Though he died in 1935, Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook) still towers in contemporary Israeli politics and Jewish spirituality; neither can properly be understood without him. His controversial life and the colossal body of writing he left behind offer powerful lessons and pose difficult questions. The contradictions of his life and thought are in many ways the defining contradictions of modern Jewish history. The dream of synthesis on which he staked his life—today as elusive as in his time—still, for many, endures.
Rav Kook is today best known in the West—if at all—as the founding chief rabbi of modern Israel and the spiritual god-father of Religious Zionism. Yet these superlative biographical facts are in many ways the least interesting things about him. Rabbi, philosopher, Talmudist, communal leader, poet, mystic, and tzaddik, Rav Kook resists easy categorization. The endless play of light and shadow in his mind, at times fevered, at others serene, recasts the conventional ideas of his time in new and complicated patterns.
Born in 1865, Rav Kook lived through religious, political, and social revolutions in a wide variety of settings, all roiled in extraordinary ferment and uncertainty. He witnessed the throes of Rabbinic Judaism in the last decades of the Russian empire, the new settlements of early twentieth-century Palestine, the Europe of World War I, and interwar Jerusalem. He engaged with the leading political, cultural, and religious figures of the time and became one of them. All these historic changes and human encounters registered on him with unnerving intensity. In his extraordinary lyric vision, fueled by the Kabbalah, Western philosophy, the rise of nationalism, and socialist universalism, the secular idealism of the early Zionists became fused into a great surge of human history toward its final resting place in God. To a disciple who asked for a summation of his philosophy, he replied that everything—humanity, the world, the divine itself—is rising.
His life was riddled with contradiction. The greatest theologian of Religious Zionism, he never joined the Zionist movement; a man who lived a life of the strictest ultra-Orthodox observance, he welcomed heresy as a cleansing bonfire whose embers would yield a new revelation. On the same day he might compose erudite and detailed legal opinions, reams of official correspondence, and shimmering mystical visions. In his writings, sometimes on the same page, one finds examples of penetrating philosophical and human insight alongside evidence of striking political and social naiveté. An ethical universalist who saw socialism and even vegetarianism as vibrant and revelatory stages in the moral redemption of humankind, Rav Kook imputed to the physical reality of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel an essential sacredness that is shocking and at times disturbing. He was a deeply dialectical thinker whose contradictions, and the attempts to resolve them, have fueled generations of political and spiritual struggles down to the present day. His writings have fired the settler movement, which has reshaped Israeli politics, and have inspired the settlers’ critics on the religious left. The messianic zeal of many settlers and their worship of the land are grounded in their reading of his teachings, as is the ethical and universalizing reach of their more moderate counterparts. The rabbinic institutions he created in an effort to unite the Jewish people and introduce reforms into Jewish law have become strongholds of Orthodox chauvinism and religious reaction in Israeli society today.
At the same time, he is central to the neo-mystic revivals of the twentieth century and today. His celebrations of religious experience and social justice, of art and aesthetics, all from within the deepest recesses of Rabbinic Judaism, thrill new generations seeking validation for their spiritual dissatisfaction, and redemption not from without, but from within. In Israel today, Rav Kook’s writings are more widely read than ever, with new volumes by and about him appearing every year.
From Rav Kook by Yehudah Mirsky. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.
Yehudah Mirsky is Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.