Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolutionby Yehudah Mirsky
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935) was one of the most influential—and controversial—rabbis of the twentieth century. A visionary writer and outstanding rabbinic leader, Kook was a philosopher, mystic, poet, jurist, communal leader, and veritable saint. The first chief rabbi of Jewish Palestine and the founding theologian of religious Zionism, he
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935) was one of the most influential—and controversial—rabbis of the twentieth century. A visionary writer and outstanding rabbinic leader, Kook was a philosopher, mystic, poet, jurist, communal leader, and veritable saint. The first chief rabbi of Jewish Palestine and the founding theologian of religious Zionism, he struggled to understand and shape his revolutionary times. His life and writings resonate with the defining tensions of Jewish life and thought.
A powerfully original thinker, Rav Kook combined strict traditionalism and an embrace of modernity, Orthodoxy and tolerance, piety and audacity, scholasticism and ecstasy, and passionate nationalism with profound universalism. Though little known in the English-speaking world, his life and teachings are essential to understanding current Israeli politics, contemporary Jewish spirituality, and modern Jewish thought. This biography, the first in English in more than half a century, offers a rich and insightful portrait of the man and his complex legacy. Yehudah Mirsky clears away widespread misunderstandings of Kook’s ideas and provides fresh insights into his personality and worldview. Mirsky demonstrates how Kook's richly erudite, dazzlingly poetic writings convey a breathtaking vision in which "the old will become new, and the new will become holy."
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Mystic in a Time of Revolution
By YEHUDAH MIRSKY
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2014 Yehudah Mirsky
All rights reserved.
"No Ordinary Rabbi": Grieva, Volozhin, Zeimel, Boisk
He told me that his parents used to argue over whether he would become an ascetic Mitnagdic rabbi or a Hasidic master.
—Kalman Frankel, Shemu'ot Reiyah
Lithuania, Liteh in Yiddish, was, from the late eighteenth century onward, an intellectual nerve center of Jewish life, an empire of the mind whose sway ran through the Russian Empire and touched the whole of European Jewry. In the streets of its cities—Vilna (Vilnius), Kovno (Kaunas), Dvinsk (Daugavpils)—and in its small towns and shtetls, the multiple currents of tradition and change met, fought, coupled, and remade themselves in a peculiarly passionate kind of intellectualism, an icy rationalism ringed with fire.
That cerebral ardor coursed through rabbinic circles where high Talmudism exerted a powerful pull, not least through the educational influence and moral authority of the great yeshiva at Volozhin. Founded in 1802 by Chaim of Volozhin (1749–1821), the yeshiva, unlike a traditional beit midrash, had no formal ties to the local community and fostered an intense youth culture of full-time Talmudic study. A pioneering and vastly influential institution, the yeshiva reflected the interests, passions, and contradictions of its time. Through its doors passed many young men who later left their marks on all sides of the Jewish ideological barricades. Its cultural hero and presiding spirit was Chaim of Volozhin's master, Elijah ben Solomon (1720–97), known as the Gaon—the Genius—of Vilna. The Gaon held no formal rabbinic post and acquired magisterial authority by the sheer force of his scholarship and piety. His brand of fierce Talmudism, marked by a unique mix of intellectual independence, comprehensive knowledge of the whole of rabbinic literature, and adherence to the plain sense of the text, was a departure from prevailing modes of study and religious practice. Of course, Torah study had been a staple of Rabbinic Judaism for many centuries. Yet through the Gaon's teachings, and perhaps more importantly through his personal example, relentless and ascetic devotion to Torah study as the supreme religious act burned itself into the minds of his followers.
Though no less a Kabbalist than a Talmudist, the Gaon called for principled resistance to the mystically inclined Hasidic movement, then beginning its extraordinary rise. In Hasidism's celebration of ecstatic prayer and its theology of divine immanence, in which God could be reached from within the gross matter of the physical world, he saw a reckless dissemination of esotericism, careless denigration of study and detailed halakhic practice, and a dangerously optimistic faith in human nature's resistance to sin. In 1772, he declared Hasidism a heresy, thus becoming the first and archetypal Mitnaged—literally, "opponent," or more affirmatively, one who worships God with study rather than rapture.
