Many Admirers, Few Disciples: The Life and Legacy of Rav Kook – By Samuel Thrope

Samuel Thrope on Yehudah Mirsky’s Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution

Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, Yale University Press
Yehudah Mirsky, Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, Yale University Press, 2014, 288pp., $25.00

In the fall of 1913, Avraham Yitzhak Kook, then serving as chief rabbi of Jaffa, set out on a journey north. Accompanied by other rabbis, Rav Kook, as he was commonly known, traveled to the new Zionist settlements along the coastal plain and in the fertile Galilee region of Ottoman-ruled Palestine. The rabbi’s goal was to teach and preach to the young socialists who had founded these small communities, part of a wave of Jewish immigration in the years leading up to the First World War that came to be known as the Second Aliyah. Between 1904 and 1914 some 20,000 Jews arrived in Palestine, mostly from the Russian empire.

These pioneers — as they were known — were fiery idealists, hoping to remake themselves, the land, and Jewish history through communal labor and cultural revolution. They were also vociferously anti-religious, having abandoned traditional, commandment-bound observance for the Zionist promise of a new Hebrew life, a fact that Rav Kook knew well. On kibbutz settlements like Deganya, Kinneret, and Ein Harod, kosher food was not to be found, and even (and especially) Yom Kippur went uncelebrated.

In his own way, Rav Kook was no less radical than the young pioneers. Unlike other representatives of traditional Judaism in Palestine, he did not dismiss the anti-religious Zionists as heretics and sinners. Rav Kook’s response to Zionism’s revolutionary, secular challenge to tradition — its claim to have wrested the mantle of Jewishness from Judaism — was to transform it into theology. Even as the pioneers sought to sacralize their secular undertaking, Rav Kook intended to re-appropriate Jewish nationalism as a religious movement springing from the deepest wells of the faith. The pioneers might have seen themselves as socialists and enlightened rebels; in Rav Kook’s admiring eyes they were unwitting saints. Through their active commitment to building Jewish life in the Holy Land they were unknowingly fulfilling a divinely ordained plan. Returning them to traditional piety would, the rabbi believed, strengthen their resolve and hasten the swiftly approaching messianic age.

As Yehudah Mirsky reveals in Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, this mission of religious revival did not succeed in the short term. A few communities — such as the small settlement of Poria, where the rabbi ecstatically danced all night around a campfire with the pioneers — received him warmly. Most others were far less welcoming, if not openly hostile. During his month away in 1913, Rav Kook convinced no one to return to Jewish religious practice. “Try as they might,” Mirsky writes, the rabbis “could not talk the young revolutionaries into embracing precisely what they had come to Palestine to reject.”

From the perspective of contemporary Israeli society, there is no small irony in Rav Kook’s failure in this and other attempts to turn his messianic and mystical notions into political reality. Israel today is, in many ways, a country that Rav Kook made. Since the 1967 Six Day War, the political power and cultural influence of those who look to the rabbi’s work for guidance and inspiration has continued to grow. While a large part of Israeli society still sees itself as the inheritors of the pioneer’s anti-religious socialism, messianic Jewish nationalists influence the political agenda, and fealty to blood and soil is seen more and more as having the preeminent imperative of divine command.

Of course, Rav Kook’s latter day followers go further than he himself ever did (or perhaps would have). His mystical visions and ecstasies are understood today through an interpretative lens crafted by his much more strident son, Zvi Yehuda Kook, by later disciples, and by events that Rav Kook could not have foreseen, like the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. His words and deeds are considered today as dicta and models for emulation, not as they really were: often improvised and contradictory attempts to work through the challenges of his own times.

Mystic in a Time of Revolution focuses on the intellectual roots of Rav Kook’s thought and writings in late nineteenth century Lithuainia and how his thought developed in the creative chaos and cultural experimentation that accompanied the Zionist settlement in Palestine. The result is a detailed introduction to Rav Kook’s life and work that charts the developments leading him to his radical theology and an intellectual biography in its truest sense: a story of the coming-to-be of a towering intellect and a turbulent soul. Mystic in a Time of Revolution will aid English-language readers unfamiliar with this profoundly influential rabbi to understand one of the founding figures of contemporary Israeli society.

