The Man who Tried to Put it All Together:
A Hesped for Rav Kook on His Eightieth Yahrzeit
By Yehudah Mirsky
Yehudah Mirsky is an Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, Brandeis University, and the author of Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution (Yale University Press), available here (link).
This is his first contribution to the Seforim Blog.
Jerusalem of the 1930s was boiled in fury. The inevitability of bitter conflict with the Arabs of Palestine had become too clear to deny, while the fighting among Jews, if not quite as violent, was bitter and unmistakable. How to deal with the Arabs, how to deal with the British, how to bring new immigrants and, once they were there, sustain them, how to deal with Hitler’s shadow looming large over Europe – and how to deal with Zionism’s revolution not only against centuries of Jewish politics, but centuries more of Jewish religion and history. The arguments were as heated as the stakes were high.
All the more striking it was that on Monday, September 2, 1935, the fourth day of Elul 5695, some fifteen thousand people, amounting to one third of Jewish Jerusalem and nearly five percent of Jewish Palestine, religious and secular alike, joined by foreign diplomats, scholars, day laborers and rabbis, came out to follow the coffin of Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook, dead at age seventy. The procession wound from his yeshiva near Zion Square, in three columns through the Old City, to his freshly dug grave on the Mount of Olives, as thousands more watched from the rooftops.
The night before, just a few hours after his passing, the Nineteenth Zionist Congress, meeting in Lucerne, Switzerland, had held a memorial service of its own. Menachem Ussishkin, president of the Jewish National Fund responsible for land-purchases in Palestine and incoming President of the Zionist Executive, had long been Rav Kook’s chief interlocutor in the Zionist leadership, navigating between the movement’s relentlessly secularizing thrust, and the rabbi’s dogged insistence that the movement was bound to be the very vehicle of spiritual rebirth, for Jews and the world. Ussishkin said the rabbi had told him the building modern-day Palestine, its roads, factories and farms was nothing less than rebuilding the Temple – and that now, as then, all the ranks were meant to work together, the secular, itself charged with divine energy, being the indispensable foundation of the sacred.
Ussishkin was followed by Meir Berlin, leader of the perpetually-embattled Religious Zionist movement, the Mizrachi (whose Hebraized name would later garnish Israel’s religious university, Bar-Ilan). Rav Kook, Berlin said, “loved the Jewish people the way only a father can love his children. Nobody is left after him who will love his nation that fiercely…He understood his people, the situation of the generation, and its life conditions, and that is why he forgave them everything.” There was a lot to forgive.
Berlin and Rav Kook went back a very long way, longer than the former’s own lifetime. In the fall of 1884, then aged nineteen, Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook had become a student and disciple of Berlin’s father, Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, known as “The Netziv,” dean of the great yeshiva of Volozhin. The yeshiva teemed with prodigies, future rabbis and future revolutionaries, among whom young Kook stood out, for an unfamiliar mix, appealing to some, off-putting to others, of intellectual prowess, intense piety, and lyric sensibility.
In the early years of his career, begun in a tiny Lithuanian shtetl, Kook was drawn to Maimonidean rationalism. With time, and intense grief at the death of his first wife, he turned inward, undertook deep introspection and extensive study of Kabbalah, on his own and with Rav Shalom Elyashiv (grandfather of the recently departed Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv). Alongside his command of Talmud and halakha, he mastered an extraordinary range of Jewish mystical, philosophical and other texts, read widely in the rich Hebrew and Yiddish periodical literature of the day, and became an autodidact of contemporary philosophy. In a departure from rabbinic conventions, he made serious study of the non-halakhic portions of the Talmud, the Aggadah and all its divergent voices.
“There are those who erroneously think that world peace will only come from a common character of opinions and qualities. But no – true peace will come to the world precisely by multiplication of all the opinions and perspectives… all facets of the larger truth… peace (is) the unification of all opposites. But there must be opposites, so that there be those who labor and that which will be unified… Hence peace is the name of God, who is the master of all the forces, omnipotent and gathering them all.” (Eyn Ayah to Massekhet Berakhot, vol. 2, pp. 397-398, 9:361, on BT Berakhot 64a.)
In another, marking his burgeoning conviction that God is to be found in the stormy recesses of one’s own inner life, he began to keep a spiritual diary.
