The Universalism of Rav Kook
by Bezalel Naor
Copyright © 2018 Bezalel Naor
Stereotypes are difficult to overcome. Until recently, the stereotype of Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook (1865-1935) was of a nationalist (perhaps even ultranationalist) who lent his rabbinic aegis to the Zionist enterprise in the first third of the twentieth century.
In his seminal work Orot [Lights] (Jerusalem, 1920), the very first section of the book is entitled “Erets Yisrael.” The punchline of the first chapter reads:
The expectation of salvation (tsefiyat ha-yeshu‘ah) is the force that preserves exilic Judaism; the Judaism of the Land of Israel is salvation itself (ha-yeshu‘ah ‘atsmah).
Thus, Rav Kook placed Israel’s return to its ancestral homeland front and center, and provided it with theological underpinnings sorely lacking in the secular Zionist movement.
In this respect, Rav Kook’s bold initiative, courageous and outspoken, at times alienated him from his more conservative-minded rabbinic peers. The Gerrer Rebbe, Avraham Mordechai Alter (1866-1948), wrote in a much publicized letter:
The Rav, the Gaon R. Avraham Kook, may he live, is a man of many-sided talents in Torah, and noble traits. Also, it is public knowledge that he loathes money. However, his love for Zion surpasses all limit and he “declares the impure pure and adduces proof to it.”…From this, came the strange things in his books.
With the passage of time and the publication of many hitherto suppressed manuscripts, we become increasingly aware of another facet to the extremely complex personality of Rav Kook: the cosmopolitan or universalist. Rav Kook’s passionate love for his land and his nation of Israel, in no way vitiated the larger scope of his Messianic or utopian vision. Such an illuminating manuscript is that designated Pinkas 5, published this year of 2018 by Boaz Ofen in volume 3 of his ongoing series Kevatsim mi-Khetav Yad Kodsho [Journals from Manuscript]. The Pinkas has been dated by the Editor to the years 1907-1913, during which time Rav Kook served as Rabbi of Jaffa.
In the following pensée (perhaps essay is the better word), Rav Kook argues that just as the “seventy nations” of the world form an organic unity, the proverbial “family of man,” so too the various faith communities or religions complement one another in a parallel organic unity.
Though Rav Kook probably never heard of the mythic bird Simorgh—who figures prominently in the twelfth-century work The Conference of the Birds by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar—Rav Kook’s imagery is roughly reminiscent. In that allegorical tale, the birds of the world set out to find a leader. It has been suggested to them that they appoint as their king the legendary Simorgh. To reach the remote mountain abode of the Simorgh, the birds must embark on a perilous journey. Most of the birds succumb to the elements along the way. At journey’s end, there remain but thirty birds. They discover that they themselves, together, form the sought Simorgh. In Persian, “Simorgh” means “thirty birds” (si-morgh).
Lest the reader mistakenly surmise that Rav Kook suggests that the faith of Israel will in some way be subordinated to a higher unity, Rav Kook’s bottom line reads:
And with this, automatically the horn of Israel must be uplifted.
“Bow down to Him, all gods” [Psalms 97:7].
The aspiration to bring peace to the world, has always been the aspiration of Israel. This is the interior of the soul of Knesset Israel (Ecclesia Israel), which was given full expression by the chosen of her children, the Prophets who foresaw at the End of Days humanity’s happiness and world peace.
However, light advances slowly. The strides made are not discernible because divine patience is great, and that which appears in the eyes of flesh insignificant—is truly exalted from the vantage of the supernal eye. “In the place of its greatness, there you find its humility.” Even in the worst life; the hardest, lowest, most sinful life—there is abundant light and sufficient place for the divine love to appear. That life need not be erased from existence, but rather uplifted to a higher niveau. There is no vacuum, no empty space; every level needs to be filled.