What Mirsky leaves out of this telling, though, is a detailed, tactile sense of the world in which Rav Kook lived; the biography lacks all but the most essential references to social and political history. For example, we learn that Rav Kook spent all of World War I stranded in Europe, first in Switzerland and then, from 1916 to May 1919, in London, and Mirsky goes into great detail on Rav Kook’s thinking, writing, teaching, and correspondence during this time. But wartime London and Rav Kook’s new social environment there are only faintly sketched. Though Mirsky claims that Rav Kook became, upon his arrival, a leading figure in England’s observant Eastern European Jewish community, he includes almost no information on the character of this community, its history, how Rav Kook came to occupy his lofty social position, or even how many Orthodox Jews lived in the country at the time.

Mirsky’s choice to tell Rav Kook’s story in this way touches on larger questions of what biography can and should do. Is it primarily a historical and archival discipline aimed at chronicling the events of a life and the world in which they occurred, or an attempt to paint a portrait of a mind from the inside out? For some readers of Mystic in a Time of Revolution, the fact that Mirsky has chosen the second path will no doubt be frustrating. But to me it seems perfectly suited to a man who, as much as his aim was changing Jewish history, was most attentive at charting the movements of his own mind and soul.

In terms of understanding the origins of Rav Kook’s developing intellect, the best part of the biography in many ways is the opening chapter, which focuses on Rav Kook’s formative years in Eastern Europe, between his birth in Lithuania in 1865 and his move to Ottoman Palestine to take up the post of chief rabbi of Jaffa. Mirsky sets the young Avraham Yitzhak’s education and intellectual development in Eastern Europe against the background of the intellectual struggles between the rival camps that fractured the nineteenth-century Jewish religious world: mystical and pietistic Hasidim; their opponents, known as Mitnagdim, for whom study of the Babylonian Talmud was taken to be the highest form of devotion; and skeptical proponents of the Jewish enlightenment known as maskilim. As Mirsky observes, though, Avraham Yitzhak’s own background indicates that these divisions were never as clear as they appeared retrospectively. His mother was from a long Hasidic line while his father, a devoted Talmudist, was not; an uncle, whose humanistic library he devoured, was a convinced maskil. His teachers and fellow students — who comprise a veritable who’s who of the leading intellectual lights of Eastern European Judaism — included Mitnagdim, Hasidim, and maskilim, as well as those who blurred the categories between these groups. His own writings are in dialogue with many streams of thought prevalent at the time

Rav Kook left for Jaffa in 1904 and spent ten years as chief rabbi of the city that was at the center of the new Zionist settlement in Palestine. During this time he published frequently on Jewish nationalism and other topics and conducted a lively correspondence with the Zionist movement’s leading Jewish writers, including Eliezer Ben Yehuda, leading proponent of the effort to revive the Hebrew language; Shai Agnon, later awarded the Nobel Prize in literature; and Yosef Haim Brenner, a gifted writer murdered during the ethnic fighting between Jews and Arabs in 1929. But the post’s administrative duties drained his energies. Rav Kook was often caught between the demands of the Orthodox Jewish leadership of which he was a part — and who opposed the Zionism as a destruction of and rebellion against tradition and their own authority — and his support for the Zionist radicals. More often than not, in seeking a middle ground, he was rejected by both sides.

In 1914 Rav Kook and his wife left for what they intended to be a short vacation in Germany. Sailing in the last week of July, however, they were soon stranded in Europe by the outbreak of World War I. The couple would spend the next five years in Switzerland and London before Rav Kook was invited back to Palestine to serve as Chief rabbi of Jerusalem and then, in 1921, as the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine.

While the bulk of Mystic in a Time of Revolution is devoted to this period of the rabbi’s life, Mirsky’s focus is not Rav Kook’s public career as much as the private space of his spiritual journals. These notebooks, first published in their entirety in 1999 as Shmoneh Kevatzim, the Eight Notebooks, reveal Rav Kook to be a passionate, stormy soul, often transported to heights of mystical ecstasy through contemplation of God’s immanence, even in seeming anarchy and sin, and convinced of his own special sainthood. Many of the texts for which Rav Kook is now best known were culled and edited from these journals by his disciples. The raw material, which Mirsky translates and elucidates at length, is filled with startling insights into the nature and world-historical role of Jewish peoplehood as well as upsetting apocalyptic visions. “When there is a great war in the world the energy of the Messiah wakes,” Rav Kook writes of the outbreak of World War I, “and the greater the war, in quantity and quality, the greater the anticipation of the messianic steps it bears.”

