One of the most remarkable figures in Israeli history, Rabbi (Rav) Abraham Isaac Kook, who died in 1935, left a large and complicated legacy.
The country’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi and founder of the modern Chief Rabbinate of Israel, he is still the leading thinker of religious Zionism.
His large and complicated body of thought — at the same time nationalist and universalist; rigorous in religious practice and open to modern society; traditional and revolutionary — has led to his still being claimed by or attacked by both left and right.
In a series of books in English and Hebrew, including his most recent, “Towards the Mystical Experience of Modernity, The Making of Rav Kook, 1865-1904,” Brandeis University professor of Near Eastern and Judaic studies Yehudah Mirsky has sought to present a more richly nuanced and compelling picture of Kook than those presented by his acolytes and critics alike. In so doing, he also brings to life little-known chapters of Jewish thought and history.
Mirsky depicts Kook as a profound, subtle, deeply ethical thinker who sought to resolve the contradictions of Zionist thought and modern Jewish life into a universal messianic vision. In this vision, the Jews’ return to Zion to create a just and better society was the first step of the messianic redemption that would save the human race.
“Kook was this magisterial authority of traditional Jewish law, philosophy, and mysticism, with a remarkable command of the entirety of Jewish thought,” Mirsky said. “He plunged headfirst into the storm of modernity.”
Mirsky, a faculty member at Brandeis’ Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, talked about Kook and how the rabbi wound up so misunderstood and criticized.
Tell us about Kook’s life.
He was born in 1865 on the western edge of the Russian Empire in Lithuania. The mass migration of Jews to the U.S. and the assimilation of both European and American Jews into gentile society were bringing about the collapse of the traditional Jewish world. At the same time, there was a remarkable Jewish creativity in spirituality, the arts, and communal life.
During his years in Europe, and even more so after he arrived in Palestine in 1904, he was riveted by the Jewish socialist revolutionaries and Zionists who thought of themselves as building a new Jewish society, culture, and eventually, a state and who rebelled against tradition in the name of ideals of social justice and care for Jewish welfare — and, crucially, were willing to put their lives on the line for those ideals.
Most Orthodox rabbis of the time rejected secular Zionism. Some chose to work with it but were careful to distance themselves from its efforts to create a new Jewish culture. Rav Kook, alone among his peers but with remarkable stature, affirmed the effort to create a modern Hebrew culture in a new state of Israel as something to be embraced for the betterment of Judaism and the world.
How can a deeply religious, Orthodox rabbi be attracted to these secular Zionists?
He starts with this conviction that’s very much rooted in the Jewish mystical tradition that there is no space devoid of God. And as far as he’s concerned, that means that principled, idealistic movements working towards noble goals like a renaissance of the Jewish people and making a better world are expressions of God’s presence in the world.
Kook was convinced that he lived during the apocalypse of authority, both secular and religious. He had the conviction that this remarkably dynamic, fluid, unstable historical period meant the world was on the threshold of the messianic era. God was jump-starting a new phase of Jewish history.
As he saw it, all the great contradictions of Jewish and world history were now rising to the surface en route to their final resolution. And so, even secular Zionism had a role to play.
The secular Zionists would undertake the enterprise of building a new Jewish society with vibrant social, economic, and political institutions and would provide a material basis for a greater cultural and spiritual renewal to follow.
What did his fellow Orthodox rabbis think of his views?
For many colleagues, everything he’s doing and saying is the worst kind of heresy. This major rabbinic figure is seemingly sanctifying the secular revolution, sanctifying secular Zionism.
Kook didn’t put it in these terms, but a part of his argument with his rabbinic colleagues is him saying to them:
“Guys, look, these young people who are rebelling against us are not doing this because they want to eat cheeseburgers. They’re moving to Palestine and draining swamps and getting shot at by Arabs.
