by yehudah mirsky
yale, 288 pages, $25
Yehudah Mirsky’s biography of Rabbi (or “Rav”) Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Jewish Palestine, is much more than merely an account of a long-gone historic personality. During the tumultuous years between his birth in 1865 and death in 1935, Rav Kook developed a theology, taken up throughout with political issues, that has remained central to debates in Israel, a country where politics always seems to return somehow to theology.
Mirsky has a deep knowledge of the historical context of Rav Kook’s life and career. He also knows the classical Jewish sources that his subject drew upon and often reformulated in his writing. And he is truly critical (as distinct from argumentative) in examining both the strengths and weaknesses of his subject. And he is an exceptionally good writer.
Abraham Isaac Kook was born in Latvia and educated in its rabbinical seminaries, where the culture spawned by the Talmud and related writings reached intellectual and spiritual heights unequalled since. Having moved to Palestine in 1904, Rav Kook immediately identified with the Zionist project of turning the land of Israel into a vital centerthe vital centerof modern Jewish life.
The great theologian soon suffered a misfortune. After the First World War, when the British Mandate over Palestine began, Rav Kook was elected the Chief Rabbi of Palestine. In Mirsky’s words, this “was one of the worst things that ever happened to him”because of his political naivete, which led to his having “utterly failed to reckon with the concrete realities of the time.”
When Rav Kook came to Zionism at the turn of the twentieth century, many European intellectuals were turning to nationalism as the ideology they believed should animate the life of their respective nation-states (some of which were yet to become political realities). Zionism became the ideology that was meant to animate the Jewish people into regaining their own nation-state in their ancestral land. However, with only a few minor exceptions, the founders of the Zionist movement were convinced that Zionism had been created to replace Judaism altogether as the ideational foundation of the Jewish people. As Jacob Klatzkin, one of the early Zionist theoreticians, bluntly asserted, “God has no heirs” (itself a kind of take on Nietzsche’s “God is dead”).
Four major reactions against this dogmatic secularist Zionism emerged among the Jews. There were religious traditionalists (adopting for themselves, surprisingly, the Christian term “Orthodox”), who largely believed that the reestablishment of the Jewish state in the land of Israel was not to be a human undertaking but was rather a purely messianic prerogative. Second, there were religious liberals (who, less surprisingly, came to adopt the Protestant name “Reformers”), who largely believed that after the political emancipation of most of European Jewry by the end of the nineteenth century, Jews would be best served by becoming individual citizens of their respective nation-states, thus sharply separating private Jewish religion from public non-Jewish citizenship.
Third, there were secular liberals in the Diaspora for whom citizenship in a secular nation-state was altogether sufficient for their identity and who eschewed any religious identity (whether Jewish or Christian) at all. For them, religion was something to be left behind in the past, permanently (they were also the most likely to assimilate into non-Jewish societies altogether). Fourth, there were some traditionalists, now called “religious nationalists,” who saw Zionism as the political means to found a Jewish state whose government would more and more enforce traditional Jewish law.
But Rav Kook rejected secular Zionism along with all four of those alternatives, convinced that through his original and more profound messianic theology Zionism could rise above the inherent limitations of all of them. A mystical theologian of a decidedly messianic bent, Kook seemed to think that he could simply apply his theological reflections to the Zionist project. For him, the radically new situation of Jewish people returning to the land of Israel was not just of national significance, and not just of international significance. Ultimately, it was of cosmic significance.
To the secularist Zionists (whom he assiduously courted and tried to influence), Rav Kook argued that their zeal to resettle the land of Israel was to be praised and encouraged, because they were part of a divine eschatological plan for the redemption of the Jewish people (and the rest of the universe along with them), even if they rejected or were oblivious to this metaphysical truth. To the anti-Zionist traditionalists, he tried to show how his version of Zionism was fully committed to the authority of Jewish law, and that his Zionism could attract secular Zionists to the kind of religious life that the anti-Zionist traditionalists were repelling them from. To the liberals, whether religious or secular, Rav Kook seemed to be saying that a reestablished Jewish state in the land of Israel, as he conceived it, would embody the values of social justice and intellectual freedom they so cherished.
