Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, 1865 to 1935
There is one rabbi who stands out in my mind above all others in the previous century.
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook was the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel under the mandate. There were other great products of the Lithuanian world who equaled or surpassed him in scholarship. But there was no one who had his vision, his passion for his people, for the Land of Israel, and at the same time, his universality and humanity. There was no one who personified the spirit of Judaism in the world the way he did. If only more of Eastern European Orthodoxy had followed his lead. And because he was a poet and a master of the Hebrew language, there was no one who expressed these ideals the way he did. Forgive me for quoting a whole poem of his. A lot is lost in translation, but still I find it impressive in its sentiment and spirit. No rabbi alive today comes near him.
The fourfold Song of the Soul
There is a person who sings the song of his soul. He finds everything, his complete spiritual satisfaction, within his soul.
There is a person who sings the song of the nation. He steps forward from his private soul, which he finds narrow and uncivilized. He yearns for the heights. He clings with a sensitive love to the entirety of the Jewish nation and sings its song. He shares in its pains, is joyful in its hopes, speaks with exalted and pure thoughts regarding its past and its future, investigates its inner spiritual nature with love and a wise heart.
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There is a person whose soul is so broad that it expands beyond the border of Israel. It sings the song of humanity. This soul constantly grows broader with the exalted totality of humanity and its glorious image. He yearns for humanity’s general enlightenment. He looks forward to its supernal perfection. From this source of life, he draws all of his thoughts and insights, his ideals and visions.
And there is a person who rises even higher until he unites with all existence, with all creatures, and with all worlds. And with all of them, he sings. This is the person who, engaged in the Chapter of Song every day, is assured that he is a child of the World-to-Come.
And there is a person who rises with all these songs together in one ensemble so that they all give forth their voices, they all sing their songs sweetly, each supplies its fellow with fullness and life: the voice of happiness and joy, the voice of rejoicing and tunefulness, the voice of merriment and the voice of holiness.
The song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, the song of the world—they all mix together with this person at every moment and at all times.
And this simplicity in its fullness rises to become a song of holiness, the song of God, the song that is simple, doubled, tripled, quadrupled, the song of songs of Solomon—of the king who is characterized by completeness and peace.
(Orot Hakodesh II, p. 444)
What a beautiful vision that includes every person and almost every variety of aspiration in the world we inhabit.
Rav Kook is all but unknown in the Diaspora. In Israel, the Charedi world has disowned him for his approval of Zionism. His Charedi descendants prefer not to be known as such. And the secular world has rejected him because the name Kook is now associated more with his son Rav Zvi Yehuda, who became the mouthpiece and guru of a far narrower expression of religious Zionism associated with Gush Emunim and the settler movement. Both father and son passionately loved the Holy Land. But the son twisted the humane vision of his father into a narrower, largely xenophobic possessiveness.
Rav Kook the father was a brilliant scholar but he was also a mystic. A Lithuanian heir to the legacy of the Vilna Gaon, he studied in the great yeshivah of Volozhin and yet explored Chasidism and the world of mysticism and spirituality. He was an essayist and poet and published widely within the community of religious leaders who wanted to reach out to Jews beyond the walls of the ghettos. He was devoted to the cause of building up Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. Although he occupied various positions in the Lithuanian rabbinate, the Land of Israel drew him, and in 1904 he emigrated to become the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa.
There he found himself caught between the old and the new. The wave of secular Eastern European Zionist immigrants were detached from and opposed to what they saw as the religion of the ghetto. On the other side stood the Old Yishuv, descendants of earlier waves of very Orthodox Jews who came both influenced by the Vilna Gaon and the early Chasidic masters. They had augmented the ancient Sephardi communities which had held out in the land after the demise of the great seventeenth century centers of Safed and Galilee. These communities are often overlooked in the current debate over who lived in the Land of Israel before secular Zionism arrived. But they were implacably opposed to the new anti-religious arrivals who themselves were divided between left-wing sympathizers with Marxist ideology and the right-wing Revisionist followers of Jabotinsky.
Rav Kook tried, and in the end failed, to mediate and make peace between these factions. He valued the secular pioneers as much as he was devoted to the passion and depth of traditional Judaism. He suffered at the hands of both because of it. But his magnificent legacy has survived, despite the efforts of some to write him out of our history.
A new biography by Yehudah Mirsky and published by Yale Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution gives a fair overview of his life, times, and struggles. He analyses the political struggles of his subject and in particular the way he ended up losing both sides over the Arlosoroff assassination in 1933. But it does not do justice to his intellectual and mystical legacy. For that, the best we have remains Ben Zion Bokser’s Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, the Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems, published in 1978. It is a sad statement that so little of his legacy has been available to an English speaking audience.
At this time of the year, Pesach reminds us both of our past and of our messianic aspirations. It is the time too when we celebrate Israel’s independence and the miracle of what has been achieved. But we are also reminded of so much of what is still sadly missing. Rav Kook symbolizes the human and religious ideals we need to aspire to and must determine to achieve.