Rav Kook on Jewish Politics

Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook declared that “The State of Israel is divine.”  The son of the great Religious Zionist thinker and activist Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Zvi Yehudah lived to see the birth of the State of Israel and the miracle of the Six-Day War, unlike his father who did not live to see the creation of the state. Aviezer Ravitzky, in his study of Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism, quotes Rabbi Zvi Yehudah as stating that “The intrinsic value of the state does not depend on whether it has a greater or smaller number of religious people. Naturally we look forward to the time when the whole nation will ‘belong’ to the Torah and the commandments, but the state is holy in any case.” For Zvi Yehudah, all the institutions of the Jewish State, including the IDF and the Knesset, were intrinsically holy since they represented the beginning of the fulfillment of the messianic advent that his father had envisioned in his revolutionary understanding of the birth of Zionism and the return of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael. The state was a harbinger of the coming of the Messiah. It was not a secular phenomenon but invested with the greatest holiness.

Yet, there is a need to take a closer look at Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s understanding of Zionism and the beginnings of the flowering of redemption. Did Rav Kook envision the politics of a Jewish State as the fulfillment of messianic yearnings? Can a straight line be drawn from Rav Kook’s Religious Zionist vision to his son’s belief that the modern State of Israel is holy and the start of the fulfillment of the messianic advent?

In his study of the intellectual origins of Zionism, Shlomo Avineri paints a more ambiguous picture of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s relationship to politics. While there is no doubt whatsoever that Rav Kook supported the Zionist movement and the return of the Jewish people from the Exile to the Land of Israel, viewing it as the fulfillment of God’s messianic promise, it is not at all clear how he understood politics in this messianic process. Avineri argues that “Rabbi Kook’s redemptive vision requires, therefore, also a global transformation of the world of politics. Hence accompanied by his advocacy of the rebuilding of a Jewish Palestine, there always remains a skepticism about the desirability of the Jews gaining political power so long as the world is not redeemed.” In the words of Rav Kook himself: “It is not fitting for Jacob to engage in political life at a time when statehood requires bloody ruthlessness and demands a talent for evil.” The State of Israel has not descended into the evil and ruthlessness that Rav Kook feared. In fact, the opposite is true. Israel, despite repeated condemnations by the UN, strives to uphold human rights and curb the destruction of civilians in wars in a very dangerous neighborhood. Yet, corruption in politics and government remains a pervasive crisis in Israel and throughout the world

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook envisioned a redemptive transformation of the world that would lift Jews above the corruption of politics. The creation of a modern state—no different from any other modern state in the world—would subvert holiness. This is a very different vision from Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook’s vision that the State of Israel is holy. And, in fact, the elder Kook’s warning regarding the corruption of politics resonates today in the State of Israel and in the world. Politics is necessary but can be very dirty. Perhaps had Rav Kook lived to see the creation of the State of Israel he would have followed the lead of his son and relaxed his censure of politics. But Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s suspicion that politics as usual would undermine redemption remains a relevant message and reminds us that we can strive for infusing into political life a sense of holiness and dignity.