Chaim of Volozhin, one of the Gaon's leading disciples, in an influential treatise titled Nefesh Ha-Chaim, endowed Torah study with unique spiritual power. Since, as the Kabbalah teaches, the Torah in its most spiritual form is the very blueprint of the world, only Torah study offers transcendence, true escape from the jailhouse of this corrupt and fallen world. He sought to put that vision into practice by creating at Volozhin, in present-day Belarus, a trailblazing yeshiva that would train, in a university-like atmosphere, an elite corps of Talmudists, drawn from a broad geographic area and taught by rabbis unencumbered by communal responsibilities. It was through the yeshiva in Volozhin and the new yeshivot it inspired that the reigning ideal of Mitnagdism—of Torah study as the supreme religious act—received its institutional articulation and exercised much of its hold over Jewish life in Lithuania and surrounding areas, including Courland (in present-day Latvia) to the north, Belarus to the east, and, eventually, Poland to the west. Although Hasidism was not to Chaim of Volozhin's taste, he concluded that a heresy it was not. There were significant numbers of Hasidim throughout the Mitnagdic heartland of Lithuania. They were largely followers of Chabad Lubavitch.
The founder of Chabad, Shneur Zalman of Liady (c. 1745–1812), was, like the Gaon, a distinguished scholar of both the Talmud and the Kabbalah. But unlike the Gaon, Shneur Zalman believed that the divine presence was immediately accessible, even in this world, through ecstatic prayer and focused action if one attained proper consciousness (hence "Chabad," an acronym for chokhmah, binah, da'at—wisdom, insight, understanding). Moreover, he believed that this consciousness could be taught to the masses—a distinctively Hasidic claim. His successors and followers, learned and philosophically minded, found a relatively congenial place in the highly scholastic landscape of Lithuanian Jewry.
Just six years after Volozhin's founding, in 1808, a teachers seminary opened in Vilna, sponsored by the local university, which sought to train young Jews in the ways of Haskalah, Enlightenment. As Haskalah moved eastward, it projected, as it had in the West, confidence in reason, general education, and progress. It internalized non-Jewish critiques of Jewish society's insularity and economic insufficiency while asserting its own continuity with elements of tradition, such as studying the Hebrew language and medieval philosophy.
Through the nineteenth century, these three movements—Mitnagdism, Hasidism, and Haskalah—vied for the soul of Russian Jewry, most of whom, of course, had their hands full with simply getting by. These currents flowed in multiple forms through communal politics and people's lives, and only sometimes followed the neat, schematic patterns favored by ideologues, partisans, and historians. Each philosophy represented the steady transformation of tradition; Haskalah most obviously, yet each projected a new form of authority and a newly privileged form of experience, since the familiar sway of the traditional rabbi had to contend at the time with the social criticism of the Maskil, the fierce intellectualism of the Mitnaged Talmudist and the mystic charisma of the Hasidic rebbe.
The eldest of Perel Zlota and Shlomo Zalman Ha-Cohen Kook's eight children, Avraham Yitzhak, was born on September 7, 1865, in Grieva (Griva), a small town in Courland, on the banks of the Daugava River. Grieva consisted of one avenue, less than two miles long, and several alleyways, home to 2,600 souls. Grieva's proximity to Dvinsk, a railway center on the other side of the Daugava, midway between Warsaw and St. Petersburg, gave it a slightly more urban flavor than usually prevailed in predominantly rural Courland, whose Jews were regularly unlettered. Jews numbered half of Dvinsk's population of some 23,000, roughly a third of which lived in poverty.
Shlomo Zalman, born in 1844, the son of a merchant and alumnus of Volozhin, was orphaned at a young age and raised in the home of his stepfather, a local rabbi. His mother, Frayde Batya (nee Fellman), was the daughter of an early disciple of Chaim of Volozhin descended from a distinguished rabbinical line. Frayde's brother, Mordechai Gimpel Jaffe (1820–1891), another alumnus of Volozhin, was a distinguished scholar and communal leader. Shlomo Zalman studied at Volozhin too. After further studies, he married Perel Zlota, the daughter of a Chabad Hasid who had studied at Volozhin. They moved to Grieva, her hometown, where he taught the local boys and worked as a mendicant fund-raiser for religious institutions.
