People who love their religious traditions may yet have moments of unease with aspects of those traditions. Attitudes expressed in religious cultures can appear inaccurate or inapplicable to the current situation. When confronted with such challenges, religious individuals often look for a recognized rabbinic authority expressing like – minded sentiments because finding such a voice provides reassurance that a person with select misgivings is not necessarily estranged from his or her religious tradition. In my life, R. Kook has frequently been that comforting voice.
For example, traditional Jewish law adopts quite a negative attitude to heretics and the non–observant, frequently assuming that they are motivated by hedonistic desires (Sanhedrin 63b). Furthermore, it classifies the sinner out of spite as worse than the sinner who simply gives in to temptation (Avoda Zara 26b). Presenting these two categories as exclusive leaves no room for the sinner ideologically motivated by more noble aspirations, a phenomenon I suggest we all encounter. Given certain facets of how traditional communities practice Judaism, there could be moral grounds for leaving religion.
After the majority of Jews turned non-observant in modernity, it became difficult to apply the pre-existing categories and many rabbis looked for new legal and philosophical paradigms. Various rulings mitigated the harshness towards contemporary secular Jews including some which categorized them as “babies taken captive,” those without exposure to authentic Judaism and therefore not responsible for their lack of observance. While this categorization made it much easier to interact with today’s secular Jews, it did not enable a more positive evaluation of them and their ideals.
Already in Europe, R. Kook recognized secularist revolutionaries driven by idealism including Jews attracted to atheistic socialism who genuinely wanted to make the world a better place and alleviate the plight of the suffering poor. This realization was strengthened when he moved to the land of Israel in 1904 and encountered irreligious Jews acting with great dedication and idealism on behalf of their brethren. Under extremely difficult conditions, they worked to drain the swamps thereby preventing malaria and to create a potential haven for Jews suffering from pogroms in Russia and elsewhere. It seemed inadequate that the best thing that can be said about them is that we would not hold them responsible for their Shabbat desecration.
In a famous essay titled “Hador,” R. Kook writes of a new historical paradigm. Tanakh and Chazal assume that pagan and idolatrous cultures are immoral societies practicing child sacrifice and engaging in orgies. Modernity has introduced a novel situation in which some of those rejecting God still act with great idealism and ethical excellence. Surely, this calls for a fresh attitude toward such deviationists.
Rav Kook put this idea into practice in a letter he sent to a R. Milstein whose children abandoned religious observance. He advised this fellow not to discard his children who had gotten caught up in the atheistic zeitgeist. They were drawn after the idealism and search for justice of secular ideologies such as socialism. How could we equate them with those who relinquish principles in order to give in to physical desires? (Iggerot haRa’aya 1:138)
Even more remarkable, R.Kook was willing to say that, in certain areas of life, the secularists had acted more admirably than their devout brethren. He credited “the sinners of Israel” with having a superior nefesh even if their ruach was deficient. In the first half of the twentieth century, the religious community was indeed somewhat behind in dedication to Jewish peoplehood and contributing to the Zionist project. (Orot haTehiya no. 43)
Notice the innovative nature of R. Kooks thought. Secularists and secular ideologies are not presented as an “empty wagon” devoid of values. Rather, he forthrightly acknowledges their good aspects and accepts the validity of some of their criticisms of Orthodoxy even as he remains negative towards their atheism.
Ability to appreciate the critiques of other groups brings us to the next topic where R. Kook provided support for my deepest intuitions. Observant Jews practice a detailed halakhic system that guides all aspects of life including eating meals, visiting the bathroom, going to sleep, cutting nails, and the like. On the one hand, this reflects the accurate realization that details matter and the pious desire to realize religious values in the concrete and mundane. On the other hand, we may sometimes feel that the beauty and poetic vision of Judaism has gotten lost in the details. R. Kook identifies with this feeling and he writes that the loss of what he called the prophetic impulse had led others to hate the details of religious life. Here we have both an endorsement of a secularist group’s critique of Orthodoxy as well as an appreciation for why someone might find aspects of the observant community difficult to connect with. (Hakham Adif miNavi )
Turning from religious practice to religious education, R. Kook criticized traditional yeshiva curriculums. The world of European yeshivot tended to emphasize Talmud study almost to the total exclusion of other branches of Torah such as Tanakh and Mahshava. R. Kook writes that this rigid approach drove people away from observance. Students whose hearts were drawn after Aggada felt compelled to study the halakhic portions of Gemara all day and grew estranged from the world of Torah. Had such students adopted a more balanced schedule that catered to their soul’s yeaning, they would have developed a healthier attitude to all aspects of Torah. Moreover, every student needs some exposure to varying rooms of Torah since they all contribute different qualities to the aspiring Torah personality. (Orot haTorah 9:6)
Just as I happily devoured R. Kook’s championing of a broader yeshiva curriculum, I found encouragement in R. Kook’s universalism and love of humanity especially when thinking about negative rabbinic sentiments towards gentiles. To be clear, R. Kook also expresses a fierce particularism which stresses Jewish uniqueness. Yet he manages to combine that with a burning desire to better the plight of all peoples. Strikingly, he roots his universalism in a mystical and panentheistic world view. If God is everywhere, divinity can be found in the totality of the created order.
R. Kook’s powerful words speak for themselves:
The highest level of love for people is the love due the individual person; it must embrace every single individual, regardless of differences in views on religion, or differences of race or climate. It is essential to understand the mentalities of different nations and groupings, to study their characteristics and life-styles in order to know how to base our human love on foundations that will readily translate themselves into action. It is only a person rich in love for people and a love for each individual person who can reach love for his own nation in its noblest dimension, spiritually and practically. The narrow-mindedness that leads one to view whatever is outside a particular nation, even what is outside the Jewish people, as ugly and defiling is a phase of the frightful darkness that undermines altogether every effort to reach that state of spiritual development whose dawn is awaited by every sensitive spirit. (Middot haRa’aya Ahava 10, transl. Ben Zion Bokser)
In our final example, I will take a model R. Kook develops and advance an application to which he likely would not have agreed with. In the introduction to his Ein Aya commentary on Aggada, R. Kook discusses the edicts and rabbinic innovations enacted to enable survival in the exile. He mentions that we sometimes implement a new approach due to necessity but later come to appreciate its inherent value. One might say that after adoption as a be’di’eved, it transforms into a le’khathilah.
I often think about this model in the context of contemporary women’s issues. We could justify the expansion of educational, ritual, and leadership opportunities for Jewish women as the only way to keep women satisfied in an era where they have much greater opportunities in secular fields such as law and medicine. For many, this does not accurately reflect our feelings about the situation. We do not want women to learn Torah only so that they will remain frum; we want them to encounter the profundity and wisdom of Torah and become finer human beings more attached to divinity as a result. We simply cannot imagine their exclusion from this magnificent educational and religious experience. In other words, we do not truly view advanced Torah programs for women as a concession to modernity. Now R. Kook was not a progressive on women’s issue and he probably would have rejected my application of his principle. Nonetheless, I think the idea an important one and R. Kook’s model helped in its formulation.
That a rabbinic giant took these positions certainly gives them added weight and significance. Not surprisingly, he received severe criticism from other Orthodox voices, yet R. Kook kept his equanimity and did not respond in kind. It took courage, honesty, intelligence, and idealism to adopt these positions and R. Kook lacked none of the above. Contemporary Orthodoxy would be well served if we could identify the good in other groups, admit to our own shortcomings, expand the Torah curriculum, and balance our particularism with universalistic striving.