Rabbi Prof. Yehudah Mirsky is associate professor of the practice of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis. Rabbi Mirsky studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva College and received rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem. He graduated from Yale Law School, where he was an editor of the law review, and completed his PhD in Religion at Harvard. He worked in Washington as an aide to then-Senators Bob Kerrey and Al Gore, and at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and served in the Clinton Administration as special advisor in the US State Department's human rights bureau. From 2002-2012 he lived in Israel and was a fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Jewish People Policy Institute. He has written widely on politics, theology and culture for a number of publications including The New Republic and The Economist, and he is on the editorial board of Eretz Acheret. After the attacks of September 11 he served as a volunteer chaplain for the Red Cross. He is a member of the board of Ha-Tenuah Ya-Yerushalmit, the movement for a pluralist and liveable Jerusalem.
The following exchange will focus on Mirsky's critically acclaimed book Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution (Yale University Press, 2014).
Dear Rabbi Prof. Mirsky,
Your new book about Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook sets out to “fill the crying scholarly need for a one-volume study in English” about a “colossal figure little known in the English-speaking world”. My introductory question: why do you think Harav Kook – who means so much to so many different people in Israel – is still not really well known in the English-speaking world, and why should he be?
I’ll take your second question first.
Why does Rav Kook deserve to be better-known in America than he is?
First, because you really and truly cannot understand contemporary Israeli politics or religion without him. It was he who created the basic structures – the institutional structures and the fundamental structures of thought that have guided or, depending on how you look at it, served as the basic crisis points and fault lines of Israeli religious politics down to today. To take two obvious examples, neither the chief rabbinate, nor the settlement movement would have happened without him; whether how they look today is anything like how he himself may have envisioned them is a different story.
Second, because his life story is the sacred history of the contradictions of modern Jewish history. I mentioned his crucial roles in fashioning the chief rabbinate and religious Zionism, yet in many ways those are the least interesting things about him. He – in some ways, more deeply than any Jewish thinker before or since – threw himself into reconciling the multiple tensions of modern Jewish life, between the universal and the particular, nationalism and liberalism, tradition and revolution, rationalism and mysticism, law and prophecy. And he did so in a way that was at once deeply personal and intellectually compelling. Not least, as our friend and colleague Shlomo Fischer brilliantly put it, he was able to sound the tones of the modern celebration of selfhood and subjectivity from within the deepest recesses of Jewish tradition.
Last – but not least for American Jews – he offers powerful resources for living in a pluralized society. He somehow took it upon himself to identify with and reconcile the contending ideologies and factions of Jewish life (and we can forget today just how hard-fought the internal Jewish battles of the early 20th century really were). He developed 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. Today, when ‘pluralism’ is often code for not really committing to anything all that seriously, there is much for American Jews to learn from him.
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).
Why, then, is he so unknown in America?
To begin with, lots of people and figures who are central to Israeli life and history are largely unknown in America. One reason for that is that American Jews don’t read Hebrew – and Rav Kook’s use of Hebrew is in many ways as central to his ideas as, say, Heschel’s use of English is to his. For both thinkers, their highly poetic way of expressing themselves and conveying their ideas makes it hard to translate; in Rav Kook’s case this is perhaps even more so, since his writing is steeped in allusions to a vast range of texts, especially Kabbalistic ones.
Indeed there are some neat ways in which Heschel and Rav Kook’s respective roles in America and Israel illuminate each other. Both are as much culture heroes as thinkers, both provide an anchor for the prevailing politics of their communities – for Heschel, liberalism, for Rav Kook, Religious Zionism; both wrote in a distinctive mix of intellect and passion. .
There are real differences, though. Rav Kook works with, to put it mildly, a deeply essentialized view of Jewish peoplehood and the Land of Israel, which is very foreign and even shocking to American Jewish sensibilities. At the same time, he’s also a passionate universalist – though that dimension of his teaching has been de-emphasized by his disciples (I guess we’ll get into that later in the exchange) – and is embedded in a complex dialectic, more complex, at first glance, than meets the more immediate needs of American Jews.
And just to complete the picture, I’d refer to another hugely influential thinker who’s less culturally prominent in Israel, and that is Joseph Soloveitchik. A few years ago, my friend Kalman Neuman, a terrific scholar who deserves to be better known, published a marvelous study in which he lays out why Rabbi Soloveitchik’s teachings didn’t speak to Israeli audiences. For Israeli Religious Zionists, Kalman wrote, the chief question was how to relate to Israel, to this new form of Jewish collective life, to the army, to the state, to secular Zionism’s radical reinterpretation of Jewish history. For religious Jews in America, the challenge has been to deal with an open civil society, with challenges from science and the humanities, with the liberal challenge to Jewish particularism and with resurrecting whatever they could of the Eastern European past.
In other words, Rav Kook on the one hand, and Rabbis Heschel and Soloveitchik on the other, are each, much of the time, addressing different sorts of problems.
All three thinkers worked hard, each in their own way, to deal with the problems and dilemmas of modern Jewish life in ways that were both audacious and deeply faithful, in the way that great religious thinkers often are.