By Alexander Kaye
It’s a great pleasure to be involved in the launch of this magnificent book. It’s also a great pleasure to be back in Brandeis university, among colleagues, teachers and friends. This institution is of course named for Justice Brandeis. It is not difficult to find records of the personal and professional greatness of Brandeis but it was not until I read Rav Kook that I knew that Kook himself had once met the great jurist and described him as “A very great man who can’t stand injustice being done to anyone, anywhere… His soul is hewn of the purest marble.”
I tell this to you because it relates to the first of the several aspects of this stellar book that I want briefly to convey. The first is that we have to take the book’s subtitle seriously. Mystic in a Time of Revolution. This book is not only about the mystic – Kook himself – but also about his time, the time of Revolution. It captures through elegant prose, engaging anecdotes and biographical snippets the complexities of the momentous times through which Rav Kook lived. The reader experiences the tensions between the Maskilim and Volozhin, Hassidim and Mitnagdim, religious Zionists and the Orthodox, secular Zionists and the religious establishment, the Old Yishuv and the New.
The book introduces us to not only Rav Kook and his close circle but to the vibrant personalities of a wide cast of characters that made up the political and cultural landscape of the Yishuv. We hear about Yosef Chaim Brenner, Shai Agnon, AD Gordon, Micha Yosef Berdiczewski, Samuel Hugo Bergmann, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, and so on and so on. When reading the book I would experience a special spark of excitement when I turned the page and saw a footnote ahead, knowing that I would be in for a treat, about to discover that the teacher of Elie Wiesel was a student of Rav Kook’s in Jaffa, that Zvi Yehuda Kook considered the Israeli Supreme Court Justice Haim Kohn, another student of his father, as “the Elisha Ben Avuyah of our time” or that Chaim Weizmann promised Rav Kook that Biblical criticism would not be taught at the Hebrew University.
It is difficult to isolate the book’s most important contribution but surely a good candidate would be the exquisite way in which it deals with Rav Kook’s spiritual notebooks. The notebooks are a long series of dense, effusive, poetic, fragmentary mystical musings. Every line is elevated but also obscured by kabbalistic allusions, Biblical quotations, philosophical associations and endless metaphorical riffs on light and water. Most of all, the notebooks are riven with the tensions that made up Rav Kook’s inner life, all the while reaching for the cosmic unity that he perceived in all of existence. Rav Kook himself repeatedly lamented his inability to express his ideas and feelings in a way that could be understood by others and, as Yehudah notes, Rav Kook even named the early publication of his notebooks Arpilei Tohar, Mists of Impurity, which underlines that even their author predicted the difficulty that their readers would encounter.
This, I hope, gives some sense of the magnitude of the task facing anyone who wants to write about these notebooks. And yet Yehudah Mirsky succeeds magnificently. He manages to present a clear synopsis of the ideas in the notebooks. He offers along the way elegant explanations the ideas of Kabbalists and philosophers, and the way that Rav Kook folded them into his own thinking, or subtly resisted them. And all along, the book presents the gift of direct translations and paraphrases of Rav Kook’s own writing that, somehow, manage to preserve its allusions, its metaphorical cascades, and its breathless, almost tragic, urgency, while at the same time being lucid and accessible even for the unfamiliar reader.
The book is delicately balanced. It allows us simultaneously to appreciate a giant of modern Jewish history, and indeed, of modern religious history, while acknowledging a series of well-placed critiques. We come to be inspired by Rav Kooks’ equanimity in the face of horrendous insults, his exhausting activism on behalf of the oppressed, and, perhaps above all, his humility. To quote the book, (112), “his political credo was something along these lines: I should always recognize not only that my opponent is human, but also that he has a piece of the truth that is unavailable to me. Secure in the rightness of my calling and in the inevitable partiality of my vision, I proceed with faith in the struggle itself and in its ultimate, harmonious resolution.” We can only wish that all public actors would conduct themselves along these lines.
At the same time, the book repeatedly illustrates Rav Kook’s political naïveté and his failure to form institutions of any significant impact. It questions his continued commitment to the idea that “everything is rising” even during the massive slaughter of WWI. Most importantly, the book confronts the question of Rav Kooks ambiguous legacy. It points out the distortions entailed as his son and others translated his airy ideas into concrete ideology and action. And it also leads us to wonder whether it was ever possible for the humanitarianism and humility in Rav Kook’s thinking to resist the slide from religiously-inflected nationalism into jingoism and messianic triumphalism.
I will close by briefly indicating how the book has helped to shed light on my own current research, which is about the legal and political theory of religious Zionists after the death of Rav Kook. (It is indeed remarkable that a single book might serve as a introduction to the Yishuv for beginners as well as an invaluable resource for scholars in the field.) In the course of a long series of correspondence [with Shlomo Zalman Pines] on the subject of the Jewish use of force, Kook wrote the following line: “When there is no king, inasmuch as the king’s laws also pertain to the general state of the nation, those legal rights revert to the nation as a whole.” It is a terse line whose consequences are barely spelled out by their author. And yet, in the decades after the establishment of the State of Israel, it became a cornerstone of the attempt by religious Zionists like Shlomo Goren and Shaul Yisraeli to understand the constitution of the modern, democratic Jewish state in religious terms.
The idea embedded in Rav Kook’s phrase was use for two purposes that were in tension with each other. It was used to legitimize the laws of the Knesset, a secular body whose legislation had no connection to halakha and which, on the whole, had little regard for the rabbinic establishment. The Knesset, it was argued, had the authority of the people as a whole, and so inherited the rights of Israel’s monarchy. On the other hand, this same idea was used to limit the authority given to the government. If it really was akin to a Jewish monarch, then it also inherited the monarch’s responsibility to subordinate itself to the Torah. This left open the possibility that the government would have to be held in check by religious leaders and even disobeyed if necessary. So Rav Kook’s idea was used by those who came after him in a way that valorized the secular State of Israel and at the same time in a way that tried to keep it within the strictures of traditional law and society. Having read this book, this paradox comes as no surprise. Yehudah has taught us that it precisely mirrors Kook’s inner tensions. These were the tensions that perhaps Rav Kook himself was able to hold in one body, but that after his death burst apart, to become a central component the story of the State of Israel today.