Interview with Yehudah Mirsky about Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

Years ago, when I was at Yeshiva College after I had already read the available English books about Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook as well as the meager translations, I decided it was time to turn to his Hebrew works. Fortuitous for me was that the person who lived across the hall from me in the dorm was future Brandeis professor, Yehuda Mirsky. He recommended that I start with Eder Hayakar-Ikvei h’Tzon (excellent translation of much of it here), which contains Kook’s early clarion call that we live in a unique age,in which the youth will not continue the archaic ways; Times are changing and new solutions are needed.

The same Yehudah Mirsky now guides all of us in his recently written book, the only introduction to Kook’s life entitled, Rav Kook Mystic in a Time of Revolution (Yale University Press, 2014). Mirsky is currently an Associate Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies as well as affiliated with the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. He served in the U.S. State Department’s human rights bureau has lived in Israel for the past decade, and has contributed to the New Republic, the Economist, and many other publications.

Even though many have heard of Rabbi Kook, English readers have had little exposure to the actual complexity of his thought. Most of the translations into English were done in the mid-20th century by RIETS graduates who studied with Kook’s student Moshe Seidel at Yeshiva University and who went on to respond to the changes of modernity by building the Conservative Movement (Ben-Zion Bokser, and Jacob Agus). On the other hand, the writings produced in mid-twentieth Israel stressed that Kook wanted to “renew the old and sanctify the new’ through Religious Zionism of secular education, poetry, imagination, state building, and a modern worldview (Zvi Yaron).

Even for those who read Hebrew, his ideas were elusive. After the 1967 War, Rav Kook was presented in the works constructed by his son, Zvi Yehudah (such as Orot) as stressing the organic bond of the Jewish soul to the land, the glories of war, messianic politics, and nullification of the exile. In contrast, the more Modern Orthodox world stressed Orot Hakodeh, edited by the Nazir David Cohen, in which worked out Rav Kook’s positions on faith, heresy, kefira, tolerance, and science (such as Benjamin Ish Shalom, for a good overview of this angle read the VBM classes).

Recently, Rav Kook’s original notebooks, Shemonah Kevatzim were published, from which the other works were constructed. In addition, other manuscripts, mystical diaries, and Kook’s early articles have also been recently published wherein he reveals himself to be a Haredi who struggled with the spirit of modern philosophy, someone who rejected secular education in school but eagerly met regularly with secular authors, someone who liked the free-spirited thinking of the Religious Kibbutz movement but opposed their halakhic leniencies and as someone who wants a religious Zionism but vehemently fought against the institutions and social vision of the Mizrachi party.

Now, Mirsky offers us a comprehensive yet concise biography.We still await a comprehensive book on Rav Kook’s thought.

This post is already very long but one should also find time to read Mirsky’s ideas about the staying power of Orthodoxy and Orthodox Feminism.


1) Can you tell me about your new book?
Rav Kook is an immensely significant and compelling figure, at the very least one of the most important Jewish thinkers and public figures of modern time. His life is a sacred history of the most powerful and contradictory currents of modern Judaism. And yet he’s hardly known in the English speaking world, including among students of religion.

State Department colleagues of mine who spent years working on settlements, peace process etc. have never heard of him – and thus never thought of settlers as anything other than Bible-thumping nationalist fundamentalists. American Jewish intellectuals know almost nothing about him (other than “he was the vegetarian, right” – though only sort of, or “that fascist?”), rabbis and educators know only the vaguest things and even Orthodox Jews know very little about him – though they are curious. And even reasonably well-informed people have little idea just how hard-fought the internal history of Zionism in general, and religious Zionism in particular, have been.

So I tried here to fill that gap, with a book length essay about Rav Kook’s life, thought and times, that would be meaningful both to learned readers like you and to people whose knowledge of Judaism comes from book reviews in the New Yorker.

I tried to write in a style that would strike a balance critical distance and empathetic understanding. And because it was so short, I had to make every sentence count.

