Dialectical Spirit

Before his burial, while his body was still lying in state on the grounds of the Knesset—before his family even had the chance to begin mourning—the late Ariel Sharon was being vilified, not only in the Arab street, as a butcher and war criminal, but by some Israeli rabbis and parliamentarians, as a treacherous turncoat. Rabbi Baruch Marzel wrote that Sharon “will be inscribed for eternal damnation in the Book of Traitors to the Jewish people.” Orit Struk, a Knesset member from the Religious Zionist party, Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi (Jewish Home), went so far as to proclaim that Sharon’s 2006 stroke had been a “blessing,” Religious Zionist yeshiva students in Yad Binyamin mounted posters that read “Heartfelt Mazal Tov to Ariel Sharon on the Occasion of His Death,” and so forth.

One of the sickening ironies of this is that such sentiments came from ultra-nationalist Orthodox Zionists, commonly referred to in Israel as “chardalim” (an acronym for haredim dati’im leumi’im and a play on the Hebrew word for mustard), who claim discipleship of the saintly Rabbi Abraham Isaac ha-Cohen Kook. Kook was born in the Russian Pale of Settlement in what is now modern-day Latvia in 1865 and died in Jerusalem in 1935. He was the first chief rabbi of modern Israel and an irenic mystic who never once spoke ill of his religious and political adversaries, of which he had many who publicly defamed him for decades.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook
Rabbi Abraham Kook, center, at Yeshiva D’Montreal during a visit to the United States and Canada, 1924.

As Yehudah Mirsky documents in his luminous, learned, and uncannily timely new biography, even after Kook was burned in effigy by the youth of Agudath Israel on Purim 1932, denounced by his ultra-Orthodox rabbinical opponents as a demon, and defamed on billboards in Jerusalem that depicted him as “Oto ha-Ish [the rabbinic euphemism for Jesus], the min [sectarian, or heretic], hypocritical, flattering, like a pig rummaging in trash and raising a stink,” he remained magnanimous. As Mirsky writes, Kook “not only never responded in kind, but instead did favors, wrote letters of recommendation and fund-raising appeals, and arranged favors and benefits, for even some of his bitterest foes.”

Which is not to say that Rav Kook refrained entirely from expressing his disapproval of the Old World and Old Yishuv rabbis. One early and particularly stunning reproach documented by Mirsky earned him not only these anti-Zionist rabbis’ deep disdain; it led to the banning and public burning of the remarkable 1920 book Orot (Lights) in which it is found. In the course of praising the spirit of the young, Zionist pioneers of the New Yishuv, Kook had written:

The exercises with which young Jews in the Land of Israel strengthen their bodies so that they may be vigorous sons of the nation betters the spiritual strength of the heavenly tzaddikim … This sacred service [of exercise] elevates the divine spirit higher and higher… ”

There followed a torrent of what Mirsky terms “frontal attacks” on Rav Kook, including the accusation that he was a demonic sorcerer. His rabbinical enemies proclaimed, “We are at war with A.Y. Kook!” True to his character, Kook never responded to their call to arms.

So, Rav Kook’s self-proclaimed contemporary disciples clearly have not inherited his generosity of spirit, but what of their mystical-messianic interpretation of Israeli political and military history? This ideology was powerfully articulated by Rav Kook’s son, the late Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook, particularly after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and it led his followers to hail Sharon as “the father of the settlements” and later, after the disengagement from Gaza, to damn him as one who had rejected God and his Messiah. The decision to disengage from Gaza was, in their starry eyes, immeasurably worse than an act of political sabotage; in reversing course Sharon was throttling the course of redemption. What they were incapable of understanding, let alone accepting, was that for Sharon, as for most of Israel’s secular leaders since David Ben-Gurion, the Zionist enterprise was always pragmatic and political; the settlements were about strategically defensible borders, not the apocalypse.

Inspired by Rav Kook’s extensive writings about the mystical, if concealed, messianic significance of Zionism’s pioneers, his disciples insisted, as he had, that secular Zionists—however unaware—were nothing less than the leading protagonists in the great drama of the final redemption of Israel and the world. These eschatological fantasies were faithfully and, it has always seemed to me, accurately received from the teachings of both Rav Kook the elder and his son. Mirsky’s rich and compelling presentation of Kook’s life and thinking is intended, at least in part, to prove otherwise.

