A tortured soul

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s efforts to reconcile religion and enlightenment, but his position on Halacha and state was alienating.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in Washington, DC, on the day of his White House visit, April 15, 1924 (photo credit: COURTESY YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS)
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in Washington, DC, on the day of his White House visit, April 15, 1924
Few souls have been tortured so famously and to such a powerful effect as that of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. In his short but comprehensive biography, Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, Yehuda Mirsky skillfully and majestically tells the tragic story of this moral and intellectual genius, who struggled – but failed – at the impossible task of reconciling an uncompromising commitment to an irrational Orthodox Judaism with modernity and enlightened ethics.
That Kook’s thought has been so widely misunderstood, and used to justify a potentially dangerous mix of irrational faith and politics, only compounds the tragedy.
Those Orthodox Jews who still hope to find a way to fuse Halacha with the running of a modern Jewish state will come away from Mirsky’s account of Kook’s life disappointed.
But perhaps Mirsky’s main contribution, whether intentional or not, is to show that such a fusion is an ultimately doomed and potentially dangerous endeavor.
Like many Orthodox spiritual leaders of his age, Kook was distraught over the mass defection of Eastern European Jewish youth from tradition. But unlike many of his rabbinic peers, Kook not only opened himself up to the experiences of modernity, he had the intellectual honesty to recognize that there might be something to what these freethinking young men and women were saying.
At the same time, Kook had an unshakable faith that the truth was to be found in Orthodox Judaism. To admit that the ideals of socialism, humanism and free scientific inquiry contained truth – a blasphemous thought for an Orthodox Jew – Kook was forced to construct an intricate theodicy. The goals of these rebellious youths might be utterly wrong and evil, Kook argued, but their spirit, filled as it was with noble ideas of righteousness, justice and knowledge, was exalted, great and awesome. “That which seems to make some people very bad Jews,” Mirsky writes, explaining Kook, “is precisely that which makes them perhaps the greatest Jews of all.” The goal, in Kook’s eyes, was to draw these youths back into the Orthodox fold together with their new ideas, and empower them with the Torah. But for this to happen, Judaism had to change. The exilic Torah of the Diaspora no longer suited “the generation of the footsteps of the Messiah.”
Unfortunately, Kook was unclear as to how to go about renewing the Torah. He was, for instance, very critical of the moderately traditionalist Tachkemoni school, set up to provide an alternative to the ultra-secular Gimnasia Herzliya. In 1913 Kook wrote disparagingly of Tachkemoni, saying it had “a little Torah, a little piety, a little enlightenment,” but lacked “a broad living spirit, sacred originality, that will beat with a strong heart on the spirit of national renaissance grounded in the sacred.”
But in the 1920s, when Kook managed to establish a yeshiva of his own, it is described by Mirsky as lacking both an organized curriculum and a coherent educational message. “We hear him, but understood nothing,” was the way one of Kook’s lectures was remembered by Haim Cohn, a man not lacking in intellect who later became an eminent – though agnostic – jurist of Israel’s Supreme Court. Another rabbi at Kook’s yeshiva who taught Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed was described by Cohn as speaking “in language as complicated and involved as Maimonides himself.”
For the young rebels whom Kook was most interested in influencing, Kook’s message was incoherent. Perhaps Kook’s most trenchant critic was Yosef Haim Brenner, who recognized the tempest in the rabbi’s soul. “Even the most scrupulously observant,” Brenner wrote, “even the closest to the path of faith, in the end, if he doesn’t want to be judged a totally zero, must on collision with free thought and sensual living, be tossed from thought to thought.”
But the young secular intellectual came away from his reading of Kook unimpressed.
Though Kook quoted from Western thought and literature, he did so as if to say “O generation, see, we also know about Spencer, Schopenhauer and Ibsen!” But Kook’s path of rebirth “is essentially a path to nowhere, the fruit of the mind of a foggy, metaphysical soul… Why all the verbiage, rabbi, why?” Nor was Kook particularly successful at making Jewish law more compatible with the running of a modern economy. The reactionary rabbinic leadership in Jerusalem completely rejected his ruling for the Sabbatical year of 1910 [5670 in the Jewish calendar] which allowed Jews to temporarily sell their land to non-Jews so that it could continue to be plowed, sown and worked. Even a seemingly innocuous innovation dealing with an arcane matter in Halacha, such as Kook’s ruling that sesame seed oil was kosher for Passover, met with staunch opposition. One wonders what would have happened if Kook had attempted to institute more far-reaching reforms in Judaism.
From a political perspective, Kook was shot through with contradictions, and he resolved them by resorting to an irrational, kabbalistic metaphysics of messianic redemption in which thesis and antithesis inexplicably synthesized.
He was, for instance, disgusted by the violent nationalism that led to the death of millions during World War I. He rightly appreciated that Jews were spared for nearly two millennia the moral burden of running a state of their own, which would inevitably have forced them to make the bloody Machiavellian calculations and moral compromises that characterized modern statesmanship.
