Rav Kook: The Main Thinker of Religious Zionism | September | 2022 | The Jewish experience

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Rav Kook: the main thinker of religious Zionism

September 9, 2022

By Joseph Dorman

One of the most remarkable figures in the history of Israel, Rabbi (Rav) Abraham Isaac Kook, who died in 1935, left an important and complicated legacy.

The country’s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and founder of the modern Chief Rabbinate of Israel, he is still the leading thinker of religious Zionism.

His broad and complicated thinking—both nationalist and universalist; rigorous in religious practice and open to modern society; traditional and revolutionary – has led to it always being claimed or attacked by both left and right.

In a series of books in English and Hebrew, including his most recent, “Toward the Mystical Experience of Modernity, The Creation of Rav Kook, 1865-1904,” Near Eastern and Judaic Studies professor Yehudah Mirsky , sought to present a nuanced and compelling image of Kook than those presented by his bandmates and critics. In doing so, he also brings to life little-known chapters of Jewish thought and history.

Mirsky portrays Kook as a deep, subtle, and deeply ethical thinker who sought to resolve the contradictions of Zionist thought and modern Jewish life into a universal messianic vision. In this vision, the return of the Jews to Zion to create a just and better society was the first step in the messianic redemption that would save the human race.

“Kook was this masterful authority on traditional Jewish law, philosophy and mysticism, with a remarkable mastery of the entirety of Jewish thought,” Mirsky said. “He plunged headlong into the storm of modernity.”

TJE spoke with Schusterman Center for Israel Studies faculty member Mirsky about Kook and how the rabbi ended up being so misunderstood and criticized.

Tell us about Kook’s life.

He was born in 1865 at the western end of the Russian Empire in Lithuania. The mass migration of Jews to the United States and the assimilation of European and American Jews into Gentile society were causing the collapse of the traditional Jewish world. At the same time, there was remarkable Jewish creativity in spirituality, the arts, and community life.

During his years in Europe, and even more so after his arrival in Palestine in 1904, he was fascinated by Jewish socialist revolutionaries and Zionists who saw themselves as building a new society, a new Jewish culture and, eventually, of a state and who revolted against tradition in the name of ideals of social justice and concern for Jewish welfare – and, above all, were willing to put their lives on the line for these ideals.

Most Orthodox rabbis of the time rejected secular Zionism. Some chose to work with him but were careful to distance themselves from his efforts to create a new Jewish culture. Rav Kook, alone among his peers but of remarkable stature, affirmed the effort to create a modern Hebrew culture in a new state of Israel as something to be embraced for the betterment of Judaism and the world.

How can a deeply religious and orthodox rabbi be attracted to these secular Zionists?

He starts from this conviction, deeply rooted in the Jewish mystical tradition, that there is no space without God. And as far as he is concerned, that means idealistic, principled movements working toward noble goals like a rebirth for the Jewish people and the creation of a better world are expressions of God’s presence in the world.

Kook was convinced that he was living through the apocalypse of authority, both secular and religious. He was convinced that this remarkably dynamic, fluid, unstable historical period meant that the world was on the threshold of the messianic age. God was launching a new phase in Jewish history.

According to him, all the great contradictions in Jewish and world history were now rising to the surface en route to their final resolution. So even secular Zionism had a role to play.

Secular Zionists would undertake the business of building a new Jewish society with vibrant social, economic and political institutions and would provide a material basis for greater cultural and spiritual revival to follow.

What did his fellow Orthodox rabbis think of his views?

For many colleagues, everything he does and says is the worst heresy. This major rabbinical figure is apparently sanctifying the secular revolution, sanctifying secular Zionism.

Kook did not say it in those terms, but part of his argument with his fellow rabbinicals is that he tells them:

“Guys, listen, these young people who are rebelling against us are not doing this because they want to eat cheeseburgers. They are moving to Palestine and draining the swamps and getting shot by the Arabs.

