Rav Kook: Mystic in an Age of Revolution
by 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 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."
"Yehudah Mirsky’s lively and clarifying book presents this great-souled rabbi in all his startling richness....one of the most influential and misread figures in modern Jewish thought." --Leon Wieseltier
"Yehudah Mirsky skillfully and majestically tells the tragic story of this moral and intellectual genius..."--Mati Wagner Jerusalem Post
"An intellectual biography in its truest sense: a story of the coming-to-be of a towering intellect and a turbulent soul. Mystic in a Time of Revolution will aid English-language readers unfamiliar with this profoundly influential rabbi to understand one of the founding figures of contemporary Israeli society."-- Marginalia: A Los Angeles Review of Books Channel
"While some books offer a good read, and others encapsulate groundbreaking scholarship, Yehudah Mirsky’s Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution manages to do both."--Jewish Week
"Learned, luminous and uncannily timely...” -- Jewish Review of Books
Yehudah Mirsky’s superb new biography of the great 20th-century Jewish philosopher and mystic is a huge achievement. He gives a gripping, panoramic narrative of the arc of Rav Kook’s life... He has given English-speakers a window through which to enter the world of this endlessly fascinating and vastly important thinker.--Julian Sinclair, London Jewish Chronicle
"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."--David Novak, First Things
...as the question of Jewish unity feels rather pressing in our own day, Kook’s belief in overcoming partisanship for the common good is worth recalling. And Mirsky’s excellent feat of scholarship is a great place to begin. --Howard Freedman, j. weekly
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the last century and very possibly one of the least understood. To deal with his work, one has to know philosophy well, to understand the historical context of both Eastern Europe and the Jewish community of Erets Israel, and in addition, to have a profound understanding of Jewish mysticism and the mystic mind. The author displays all of these with elegance. This volume follows the course of Rabbi Kook's life from Eastern Europe to Jerusalem with stops in Western Europe and presents a clear picture of his thought—without forcing it into a consistency that was never there and without hiding the problematic of his ideas. Mirsky is a master of prose and is able to present complex ideas in understandable English while maintaining the flow of the narrative. One could almost say that Rav Kook would have gotten a clearer picture of some of his own concepts by reading this volume. It certainly is now the standard biography of Rav Kook and it is essential for any serious collection dealing with modern Jewish religious thought as well as related areas.--Shaul Stampfer, Religious Studies Review, December 2014
Yehudah Mirsky’s lively and clarifying book presents this great-souled rabbi in all his startling richness, and responsibly introduces its readers to one of the most influential and misread figures in modern Jewish thought. This is a significant contribution to the history of Jewish ideas – and also to contemporary debates about the Jewish religion and the Jewish state, because the best and the worst of Israeli Judaism may be traced back to the dissonant strains, by turns tolerant and jingoist, in Kook’s profoundly original writings.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, was one of the most important Jewish religious thinkers of modern times - and indisputably the most influential in Israel - yet biographic studies of him in any language, and English studies in general, have been sorely lacking. Yehudah Mirsky’s volume instantly becomes the go-to life and thought of this revolutionary, conservative, radical, traditional, messianic, reality affirming, richly dialectical thinker. The book is written with authority and clarity and is a pleasure to read. Mirsky writes with literary grace and sensitivity, nuance and complexity without losing clarity and focus. Mirsky’s mastery of traditional texts enriches his deep reading of Kook's writings even as his rigorous academic method enables his scholarly lucidity, on Kook’s extraordinary life and oeuvre and the complex afterlife of his teachings. All this and more are captured by Mirsky with restraint, understatement, irony and wisdom.
-- Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, theologian, past professor of Jewish Studies at City College of the City University of New York; President Emeritus of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership
This volume is the most extensive personal and intellectual biography of Rav Kook in English-- and, to use Rav Kook’s beloved imagery, it sheds a great deal of light. Rich in insights and studded with previously neglected or unknown historical details, the book moves through Rav Kook’s life and writings in a way that both makes his ideas accessible and provides a sorely needed context for the various stages of his thought. Mirsky does not shy away from critique. Both scholars and the general public will profit immensely from this book.
-- David Shatz, Professor of Philosophy, Yeshiva University, editor Torah u-Madda Journal