2) What do you do with the dominant interpretation of Rav Kook as messianic militarism via his son Rabbi Zvi Yehudah and Hardal.

In some ways this is THE question here.

Our interpretive choices as readers, especially as engaged and committed readers, are also moral choices. My moral choice here is to try and do justice to the man, understand him as best I can, trying to convey the very great weight of moral and spiritual authority he rightly brings down to the present – while at the same time choosing not to use his deeply essentialized ideas about the land of Israel and the Jewish people, by which those entities are in some ways removed from the world and can, in the exercise of their selfhood do no wrong, as guides for political life in the present.

Rav Zvi Yehudah and his disciples have chosen otherwise – to read him as a corpus that can brook no contradiction, and to take those essentialized readings of Eretz Yisrael and Knesset Yisrael as guides for action in the present day. I believe that doing so will in the end lead to bad results, and to cruelty, whether intentionally inflicted or not. Which is not to get the Palestinians and Israel’s other antagonists off the hook for the bad things they have done. As Rav Amital taught us, life is complicated, but that complexity is not an excuse from trying to think things through.

Now, Allan Nadler in his smart and bracing piece in the Jewish Review of Books argues that I let Rav Kook too easily off the hook – in that his ideas, to Allan’s mind, lead directly to those of Rav Zvi Yehudah – as well as arguing that while I do present a nuanced and critical view, I left out some of Rav Kook’s less congenial or even disturbing rulings and pronouncements. As far as the latter goes, as I said, I wrote this book for a wider audience, and assumed that what I had in there already was shocking enough to liberal sensibilities, and that adding more would have kept general readers from trying to understand what was so compelling about this man and why he’s so significant. (In Hebrew I tend to write a bit more freely.)

As for the first point – yes, mystical metaphysics, messianism and absolutist thinking make for dangerous politics. Allan’s points here are well-taken, necessary and refreshing.

And as I say repeatedly in the book, Rav Kook’s powerful spiritual and theological understandings were uncoupled from a concrete understanding of politics; and he was regularly very naïve . But choosing to use that mystical metaphysics as a basis for politics in a modern state, one that arose nearly fifteen years after his death, is a choice. It wasn’t historically inevitable – nothing is. It certainly wasn’t an obvious choice after the Holocaust.

It’s worth remembering that Rav Kook was hardly studied for years, and Religious Zionists were politically moderate until 1967. The war radically shifted so many people’s perceptions – that, and then the apocalyptic atmosphere of the Yom Kippur War, coupled with the Religious Zionist youth rebellion against the hegemony of Mapai, is what truly led to his teachings being turned into a political doctrine.

In a sense it was then that Scholem’s amazing prophecies in his incredible letter to Rosenzweig, about the summoning of the ghosts of the past with terrible violence, finally came to pass.

I have to say that one of the things that writing this book did was give me greater personal sympathy for Rav Zvi Yehudah as someone grappling with an unimaginably large fatherly shadow in darker historical circumstances than his father could have imagined. It was a terrible predicament, that yielded tragic results. I say these critical things without triumphalism and with sadness. There are reasons why I have devoted so many years of my life to Rav Kook’s life and thought and one of them is love. But love does not in and of itself answer our moral questions, or tell us how to avoid injustice.

Yoske Achituv z’l, who deserves to be better known (whose passing you noted here and see my tribute )– struck, I think, just the right balance in writing about Rav Kook with both reverence and criticism. Yoske wrote about the need for “Religious Zionism Without Illusions,” a humbler, and I think more life-giving, dispensation (akin to what I’ve called “tragic liberalism”). There needs to be some way to mix the extraordinary vitality, passion and holiness with which Rav Kook electrifies our religious lives, while respecting the inevitable compromises, and necessary limitations on self-expression, limitations imposed above all by the real needs and sufferings of others, here in this world.

3) What was your relation to Rav Amital?
In many ways, all of this begins with him. I owe him so much, and Rav Kook is just one part of it.
Like many Modern Orthodox kids, I grew up with this vague sense of Rav Kook as a culture hero. In addition to hearing this at home (though surprisingly not often, given how deeply, I came to learn later on, my grandfather had been shaped by him).