In the case of the religiously traditional Zionists, Rav Kook was more subtle. He hardly ever challenged them, yet one can discern from his writings (and from Mirsky’s insights about him) that he realized that even though adherence to Jewish law is a necessary condition of authentic Jewish existence (both individual and collective), a much deeper physical and spiritual regeneration of the Jewish people was required as its sufficient condition. What was needed, then, was a political-spiritual revolution, not a modern theocracy beholden to secular power. That is, Zionism must spark a true religious revolution with secular effects but without secular causation.
The tragedy of Rav Kook’s career, especially in the office of Chief Rabbi, was that he failed to convince any of these five groups to support his public efforts in any real way. To the secularists, he was still much too religious. Indeed, they knew full well his scorn for secular nationalism, of which their Zionism was meant to be the Jewish version. The anti-Zionist traditionalists, conversely, found him too accommodating to essentially anti-religious Zionists; he was their naive dupe, as it were. To the liberals, he was a hopeless remnant of a basically medieval Jewish way of life with its inherently unjust inequalities. (Along these lines, Mirsky shows, for example, how antiquated and anti-modern were Rav Kook’s views on the role of women in matters both of religion and politics.) As for the religious Zionists, though they were publicly respectful of him, Rav Kook was too much a messianic mystic, a diversion from their efforts to become a political party in a secular society.
Nevertheless, the effects of Rav Kook’s theology are very much at work in Israel today, where religion and politics are often two sides of the same coin. Here Mirsky very adroitly shows two divergent paths that have emerged from Rav Kook’s Zionist thought. And he also tips his hand as to which path he thinks should be taken and which one should not.
Rav Kook’s two most important disciples were Rabbi David Cohen (18871972), known as “the Nazir” (because of the lifelong Nazarite vow he took), and Rav Kook’s own son, Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook (18911982). The two took decidedly different theo-political paths. The Nazir, in Mirsky’s words, “presented Rav Kook’s teaching as a universal philosophy.” Zvi Yehudah Kook, conversely, “tended to emphasize the more obviously nationalistic dimensions.” (For Mirsky, this type of nationalism inevitably leads to chauvinism and xenophobia.) Moreover, though the Nazir might well have been the deeper thinker and a much more complex spiritual personality, Zvi Yehudah Kook, having far greater political skill than his father, succeeded in attracting a much larger and more powerful following.
This success was especially apparent after Israel’s seemingly supernatural victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, which was taken as a validation of Zvi Yehudah’s simplistic version of his father’s more complex eschatology. In fact, Zvi Yehudah is still looked upon as the godfather of the West Bank settler movement, which wields enormous political power in Israel today. Mirsky bemoans this, pointing out that “the universalistic elements of Rav Kook’s teachings are ignored . . . by increasing numbers of religious nationalists, who read him largely through the dogmatic lenses ground by Zvi Yehudah.”
Mirsky’s book can be seen as a reasonable rejection of the excesses of Zvi Yehudah Kook’s nationalistic theology. He does this by showing that, although there are precedents for his son’s theo-politics in Rav Kook’s own teachings, Rav Kook himself was “perhaps saved from his own excesses precisely by his contradictions.”
And it is with that tempting observation, and others, that Mirsky leaves readers like me wanting to hear more from himabout, for instance, the more universalistic of Rav Kook’s teachings, grounded as they are in the richness of his Jewish particularity. The Jews of Israel, along with all of us, have much to learn from a religious Zionism that has a strong and deep theological foundation, and that avoids the two extremes of Israeli political discourse todayboth left and right. What Israel requires is a Zionism that differs from that of the almost exclusively secular left, who would convert the State of Israel into little more than a contemporary European-style nation-state with no real connection to its historic religious roots. And that differs from the Zionism of the right, which would convert the State of Israel into an Islamic-style theocracy.
David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.