Truly world peace, in the material sense, comes into our vision. The nationalism that ruled supreme during the days of “barbarism,” when each nation perceived a foreign nation as uncivilized, [and held] that all man’s obligations to man are cancelled in regard to the “barbarians”—this evil notion is being erased. On the other hand, with the passing of generations, the intellect, the light of fairness, and the necessity of life—the windows through which the divine light wends its way—all together impress the stamp of universal peace upon the national character. Gradually, there arrives the recognition that humanity’s division into nations, does not pit them against one another, such that nations cannot dwell together on the planet Earth. Rather, their relation is organic—just as individuals relate to the nation, and the limbs to the body. This notion, when completely manifest, shall renew the face of the world, purifying hearts of their wickedness and uplifting souls.
However, the relation of nations—their pacification—must correspond to the relation of religions. A complete nationalism is not possible without correlate feelings of holiness. Those sentiments—whether few or many—change opinions; those sentiments are sensitive to the variables of geography and history.
Peace between nations cannot come about by minimizing the value of nationalism. On the contrary, people of good will recognize that just as the feeling for family is respectable and pleasant, holy and pure, and were it to be lost from the world, humanity would lose with it a great treasure of happiness and holiness—so the loss of the “national family” [i.e. nationalism] and all the sentiments and delicate ideas bound to it, would leave in its place a destruction that would bring to the collective soul a frustration much more painful than all the pains that it suffered on account of the demarcation of nationalism.
Humanity must receive the good and reject the evil. The force of repulsion and the force of attraction together build the material world; and the cosmopolitan and national forces together build the palace of humanity and its world of good fortune.
As it is in regard to nationalism, so it is in regard to religions. It is not the removal of religion—that will bring bliss, but rather the religious perceptions eventually relating to one another in a bond of friendship. (With the removal of religion there would pass from the world a great treasure of strength and life; inestimable treasures of good.) Every thought of enmity, of opposition, of destruction, will dissipate and disappear. There will remain in the religions only the higher, inner, universal purpose, full of holy light and true peace, a treasure of light and eternal life. The religions will recognize each other as brothers; [will recognize] how each serves its purpose within its boundary, and does what it must do in its circle. The relation of one religion to another will be organic. This realization automatically brings about (and is brought about by) the higher realization of the unity of the light of Ein Sof [the Infinite], that manifests upon and through all. And with this, automatically the horn of Israel must be uplifted.
“Bow down to Him, all gods” [Psalms 97:7].
(Kevatsim mi-Khetav Yad Kodsho, ed. Boaz Ofen, vol. 3 [Jerusalem, 2018], Pinkas 5, par. 43 [pp. 96-97])
 A play upon the saying of Rabbi Yoḥanan in b. Megillah 31a: “Wherever you find the strength of the Holy One, blessed be He, you find His humility.”
 Based on the saying attributed to Aristotle: “Nature abhors a vacuum.”
 Rav Kook explains the meaning of the original Greek word “barbaros” (βάρβαρος).
 Cf. this passage in ‘Arpilei Tohar:
Messiah will interpret the Torah of Moses, by revealing in the world how all the peoples and divisions of mankind derive their spiritual nourishment from the one fundamental source, while the content conforms to the spirit of each nation according to its history and all its distinctive features, be they temperamental or climatological; [according to] all the economic vagaries and the variables of psychology—so that the wealth of specificity lacks for nothing. Nevertheless, all will bond together and derive nourishment from one source, with a supernal friendship and a strong inner assurance.
“‘The Lord will give a saying; the heralds are a great host’ [Psalms 68:12]—Every word that emitted from the divine mouth divided into seventy languages” (b. Shabbat 88b).
(‘Arpilei Tohar [Jerusalem, 1983], pp. 62-63)
‘Arpilei Tohar was first printed in Jerusalem in 1914, before the outbreak of World War One. For various reasons that we need not go into now, that edition remained unbound and uncirculated. Random copies found their way into private collections. In 1983, ‘Arpilei Tohar was reprinted in a slightly censored fashion. The complete contents of ‘Arpilei Tohar are now available in the unexpurgated collection, Shemonah Kevatsim, where it is designated “Kovets 2.” This particular passage occurs in Shemonah Kevatsim (Jerusalem, 2004), 2:177.
 Rav Kook likens nationalism and cosmopolitanism to the repulsive and attractive forces of a magnet.