“And they’re saying that they’re doing this because we haven’t taken good care of the Jewish people, we’ve fallen down on the job. Our religious ideas are stale, and we have nothing to say about modern philosophy and art and culture. Our religion has become rote and ritualized. And they’re right.”
That sounds like heresy from an Orthodox rabbi.
Exactly. At one point, Kook says, heresy is coming to our world like a bonfire. It’s going to burn everything in its path. And on its smoking embers, we will rebuild the new Judaism.
There is another phrase that appears in his writings at different times — “Everything is rising.”
This means everything is making itself right. God is this motive force in human culture and history, and Judaism needs to be reborn. Traditional Judaism would open itself to modernity, and those who had fallen away from it, like the secular Zionists, would return to the fold.
In Kook’s view, what does this rebirth look like?
A traditional Judaism imbued with a new and vital spirituality, embraced by all Jews and shorn of the narrowness that often pushed away the larger world.
How do the secular Zionists respond?
He’s not accepted by them either. They don’t want to be celebrated by him.
They’re like, “Rabbi, that’s very sweet of you, but I am not part of your sacred revolution, okay? I’m not God’s unwitting instrument for messianic redemption. Get over it.”
When Kook died in 1935, his son took over.
Yes. But it was really after the Six Day War in 1967 and then the 1973 Yom Kippur War that Zvi Yehudah Kook emerged as a leader in religious Zionism.
He eventually became the spiritual leader of the settlement movement, saying the way to carry forward his father’s program was to enhance the sovereign Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank].
Is this what the elder Kook would have wanted? Does the kind of messianism he expounded give rise to the idea that Jews must settle all the Biblical land of Israel?
Yes and no. Crucially, the [elder] Kook didn’t live to see the Holocaust or the creation of the state of Israel. Also, his messianism was different from that of his son.
As the elder Kook saw it, God sent the Jews into exile to purge us of the desire for power and of wanting to rule over other people or use violence for political ends. We learned to be just from our own experience of oppression. When we return to Zion [Israel], we can be different than everyone else.
His son didn’t disagree, but after the Holocaust and Arab-Israeli wars, he concluded that nothing was more important than bringing Israeli sovereignty and its messianic fight to all of the biblical land of Israel.
Was Kook a pacifist? How do you think he would have viewed the religious settler movement of today?
He was not a pacifist and recognized the necessity of violence. What he was — and in many ways deeply resembled many other early Zionist thinkers and figures — was a tremendous idealist. He thought Jewish politics would be essentially different from non-Jewish politics and more moral. He thought the rabbinic institutions he created would not become politicized but would light the way to the new vibrant Judaism of the future. He thought, as so many did, that the disputes with the Arabs could be resolved peacefully.
So how does he speak to us today?
First off — and as the vast scholarly and popular literature on him (almost all in Hebrew) attests — he’s a vital and deeply consequential figure in modern Jewish history and thought, and, I argue, in the history of modern religious thought in general.
The sheer richness of his corpus in law, theology, poetry, mysticism, social commentary, and more is worth a lifetime of study. And the institutions he created — the Chief Rabbinate, his yeshiva, and in general, the model of rabbinic training and of Jewish education integrating faithfulness to tradition with engagement in society and the world — are still very much with us today.
Second, almost nobody thought as deeply as he did about the profound continuities and discontinuities between Zionism and Jewish tradition. Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, dealing with those questions means sooner or later engaging in dialogue with him.
Did his son get him right? Did your teacher, Rabbi Yehudah Amital, Zvi Yehudah Kook’s chief critic from within religious Zionism, and in his own way, a man of the left, understand the elder Kook better?
In some ways, if we’re thinking for a moment not as historians but as political and moral actors in the present, that isn’t the right question.
The question, rather, is, given who we are in the world we live in today and our responsibilities today, how do we, after studying all Rav Kook — and so many other thinkers and figures have to teach us — choose to act and live in the here and now?
That, as always, is the question, and each one of us has to answer it for ourselves.