Thinking about Rav Kook

Take this with a grain of salt. I am no expert in the thought of Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook. Of his voluminous writings, I have read not much, and understood less. A few passages, though, made a deep impression on me.

A distraught father wrote to Rav Kook for advice about how to treat his (the writer’s) son, who had abandoned Jewish practice. Rav Kook replied that sometimes, perhaps often, refined souls demand a higher version of religion than the version taught by coarse souls. They cannot accept the religion they have been taught, so they break with religion. When these refined souls return, they do not return to the religion of their parents and teachers, but to a still higher version.

I thought that passage described reality courageously. It takes something for a rabbinic leader to recognize that person’s problems with observance can stem from the person’s best qualities, rather than his weaknesses.  Rav Kook’s consoling reply to the father implied a critique of the father’s own religious life.

On the other hand, in this reply, Rav Kook seems overconfident that the rebellious son would return – he seems not to consider that the rebel might never return.

Yesterday, I heard a talk about “The Role of Doubt in the Thought of Rabbi A. I. Kook” by Tamar Ross, professor of Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University.  Professor Ross presented several passages in which Rav Kook expresses ideas similar to those in his letter to the distraught father. For example, Rav Kook wrote: “From the perspective of the higher divine truth there is no difference whatsoever between conventional religious belief and heresy.” Rav Kook certainly believed that “from our perspective truth is revealed in faith, and is the source of good.” But he acknowledged that ultimately, even the best formulation of faith falls short of reality, and even the worst heresy “is a manifestation of a life-force, encompassing a higher illumination within it” (Arpalei Tohar 45).

Rav Kook also believed in evolution, not merely in the origin of the species, but also in intellectual and emotional evolution; societies change, and beliefs must change.  He also believed in progress, in the gradual development of more accurate knowledge.

Rambam famously listed the foundational beliefs of Judaism, but then distinguished between true beliefs and necessary beliefs.  According to this elitist idea, we endorse some beliefs as true, and others as useful.  Some people refrain from doing evil because they fear that God punishes evildoers.  Wise people feel happy that those people have that useful belief, whether the wise share that belief or not.  Rav Kook, consistent with his belief in progress, added the note that necessary beliefs in one society will no longer be necessary in another.  Upstanding and well-meaning thinkers could disagree because they come from different cultures, one clinging to an old necessary belief, the other already having discarded it, one culture still needing that old belief, the other having surpassed it.

Rav Kook added another classification: beliefs made necessary, not by society’s needs, but by the architecture of the human mind. My example: even people who try to believe in predestination still make decisions as if they believe they have choices (Orot HaEmunah 48).

So I thought of Rav Kook as observing the great swirl of progress, in which believing Jews and non-believers, monotheists and polytheists, theists and atheists, all join the struggle to approach true knowledge.  Rav Kook himself, as if on a platform outside the swirl, observes all this and notices each participant drawing closer and closer to the promised enlightenment described in Kabbalah.

Prof. Ross noted that Rav Kook thus granted legitimacy, significance and honor to all philosophies and religions, but he did so by paternalistically declaring that all “really,” without even knowing it, take part in the quest for ultimate religious truth.  Modern secularists reject this condescension: “We really are secular,” they say; “We are not on the way to any higher religious belief.”

It occurs to me that Rav Kook may have said something far more radical in these passages.  He may have located himself, not on a safe platform, but in the swirl.  As the centuries go by, we may discover which “necessary” beliefs seemed necessary only in their time and place, and which “true beliefs” no longer seem true.

In his other writings, Rav Kook took forthright stances against those whom he judged to have erred.  So perhaps Rav Kook did place himself on that safe platform, observing the rest of us in our swirl.  In these writings, though, Rav Kook may have provided the rest of us, though, as we struggle in the swirl, with a way of thinking about what changes and what does not change, “of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

Eliezer Finkelman


About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.