Rav Kook was an extremist… of sorts. But we so desperately need Rav Kook today. Why do I say that he was an extremist? Some of his positions were indeed extreme within the religious Zionist movement. I’ll share two examples. First, Rav Kook, a staunch religious Zionist, refused to join the Mizrachi party. He was ambivalent to the new Zionist movement because of his opposition to secular nationalism. Other religious Zionist Rabbinic leaders, like Mizrachi founder Rav Reines, worked hand in hand with secular Zionists towards the creation of a Jewish state beginning at the end of the 19th century. However, Rav Kook felt that there was a lack of religious fervor in the Mizrachi movement and its members willingly accepted a secondary status within the Zionist movement. He believed that integration into the secular Zionist enterprise would permanently deflect the spiritual revolution that both secular and religious Jewry needed at this time to usher in the messianic era. For these reasons, Rav Kook refused to join the Mizrachi party and he tried to start the movement called Degel Yerushalayim, a religious Zionist movement that would focus on the character of the state. However, his movement did not succeed.
Another extreme position of his was his opposition to women’s suffrage. In 1919, Mizrachi scheduled a convention in Jerusalem to discuss the issue of women’s suffrage. Many members of the Mizrachi party decided to turn to Rav Kook for guidance, thinking that he would support women’s suffrage. However, Rav Kook wrote a letter opposing women’s suffrage in passionate and unequivocal terms. He asserted that the opposition to women in public life was not merely personal but the unanimous voice of all Jewish culture and halacha. Other leading religious Zionist Rabbinic leaders, like Rav Benzion Meir Hai Uziel, disagreed with Rav Kook, and supported women’s suffrage.
We can speculate on whether Rav Kook would maintain these two positions in 2021 and my point is not to debate the substance of his positions. Rather, I just want to point out that he adhered to some extreme positions within the religious Zionist camp.
Notwithstanding these two extreme positions, Rav Kook was beloved. He was someone who believed in the holiness of every Jew, whether religious or secular. His belief was not only based on his love for every Jew, but it was based on his theology. Rav Kook saw secular socialist Zionists as unwitting saints who built up Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael to help usher in the messianic era. Rav Kook believed that every Jew, even a heretic, had a Divine light inside of him and the theological challenges that heretics asserted help the religious man find a more complex and deeper perception of God.
This is why we so desperately need Rav Kook right now. Rav Kook was someone who taught us by his actions that it was possible to take principled, even unpopular positions and simultaneously believe in every person’s self-worth and inner holiness regardless of his or her ideology, theology or politics.
I can only imagine how passionate the religious Zionist community in Israel feels in either direction about the formation of the new government. Some view this new government as the embodiment of unity that promises to usher in an era of bridging the gap between the religious and secular and between Israeli-Jews and Israeli-Arabs. Others view this new government as a disastrous shift of the country to the left both religiously and politically under weak leadership composed of a group of political parties united only in their hatred of Prime Minister Netanyahu. I understand the perspective of both positions and I can understand why many religious Zionists are on different sides of the issue and why many religious Zionists are torn about the new government.
But we are missing Rav Kook. This past week, Bezalel Smotrich, religious Jew and leader of the religious Zionist party, wrote that Nir Orbach, a member of Yamina who supported the new government “is a nothing… a rude arrogant liar, and a pursuer of honor and political patronage.” It was a tweet and unfortunately, in today’s world, we tend not to be so careful in our choice of words while tweeting. But this ad hominem attack on someone with a different political view is just one example of an attitude which I have seen throughout this campaign. I certainly understand the rationale for this attitude of ad hominem attacks. Jews, including religious Jews, are so passionate and invested about the future of the State of Israel. But that attitude, while understandable, is wrong. Rav Kook never engaged in ad hominem attacks. Rav Kook knew how to be both passionate and embracing of every Jew. He is remembered not only for his messianic theology but also for his theology of love for every single person. And that is why we so desperately need him today.