The culture hero for us was, of course, the Rav, and for me it was also my father z’l and his literary humanist inflection of Modern Orthodoxy.

I arrived at the Gush for Elul zman in 1978 and was immediately drawn to Rav Amital and deeply fortunate, blessed actually, to be, so to speak, gathered in by him. He was immensely supportive and understanding, while being challenging at the same time. I once asked Rav Steinsaltz to sum up how he saw Rav Amital and he said “he built human beings, hu banah anashim”.

Via Rav Amital I encountered Rav Kook as this thinker and figure who simply shifted the ground under your feet by saying that all the things that concern you – about theology, ethics, politics, history, art, culture, your own personal and spiritual life, including your doubts, criticisms, questions – all of it is from God and all part of the greater spiritual life of the world. That was at one and the same time immensely empowering and immensely healing.

I was worthy (zokheh) (a word I don’t use lightly) to spend much time and have many conversations with Rav Amital, up to just a few weeks before his death. About him I could go on, and on. I guess for now, I’ll keep it at this: I was one of the students who followed the same political trajectory as he. I arrived at those conclusions independently but his going in that direction too was deeply meaningful. The night in early 1983 in which I heard him criticize Gush Emunim, Peace Now and Arik Sharon as all forms of false messianism, was one of the most powerfully formative moments of my life.

In looking at Rav Amital’s approach as an interpreter of Rav Kook, there are, I think it fair to say, two major elements. First, the interpretive key, the compelling leitmotif, of the vast Rav Kook corpus as a whole, is ethics. The second is that Rav Kook was a human being, and human beings can be wrong and make mistakes. As Rav Amital often said, Rabbi Akiva’s greatness is undiminished and his power within the tradition undimmed, even by his having been wrong about Bar Kochba, and, according to Hazal, he was.

As time went by, the Shoah loomed larger and larger for Rav Amital and he had an increasingly hard time with Rav Kook’s relentless optimism, all the more with Rav Zvi Yehudah’s belief that he could read God’s mind. Rav Amital, let’s recall, had smuggled Rav Neriah’s Mishnat Ha-Rav into the labor camp where he’d been imprisoned and that book had helped him survive. His willingness to go on thinking and rethinking until the end was, to my mind, a mark of incredible integrity and courage.

4) What is the role of the ethical and “natural or ingrained ethics” (musar tivii) in Rav Kook’s thought?
Rav Amital often pointed out that the single most often used word in the corps is “musar.” But what it means, is complicated. In one passage, (Shemonah Kevatzim 1:683, Orot Ha-Kodesh, vol. 3, p. 19) Rav Kook lists no fewer than fifteen categories, or rubrics, of musar: Divine, revealed, of faith, natural, virtue ethics, personal relative to collective, educational and familial, practical relative to theoretical, historical relative to contemporary, ideal morals of the future, and the last – the morals of the spiritual communion (kibbutz), greater than all the others.
What unites them all for him, I think, is that musar is how God’s heavenly light manifests in human action. Without it, our relations to God are abstract, ethereal, un-centered. But ethics require the corresponding knowledge that God’s light is that which holds the world and from which all flows (or makif). Ethics, if not enacted with the sense that it is rooted in the very order of being, will inevitably decay and decline.There is in that set of ideas, a powerful way of thinking about religious ethics.

As for natural ethics, musar tivii, recall that For Rav Kook nature is itself imbued with divine energy, striving upward. And so natural morality, basic moral intuitions are God-given, and the foundation for a larger moral project – whose ultimate goal is for Rav Kook the very dissolution of the categories of body and soul, and with it the need to choose goodness from within a divided self.

