Pinchas Polonsky explains two novel open-minded concepts of Rabbi Abraham-Yitzhak Kook (1865-1935) in this book “Religious Zionism of Rav Kook,” concepts that could, and indeed should, radically change the way Judaism and other religions are practiced.
Rabbi Abraham-Yitzhak ha-Cohen Kook was appointed by the British, who were then in control of Palestine, as the countries first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. Polonsky states that Kook’s “teachings reflect a deep modernization of the Jewish faith and of its approach to an array of contemporary problems.” He synthesized the mysticism of his mother’s Chabad Chassidism, his father’s non-Chassidic Litvak approach and the rational often anti-halakhic Haskala approach of other relatives. Polonsky calls his approach “Modern Orthodoxy.” But his ideas affect all streams of Judaism and other religions as well.
Rabbi Kook’s first idea is that there are three ways that people should communicate with God: as an individual, a nation and all of humanity. People are for the most part still mired in the restrictive notion of individual dialogue, as is clear when they pray, but they need to improve, to think about nations and humanity. Jews, Rabbi Kook taught, now have the impetus, opportunity and need for a national dialogue because of the reestablishment of the State of Israel. In the future, hopefully soon, Jews and non-Jews will mature even further and learn why humanity must dialogue with God. Dialogue, Rabbi Kook taught, means studying the world, looking to see what has occurred and what is occurring and then seeking the divine response, “what God is telling us.”
The second teaching, which flows from the first, is “continuing revelation.” The original divine revelation at Sinai was important, but the Torah focused primarily, as it needed to do at the time, on the duties of individuals. How is God revealed today? God, Rabbi Kook states, is not revealed through prophets and miracles. Modern divine revelation is in daily events, in history, and in the development of culture, science, ethics and society. People, the rabbi emphasized, need to not only observe, examine and ponder these items and events, which is dialogue, but to go further and strive to understand what God is revealing.
This, writes Dr. Polonsky, is the way Rabbi Kook understood how the ancient prophets saw and interpreted what they saw. “A prophet is one who brings the word of God to the people, in particular through the understanding of the historical process as a dialogue with God. In a sense, a prophet is a religious history teacher or, more accurately, one who exhorts the people to see religious meaning in historic events.” A prophet is not a soothsayer who miraculously predicts the future; the prophet teaches the people how to see God revealed in history and daily events.
Focusing of Orthodox Judaism as an example, Dr. Polonsky writes that Orthodox Jews must preserve the practices of their religion – this is Orthodoxy. However, Orthodox Jews must also incorporate the new information that the world reveals through this dialogue and revelation – this is Modernism. The two together yield Modern Orthodoxy. Both Orthodox Jews and all humanity must stop thinking of religion as something “given.” Modern Orthodox and all people need to realize that they are obligated to “continue this religion and develop it” through dialogue and revelation.
The rabbi sitting in his parlor studying Talmud must not be the paradigm of the true Jew. The modern Jew must recognize his and her responsibility, exit the study hall, see and understand the world and the developments of history and science, and act and improve.
Many of Rabbi Kook’s contemporary Orthodox rabbinical colleagues insisted that Jews should not attempt to reestablish a state in Israel, but rely on God to hand them the state with a miracle. Rabbi Kook, a fervent Religious Zionist, rejected this passivity. He saw in Zionism and the reestablishment of a Jewish State the possibility to both dialogue with God as a nation and, as free people in their own land, take advantage of the continuing divine revelation.
Remarkably, Dr. Polonsky compares Rabbi Kook’s two concepts to the paradoxical notion of the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797). The Gaon contended that when the Romans destroyed Israel in the year 70 C.E., Judaism gasped its last breath and died, and over the centuries the Jewish corpse decayed in its forlorn grave. It was only in his time, in the eighteenth century, when the sparks of world enlightenment were ignited and began to glow, that the Jewish people began to resurrect. Thus, counter to the thinking of many, the Gaon contended that even during the time of the Talmuds and the highly respected Talmud commentators and the writers of the Jewish Codes of Law, Judaism was dead and buried. This, though hyperbolic, says Dr. Polonsky, is like Rabbi Kook’s view that it is only now, with the State of Israel, that Jews can revive, breath the air of modern culture as free people, have an effective national dialogue with God and tap into the continued revelation.
