Cori Shalit
Cori Shalit

Chutzpah, Rav Kook, and answering the call of history

Photo by Cori Shalit

About a month ago, I sat in an Israel21c Zoom call and heard Inbal Arieli speak. Arieli is the author of Chutzpah: Why Israel Is a Hub of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The author discussed what makes Israel such a successful tech hub, citing the worldview that differentiates Israelis from the rest of the world. For example, she said, ‘look at the playgrounds in Israel.’ She showed us pictures of playgrounds around the world versus playgrounds in Israel. In Israeli playgrounds, there are few, if no, signs dictating what not to do on the playground. In other playgrounds, these signs were everywhere. No this, no that, no climbing up the slide backwards. In light of this, she said, there are not more playground injuries in Israel than the rest of the world, as one might expect. The difference is that Israeli kids have to figure it out on their own- how to problem solve. In that moment, when one kid is halfway up climbing the slide and another kid is about to go down the same one- they have reached a physical dilemma that must be solved. 

She cited this example, among others, for why the Israeli mindset challenges the status quo and leads to incredibly innovative breakthroughs. This worldview not only challenges norms, but stands up against the idea of them. 

In Israel, ‘there’s an I in ‘we,’’ she said. “In Israel, you can be a strong, opinionated individual who thinks for himself, who criticizes and challenges authority while being a part of something larger than yourself. In fact, it’s expected that you hold both.” Venturing forward, proposing new ideas, and not fearing backlash do not make you any less a member of the incredible community Israelis are a part of. Blind conformity is frowned upon, and bringing your own ‘something’ to the table is part of what makes Israel such a capital for creativity- and disagreement. 

I sat in this Zoom, with only a month left of my undergraduate career and a few months until my estimated Aliyah date. I had just finished reading Religious Zionism of Rav Kook by Pinchas Polonsky and I could not help but see the parallels between her words and the words of Rav Kook. 

For those who don’t know, Rav Kook was essentially the spearhead of Religious Zionism. He beautifully synthesized modern Zionism with traditional Judaism, arguing that Zionism was essential to Jewish spiritual progress and necessary for Jewish continuity. In 1921, he was appointed Chief Rabbi of Palestine. Kook utilized the Kabbalistic ideas of chochma and bina in his work. Chochma is creativity, it is a new revelation that is received through history. Bina is the development of that revelation. It is analyzing, systematizing- it is all the Jew was doing since the destruction of the Second Temple, he says. It was at that point in time when Judaism shifted from a national dialogue with God to an individual dialogue with God. And it was forced to remain that way while we were in the Diaspora, scattered and deprived of our autonomy and therefore our ability to create chochma, to contribute something new to the world, together. Hunched over books for thousands of years, we could not do anything, have new experiences as a people and analyze those experiences as spiritual or historical revelation because we lacked the national and political entity that characterized our people in its origin. 

A great example of this is kosher laws. In the Hebrew Bible, the only thing mentioning kashrut is in Exodus 23:19-  “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” A part of the Hebrew Bible, this text, and therefore the concept of monotheism, was adopted by the rest of the world from the Jews. (According to German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, we should have died out here- our great contribution was fulfilled, but we didn’t- perhaps because there’s more to contribute.) In the Diaspora, the Talmud was written and it elaborated on kosher laws to no avail. It described the nitty gritty rules of kashrut in proportion and scope and became, to many, the end-all be-all of eating ‘properly.’ But this was all analysis and deeper study based on merely one line of the Hebrew Bible, the initial contribution and ‘revelation,’ if you will. 

To many, this emphasis on specific Talmudic rituals can be viewed as unnecessary, as hypothetical, and contributing little to the world. And, in fact, much of what is written in the Diaspora was hypothetical. There was little action. In general, Rav Kook asserts, the Jewish people, as a people, were interpreting commandments wrong in the Diaspora, misinterpreting commandments to be intended for the individual when really the spiritual progress of the nation could only be achieved when the individuals were united as a people, forced to interact, to make decisions collectively, to deal with the clashing reality of one kid coming down the slide at the same time as another going up, and to face the repercussions of decisions made in the existential moment. 

Rav Kook said that nothing new could be created without this existential dilemma. Sitting over texts, writing and debating what is ‘Jewish’ for thousands of years may have ultimately been- ironically- not so Jewish. Making no choices, we could only analyze and systematize past realizations. Actions were done to us- Jewish history defined by our oppressors. Yet, conformity is not part of the historical Jewish national experience, at least not for the ones whose Judaism survives. 

As Herbert Pagani said in his 1976 speech, “Descartes was wrong: ‘I think, therefore I am’ doesn’t mean anything. We’ve been thinking for 5,000 years, and we still don’t exist. I defend myself therefore I am.” Only Zionism could put us on the world map as a people, a people who, like other peoples, could fight back, a people who feel no need to hide their way of life, to assimilate to appease those around them, who proudly live out their days knowing their history, taking advantage of their present, and ever-creating. This is way more than a community or an individual spirituality. A people reminiscent of our ancestors’ tribe- a national and political entity that knows where they come from, but has great ambitions in where they’re going. Now we have the chutzpah to break barriers and pave the way for progress, without compromising who we are. 

Jewish scholar Simon Dubnov wrote in 1934 that the essence of the Jewish national idea is a historical consciousness. Knowing our place in history and being able to zoom out and see the scope and significance of what we can do together is a great realization. No matter how much the Israeli news presenters yell at each other in disagreement on live TV, in a manner we would never see in the US, I can’t help but smile- history is playing itself out. We are finally united, and our national dialogue has resumed. Only with these existential arguments, questions, and the meaningful passion that comes with debate can we thrive, and to quote author Daniel Gordis: “Israel’s purpose is the flourishing of the Jewish people.” 

How can I sit back as a spectator? Given the history of the Jewish people, it is against all odds that we are still alive, but the fact that we are now home-  in our own independent state- fills me with awe. We can finally walk the land of our ancestors and rid ourselves of the impacts colonization had on who we are. It is a privilege to take part in the revival of Hebrew civilization, what we were and what we can be, through the most successful indigenous liberation movement of our day. How could I not want to be part of the national dialogue? Sit back and rest my eyes from the depth of Jewish history and the significance of our present? It couldn’t be me. I feel a calling to take part in this chapter of Jewish history as an active participant. Simon Dubnov was right, and soon I’ll be in Israel… answering the call of history. 

About the Author
I am a recent Tulane University graduate with majors in Jewish Studies and Economics. I hold a strong passion for learning about and discussing Jewish history, Israel, and Jewish people today. I am planning to make Aliyah next month and draft to the IDF through Garin Tzabar.
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