Jewish Journal


The Rav Kook Exchange, Part 2: On Religious Zionism, Ethics and Nationalism

by Shmuel Rosner

June 24, 2014 | 6:14 am

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in 1924

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.

This exchange focuses on Mirsky's critically acclaimed book Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution (Yale University Press, 2014). You can find part one of the exchange right here.


Dear Rabbi Prof. Mirsky,

In the previous round you virtually suggested the subject of this one – Rav Kook’s “passionate Universalism” and its stark contrast with his views on Jewish peoplehood and on the land of Israel.

When one thinks of religious Zionism and of the settler movement today, “passionate universalism” is perhaps the last phrase that comes to mind. Your descriptions of the deep respect Rav Kook had for the autonomous minds of the secular “religiously rebellious” Jews he encountered when he first came to Israel also seem like a far cry from the attitudes of modern day religious Zionism.

My question: What can revisiting Rav Kook’s life and thought teach modern Jewish readers about the origins of religious Zionism, and what can it teach religious Zionists today about how their own movement has changed over the years?




Dear Shmuel,

An honest, clear-eyed look at Rav Kook’s life will, for starters, convey just how different he was from most Religious Zionists of his own time – and thus how different Religious Zionism then was from the way it is today. More broadly, the history of Religious Zionism presents a richer and more complicated heritage than we usually think.

Religious Zionism, as a wing of the Zionist movement, came into being in 1902, with the founding of the Mizrachi, forerunner to the long-running National Religious Party (Miflagah Datit Leumit), which today goes by the name of The Jewish Home Party (Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi).  Remember that when Zionism first arose most traditional Jews and their rabbis were opposed to it. Zionism cut against tradition in several ways – in its secularism; in its arguing for nationhood, independent of religion, as the basis of Jewish identity; and in its wholesale political activism.  Those rabbis who supported Zionism, like the members of the Mizrachi, did so because they saw it as the best vehicle on offer for remedying Jews’ social, political and economic disabilities. They certainly did not want Zionism to take on itself the task of Jewish cultural and spiritual revival, like the disciples of Ahad Ha-Am did. Rav Kook departed from that mind-set and created a third way – an affirmation of Zionism precisely as the vehicle of Jewish cultural and spiritual renewal. Indeed, while he thought the socio-economic and political-diplomatic dimensions of Zionism were important, they seem not to have interested him, and for him the movement’s real significance lay elsewhere. He never joined the Zionist movement as such and lived in an uneasy relationship with it and with the Mizrachi. The only political movement he ever seems to have loved was Ha-Po’el Ha-Mizrachi, the revolutionary faction of Religious Zionism, which was instrumental in creating the Religious wing of the Kibbutz Movement, Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Dati, which endures today.

For Rav Kook, on a theological and spiritual level, and looking through the lens of the Kabbalah as he understood it, Zionism represented nothing less than the opportunity, by re-embodying Jews and Judaism, to actually erase the distinction between world and spirit, body and soul, and, by doing so, heal God’s own alienation from the world, and from Himself.  In this fundamentally life-and world-affirming stance of his, Jewish life arises on a natural foundation of ethics and spirituality, which the Jewish people share with all of humanity. As he famously put it, natural ethics (musar tiv’i), our basic moral sense, is indispensable to the religious life, and piety that seeks to displace it is itself misplaced. Moreover, Rav Kook was very aware of the moral pitfalls of nationalism and felt that Jewish nationalism could only justify itself by reference to a universal mission for all of mankind. (Indeed, he took pains to say that leumiyut was not the same as nazionalismus, since the latter was just chauvinism with no higher purpose.)

Now, these are certainly not the only elements in Rav Kook’s thought. As an Eastern European Jew he inherited a native distance from Gentiles. As a Kabbalist, working with the world-view of the Sefirot, in which the deep structure of Everything is a network of energies and powers emanating from God, he believed that the Land of Israel and the Jewish People are – along with the Oral Torah and the Divine Presence – at a deep level all one and all the point of contact between God’s transcendence and His earthly world.  To be sure, this is heady stuff.

At the same time, as an Eastern European Jew, he deeply identified with the social justice and revolutionary movements of his times. And, as a theologian committed to seeing God’s presence and energy at work in the world, he saw the movements of modern liberals and revolutionaries towards universal ethics as part of God’s working His progress through the human race.  This too is heady stuff and, in the light of twentieth century history, often hard to accept, inspiring a vision though it may be.