One can gather only a limited impression of Shlomo Zalman from the few mentions of him in the writings of his son and others. One obituary recalls his "love of truth and strong hatred of anything with a trace of lying or fakery" and his "gentle disposition and beaming countenance." Perel Zlota maintained her allegiance to Chabad. When the third Lubavitcher rebbe, the great jurist and theologian Menachem Mendel Schneerson, passed away in 1866 and his disciples divided up his relics, she received a button and some threads from his cloak, which she sewed into her eldest son's skullcap.
There was in Grieva a Chabad preacher, to whom Shlomo Zalman would weekly take his son Avraham Yitzhak for the third Sabbath meal, done in the Hasidic manner, accompanied by the singing of plaintive mystic hymns. Chabad youngsters were among his childhood friends, one of whom recalled that when Avraham Yitzhak would come to his house to sip a cup of tea, he would recite texts by heart as he drank. Avraham Yitzhak was an exemplary iluy, a rabbinic prodigy. These boys made their own nursery rhymes from Talmudic passages, astounded their elders with their powers of memory and concentration, and tended not to have many friends. In a culture that set extraordinarily high store by education, they were groomed from boyhood for leadership. Avraham Yitzhak, beyond his intellectual abilities, was highly emotional and early showed a lyrical sensibility and vivid imagination. His priestly lineage (hence, "Ha-Cohen") was a source of pride and a spur to boyhood dreams of one day serving in a rebuilt Temple.
Shlomo Zalman sent nine-year-old Avraham Yitzhak to Dvinsk for an intensive rabbinic apprenticeship with Reuven Levin, which lasted until he was fifteen. Levin, known as Rav Ruvele, was a much-revered and somewhat individualistic figure in Lithuanian rabbinic circles, a kind of "Talmudist's Talmudist" who never achieved quite the fame or communal authority of some of his contemporaries. In his youth, Levin had studied with the most Haskalah-minded of the Gaon's disciples, Menashe of Ilya. One of Levin's specialties was to find novel halakhic arguments for allowing agunot (grass widows) to remarry. When, in one such case, young Kook tried to outdo his master in argumentation and thereby undo his permissive ruling, Levin countered him with the Talmudic saying "With exactingness like that, we'll never be able to study."
Before and during Avraham Kook's early life, change was coursing through Jewish life in the Russian empire and in the elite rabbinic circles around him. The 1850s saw the emergence in the empire of traditional rabbis who had some secular learning. They were willing to approach social problems with new intellectual tools and gingerly to rethink traditional educational practices and long-held attitudes toward non-Jews and the nonobservant. When the leading Maskilic (Haskalah-oriented) journal, Ha-Melitz, opened its pages to them, the ensuing series of powerful and much-publicized exchanges on halakhic change ended up radicalizing rabbis and would-be reformers alike. The debate drove a wedge between radicals and the moderate rabbis, providing a powerful stimulus to the crystallization of separatist Orthodoxy, which became more self-conscious and ideologically mobilized than before.
When, in the 1860s, the agitation for halakhic change that had animated western European Jewish thinkers since the earlier part of the nineteenth century attempted to migrate eastward, it encountered a rabbinic culture fortified by the Talmudism championed by Volozhin: intellectually self-confident, capable, and prone to resist innovation. Moreover, whereas liberalism in western Europe tried to help individual Jews adapt to a surrounding society that was at least somewhat welcoming, in eastern areas what was required instead of piecemeal reform was a large-scale solution to the suffering of the masses.
Through the 1870s, Russian liberalism, such as it was, fell on hard times as the humanistic dreams of Alexander Herzen gave way to an atmosphere more akin to the fevered nightmares of Dostoevsky. Varieties of socialism and nationalism stepped in to offer solutions to the economic, political, and sociocultural disabilities of the Jews. By the 1880s, the cohort of Maskilic rabbis had effectively shifted their interests and thinking from working for moderate reform within Russia toward the nascent idea of rejuvenating Jewish life by developing Palestine, under the rubric of Chibat Zion, literally, "Love of Zion." A group of moderate and sympathetic Maskilic rabbis saw there a potential path to productivity and a measured adaptation to modernity.
This was the setting in which Avraham Yitzhak Kook grew up, and these men were among his relatives and teachers.
In 1880, at age fifteen, Avraham Yitzhak left home, in the custom of budding Talmudists, to study with a series of rabbis in small towns. During two years in Liutsin (Ludza), he divided his time between the beit midrash of a Hasidically minded Talmudist and the library of a cousin, a self-professed Maskil ("Enlightener") who regularly gathered around him youthful disciples. During his hours in the library, Avraham Yitzhak began to craft verse, including parodies of Maskilic verse. When, on his return to Grieva for the High Holidays, he brought his notebook of poems, his father did not hide his disappointment. The next year, he brought home a notebook full of Talmudic glosses.