Rav Kook’s intellectual and mystical achievements were accompanied by a startling lack of political savvy; the failed 1913 mission to the kibbutzim is not an isolated example. Despite his appointment as Chief Rabbi, Rav Kook was never able to capitalize on his public standing to found an institution — a movement, a party, or an office — that would carry forward his particular blend of religious observance and Zionist fervor. Mirsky portrays Rav Kook, rightly, as a messianic, a mystic, a prolific Hebrew writer, and a towering intellect, but a poor organizer. Stuck between mostly hostile ultra-orthodox rabbis on one side, and mostly uninterested secular Zionists on the other, he was left at the end of his life in 1935 with many admirers, particularly among the Hebrew intelligentsia, but few disciples. His one lasting institution, the Merkaz Harav yeshiva, where his small group of disciples gathered and taught, was a far cry from the grand and innovative yeshiva university that Rav Kook had first envisioned. His cultural impact on the robustly secular Israeli society that emerged with the state’s founding in 1948, more than a decade after his death, was negligible at best.

Reading Mystic in a Time of Revolution, especially in light of the rabbi’s practical failures, one would be surprised to discover how profound Rav Kook’s cultural, religious, and political influence is today. The major drawback of the book is that Mirsky does not devote the same attention to Rav Kook’s posthumous legacy as he does to his intellectual formation. Understandable as this approach is — the book is a biography, after all, not a necrology — it leaves out what is in many ways the most interesting aspect of Rav Kook’s story.

Kook in 1924. Image via Library of Congress.
Kook in 1924. Image via Library of Congress.

Rav Kook’s renaissance, and that of the Jewish messianic nationalism that he espoused, came in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War. In the euphoria that swept the country after Israeli forces captured the biblical heartland of the West Bank, as well as the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights, Zvi Yehuda Kook’s students at Merkaz Harav were among the first to settle in the newly occupied territories. It was only after the near debacle in the 1973 Yom Kippur war that these new settlers and former yeshiva students formed the core of a movement known as the Bloc of the Faithful, in Hebrew Gush Emunim. Mirsky mentions this group in passing in the book’s final chapter, and characterizes their ideology as “a mind-blending mixture of religious fervor, Rav Kook’s messianism, the classic Zionist can-do ethos, and the romance of a revolutionary avant-garde.”

This description rather downplays the group’s influence and ideology. Gideon Aran argues persuasively in his 2013 Hebrew volume Kookism: The Roots of Gush Emunim, Jewish Settlers’ Sub-Culture, Zionist Theology, Contemporary Messianism that Gush Emunim was deeply rooted in and revolutionized Rav Kook’s teachings. According to Aran’s argument, the movement looked to Rav Kook’s teaching as a prophecy depicting their ultimate triumph and as the ideological core of their muscular and dynamic religious Zionism, and to his life as a model for action. Just as important is the fact that Gush Emunim made Rav Kook’s contemporary Israeli reputation. In the wake of Gush Emunim’s self-identification as the true bearers Rav Kook’s legacy, he writes “came the public identification between Rav Kook and Gush Emunim, and with the rise of the movement the rabbi became known as accepted. As soon as Gush Emunim conquered the headlines, Rav Kook became ‘popular’ and ‘relevant.’”

Aran’s argument, based on extensive fieldwork spent in the company of Gush Emunim’s founders, is compelling, though further social and political explanations for the rise of the religious settler movement can of course be sought elsewhere. Be that as it may, Mirsky’s lack of serious engagement with Rav Kook’s ideological children deserves attention. One might wonder whether this elision comes from a desire on the author’s part to refrain from sullying the great rabbi’s reputation by associating him too closely with this contentious and often violent movement. It could also be, of course, that Mirsky justifiably wanted to tell the story of the rabbi’s life on its own terms.

However, if this is book is really the biography of Rav Kook’s exceptional mind, the story of the development and influence of that mind does not end with his death. His ideas received their most concrete form, and became most influential only long after he was gone. As Mirsky’s book describes, Rav Kook was a mystical, transgressive, radical and revolutionary figure during his life. But it is only by considering his afterlife, the crucial part of the story that Mystic in a Time of Revolution leaves out, that we can understand why he is still relevant today.