Rav Kook’s embrace of secular Zionists was rooted in his conviction that they were the unknowing precursors of the messianic era and that their rebellion against the Jewish religion was, counter-intuitively enough, the very proof of the holiness of their enterprise. Secular Jewish socialists, atheists, anarchists, and especially Zionists played an essential role in the chaos and rebellion that, according to rabbinic tradition, will characterize the era preceding the final redemption. So while it seems entirely lost on today’s chardalim that their revered master was subjected to the same kind of abuse following his death in 1935 that they heaped on Sharon—a sure sign that they have lost sight of Rav Kook’s ethics—it remains less clear that they have strayed all that far from his larger worldview.

Dairy cows.

But these two matters—Rav Kook’s personal ethics and his theology—ought not be separated. Mirsky makes abundantly clear that it was more than Kook’s innately peaceful character that allowed him always to rise above the political fray, regardless of how nastily ad hominem his opponents became, desisting from speaking ill of the living or the dead; it was also his theology, at whose core lies an overwhelming mystical monism, a pervasive vision of the unity, and the divinity, of humanity. Mirsky’s careful reading of Kook’s vast body of writings yields a portrait of a truly unique rabbi and mystic, particularly in his radical, at times shocking, embrace of modernity and his ability to see those damned as “heretics” by most of his rabbinical colleagues as heroes in a redemptive epic that would usher in the end of days. In shaking the foundation of the Jewish exile and its ossified religious institutions, they were unconsciously preparing the path that would be trodden by the Messiah’s donkey.

As Mirsky writes of Kook’s view of the rebellious generation that gave birth to the New Yishuv in Palestine:

This is the generation that the Zoharic literature calls “good within and rotten without.” They are he [Kook] says, chamoro shel mashiach, literally, the donkey on which the Messiah will ride into Jerusalem, according to the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 9:9).

This applied not only to the Zionists; Kook extended this embrace to include Jewish socialists and even anarchists:

‘The inner soul vivifying the socialist doctrine,’ he wrote, ‘is the light of the practical Torah.’ . . . Anarchism, he continued, is rooted even higher on high, in the very ideal of devekut, cleaving to God, and conversely is further today from its sacred self-consciousness, and wild. The struggles of modern heretics—principled, idealistic, antibourgeois, ethical nationalists willing to sacrifice themselves in the jails of the tsar and the harsh swamps of Palestine—make a new revelation all its own, dissolving the familiar division of religious and secular, the spectrum separating out the wavelengths of the divine light.

Which is not to say that Kook accepted modern secular Jewish ideologies’ own self-understanding; rather, he viewed them through his unique, radically monistic, kabbalistic worldview.

Kook’s embrace of heretics was, as Mirsky allows, provisional, and his engagement with them conditioned by his certainty that if not they themselves, these secularists’ descendants and followers would ultimately see the sacred dimension of their lives’ work and return to God and his Torah. Mirsky is, at times, perhaps a bit too indulgent of such dialectics. For example, at the conclusion of his treatment of Rav Kook’s famous decision allowing the sale of land in Israel during the sabbatical year so that it could be worked by Jewish farmers, he writes:

The shemittah controversy crystallized Rav Kook’s view of the New Yishuv and his place in it. The enterprise was sacred on its own secular terms. Its ultimately provisional secularism could, at the present historical moment, make its own claims as an essential feature of Israel’s rebirth, a rebirth that would free Israel and the world itself from the constricting notion of religion itself. And it was his responsibility to bring that secular revolution to self-consciousness, to accommodation, and, ultimately, to union with the tradition it was struggling fiercely to reject.

The problem with Mirsky’s formulation is that—like so much of Rav Kook’s own writings—it is self-contradictory. Secularism cannot be said to be sacred; it certainly cannot be both “sacred on its own . . . terms” or “essential” and, at the same time, “provisional,” lacking “self-consciousness,” and destined to become its very opposite, namely religious. Mirsky, of course, knows this. Late in the book’s final chapter, he writes:

He was, in characterizing the Old Yishuv and the New as root and branch of the same, sacred élan vital, describing them in ways dramatically at odds with the self-perception of each. Unsurprisingly then, the more perceptive among those heretics whom Kook valorized were not flattered by his provisional praise. One of the most original contributions of Mirsky’s book is his adroit treatment of the dialogue which Rav Kook, alone among the rabbis of Palestine—or Europe for that matter—initiated with major secular Jewish writers and intellectuals of his day. His presentation of Kook’s meetings and exchanges with leading Hebrew literary figures, from Bialik and Ben-Yehuda to Brenner and Berdichevsky (to mention only those whose surnames happen to begin with the letter “B”), makes for riveting reading. While Kook’s exchanges with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda were the most acrimonious and his friendship with Chaim Nachman Bialik the warmest, the perennially mordant Yosef Chaim Brenner’s reaction to Kook’s warm assessment of his generation is the most riveting.

