Eight Letters of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook / Reviewed by Bezalel Naor

Eight Letters of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook about Historiosophy, Philosophy, Theology and Zionism. (Hebrew and German). Edited by Hagay Shtamler. Jerusalem: Carmel, 2002. 282 pp.

“A person does not understand the opinion of his teacher until [after] forty years.” (Talmud Bavli)

As this Purim marks the fortieth Yahrzeit of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook (14 Adar, 5742—14 Adar, 5782), it is only appropriate that on this occasion his students (and students’ students) grapple with the legacy of this elusive teacher.


Zvi Yehuda was born to Reiza Rivkah (Rabinowitz-Te’omim) and Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook in Zeimel (Zeimelis), Lithuania on the eve of Passover, 1891. Later, the family relocated to Boisk (Bauska), Latvia. Shortly before Shavu‘ot of 1904, Zvi Yehuda and his family arrived in Jaffa, where his father would serve as Rav of “Jaffa and the Settlements” for the next decade. Zvi Yehuda’s formal yeshivah education was acquired at Torat Hayyim in Jerusalem under the tutelage of Rabbi Zerah Epstein. Before World War One, Zvi Yehuda gravitated to Halberstadt, Germany, to round out his largely autodidactic secular education and perfect his knowledge of European languages (French and German). The war years were spent in Switzerland. (There was a year that he and his father were together in St. Gallen, before the elder Kook assumed the rabbinate of Mahzikei Hadat in London’s East End.) With war’s end, father and son returned to the Holy Land. There, Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook would serve as Rav of Jerusalem and Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Erets Yisrael until his death in 1935.

For the next seventeen years, Rav Zvi Yehuda was hidden from the public view, devoting himself to editing and publishing his father’s voluminous manuscripts in Halakhah and Aggadah, Jewish Law and Jewish Thought. Only in 1952, with the passing of Rav Ya‘akov Moshe Harlap, his father’s premier disciple, did Rav Zvi Yehuda take the helm of Merkaz Harav, the yeshivah founded by his father in 1923. He served in this capacity of Rosh Yeshivah until his passing in 1982.

In those thirty years, Rav Zvi Yehuda raised a generation of disciples who imbibed his “Torat Erets Yisrael,” a distinct ideology that combined rabbinic learning with religious Zionism. In the aftermath of the Six Day War in June of 1967, Rav Zvi Yehuda rose to national prominence, as his students spearheaded the settlement movement known as Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful). From his humble abode at 30 Ovadiah Street in the Ge’ulah section of Jerusalem, came the inspiration that translated into monumental deed. This frail, unassuming scholar of diminutive physical stature, proved a spiritual powerhouse.

Never one to remain an abstract ideologist, the elderly rabbi in poor health, trekked to the incipient settlements of Kiryat Arba (adjacent to Hebron) and Elon Moreh (adjacent to Shechem) in solidarity with the settler movement.


We come now to Hagay Shtamler’s recent book, Shemoneh Iggerot, which may or may not throw a curve into the hagiography that has grown up around Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook. It certainly will add contours to an otherwise two-dimensional portrait.

Shtamler’s first book concerning Rav Zvi Yehuda, ‘Ayin be-‘Ayin, based on his doctoral dissertation at Bar-Ilan University, was withdrawn from circulation by the publisher at the request of Rav Zvi Tau because it was found insufficiently reverential. The book has since been re-issued by another publisher in, it is assumed, an expurgated, less controversial version.

Shtamler is by profession both a communal rabbi and an academician, a delicate balancing act. Growing up, he was mentored by close students of Rav Zvi Yehuda. (He mentions by name Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Zuckerman. The eight manuscript letters were provided by Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, founding Rosh Yeshivah of Nir Kiryat Arba, who passed away recently.) His intellectual horizon has broadened so that today he is eminently conversant with the writings of German Jewish thinkers such as Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig. So, from a strict vantage point of “Torat Erets Yisrael,” this book, like its predecessor, may very well arouse the ire of certain individuals.


