Sparkling ideas

A new volume discusses Rabbi Kook’s thoughts on Shabbat and the holidays – including the Zionist festivals established after his death.

Rabbi blowing shofar 520 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Rabbi blowing shofar 520
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935), the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, was much more than a communal leader. He has long been recognized as one of the most significant Jewish thinkers of the modern era, one who combined vast erudition in all areas of Torah scholarship with a firm basis in general philosophy and a keen awareness of the upheavals of modernity.
Undoubtedly the greatest influence on contemporary Israeli religious Zionism, Kook’s difficult writings span the gamut of rabbinic genres – Jewish law and philosophy, commentary and novellas.
His great corpus, still being published and often difficult even for the native Hebrew reader, has been until recently completely off-limits to the English-speaking audience. Among the recent contributions to the field of Kook’s writings in English was Rabbi Chanan Morrison’s collection, Gold from the Land of Israel (Urim 2006), in which he masterfully adapted Kook’s sermons on the weekly Torah reading, culling material from a wide variety of his Hebrew works.
Morrison, who studied in the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, founded by Kook in 1924, and who edits a popular online edition of his homilies, has now offered the reader a companion volume, Silver from the Land of Israel, which deals with Kook’s thought regarding Shabbat and the holidays, including not only biblical holidays such as Rosh Hashana and Pessah, but also the modern festivals of Yom Ha’atzmaut and Jerusalem Day, celebrations that were begun, of course, after Kook’s death, but which he in a sense anticipated in his writings.
Morrison’s methodology in both volumes is not to translate directly from the writings of “Harav,” as Kook is often referred to by Israelis, but rather to freely adapt the raw material, often a blend of several sources, into a new unified whole, to best present the often complex ideas in a clear and flowing manner.
What I found particularly important in this attempt to present Kook’s thinking to a wide audience of English readers, many of whom may be unfamiliar with his philosophy, is that Morrison, through the genre of the sermon, has managed to capture many of the seminal ideas of Kook’s unique worldview and to incorporate them into his essays. Thus the reader receives much more than a beautiful thought regarding a given holiday; he is also privileged to come away from this work with a fine exposition of some of the corner points of Kook’s philosophy, and this in and of itself is no small feat.
On the other hand, a reader such as myself, who is familiar with the basics of Kook’s approach, gains from the application of his generally highly theoretical constructs to the more downto- earth framework of the various festivals.
At this point some examples are in order.
In the Rosh Hashana essay “Unity and Repentance,” we are introduced to the dangers of viewing the Jewish people through the polarizing prism of “religious” and “secular” camps. Part of the process of repentance is to desist from categorizing and judging others and to realize that no “group” is perfect and that each has much that it can learn from the others. This is a theme that reappears in several homilies, each time in the context of a particular holiday and with its own unique twist.
Another Rosh Hashana essay, “Awakening the Mind and Heart,” analyzes the different types of shofar blasts, interpreting them as hints at “intellectual” and “emotional” repentance, and the proper balance between the two; in doing so a major issue of divine service is addressed in a unique way. The reader benefits both from the analysis of this issue as is relevant on an ongoing basis, and its application to the particular mitzva of blowing the shofar, thus invigorating one’s Rosh Hashana experience and infusing it with new meaning.
“Zionist” themes are also found in a number of the sermons, including one for Succot, “Our Protective Fortress, in which the booths of that holiday are compared with the Land of Israel,” and of course in those for Independence Day and Jerusalem Day. The sometimes tense interrelationship between the individual and the collective is addressed in the Pessah homily, “Special Passover Offering.”
The dialectical relationship between universalism and particularism, as well as the adjunct issue of secular wisdom in the context of Torah scholarship, also finds expression in a number of essays, including “The Hellenist Challenge for Hanukka,” as well as Purim’s “The Assault of Amalek.”
The importance of art, literature and romance for the religious personality is discussed in Shir Hashirim – the Song of Songs, a sermon for Pessah.
It is in just these kinds of issues that the uniqueness of Kook’s thought stands out; it is simultaneously firmly rooted in tradition and a new and refreshing rereading of that tradition in light of the situation of modernity in all of its manifestations.
Morrison is also careful to season all of the above with a good number of delightful stories and anecdotes regarding Kook.
These stories do more than simply make for a good read; they provide a personal dimension to the sermons, and make them come alive as the reader catches a glimpse of the fascinating person behind the ideas.
Morrison also does a good job of placing some of the essays in historical context, and we begin to understand the mood of the Jewish people at certain key points of the 20th century, including the aliyot to Israel, World War I and the Balfour Declaration, in which Kook (stranded in London due to the war) played a key role. The tensions between the Jewish community in Palestine and the British and Arabs, as well as tensions within the Jewish community, also clearly form a backdrop to Kook’s thoughts and words.
All in all, Silver from the Land of Israel is both a delightfully inspiring book of ideas regarding Shabbat and the holidays, and a wonderful introduction to the spellbinding and unique world of Kook, one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of our times.
The writer is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shirat Shlomo in Efrat. He holds a PhD in Jewish philosophy and is the author of Redemptions: Contemporary Chassidic Essays on the Parsha and the Festivals.