My sense for now is that that dissolution may be something attainable by very rare individuals (think of Rav Aryeh Levine). And the re-embodiment of Judaism is, as Rav Kook understood, a key and immensely significant part of the Zionist revolution. But taking the dissolution of body and soul as a collective prescription for the here and now – and especially for politics – it’s a recipe for disaster. And I don’t think Rav Kook meant it in his time for the masses.

5) What was Rav Kook’s relationship to Christianity?
One of the things I emphasize in my book is his response to Christianity, particularly in the context of World War I. (Indeed, I recognize that devoting an entire chapter to the comparatively short period of July 1914-August 1919 is far from an obvious choice but to me it somehow was clear from the outset that was what I had to do, there was just no way to do it otherwise.)

In Shemonah Kevatzim we can now see just when – and where – various reflections of his were written, and we immediately see that his most critical comments about Christianity were written during World War I — or should we say “The Great War” since that’s what it was, not just in Western nomenclature until World War Two, but in his canon forever after, since editions of Orot simply reprinted over and over his sections on “Ha-Milchamah” – which was clearly WWI to readers of the first edition, in 1920, but not at all clear to readers later on.

In many ways he blamed WWI on the Church and in particular on the doctrines of “render unto Caesar” and of antinomianism, which to his mind, taken together, lead to what he calls a ‘half-way despair’ in which rather than believing you can change the world for the better through the world’s own inherent goodness (for him, the Jewish view) or despairing of the vanities of the world as a whole (how he understood Buddhism, which he respected on those terms), in Christianity you half-heartedly to moralize a world you don’t really believe in, draining religion of real moral power and yielding the worst of all results.

Now a few things are interesting here – first, he directs much more rhetorical fire at Christianity than at another more obvious culprit of the war, namely nationalism.

Second, while he’s very harsh about the Church throughout, at other points in his life, especially in earlier years, he has favorable things to say about Jesus, whom he regards as a powerful spiritual figure (one who perhaps had real Messianic potential) who let his elan vital get the better of him.

Third – and perhaps where these two points come together, I suspect he inveighed so strongly against Christianity precisely because he himself felt the pull of antinomianism, in his longings to move beyond the law to a rich fullness of being, and felt the pull of love that dissolves all boundaries.
Remember, for him the ultimate goal was nothing less than the dissolution of the boundaries of body and soul. And yet, for me at least, his not going all the way with those thoughts but remaining tied to the law is one of the most attractive things about him. That dialectic of structure and anti-structure which courses so powerfully through him, and I think through us.

Much of his critique of Christianity is rooted precisely in the sense that it has fatally attempted to vault over the law into oceanic love, before its time, and the results have been catastrophic.

6) How is Rav Kook’s thought relevant for American Jewry?
In many ways it’s not –but that’s a function of my general sense that US and Israeli Jewry inhabit two truly different worlds. I know I’m being overly flip, but that is to remind us to acknowledge the huge gaps – which also play out in key differences between Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism, which are about different challenges and questions.

That being said, I do think he points to seeing, or better using Kabbalah as a way of accepting that we live in a world characterized by very real differences, and that there are ways of seeing these differences as dialectically engaging and enriching one another. Of course that doesn’t work all the way through, and when it comes to moral issues we do have to choose. But I find it helpful that he thinks of a universe structured like a series of rivers, each with its own certain path, in its own sluices. All of human culture, Jewish and non-Jewish, Rav Kook considers as an effort to overcome the alienation we find in ourselves, and to have faith in God as a fount of ultimate self-realization for every one, is powerful and healing.

Another thing that American Jews stand to benefit from is exposure to the sheer intensity and vast aspiration of Rav Kook, as well as the other figures I discuss, like Gordon and Brenner. In America we trade off spiritual intensity for civic peace, and it’s in many ways a good bargain. But we need to be reminded of people who took responsibility for their historical moment and their own moral and spiritual lives, amid the chaos of modernity, with a seriousness of purpose we can scarcely imagine.