Zvi Yehuda’s letters were written for the most part in German to Helena Baer (1891-1981) of Halberstadt. Helena came from a prominent family. Her father, a wealthy businessman, was the leader of the Jewish community. Her older brother, Yitzhak (Fritz) Baer, would go on to become a famous Jewish historian. She would marry Yehudah (Leo) Barth, the son of Rabbi Dr. Jacob Barth, a student and son-in-law of Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer, and a member of the faculty of the Hildesheimer Seminary in Berlin. Leo’s brother, Aaron Barth was a prominent Israeli banker and the author of a popular work of Jewish Thought.

Helena sounds like a complex individual in her own right, navigating between Agudah and Mizrachi, the Diaspora and the Land. After her ‘aliyah, Helena served as director of the Mizrachi women teachers’ seminary in Jerusalem, where she left a lasting impression upon a young Zelda Shneurson. In later years, the by now famous poet, known simply as “Zelda,” would refer to her erstwhile teacher as a “queen.” According to Shtamler, Helena Barth’s individualistic style of teaching ran afoul of Rabbi Meir Berlin (Bar-Ilan) and she was dismissed from the directorship.


Of the eight letters, it is undoubtedly the first and longest which will evoke the most interest. In a sprawling historiosophy, Zvi Yehuda views Christianity as a “historic mistake, “the program of the anti-program.”

I had occasion to translate the letter (from its Hebrew version) to English in my collection, When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (Orot, 2003; Kodesh, 2016). What I could not have known at that time, was the identity of the recipient, Helena Baer Barth. (As Shtamler points out, in Zemah Zvi: Letters of Rav Zvi Yehuda Hakohen Kook [1991], where the letter first appeared, the gender was changed from feminine to masculine, thus “tislehi” became “tislah,” etc.) I conjectured, wrongly, that it was written to Zvi Yehuda’s recent acquaintance, David Cohen (later, in Jerusalem, referred to as the “Nazirite”). Also, the placement of the letter in that collection, threw me off as to the date. Since it was sandwiched between letters written in 1918, I assumed, mistakenly, that it too was from that year. In truth, it was written earlier, in 1915.

In the letter to Baer, Zvi Yehuda references his father’s recent essay, “Le-Mahalakh ha-Ide’ot be-Yisrael” (“To the Process of Ideas in Israel”), which had been edited by Zvi Yehuda and published in Rabbi Meir Berlin’s journal Ha-‘Ivri in 1912. Indeed, I found similarities between the son’s historiosophy and that of his father. But where it seemed to me that the father subscribed to the famous position of Maimonides at the conclusion of Mishneh Torah (in uncensored versions) that Jesus and Muhammad had been part of a divine plan to pave the way for the righteous Messiah, by exposing the peoples of the world to Biblical teachings (albeit in a distorted fashion)—Zvi Yehuda clearly objected to this reading of history. As I stated in When God Becomes History, this was not the lone opinion of Maimonides. It was endorsed later by Nahmanides in his sermon, Torat Hashem Temimah, and conveyed earlier by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in his Kuzari (IV, 23). (In his edition of the Kuzari, Rabbi Kafah rejects the notion that Maimonides borrowed this idea from Halevi, whom he never mentions. Rabbi Kafah assumes, instead, that the idea circulated among the “sages of Israel,” and that both Halevi and Maimonides absorbed it from the “Jewish Diaspora.”)

In a reading that betrays Nietzschean influence (Nietzsche’s name appears in the letter alongside his term “Sklavenmoral,” or “slave morality”), the original divine plan was for the pagan peoples to come under direct Judaic influence, without the vitiating and psychologically damaging effect brought on by Christianity’s dualism of soul and body. Judaism, with its non-dualistic approach to spirituality, would have been a better teacher to the evolving nations. Viewed from this perspective, Christianity threw a monkey wrench into the divine scheme. The secularization of Europe comes to correct this distortion.