As Mirsky writes, “Brenner refused to be seduced” by the rabbi’s praise; he saw right through Kook’s paternalistic notions about his hidden holiness. And he had no patience whatsoever for Kook’s maddeningly verbose literary style and baffling, unsystematic dialectical thinking. Brenner described Kook’s writings as “riddled with confusion and contradictions,” and he derided Kook’s essay, Derekh ha-Techiya (The Path to Rebirth) as “essentially a path to nowhere, the fruit of the mind of a foggy, metaphysical soul.” Brenner concluded his critique with a complaint that will resonate with many who have tried their hands at reading Kook’s works: “Why all the verbiage, rabbi, why?”

Brenner was particularly caustic regarding Kook’s theological mix of kabbalistic monism and messianism with dialectical historicism, in which the end of days will witness the ultimate synthesis when “the old will be renewed, and the new will become holy.” The latter part of this, Kook’s most widely cited epigram, anticipates, clearly requires, the religious awakening, the teshuva, of the secular Zionist pioneers. Mirsky explains that Brenner faulted Kook for trying to unite what cannot be united, leading him to reject Kook’s messianic synthesis:

The exalted . . . worldview expressed in all the “seedlings” of Our Master Rabbi Abraham Ha-Cohen Kook in this book is, for those of us who stoop to live and look [Psalms 113:6], nonsense. “Our resting place” is not “only in God,” and what is more, we don’t know a resting place and we don’t even look for one anymore . . .

Brenner was brutally frank in his rejection of Kook’s casting him and those like him (“souls of chaos,” Kook called them) into his quasi-Hegelian apocalyptic drama: “with syntheses like these,” he wrote, “we are better off wandering in the anti-theses of the dusk.”

Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky evinced similar frustrations in reaction to Rav Kook’s opposition to universal suffrage in a 1919 ruling that prohibited women from participating in the elections for the New Yishuv’s governing council:

We’ve given in to clericalism at war with the equality of women . . . We’ve given in to the prohibitions of geniuses whom nobody in the world . . . knows who or what they are, or the scientific works of R’ Kook, the typical literary production of some auditor-student, half-educated and undigested.

Kook remained as magnanimous towards his secular critics as he was with his Orthodox enemies. Mirsky points out that Kook knew what Brenner thought of him and records a conversation in which Kook conceded that “he spoke well, the one who said my soul is torn.”


In addition to Mirsky’s rich exploration of Rav Kook’s exchanges with secular thinkers, the other original dimension of his book is his attempt to unpack the notebooks that constituted Kook’s spiritual diaries during the second decade of the 20th century, to which he devotes the book’s third chapter. Due to their discursive, subjective, spontaneous, and disorganized nature, this is a terribly difficult task. Unfortunately, it yields nothing even approaching a coherent worldview, let alone a systematic theology.

Stamp of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook
Stamp issued in honor of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, ca. 1930. (Courtesy of The Leiman Library, New York.)

Mirsky cannot evade the pervasively inchoate nature of the notebooks, observing that, “Again and again Rav Kook returns to this question of election and the universal, and never really resolves it,” and allowing that Kook’s search for finding the divine light in all things constituted an attempt “to square a seemingly endless numbers of circles.” Finally, he cites Kook himself despairing on account of the confusion generated by the flashes of feelings and torrent of thoughts that flow over him, overwhelming any possibility of coherence and clarity: “Why can’t I write the depth of my thoughts straightforwardly, without confusion, without over-complication, but words as they are . . .”

Mirsky concludes that, “The deeper he plumbed his own depths, the higher he vaulted toward God, and the further and further he went from that without which one cannot formulate law, theology, or even a simple sentence, namely structure.”

In a marvelous article, the late Marvin Fox argued decades ago that Kook was neither a philosopher nor a kabbalist and is best appreciated rather as a mystical poet, whose thought and writings defy systemization. The one body of writings that, I would argue, is an exception to this basically correct assessment are Kook’s halakhic responsa, as they reflect normative and concrete stances he took on historical matters facing the New Yishuv. Moreover, Rav Kook’s theology can be seen undergirding many of his legal positions.