Yet he ardently supported the Jews’ return to the Land of Israel, backed Jewish purchase of land and tried as best he could – including through his halachic leniencies in the Sabbatical year – to encourage the economic growth of the Yishuv.
He believed that unlike other nations, the Jewish people could – through their superior moral system, derived from the Torah and aided by a heavenly plan for redemption – somehow avoid the ethical pitfalls of using political and military force, and become a light unto the nations.“If, at any rate, Israel was to return to politics, it could not, he thought, be of the conventional kind,” Mirsky writes, “which he saw as the alienation to be overcome by the fusion of body and soul that is the Land of Israel.”
But how was this to happen? Kook never explained except in the most abstract, obtuse language that lent itself to potentially dangerous misinterpretations, stating that when the Jewish people adhered to Halacha they could do no evil, or that it was forbidden to cede any part of the Land of Israel – whether or not it made demographic, military or strategic sense.
In any event, this apotheosis of the future Jewish state made it completely unattainable.
And, as Mirsky notes, even Kook seems to have understood this, for he writes, “True, this highest bliss requires lengthy explication in order to raise its light in the days of darkness.
But that does not mean it will cease being the greater bliss.”
Kook had infinite faith in a teleological process orchestrated by God in which the Jewish people, by returning to their land and regaining sovereignty, played a central role in the redemption of all humanity.
It was precisely this irrational faith in the imminent arrival of a messianic era that would resolve all contradictions which helped make Kook politically ineffectual.
When the Arabs of Palestine, led by Jerusalem’s fascist mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, launched massacres against Jews – Zionist and non-Zionist – Kook’s reaction was identical to other rabbis past and present: he called for repentance. He did not actively support secular Zionist leadership’s gradual move from restraint to military activism.
In a glaring omission, Mirsky does not mention that Kook opposed the draft of Jews during the time he spent in London, as World War I raged. At the same time, Ze’ev Jabotinsky campaigned – and eventually succeeded – in convincing the pro-Zionist British government to create several Jewish brigades that saw action in Palestine.
In the end, his personal limitations, particularly as a politician and administrator, had little if anything to do with his failures.
Rather, the limitations were to found in his uncompromising position that adherence to Orthodox strictures could and must inform the establishment of a modern Jewish State. This stance pitted him against both secularists and the religious.
His understanding of Halacha convinced him, for instance, to oppose female suffrage in the 1919 elections for a national assembly that would govern the Yishuv, a stance which alienated him from secular Zionists and the Modern Orthodox Mizrahi. His intellectual openness and essentially positive approach to secular Zionism, meanwhile, aroused the ire of the reactionaries of Mea She’arim.
Kook refused to accept that there was an inherent contradiction between religion and enlightenment, between the lofty ideals of liberalism and the ethical imperative of Orthodox Judaism. He wrote, “Fear of God must not displace man’s natural morality, for such piety is impure. The sign of pure God-fearingness is when natural morality, implanted in man’s intrinsically just nature, goes and ascends at piety’s direction to greater heights than it would otherwise attain.”
But there are obvious problems with this statement. How does the biblical story of Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac – and many other biblical stories – fit in to Kook’s scheme? What would the women whose voting rights were denied them by Kook’s understanding of Halacha say about such God-fearingness? How does the halachic prohibition against desecrating the Shabbat to save a non- Jew’s life square with Kook’s concept of natural morality? (Saying that such desecration is permitted by Halacha because otherwise non-Jews would refuse to treat Jews ignores the underlying ethical problem.) Religion – Judaism included – can, and often does, make good people do bad things, including a man as great as Kook. That’s because it commands us to suspend our natural morality in the name of purportedly God-given ethics that cannot be questioned, no matter how much it offends our innate ethical sensibilities.
Examples abound, from Islam’s sanctioning of suicide bombings, female genital mutilation and honor killings to Catholicism’s prohibition against the use of condoms to prevent AIDS and its protection of pedophile priests, to Evangelical Christianity’s opposition to stem cell research and other scientific inquiry. Religion’s power is compounded when it is given political power to enforce its irrational dictates.
Kook’s infinite love for Judaism and the Jewish people either blinded him to the potential dangers of fusing Orthodoxy with nationalism and politics, or pushed him to invent ever more metaphysical – and incoherent – theological constructions. His son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who lacked the great rabbi’s intellect, flattened nuances and resolved contradictions along his own decidedly rightwing political leanings, debasing and overly simplifying his thought in the process.
Mirsky exposes readers to some of the intricacies and internal tensions of Kook’s thought, illustrating in the process the impossibility of applying his solipsistic formulations: The real world was too finite to contain all that Kook’s thought embraced.
Still, Kook has many legacies. All Jews can learn from his infinite love for the Torah and the Jewish people; from his openness to all ideas and intellectual currents; and from his intellectual honesty, which brought him to admit that the truth could be found outside the Torah.