express herself, and to be willing to take risks for the sake of her truth. Emerson’s famous essay “Self Reliance” argues this point:

What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded? What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear? The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin.

The Poet reveals the beauty and unity of the gross material world with her intuition. Her independent spontaneity resists classification and quantification, and is thus “that divine idea which each of us represents.” Emerson’s anti-analytic mysticism resonates with R. Kook’s distinction between the particularizing effects of philosophy and the unifying powers of esotericism. Emerson’s concept of primary intuition, as opposed to tuition, replays the same binary of particularity and unity. Intuition is direct contact with an object or experience; thought and object are identical. In contrast, tuition is the study of something externally; subject is removed from object. Tuition denotes teaching. Ideas that people are taught, or learn from external sources, are not as potent as experiential personal knowledge. R. Kook’s spiritual diaries, the Eight Notebooks, likewise emphasize the necessity of authenticity and immediacy:

One whose soul doesn’t roam expanses, who doesn’t seek the light of truth and good wholeheartedly, doesn’t suffer spiritual ruins, but also has no independent buildings. He shelters in the shade of natural structures, like hyrax hidden by boulders. But the person who truly has the spirit of humanity in them, their spirit cannot be protected except in buildings built by their own spiritual effort, which never ceases from urgent labor. (Eight Notebooks, 1:184)

A mature soul must be willing to take spiritual risks. Subsistence on the thoughts of others neglects the powers of the soul. In a metaphor that might have appealed to Emerson’s colleague Thoreau, R. Kook compares explorative thought to the construction of a building. To think derivatively is to live like a wild animal, in a circumscribed environment, protected only by natural structures. The outstanding individual needs to “roam expanses,” to be intellectually adventurous, and to build her house herself. R. Kook links individualism with “the spirit of humanity.” Humanity’s promise is fulfilled by individual authenticity. Emerson also breaks down the boundaries between individual truth and humanity:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, -that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in time becomes the outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgement…A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

Emerson destabilizes the difference between “the inmost” and “the outmost.” Internal thoughts prove to be universal, external truths, and the statements of “bards and sages” are nothing more than “our own rejected thoughts,” instinctual insights we didn’t have the courage to assert. Self-reliance means the ability to be open to sudden flashes of clarity that have universal relevance. The Kookian soul is vulnerable, but is also a fluid, risk-taking individual. The self-reliant person is perceptive, self-attuned, and constantly open to changing impressions and inclinations.

In a synthesis of inmost and outmost, R.  Kook and Emerson link the independence of a person’s thought with national cultural renaissance. Emerson’s “The American Scholar” calls on Americans to reveal truths to their society:

[H]e, in his private observatory, cataloguing obscure and nebulous stars of the human mind, which as yet no man has thought of as such… must relinquish display and immediate fame… He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart… Whatsoever oracles the human heart, in all emergencies, in all solemn hours, has uttered as its commentary on the world of actions,⎯ these he shall receive and impart.

The scholar is a latter-day oracle, observing the world and revealing unknowns. Just like the poet, this ideal type can reveal “the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as it always does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature.” Emerson expands this spiritual perceptivity to the nation; Emerson closes his description of the American scholar with the resounding prophecy that “A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.” The fulfillment of America’s creative and spiritual promise is not exclusionary; Emerson closes with the divine inspiration of “all men”; he rejects geographical or ethnic determinism as “the chief disgrace of the world.”  R. Kook, in light of the renaissance of Hebrew literature around the turn of the 20th century, also presents a prophetic and messianic vision of literature:

The more that people enrich language, and literature strengthens its power to reveal all that is hidden, all the most hidden logics of the soul, and all the most complex and dim images and visions, so the obligation grows for all who are capable to lift the veils from the most lofty knowledge, that through them the form of man may rise to perform its duty. Additionally, all the development of the talent of speech and literary explanation will eventually bring about a prophetic awareness that creates a clear language for all nations, that all may call in the name of God. Therefore we see in the flowering of literature also the shining of the light of the Messiah in the world. And this flowering of development of the language reveals itself in all matters, in the secular as in the holy, the impure as in the pure. (Eight Notebooks, 1:176)

Like Emerson’s scholar, R. Kook’s literati “reveal all that is hidden.” Furthermore, R. Kook anticipates that modern Hebrew literature, like the Hebrew prophetic tradition, will provide an oracular clarity. This clarity leads to messianic world unity; the term “Messiah” here represents not any specific person, but rather the revelation of the unity of secular and holy, impure and pure. As in Emerson, individual authenticity eventually leads to a nation of prophets, who bring about the revelation of the divinity in all humanity.

For both R. Kook and Emerson, the synthesis of old truths with the skepticism of modernity is a harbinger of the Messianic new world, and a new philosophy. Emerson puts it as follows in “Experience”:

The new statement will comprise the skepticisms, as well as the faiths of society, and out of un-beliefs a creed shall be formed. For, skepticisms are not gratuitous or lawless, but are limitations of the affirmative statement, and the new philosophy must take them in, and make affirmations outside of them, just as much as it must include the oldest beliefs.

The “new philosophy” unifies the newest skepticisms with “the oldest beliefs,” revealing the internal identity of all. Emerson’s words here harmonize perfectly with R. Kook’s most famous credo: “The old will be renewed, and the new will be sanctified” (R. Kook’s Letters, 1:164). Emerson and R.  Kook envisioned an ideal future in which the light in all things will be perceptible in a way that is hidden today. But their utopian vision had practical applications in the cultural life of their societies, and stood as a bulwark against stultifying conformism or reactionary cowardice. Authenticity and insight mediate between national pride and tradition on the one hand, and universality and innovation on the other. The dynamic thought of both R. Kook and Emerson may, I hope, yet provide roots for the continued growth of American Jewish intellectual life.