Dr. Polonsky laments that the classical method of talmudic analysis of problems is inadequate. Classical Orthodox Judaism of the past two hundred years focused primarily on the past, rather than on the present and future, and offered answers based on ancient considerations, proper for their own time, but not now.
It is necessary today to face and solve many current problems. How, for example, Rabbi Kook asked, can we find the inner truths of atheists, non-Jews and secular Jews, and incorporate their truths into our religious thinking and practices? Isn’t the ability of atheist to doubt, think critically, be skeptical, deny superstitions, refuse to accept every tradition on faith and “merely believe,” the mind-set and skills that all people, religious and non-religious, should acquire?
Atheism “is not an enemy of true religion. It is an enemy of primitive religion and an ally in the creation of a more advanced one.” Jewish students “are taught (the) concept of faith (but a) new generation of religious people (must rise) up, whose views can be characterized as ‘religious post-atheism,’ which uses the religious achievements of atheism in the development of Judaism. Unless it (Judaism) activates within it the aspect of doubt, religion will be primitive. Doubt is necessary for its existence.” Religion must not lag behind developing culture like a mangy dog chewing on a cast-away bone; it should it join hands with all humanity, move forward together and work for human development.
Polonsky shows how Rabbi Kook would address agonizing contemporary Jewish questions such as: How can Jews identify and correct the defects in Judaism that are causing many Jews to flee bored and annoyed from a Judaism they consider not relevant? Is it possible for the various strands of Judaism to work together and help one another? Why should halakhah restrict women in any way, making them, in effect, only half Jews, standing dolorously on the side-lines of their religion only looking on? Doesn’t this imply that halakhah and ethical/human feelings contradict one another?
He focuses also on the State of Israel. Should Israelis give up the west bank? Should rabbis be part of the Israeli government? Why do the rabbis in the State of Israel give people who want to convert to Judaism so much unnecessary trouble? Isn’t this another symptom of outdated, out-of-touch, insensitive thinking, of a disease that must be cured?
But first and foremost, he shows how and why people, nations and humanity can dialogue with God. And he shows how Judaism and humanity can improve by ridding themselves of the notion that revelation has ended.
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Rabbi Kook’s concepts of the need for society to dialogue with God and continuing revelation is revolutionary but are not new. Moses Maimonides expressed them in different, simple, non-mystical words about 800 years before they were enunciated by Kook. He wrote that people are obligated to go beyond Torah, what Rabbi Kook called continuing revelation, by studying the world by learning science and philosophy, and improve one’s self, society and the world.
Maimonides, like Rabbi Kook, also felt that a prophet is a person with superior intellect who shares his understandings with the people. He also insisted repeatedly that people should examine the “highly respected traditions” and not accept them if they are not reasonable. People, Maimonides wrote, should look forward not backward, that is why we have eyes in front of our faces and not behind our ears.
Although Polonsky does not mention it, Rabbi Kook believed that in the messianic age, Jews would no longer offer animal sacrifices, only meal offerings. Maimonides went further and wrote that God does not need or want sacrifices.
Rabbi Kook and Maimonides also differ about the two concepts – dialogue with God and continuous revelation – because Maimonides contended that the two concepts can be achieved outside of Israel. Improving one’s self and others is in no way dependent upon one’s religion or where one is located.
Regarding society dialoging with God, Maimonides stressed the teaching of Aristotle that people are social animals and people need to improve society and assure that it acts properly by studying the world and sciences. Society helps people survive and it gives them the peace necessary for self development. Maimonides also included society in what he considered the three purposes of Torah: to pass on information about truth, and to improve individuals and society. Also, like Rabbi Kook, he spoke about the need for all people to work with and respect one another: all people, not only Jews, were created in God’s image; Adam was not a Jew.
 Rabbi Kook spoke of these concepts in a mystical manner, referring, for example, to the ten parts of the sephirot, while Maimonides discussed them in a straight forward rational way.