“And they say they’re doing this because we didn’t take good care of the Jewish people, we fell at work. Our religious ideas are outdated, and we have nothing to say about modern philosophy and the art and culture. Our religion has become routine and ritualized. And they are right.

It sounds like heresy from an Orthodox rabbi.

Exactly. At some point, says Kook, heresy comes to our world like a bonfire. It will burn everything in its path. And on its smoldering embers we will rebuild the new Judaism.

There is another phrase that appears in his writings at different times – “Everything goes up”.

It means everything is fine. God is that driving force in human culture and history, and Judaism must be reborn. Traditional Judaism would open up to modernity, and those who had fallen from it, like secular Zionists, would return to the fold.

According to Kook, what does this rebirth look like?

A traditional Judaism imbued with a new and vital spirituality, embraced by all Jews and stripped of the narrowness that often repelled the larger world.

How are secular Zionists reacting?

He is also not accepted by them. They don’t want to be celebrated by him.

They say, “Rabbi, that’s very nice of you, but I’m not part of your holy revolution, okay? I am not God’s unwitting instrument for messianic redemption.

When Kook died in 1935, his son took over.

Yes. But it was really after the Six Day War in 1967 and then the Yom Kippur War in 1973 that Zvi Yehudah Kook became a leader of religious Zionism.

He eventually became the spiritual leader of the colonization movement, saying the way to continue his father’s agenda was to strengthen the sovereign Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria. [the West Bank].

Is this what the old Kook would have wanted? Does the kind of messianism he exhibited give rise to the idea that the Jews should colonize the entire biblical land of Israel?

Yes and no. Crucially, the [elder] Kook did not live long enough to see the Holocaust or the creation of the State of Israel. Moreover, his messianism was different from that of his son.

As the elder Kook saw, God sent the Jews into exile to purge us of the desire for power and wanting to rule over other people or use violence for political gain. We have learned to be righteous through our own experience of oppression. When we return to Zion [Israel]we can be different from others.

His son didn’t disagree, but after the Holocaust and the Arab-Israeli wars, he concluded that nothing was more important than bringing Israeli sovereignty and its messianic struggle to the entire biblical land of Israel. .

Was Kook a pacifist? How do you think he would have viewed the religious settler movement today?

He was not a pacifist and recognized the necessity of violence. What he was – and in many ways deeply resembled many other early Zionist thinkers and figures – was a formidable idealist. He believed that Jewish politics would be essentially different from non-Jewish politics and more moral. He believed that the rabbinical institutions he had created would not become politicized but would light the way to the vibrant new Judaism of the future. He believed, like so many others, that differences with the Arabs could be resolved peacefully.

So how does he speak to us today?

First of all – and as the vast scholarly and popular literature on him (almost all in Hebrew) attests – he is a vital and deeply important figure in modern Jewish history and thought, and, I argue, in the history of modern religious thought in general.

The richness of its corpus in law, theology, poetry, mysticism, social commentary, etc. worth a lifetime of study. And the institutions he created – the Chief Rabbinate, his yeshiva and, in general, the model of rabbinical training and Jewish education integrating fidelity to tradition and engagement in society and the world – are still very much present today. today.

Second, hardly anyone has thought as deeply as he did about the profound continuities and discontinuities between Zionism and the Jewish tradition. Whether one agrees with him or not, dealing with these issues sooner or later means engaging in a dialogue with him.

Did his son get it right? Did your teacher, Rabbi Yehudah Amital, the main critic of Zvi Yehudah Kook within religious Zionism, and in his own way, a leftist, understand the elder Kook better?

In a way, if we think for a moment not as historians but as political and moral actors of the present, this is the wrong question.

Rather, the question is, given who we are in the world we live in today and our responsibilities today, how can we, after studying all of Rav Kook – and so many other thinkers and personalities learn – choose to act and live in the here and now?

That, as always, is the question, and each of us must answer it for ourselves.

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