In the summer of 1904 Kook moved to Palestine after accepting an offer to become the rabbi of Jaffa and the surrounding colonies, effectively becoming rabbi of the New Yishuv (Jewish collective). The year of his arrival marked the beginning of the Second Aliyah, the migration wave that brought a small but influential cadre of young intellectuals and revolutionaries who left an outsized mark on the political and cultural development of the New Yishuv. The combined effect of his encounters with their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the Jewish people and for the ethical universalism of Socialism, with the vibrancy of the New Yishuv and sheer embodied-ness of the land was electrifying. In public, he became the leading rabbinic champion of the New Yishuv, and thus the target of traditionalist attacks. In private, as time went by he wrote more and more furiously and extensively in his diaries, lost in a torrent of thought as he began to train the dialectical worldview which he had developed to understand the complex mix of his own soul and the ideological debates of Eastern Europe onto larger historical patterns. His thinking also became explicitly Messianic.
Thus in his reading, and in a move which astonished and enraged many of his Rabbinic peers, the rebelliousness of the pioneers was neither accidental, nor evil, but in fact nothing less than part of God's plan to restore to Judaism a vitality and universal spirit worn thin in centuries of exile. The young rebels against tradition in the name of Jewish nationalism and social justice were nothing less than the bearers of a new revelation.
In a major essay of 1912, Li-Mahalakh Ha-Ideiot be-Yisrael, (“The Progression of Ideals in Israel,”) he presented a philosophy of Jewish history structured along series of mirroring, theses and antitheses, whose collective synthesis is redemption: The vital, collective, bodily Judaism of the Bible followed by its antithesis, the subdued, individualized, spiritualized,Judaism of Exile, all to be synthesized in the fullness of redemption.
The Land of Israel was central to his reflections.
“The holiness within nature is the holiness of the Land of Israel, and the Shekhinah that went down into exile with Israel (BT Megillah 29a) is the ability to preserve holiness in opposition to nature. But the holiness that combats nature is not complete holiness, it must be absorbed in its higher essence to the higher holiness, which is the holiness in nature itself, which is the foundation of the restoration and tikun olam… And the holiness in exile will be joined to the holiness of the land, and the synagogues and batei midrash of Bavel will be reestablished in the Land of Israel.” (Ibid; and Shemonah Kevatzim 2: 326-327, Orot pp. 77-78).
Here and throughout he was reinterpreting a rich skein of Kabbalistic thought, in which the divine presence, the Shekhinah, as the Oral Torah, is Knesset Yisrael, the sacred community of Israel, and thus the Land, are all ultimately as one, constituting, as Sefirat Malkhut the very meeting point of God and the world. The “Ideals” under discussion in his 1912 essay were not only the Ideals of Western philosophy and the moral, spiritual and aesthetic ideas driving all human yearning, but also, and more deeply, the Sefirot, the nodal points of divine energy that in Kabbalistic teaching are the deep structure of all of Being, and, animated as it is with divine energy, its endless Becoming.
The outbreak of World War One caught Rav Kook in Germany, where he’d hoped to attend a rabbinic conference and mollify some of his peers’ fierce opposition to the Jewish national revival. He spent the war years in Switzerland and then England, in horrified witness to the great civilizational suicide.
The world crisis and slaughter were redeemed for him by the Balfour Declaration, which he took as electrifying confirmation of his messianic reading of world events. As always, the national was for him complemented by the universal, and in the midst of the war, in the pages of his diaries, he reached some of the farthest heights of his universalism:
“There is one who sings the song of his self, …And there is one who sings the song of the nation, who cleaves with gentle love to Knesset Yisrael as a whole, and sings her song with her, grieves for her sorrows and delights in her hopes…And there is one whose soul expands further beyond the bound of Israel, to sing the song of man…And there is one whose spirit expands and ascends even higher, to the point of unity with all creation, with all creatures and all worlds, and sings with them all…And there is one who ascends above all these songs in a single union, and all sound their voices…The song of the self, of the nation, of man, of the world – all come together within him at every time, in every hour. And this perfection in all its fullness ascends and becomes a sacred song, God's song, Israel's song…a simple song, doubled, tripled, fourfold, the Song of Songs of Shlomo (Cant. 1:1), (as the Midrash says) The King to Whom Peace, belongs.” (Midrash Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah, 3:1(6), Vilna ed.) (Shemonah Kevatzim, 7:112, Orot Ha-Kodesh, vol. 2, pp. 444-445).
On his return to Palestine be became, first, chief rabbi of Jerusalem, and in 1921, the co-founder, with his Sephardi colleague Yaacov Meir, of the Chief Rabbinate. What was for the British an extension of established colonial policy of delegating religious services and some legal jurisdiction to local religious authorities was for him an opening to institutions that would gradually reshape the law into a new Torah for a redeemed Eretz Yisrael. He hoped to create institutions that would move the historical progression forward, creating the halakha and institutions to guide the great changes to come.