I think the biggest potential contribution, certainly for American Jews, is his thinking on living in a pluralized society. People see pluralism as this wishy-washy split-the-difference kind of thing where they don’t really take strong opinions on anything (except for where they do but won’t admit it, e.g. about material prosperity or basic civic assumptions of American life). Rav Kook offers a vision of pluralism grounded in real commitments that you’re willing to fight for and in a faith that God ultimately underwrites the integrity of honest commitments and the faith that there will be peace in the end. That is something that American Jews could learn from.

In my own life, for instance, in the years that I was actively engaged in the struggle against Mehadrin public transportation bus lines in Israel, I drew strength from this vision of Rav Kook’s and actively sought to understand my Haredi opponents on the issue, not just to learn where they were coming from, but to learn what it was that they genuinely had to teach me.

Also, I was deeply gratified that the first review of the book to appear was by Rabbi Jack Bieler on takeaways for American Jewish educators (and Orthodox educators in particular).

7) One gets a sense from your narrative that he if he was alive today in the US he would be Lakewood Haredi (Not Modern Orthodox) but meeting regularly with Reb Zalman, Art Green, Joanthan Foer, and Tova Mirvis. Is that a correct assessment?

You left out Dylan!
You’re very on to something here. It’s fair to say he would have appreciated a lot about Modern Orthodoxy – and yet, it does seem to this observer at least, in its deeply bourgeois character, its tamping down of subjectivity, expression, in its not seeing inner freedom as a religious value, to be well afield of what he had in mind. He wanted the religious life, in a deep way, to be wild.

8) What is your next project?
I am considering a serious project on re-examining some core assumptions of the enterprise of human rights, in terms of law, politics, and, yes, theology. This was what was in my mind when I left the State Department back in 1997, and it’s been kicking around with me since. The effort to moralize politics that goes by the name of ‘human rights’ is a precious and terribly important thing, whose present conceptual foundations, I fear, will be unable to sustain it for long. ‘Human rights’ may be the wrong term to capture what it is we’re trying to do.

But first I do want to go back and publish my dissertation, which as you know is a different sort of work, a full bore academic monograph, 500 typescript pages on Rav Kook’s first decades, before his aliyah in 1904, which receive a mere 35 pages in the present book. I like to think of it as “Rav Kook: The Motown Years.”

I have of course at times asked myself, how is it that here I am in my early 50s still trying to figure out what Rav Kook thought in his early twenties? The answer is that there are some figures and thinkers who are worth that effort, who repay our efforts to learn about and understand them in ways that go far beyond themselves, and I do truly believe that he is one of them.

3 responses to “Interview with Yehudah Mirsky about Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

  1. “It’s fair to say he would have appreciated a lot about Modern Orthodoxy – and yet, it does seem to this observer at least, in its deeply bourgeois character, its tamping down of subjectivity, expression, in its not seeing inner freedom as a religious value, to be well afield of what he had in mind. He wanted the religious life, in a deep way, to be wild.”

    In what way does MO tamp down subjectivity and expression more than Hareidi Orthodoxy? How does the latter embrace “inner freedom” and being “wild” as religious values? How are any these compatible with Orthodox dogma?

  2. lawrence kaplan

    Great interview. My thanks to both Alan and Yehudah. As someone who has studied the writings of Rav Kook and who has written a number of articles about him, the main new perspective I gleaned from the biography is that Rav Kook’s becoming Chief Rabbi was an almost unmitigated disaster for him and for the Office of the Chief Rabbinate, for reasons which Yehudah spells out very nicely.

  3. Sometimes it feels to me that the world of orthodoxy between the wars was somewhat different than we might imagine. I think of my grandfather, after who I am named, who made aliyah in the 30’s with my father and aunt. He returned because of a bad heart before the war. He was a rabbi, born in Poland and sent my father to Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin.

    My point is that I have two photos of him – one on the beach with my uncle, and between them is standing Meir Dizengoff. The other picture, he is standing next to Rav Kook at a Degel Yerushalayim rally. While I admire him, I do not think that he was necessarily unique. In that context perhaps Rav Kook was the voice of a generation in some ways, and not sui generis.

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