Bezalel Naor

Searching for the Lost Dimensions of Judaism

Thoughts on Rav Kook’s 80th Yahrzeit, 3 Ellul 5775/August 17-18, 2015:

Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935) served as the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Erets Israel. He was a preeminent Talmudist and Halachist, as well as mystic and poet. Revered as the seer of the rebirth of Israel in its land, Rav Kook had a rare gift for reaching out to even the most alienated sectors of the nation.

I ask myself: How would Rav Kook wish to be remembered today?

Certainly he would not want us to dredge up old animosities surrounding his person. It was he who taught that the tikkun or remedy for the abominable sin of sin’at hinam (senseless hatred) is ahavat hinam (senseless love).

Rather, I imagine that the Rav would want us to learn and practice the most salient features of his teaching. Rav Kook was a man who in the course of a lifetime grew spiritually by quantum leaps, and he would demand of us our own spiritual growth and development.

By nature, he was a homo mysticus drawn inexorably to the mysteries of the Torah. His core learning was obtained in the bastion of Lithuanian scholarship, the famed Volozhin Yeshiva. To his dying day, he would remain faithful to the legacy of the Vilna Gaon as embodied in that great Torah institution. But as time went on, this Litvak broadened his being. A sea change occurred in Rav Kook’s consciousness at the time of his ‘aliyah to Erets Israel in 1904, when he assumed the rabbinate of Jaffa (precursor to Tel-Aviv) and the outlying communities. This spiritual ‘aliyah (ascent) is reflected in the abrupt shift in style. In Lithuania, Rav Kook wrote prose. In Erets Israel, Rav Kook’s writing assumed the flowing stream of consciousness that has become his hallmark. Commentators as diverse as Rabbi Isaac Hutner on the right, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter on the left, have observed that Rav Kook is first and foremost a poet, and admission to his inner sanctum hinges on ability to tune in to the wavelength of his poetry. The shift in style is symbolic of a much deeper phenomenon: the search for the lost dimensions of Judaism.

(It is no mere coincidence that during that same Jaffa period, Likkutei Tefillot by Rabbi Nathan of Breslov, never left Rav Kook’s shtender [stand], as attested by his student Rabbi Israel Porath, who later went on to become the Chief Rabbi of Cleveland, Ohio. Rabbi Nahman of Breslov was experimenting with new forms of expression, whether it be converting the torot or teachings in Likkutei Moharan into tefillot or prayers; or his foray into the enchanted world of sippurei ma’asiyot or storytelling.)

Rav Kook was thirsty for the nishmata de-‘oraita (the soul of the Torah). His spiritual quest took him beyond the “dry” Halakha to the “moist” environment of the Agadah. Beyond that, he expressed a longing for the resumption of nevu’ah, outright prophecy. All those who had substantive exposure to the Rav, all those who warmed to this great luminary, experienced this “hitpashtut kedusha,” this expansion of holiness. To Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Harlap, suffocating within the confines of the Old Yishuv of Yerushalayim, the “Yaffo’er Rov” (“Jaffa Rabbi”) appeared as a breath of fresh air. Under Rav Kook’s guidance, Lithuanian Yeshiva students such as Rabbi Yehudah Gershuni (of the Kamenets Yeshiva) and Rabbi Isaac Hutner (of the Slabodka Yeshiva) were turned on to works of Jewish Thought generally beyond the purview of the average yeshiva man. And an unusual seeker such as Rabbi David Cohen (the “Nazir”) , who had studied in both yeshivot and universities, and was yet thirsting for the Living God, received validation from the Rav for his “vision quest,” a trek in the inhospitable Judean wilderness with a select group of students of Merkaz Harav. If you allowed him to touch your soul, Rav Kook would broaden your horizon so that you too might experience a quantum leap.

Rav Kook’s spiritual journey encompassed all these dimensions and more: ecstatic song and dance (`a la Hasidism), body work, a love for the green vegetation of the Earth, animal welfare, etc. Rav Kook stretched the limits of “book learning,” but furthermore, impressed upon his listeners the importance of recapturing dimensions of Judaism that go beyond the book, to the body and the soul, and ultimately “to the wellspring of prophecy” (“el ma’ayan ha-nevu’ah”).

Lest anyone surmise that Rav Kook was out to create an elite cadre of hasidim who would be clones of the master, let it be stated in no uncertain terms that this clearly was not his goal. On more than one occasion, the Rav said outright that he had no interest in producing “Kookists.” When the Rebbe of Gur, Rabbi Abraham Mordechai Alter (“Imrei Emet”), duly impressed by Rav Kook’s many talents, remarked that Rav Kook could have 100,000 hasidim (perhaps the number of Gerrer Hasidim in pre-Holocaust Poland), Rav Kook was quick to reply: “I think only about Kelal Yisrael, the Jewish People as a whole!”

If we had to sum up Rav Kook’s teaching in a single word (which became the bon mot of his son Rabbi Tsevi Yehudah), it would be: “Kelaliyut” (Universality). It was that unitive vision that enabled Rav Kook to open the conversation between the disciples of the Vilna Gaon and the disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov; between secularists and pietists; between Russian Jews and Yemenite Jews; and between Jews and Arabs.

Does Rav Kook have all the answers? No! But he can certainly point us in the right direction.

Rabbi Isaac Hutner wrote in a by now famous letter, that it took him forty years to properly grasp Rav Kook’s de’ah or opinion. (See ‘Avodah Zarah 5b). And now, on the eightieth yahrzeit of Rav Kook, we collectively respond: Ditto.

About the Author
Bezalel Naor is an author, teacher, and public speaker. He is recognized as a scholar in the thought of Rav Kook, Kabbalah, Sabbatianism, and Hasidism, as well as many other areas of 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); The Koren Rav Kook Siddur (2017); Navigating Worlds: Collected Essays (Kodesh, 2021); and The Souls of the World of Chaos (Kodesh, 2023).
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