Book Review // Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution
Review by Jerome A. Chanes
A Complicated Kook
Mystic in a Time of Revolution
Yale University Press
2014, pp. 273, $25
Who was Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of Jewish Palestine? Many have tried to understand this complex, charismatic scholar whose embrace of modernism existed side-by-side with strict traditionalism. How to explain his contradictory mixture of tolerance and orthodoxy, nationalism and universalism, mysticism and activism? Kook was a poet, religious jurist, philosopher and communal leader. Was he a Zionist?
Is Rav Kook the father of the settler movement in the West Bank? Is he the hero of the embattled Modern Orthodox in Israel and America? Is he the champion of a right-wing Orthodoxy politically and religiously regnant in present-day Israel? More to the point, what is Rav Kook’s legacy almost eight decades after his death as he is represented—indeed, misrepresented—by political and religious factions and movements that seek legitimacy by invoking his name?
Some half-dozen biographies and scholarly works on Rav Abraham Isaac Ha-Cohen Kook have appeared in the past two decades, but this compelling short study, Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, by Yehudah Mirsky, not only complements these other books, but adds significantly to our understanding of the man and his times. A volume in the Yale “Jewish Lives” series, Rav Kook is a serious yet accessible work about Kook’s career as chief rabbi of Palestine, but goes far beyond the issues he encountered in that role.
Although best known as the first chief rabbi of the Ashkenazi community in pre-state Palestine, Rav Kook was a polymath whose writings on mysticism and messianism are part of the Jewish canon. He was a poet of grace and skill and an important—and controversial—interpreter of halacha, the Jewish normative tradition—marriage, divorce, inheritance, for example—to the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine under the British Mandate. In this position, he often became the center of controversy. In one historically significant instance in l919, Rav Kook sided, most reluctantly, with the sectarian Orthodox and against the moderate Orthodox Mizrachi party in opposing female suffrage in elections for a National Assembly that would govern the Yishuv. Rav Kook was hardly a political misogynist, but his opinion generated controversy in all quarters.
The Office of Chief Rabbinate, established in l921 in the early days of the Mandate, was the focal point of the controversy surrounding Kook. The Ottoman Empire had long-recognized rabbinic authority over the various Jewish communities in Palestine, but the British, for political reasons, decided to formally establish the office. The Zionists welcomed this development; for them, it would be yet another new institution of the nascent state. Kook seized it as an opportunity to bring a modern approach to everyday issues of religious practice in the Jewish community of Palestine. Further, and central to Rav Kook’s thinking and belief system, it would lead to the spiritual revolution that would be the ultimate fruit of the Jews’ secular nationalist revival.
As cogently argued in Rav Kook, the rabbi was a deep and ethereal thinker, but, unfortunately, lacked worldly “smarts” and the administrative acumen to negotiate the political minefields of the religious terrain of 1920s Eretz Yisrael. He was often excoriated—both by sectarian Orthodox communities in Palestine and by the religious and secular “left.”
Yehudah Mirsky, a professor of Jewish intellectual history at Brandeis University, develops a brilliant portrait of the Orthodox world of the period, telescoping complex historical and religious discussions into brief and cogent essays in some 270 exceptionally concentrated pages of biography, history, philosophy, religion and sociology. Moreover, Mirsky is a master at “connecting the dots.”
A major context for Mirsky’s narrative is the world of 19th-century Eastern European life, which was buffeted by Russian socialism, Jewish Bundism, Zionism and nationalism—a sprawling range of subjects neatly summarized by the author in two paragraphs. Also deftly dissected by the author is the massive subject of religious ferment in the Yishuv, in which the sectarian Orthodox leadership tugged at the right elbow of the traditional Jew, while Mizrachi Religious Zionism tugged at the left.
Mirsky’s commanding analysis of the 1929 riots in Palestine, which left the Yishuv deeply shaken, and of anti-Kook zealotry within the sectarian Orthodox community is without peer: He is particularly nimble in clarifying the often misunderstood story of Kook’s career as he maneuvered between the religious forces of the right and left, the Yishuv’s political phalanxes, and his British masters.
Occasionally, Mirsky misses the mark. The initial proto-Zionist migration to Palestine in the 1880s—the First Aliyah—consisted not only of the Chibat Zion (Love of Zion) movement, who were the first to think of the land of Israel not as a mythical place but as a real country that could be settled, but of the equally important Bilu movement, which is not mentioned in the book. Bilu was among the first grassroots Proto-Zionist movements in Russia and was informed by early Russian revolutionary ideals, which the “Biluim” sought to apply to Zionism.
When Rav Kook visited the United States in 1924 and was welcomed at the fledgling Yeshiva College, he was more than pondering an “educational partnership”; Rav Kook envisioned a Hebrew University modeled along the lines of Yeshiva College, which would offer a full secular-studies curriculum as in a university. His vision of combining a Yeshiva and a university curricula was radical in Palestine. Mirsky misses this important nuance.
The book is as much about the Yishuv as it is about Rav Kook but neglects the role of ideology. In fact, Zionism, the Yishuv and the early years of the state were all about ideology and “movements”: the institutions of the Yishuv, the political parties and structures, the settlement of the land, the genesis of the fighting forces Haganah and Palmach—and much of religious life in the Yishuv, central to Rav Kook—all emerged from ideological conflict.
One also wonders about the repeated use of the term “Wailing Wall” to refer to the remaining Western Wall of the razed Temple in Jerusalem. “Wailing Wall,” the classic Christian appellation, evokes an image of Jews eternally condemned to wandering, wailing over the destruction of the Temple, without hope of reconstituting their religious center, let alone creating a Jewish polity. A strange locution indeed for a book on Rav Kook.
But these are small matters. The basic question about Abraham Isaac Kook is: Was he a Zionist? Mirsky parses this question—central to the history of Religious Zionism—throughout this biography, and concludes with a forthright “maybe.” Rav Kook was certainly not a Zionist in the political sense. He was not a Herzlian Political Zionist and never affiliated with Mizrachi, nor with the Agudath Yisrael—the original party of the more sectarian Orthodox in Palestine under the British Mandate. Rav Kook was what is known in the history of Zionism as a “Cultural Zionist”—for whom Zionism would be the vehicle for a spiritual and cultural revival of Jews, and of Judaism itself. If anything, this was what Rav Kook was all about, and this was the basis of the Kulturkampf generated by his life and work.
Jerome A. Chanes, the author of four books on Jewish public affairs, history and sociology, is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center.