Mirsky deals with three halakhic controversies in which Rav Kook became embroiled as rabbi of Jaffa, then Jerusalem and as chief rabbi: his encouragement to use etrogim from the Land of Israel on Sukkot, his permission of sesame-seed oil on Passover, and, most famously, his decision to allow the sale to Gentiles of farming land in Israel during the sabbatical year. In all three cases, Kook emerges as a lenient jurist whose primary interest is enabling the New Yishuv to prosper economically. But Kook was hardly a consistently liberal halakhist. The controversial permission he issued regarding the sale of land to allow Jewish farmers to work during the sabbatical year did not originate with him, as Mirsky allows. What he fails to mention is that the religious leader of the Religious Zionist Mizrachi party, Samuel Mohilever, issued a far more thorough opinion, which allowed Jews to perform even biblically prohibited labors during the sabbatical year, something that Kook forbade, recommending instead that Gentiles perform them.

Mirsky does not discuss two other major halakhic decisions, both of which call into question the extent of Kook’s universalism, as well as his celebrated embrace of secularists. In an extensive debate with the American Mizrachi rabbinic sage Chaim Hirschensohn and his Sephardic counterpart, Ben-Zion Uziel, Kook opposed Jewish farmers of the Yishuv milking cows on the Sabbath, as well as performing autopsies on the bodies of Jews. In both cases, Kook again advised employing Gentiles, while his interlocutors objected that the old Shabbes-Goy legal fiction violated the Zionist work ethic and was a regression to galuti, or exilic, ways. It is somewhat surprising that Mirsky recounts the cute and widely told apocryphal tale of Rav Kook’s first visit to the New Yishuv’s agricultural settlements, during which he looked into the fields and supposedly declared, “Look ! A Jewish cow!” but omits addressing his historical and more repercussive ruling about who should milk those Jewish cows on the Sabbath.

While throughout his book Mirsky emphasizes the universalistic impulses that constantly competed with Kook’s passionate Jewish nationalism, it is quite evident that at the end of this dizzying dialectic, the latter emerged supreme. To be sure, Mirsky is not entirely uncritical of Kook. Among the most disturbing instances of Kook’s Jewish chauvinism was his assessment of the carnage of the First World War—which he spent in England—as an historically necessary sacrifice whose most important product was the Balfour Declaration and the Jewish state it would finally realize. Troubled by this “deeply disturbing” perspective, Mirsky writes that Kook’s “seeing a redemptive end in the terrible suffering of the war [is] a sentiment that would not have been much comfort to the dead and maimed in the trenches.”

Mirsky notes with understandable disapproval the selective readings and consequent misuses of Kook’s messianic Zionist theology by his contemporary disciples in the National Religious camp. Nonetheless, a strong argument can be made that their militant ideology, their disdain for Gentiles as well as their paternalistic perception of secular Zionists and the institutions of the Jewish state, from the Knesset to the army, as unwitting instruments of redemption, are almost inevitable applications of Rav Kook’s messianic nationalism.

In attempting to draw a clear distinction between Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, Zvi Yehudah, Mirsky depicts the latter as “unable or unwilling to maintain his father’s exquisite dialectical balances,” concluding that “Rav Kook had essentialized the nation, and Zvi Yehudah had essentialized the state.” The problem is that, having died 13 years before there was a Jewish state, all Rav Kook had to contend with was the nation. Moreover, Kook’s ideas about the nation were limited to the transitory moment of the “birthpangs of the Messiah” in which he lived. It is eminently clear that the state about which he dreamed, and which he depicted as a return to Mount Sinai, would be a theocratic kingdom in and through which all of the messianic biblical prophecies would be realized.

Of the many in Israel today who claim his mantle, none can be fairly considered to be carrying on Rav Kook’s legacy. And this is at least in part because it is almost impossible to discern what that legacy was. His mystically infused teachings are so radically idiosyncratic and deliberately—often maddeningly—unsystematic as to be entirely inhospitable to any ideological or theological categorization. Nonetheless, I remain unconvinced, despite Mirsky’s erudite efforts in this excellent book, that Rav Kook’s latter-day disciples among the chardalim have strayed all that far from their master’s mystical vision.


  1. gwhepner


    The father Kook essentialized the nation,
    as his great son, Zvi Yehudah, did the state,
    the former led by his imagination,
    the latter born down by reality’s great weight.
    What fathers only can imagine sons
    may, trying to make it reality, be forced
    to use distasteful measures such as guns
    which some say that their father would not have endorsed.
    The journey from imagination to
    reality may take place on a highway where
    the traveler must radically review,
    because of dangers of which he was unaware,
    the steps that must be taken to survive,
    original intention not enough when faced
    with new realities, to stay alive
    the one priority that must not be displaced.

    [email protected]

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