The detailed reminiscences of his study partner of the time are revealing. Avraham Yitzhak dressed, wrote verse, and spoke in grammatical Hebrew, like a Maskil. Yet he also regularly expressed Orthodox attitudes severely critical of modernization and secular university education, and he did not know Russian.
He then spent another year in Smorgon (present-day Smarhon' in Belarus) studying, at his mentor Levin's suggestion, with a member of the Lithuanian rabbinic aristocracy. A lengthy, strikingly learned essay of his from that time on the claims and merit of natural science affords a glimpse into some of his preoccupations. The accomplishments of modern science are obvious, he writes, yet are no match for rabbinic tradition when it comes to grasping the ideas underlying the universe or the paths to human perfection.
On his return from Smorgon, in the spring of 1884, he met with Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim (1842/3?–1905), a renowned Talmudist and rabbi of Ponevezh, who was looking for a husband for his eldest daughter, Batsheva Alta. In a memoir of his life, Rabinowitz-Teomim, known by the acronym Aderet, comes across as an immensely learned, gentle, and harried soul longing for the peace of the study hall and never able to reap the rewards of his intellectual talents. His life story, an unrelenting chronicle of bereavement, poor health, premature deaths (nine of his thirteen children died at young ages), bitter squabbles with rival rabbis for decently paying pulpits, and promises broken by capricious in-laws and rapacious congregants, sheds a harsh light on the dire socioeconomic circumstances of many Lithuanian rabbis of the time. Indeed, he was sometimes forced to the extraordinary expedient of going on strike, which consisted of refusing to answer halakhic questions. In this respect, the nascent socialist stirrings of the time seem not to have passed Aderet by.
When it came time to find his eldest daughter a husband, he asked around and heard about young Kook, who, aside from being an upstanding young man and a pious scholar, had fine parents, to whom Aderet's poverty did not matter. He suggested a meeting in Riga, and his reaction to his prospective son-in-law was immediate and moving: "And when I laid eyes on him and spoke to him for several hours, my soul cleaved to him, I loved him profoundly, as I got my first glimpse of him and his extraordinary talents and piety and (saw) that he would become a mighty cedar." After the prospective couple were introduced in Dobvelen (Dubulti, Latvia), where Aderet regularly went to take the waters, the betrothal agreement was signed in Dvinsk in the fall. Avraham Yitzhak Kook set off for a year and a half's study in Volozhin.
In Volozhin, Avraham Yitzhak was thrust into a more dynamic yeshiva environment than he had known before—perhaps the most dynamic one anywhere. Some 250 talented young men came to Volozhin from all over Eastern Europe for intensive study year-round, generating a youth culture of extraordinary intensity. "When I first entered the yeshiva and looked around I was astonished by what I saw," another student later recalled. "In all my life, never had I seen a yeshiva of comparable grandeur and beauty, a broad, long study hall, bookstands arrayed along its length and width from end to end with only a narrow aisle between them, the tables tapered along the sides so that the Talmud folio of one not touch that of the other standing in front of him."
At Volozhin, Avraham Yitzhak became a disciple of the dean, Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (1816–1893), known by the acronym Netziv, who combined staggering erudition, keen analytic powers, and a felicitous writing style with administrative acumen and charisma. He was in many respects the truest inheritor of the Gaon of Vilna's textual revolution, incorporating the whole of ancient rabbinic literature, well beyond the Babylonian Talmud, into the curriculum. Unlike the Gaon, Netziv did not try to harmonize the various texts, but allowed each its own distinctive voice. Also unlike the Gaon, he seems to have had little truck with Kabbalah. But unlike most Lithuanian Talmudists, he had a passion for the Bible. And he deeply engaged in his own way the critical textual and historical studies of the time.
Excerpted from Rav Kook by YEHUDAH MIRSKY. Copyright © 2014 Yehudah Mirsky. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Yehudah Mirsky is Associate Professor of the Practice of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. He served in the U.S. State Department’s human rights bureau, lived in Israel for the past decade, and has contributed to the New Republic, the Economist, and many other publications.
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