Shtamler tries to reconcile the seemingly disparate views of father and son. Let the reader judge whether his solution is satisfactory.


Shtamler believes that the unnamed nemesis of Zvi Yehuda in this letter is none other than Hermann Cohen (1842-1918), founder of the Marburg School of neo-Kantianism, and the regnant German Jewish philosopher of the day. Cohen’s vision of Judaism would reach full expression in his posthumous work, Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums (Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism) (1919). For Cohen, Judaism is essentially an ethical, prophetic, Messianic idea. Hermann Cohen’s Judaism is disembodied and dépaysé (Cohen despised the Zionist movement), whereas Zvi Yehuda Kook’s Judaism is full-bodied and landed: “Israel’s influence upon human civilization, consists not of sermons by Jewish leaders or their exemplary lifestyle, neither in ‘humanism,’ nor in an abstract, illusionary ‘Judaism,’ but only in an indivisible Jews-and-Judaism, in the existence of the nation itself, through which the light of God is manifested in the World.”

Shtamler includes a lengthy appendix, entitled, “The Polemic Regarding the Destiny of the People of Israel,” designed to demonstrate how Zvi Yehuda refutes Hermann Cohen point by point. (And with all that, he remained a great admirer of Cohen, as attested to by Rav Zvi Yehuda’s letters and lectures.)


Since Shtamler has summoned my experience with Rav Zvi Yehuda regarding Nietzsche (Eight Letters, pp. 79-80, n. 331), I should like to disclose more details concerning that memorable meeting in the month of Tevet (January) 1977. I was newlywed and newly arrived in Jerusalem. I came to the meeting with Rav Zvi Yehuda—whom I had never met before—equipped with an analysis of Orot ha-Teshuvah (Lights of Return), a work that Rav Zvi Yehuda had compiled from his father’s writings in 1924. I had submitted this Hebrew essay as a term paper to Professor Arthur Hyman for his course in Modern Jewish Philosophy at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School. (Hyman graded it “A.”) Rav Zvi Yehuda read through it, commenting here and there. He liked it. (Understatement.) When he came to the part comparing Rav Kook’s philosophy of Teshuvah to that of the Hasidic master, Rabbi Zadok Hakohen of Lublin, he commented that his father remarked on the similarities between their two outlooks: “Rabbi Zadok and I are saying the same thing except that he expresses it in a more radical fashion.” When Rav Zvi Yehuda came to the section on Nietzsche, he asked that I delete it, saying that it is unbefitting to situate his father, “a man who wore tefillin all day,” together with Nietzsche. I honored his request, and later, when I published the essay, “Zedonot na‘asot ke-zakhuyot be-mishnato shel Harav Kuk,” in the journal Sinai, I deleted the section on Nietzsche.

But there is more to this story. When I was seated at Rav Zvi Yehuda’s table, my opening line was: “How much your father loved the Jewish People!” Rav Tsevi Yehuda reacted with hearty laughter. “Ahavat YIsrael?” “Love of Israel?” “My father loved the whole world, even zome’ah (the vegetable kingdom), even domem (the mineral kingdom).”

The two halves of the story, the exclusionary and the inclusionary, are mutually complementary and integral to Rav Tsevi Yehuda’s Weltanschauung. They are as the systole and diastole of the heart.


So, how do we reconcile the writer of the Eight Letters with the later leader? Was this a fleeting European phase? Did the universalism persist into old age? Is nationalism evident even in the youthful letters?

These are the questions that await resolution on the fortieth Yahrzeit of Rav Zvi Yehuda Hakohen Kook, of blessed memory.

About the Author
Rabbi Bezalel Naor is an author, teacher, and public speaker. He is recognized as a scholar in the thought of Rav Kook, Kabbalah and Hasidism, as well as many other areas of Torah and Jewish Thought. Recent publications include a bilingual edition of Rav Kook's seminal work, Orot (Maggid, 2015); When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (Kodesh, 2016); and Navigating Worlds: Collected Essays (Kodesh, 2021).
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