Yehudah Mirsky, Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014)
This volume offers a brief, accessible presentation of the life, teachings, and legacy of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, a colossal figure little known in the English-speaking world. It also tries to fill the crying scholarly need for a one-volume study in English to go alongside the vast and growing body of literature on him in Hebrew. It is addressed to readers new to the man, the period, and his teachings, as well as to those already familiar with them. This attempt to create a fellowship of readers from disparate communities is more than fitting for a book about a man who tried to do the same on a vastly more consequential scale. The Seforim Blog is happy to present the following excerpt. It is taken from chapter three, which surveys Rav Kook’s spiritual diaries, and in particular the volumes known as Shemonah Kevatzim, from which his son, Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook, his disciple Rav David Cohen Ha-Nazir, and others, culled and edited his canonical theological works.
The third notebook in this series begins with an arresting analysis of contemporary Jewish life. Three forces, he writes, wrestle within all people: “The holy, the nation, humanity.” Modernity has whirled these three central dimensions of Jewish identity away from one another, each becoming the property of a party--nationalism, liberalism, and Orthodoxy, respectively--and they stubbornly refuse to be rejoined, because each fixates on the negative dimensions of the others. Yet all three dimensions are necessary, and each should appreciate seemingly bad sides of the others, as well as their good sides. Ideally, liberals will grasp that the narrowness of nationalism comes from real love of one’s community, and the zealousness of the Orthodox is rooted in a flaming desire for God. Liberals and the Orthodox will see that nationalists’ placing solidarity above broader aspirations for universal ethics or transcendence arises from powerful, loving attachments to people and fellow feeling. Nationalists and the Orthodox in turn will see that liberals’ preference for humanity over nationalism or religion is rooted in an ultimately divine perspective. The sacred, then, is the energy that synthesizes all three elements--religious commitment, national identity, and ethical universalism--and a relationship to the All that lies beyond, before, and within them.
For Rav Kook, Orthodoxy has the inside track to holiness, yet liberalism and nationalism are its ontological equals on that journey. And he urged people to live a complex gesture, to be actively tolerant while taking a genuine stand on behalf of the ideals in which they truly believe, fighting for them in the here and now. His political credo was something along these lines: I should always recognize not only that All the while, they should recognize not only that my opponent is human, but also that he has a piece of the truth that is unavailable to me. Secure in the rightness of my calling and in the inevitable partiality of my vision, I proceed with faith in the struggle itself and its ultimate, harmonious resolution. These ideas were not the fruit of theory, but were the harvest of his very real struggles with others and with himself.
Different lifeworlds course through Rav Kook’s journals: fidelity, rebellion, scholasticism, folk piety, romantic nationalism, ethical universalism, mystical experience, halakhic discipline, surging antinomianism, the exertions of intellect, and the passionate religion of the heart. These he saw as his own defining contradictions and those of his people, of all people and times, manifestations of the immanent divine light hidden in all the varied, jagged dimensions of existence, struggling to join with the light of transcendence and be revealed:
All the thoughts and ideas, the great desires, the awesome trials, that every tzaddik endures in his private self, the nation as a whole endures as well, and more broadly man in general, and more broadly the world, and all the worlds.. . to the extent that he stands fast…becomes equal to the spirit of all worlds, and from his interiority takes in all, and the light comes to him from his darknesses so that he can truly survey the world from one end to the other, each one at his level, then he will see the greatness of God in strength and joy, and the path of the tzaddikim is like radiant light, ever brightening to the day [Proverbs 4:18].
The all-encompassing vision with which he tried to find the light in everything and, in so doing, to square a seemingly endless number of circles regularly left him on a knife-edge between despair and exhilaration, quickened by introspection into his own inadequacies. His critique and rewriting of traditional religious categories, especially repentance, extended to this inner work as well.
One who grieves constantly for his sins and the sins of the world must constantly forgive and absolve himself and the whole world; and in so doing draw forgiveness and a light of loving-kindness onto all of being, and bring joy to God and to His creatures. He must first forgive himself, and afterward cast a broad forgiveness over all, the nearest to him first, on the branches of the roots of the soul, and on his family, his loved ones, his generation, and his world, and all worlds . . . And thus is revealed all the good that is hidden away in everything, and he attains the blessing of Abraham, since there is no generation in which his likeness does not emerge.
His grief for his sins, as part of a world of sins, offers a paradoxical point of entry into the only thing that can offer relief--forgiveness. Not an abstract forgiveness, but acceptance of oneself, one’s family and friends, world, time, and all times. He is, in this passage, undergoing a theurgic process, of human influence on the divine, and by mimesis in reverse, a human simulacrum of God’s forgiveness, a great exhalation of forgiveness down below that brings about forgiveness from above--because it is itself the revelation of God’s forgiveness, the grace of seeing God’s light in all things. Sinfulness, then, is that which blocks the soul’s natural ascent. Sin is an opacity thrust into a shaft of light.