Why Rav Kook still matters

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a book launch for the new edition of Binyamin Ish Shalom’s classic work on the thought of Rav Kook. For me, the highlight of the evening was the dialogue and debate between Dr. Binyamin Brown, of Hebrew University, and Rav Yoel Bin Nun. Professor Brown opened by declaring the fundamental irrelevancy of Rav Kook’s thought to today’s day and age, arguing that Rav Kook’s religious vision is overly ideological and offers a religious romanticism that is inspiring but ultimately naïve. No great awakening has taken place leading secular Zionists to become religious. The messianic redemption is not just around the corner. Despite my great love for the Torah of Rav Kook, I found myself agreeing with many of Professor Brown’s conclusions. In my experience, the attempt to impose metaphysics upon reality often has the consequence of creating both religious alienation and excessive ideological fervor. The case is no different for Rav Kook, no matter how beautiful his spiritual vision may be.

Professor Brown, of course, is not the first to raise such criticisms. The awareness that Rav Kook’s spiritual vision does not easily map onto reality can even be found in the writings of those who consider themselves to be Rav Kook’s students. Whereas Rav Kook embraced the divine sparks to be found in the various social and cultural movements of his time, Rav Zvi Tau, one of the leading students of Rav Kook’s son, Rav Zvi Yehuda, recently wrote a treatise proclaiming that this approach can no longer be applied in our day and age. In HaOmetz L’Atzmaut, he argues that the willingness in our generation to accept those who identify as gay violates the essential spirit of the Torah. Despite numerous statement by Rav Kook that “each age shines with its own light,” (Iggerot HaReiyah 378) and that divine sparks were to be found in all ideologies (Orot, L’Milchemet HaDeot VehaEmunot), Rav Tau chose to highlight a little-known quote from Rav Kook’s writings. It states (Kevatzim M’Ketav Yad Kadsho Vol. 2, p. 103) that “one should not attempt to raise up every age to the holy… it is impossible to say that which is revealed and dominates any era is appropriate to be the path of God, and that one needs to follow it.”

However, I found my attitude shifting when Rav Yoel Bin Nun got up to speak. He responded to Professor Brown’s remarks with an insightful reading of one of Rav Kook’s most significant essays, and in doing so, he reminded me that perhaps Rav Kook’s thought is relevant now more than ever. The essay opens by noting that in the time of Rav Kook, the Jewish people are divided into three camps, three camps that were in perpetual conflict with each other: the universal, the national, and the holy. (Orot HaTechiya 18) Rav Bin Nun pointed out that even though Rav Kook wrote these words more than a century ago, one has to look no further than the upcoming Israeli elections to see that the distinctions he makes are alive and well. The various political parties across the political spectrum break down neatly according to the three camps described by Rav Kook. There are political parties that argue Israel’s universalist obligations must take priority and the state has much work to do in order to provide justice and equality for all its citizens. Other parties put Israel and the national interests of the Jewish people at the center. And then there are the political parties which only pursue the concerns of the specific religious communities they represent. As was the case during the time of Rav Kook, these three camps today remain in conflict with each other, conflict that has only increased in recent years. In fact, Rav Bin Nun, wryly noted that two of the camps will often only unite if it is to gang up against the third.  He pointed to the Religious Zionist political parties and their increasing rejection of values such as justice and equality as an unfortunate expression of this phenomenon.

The reason Rav Kook’s words can retain great insight even after many years is because they stem from a theological vision that internalized important facts about human nature. While the Enlightenment attempted to put reason and the intellect at the center of human life, Rav Kook understood that it is often feeling and imagination which is the most powerful. The intellect has its place, and is absolutely necessary in order to have a clear understanding of reality. However, the intellect can only capture certain aspects of human life. Despite the Enlightenment’s necessary emphasis on reason as the foundation of liberal democracy, human feeling and the attachments it generates have often been the driving force in human history. Perhaps no more powerful feelings have been unleashed in the modern era than those that animate the three camps Rav Kook describes: the desire for justice and equality (universal), love of one’s people (national), and the yearning for transcendence (religious). Each has been at the heart of social, political, and religious movements that have remade the world around us.

Rav Kook’s appreciation for the role of feeling in human life has only increased in significance in recent years. Facts and the reasoned consensus that they are meant to generate has deteriorated rapidly. What has emerged is a crisis of trust in elite institutions such as journalism, science, and politics that are intended to serve as the core of civil society. Now more than ever, feelings take center stage, and they are magnified exponentially through the social media we all participate in. As feelings intensify, conflict increases. Not only does it feel much harder to build a shared society with those who disagree with us, but it often feels that violence is lurking just around the corner. Rav Kook was certainly no stranger to these dangers. Living during one of the most turbulent moments in Jewish history, he saw the Jewish people nearly torn apart by conflict. But he was also able to identify that the currents of feeling and passion behind these conflicts were ultimately rooted in deep spiritual longings.

So what was Rav Kook’s answer for a world nearly set on fire by feeling and passion that threatens to burn out of control? It was to nurture the one feeling more powerful than all others, that of love.  Love was the only force that had the power to bind all three conflicting camps together because it was what fueled each one of them. A Jew’s attachment to the Jewish people and the prioritization of the needs of the Jewish nation, stems from a love of family that is natural to all human beings. The pursuit of justice and equality emerges from a love that we feel for all of humanity. Religious life even in its smallest details is only truly meaningful when it is animated by a love for God that will not be satisfied with the parochial concerns that so often dominate organized religion.

On Rav Kook’s yahretzeit, I can think of no better time to contemplate what it might mean for us to bring love into our lives and even our political arena as a constructive force. In a moment, when our feelings are so often channeled towards resentment and other destructive political purposes it behooves us to imagine the possibility of something different. Rav Kook’s understanding of love as a political force is one that sees love as not passive but active. It fundamentally shapes the way we look at and relate to others. It enables us to see ourselves as connected to others, and opens our eyes to the good that exists within them. For Rav Kook, love binds community together and it is the only force that can end unceasing cycles of hatred and violence.

When one looks at our religious and political discourse, its easy to be cynical about  attempt to turn love into a reality. We live at time when many seek to tear down anyone who espouses an elevated vision of morality and spirituality. We see only their faults and assume they are motivated by nothing more than base self-interest. But if we are to recognize Rav Kook’s great wisdom as a philosopher of the soul, we cannot deny that the love, he describes is real. We have all had moments when we have felt it and the world desperately needs more of it. We may have our doubts about our ability to bring it into the world, but that cannot excuse us from trying. As Rav Kook wrote:

My many failings will not prevent me from doing good for others, because I desire to do good, and I desire the good of all humanity, and I desire, with certainty, to truly desire to be good. My heart is full of holy fire of love for Israel and for the entire world, to elevate it all to the source of good. This desire, this holy desire, I need to acknowledge its holiness. (Hadarav, p. 191)

About the Author
Rabbi Zachary Truboff recently made aliyah and moved with his family to Jerusalem. He is the director of the English speaking program at Bina L'Itim, a project of Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak and an educator for the Hartman Institute. For nearly a decade, he served as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Syagogue in Cleveland, OH. He is an officer of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He has a passion for using Jewish texts and ideas along with contemporary thought to address important issues of the day.
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