The reality was more complicated. That which made him the obvious choice to head the Rabbinate and indispensable to the burgeoning project of building the Jewish national home – his mix of erudition and piety, his engagements with modern thought and culture, a deeply conciliatory personality and a theology and historical perspective to make that conciliation the basis of a new philosophy – his ability to square seemingly incommensurate circles, left him out of the political mix and unable to make headway on his most prized projects, the new Rabbinate and bringing the Zionist movement into deep dialogue with Judaism.
It all came to a head in 1933 with the murder of the general secretary of Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party, Chaim Arlosoroff. Suspicion fell on Jabotinsky’s Revisionists, who had been doing rhetorical and sometimes physical battle with Mapai over its willingness to negotiate Jewish immigration with Hitler, and several were arrested. Rav Kook himself had never affiliated with a party, or even formally joined the Zionist movement as such. But once convinced of the Revisionists’ innocence, Rav Kook threw himself and all his stature into their defense. The accused were exonerated, but his ties to the Left were irrevocably broken.
The ultra-Orthodox, for their part, throughout his Jerusalem years, saw him as their gravest foe and attacked him relentlessly, even while on his deathbed, and after.
The ensuing decades saw growing interest in Rav Kook’s teachings and their significance. The thousands of pages of his diaries were edited and published, in different series, by his disciple “ha-Rav ha-Nazir,” David Cohen (see here) and by Rav Kook’s son, Zvi Yehudah.
The latter eventually assumed the deanship of his father’s yeshiva, renamed Mercaz Ha-Rav, and in the late 1960s and early ‘70s became spiritual leader of the new vanguard of Religious Zionists.
When in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War of October 1973 religious Zionists decided to capture the flag and lay hold, not only of the hilltops of Judea and Samaria but of the Zionist movement as a whole, they were taking the religious language that Labor Zionism had made into a functional tool for a political program and re-infuse it with its classical religious meaning. And they did so, with the conceptual tools provided them by Zvi Yehudah, in his interpretation of his father.
The central question for Zvi Yehudah, his own successors, and for his and their critics within Religious Zionism, (most notably Rav Yehudah Amital) was what his father would have said, and how his ideas ought to be interpreted. It’s hard to think of another Jewish theologian whose legacy has been as consequential as AvrahamYitzhak ha-Kohen Kook.
Those arguments continue in present-day Israel, where new volumes by and about Rav Kook, academic, sectarian and popular, continue to be published at a dizzying pace year after year. The publication in recent years of his diaries in their original form has heightened interest in him, while showing the depth of his immersion in Kabbalah, and the depths he was plumbing in his own complicated soul. He simultaneously embraced both universalism and particularism with rare vehemence. He saw genuine revelation in the spiritual life of all peoples, and in the very body of Israel, whose unique collective vocation was the salvation of mankind. He affirmed both pragmatism and utopia, or in his terms, sagacity and prophecy. The common thread to this entire way of thinking is the dialectic, a principled appreciation of complexity, and the ways in which precisely that complexity, that coincidence of opposites, is that which gives birth, slowly, to whatever it is that we can know of truth.
The last day of his life was the third day of Elul, sixteen years to the day since his arrival, after the Great War, in Jerusalem. He had been ailing with cancer for months and gone to the then-suburb of Kiryat Moshe. In his last days he’d received a number of visitors, including a disciple of the Rebbe of Munkacs, come to query Rav Kook’s support for the Zionists, and the young rabbi and theologian, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who was visiting from America on what would be his only visit to the Land of Israel (see here). And, after asking his physician how long he had left to live, did his best to read through the Mishna, Bible and Bahya ibn Paquda’s eleventh-century classic, Duties of the Heart, one last time.
On the first day of Elul, the penitential month, Ha-Nazir had brought him the elegantly designed title page of the theological compendium he’d wrought out of the spiritual diaries, to be entitled, “Light of the Holy,” Orot Ha-Kodesh. Rav Kook wept and asked that on the title page he be referred to simply as “Rav” and nothing more. He was surrounded by treasured rabbinic colleagues – Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rav Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky, Rav Aryeh Levine – and Ha-Nazir stood in the courtyard downstairs, his face buried in a tree. At the very end, Rav Kook’s lips were moving. His disciple and soul-mate, Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlap leaned over him, and heard him say, “Even now, my hope in God doesn’t falter.”
Rav Kook turned his face to the wall as the attending physician rinsed the blood from his body, and once his visitors re-entered the room, he faced them all once again. They began to say the Shema together, and he joined them on the final word, “Echad / one.”