No small part of Rav Kook’s being able to see things this way was his conviction that he was living on the threshold of the Messianic time. (And, dying in 1935, he never saw the Holocaust.) For him, the convulsions of modernity, which for most of his rabbinic peers were simply catastrophic, were a sign of the apocalypse that precedes the redemption. 

Now, mainstream Religious Zionists adhered for decades to the moderate line of the Mizrachi-NRP. Indeed, on the eve of the 1967 war the NRP advocated staying out of the conflict. But once Israel had regained all of Jerusalem and the Holy Places, things began to change, and Religious Zionism began to allow itself to be stirred by Messianic energies.

Some winds began to blow in that direction before 1967 – in the Gachelet youth wing of the NRP and among the students who graduated from Moshe Zvi Neriah’s yeshivot Bnei Akiva and began to cluster around Rav Kook’s son, Zvi Yehudah Kook, at Yeshivat Mercaz Ha-Rav. Both those groups were tired of what they saw as their NRP elders’ obeisance to the Labor establishment of Ben-Gurion and Mapai. On the eve of the 1967 war, Rav Zvi Yehudah declared that the currently existing State of Israel was itself the messianic advent and the war confirmed what seemed to be his prophecy. Rav Kook had never laid out a concrete political program. Rav Zvi Yehudah did – the settlement of Judea and Samaria as the overwhelming priority – and presented it as the natural extension of his father’s teachings. (Yossi Klein Halevi’s new book Like Dreamers goes into this at length, as does Gershom Gorenberg’s Accidental Empire, a terrific book that deserves to be better-known and translated into Hebrew!)

Rav Zvi Yehudah did not deny the universalist dimension of his father’s teachings, but he did downplay it. Put a little differently, Rav Zvi Yehudah’s emphasis on the centrality of settling the Land had the effect of framing the universalist dimension entirely within the nationalist dimension. This comes across not only in politics but in the ways in which he edited his father’s writings. (The publication of his father’s writings in their original form in recent years conveys the way in which the Rav Kook canon was shaped by editors, but it also shows just how skilful those editors were – and Rav Zvi Yehudah certainly was.)

The figure who most seriously challenged Rav Zvi Yehudah from within Religious Zionism, and his interpretation of Rav Kook in particular, was my teacher, Rav Yehudah Amital of Yeshivat Har Etzion. Though he was an influential thinker of the settlement movement, he shifted, for lack of a better word, to the left. (I’ve written about him here and here.) The crucial turning point for him was the first Lebanon War, after which he concluded that Peace Now, the settler movement, and the militarism of Ariel Sharon, were all, each in their own way, a kind of false messianism, meeting complicated problems with simplistic solutions. When it comes to interpreting Rav Kook’s vast and complicated corpus of writings, Rav Amital argued that it was the ethical dimension, and not the Land of Israel, that was the key, the interpretive lens, through which to understand the Master’s thought.

Another crucial feature of Rav Amital’s argument with Rav Zvi Yehudah was their understanding of the Holocaust. For Rav Zvi Yehudah, the Holocaust was the radical surgery that God performed on the Jewish people in order to get them out of exile once and for all. Rav Zvi Yehudah didn’t say that lightly – he himself lived in Eastern Europe for a good part of his life – but nonetheless, that is what he thought. Rav Amital, a Holocaust survivor (who smuggled a volume of Rav Kook into a Nazi labor camp) argued vehemently that the Holocaust had placed an eternal question mark over any attempt to say that any one of us can definitively understand historical events, let alone read God’s mind.

Moreover, as I understand Rav Amital’s teachings, our basic moral intuitions, what Rav Kook called musar tiv’I, and, crucially, the belief that our moral sense is God-given, is the leap of faith that grounds religious faith after the Holocaust.

To be sure, Rav Amital’s position was a minority view within Religious Zionism. He himself always taught his students to think for themselves, and while many of his own disciples, like Rav Yaacov Medan, deeply disagreed with his politics, he respected their honest disagreement.

To end this answer where we began – Religious Zionism has a rich history, with a remarkable galaxy of thinkers – Rabbis Kook, father and son, Rav David Cohen Ha-Nazir, Rav Amital, Rav Uziel, Rav Herzog; thinkers of Kibbutz Ha-Dati like Moshe Unna, Zurial Admanit, Eliezer Goldmann and Yoske Achituv (whom you can read about here and here), Yoel Bin-Nun, Rav Shagar and many others. Most of them were in dialogue with Rav Kook, others were not. I think that recapturing that broader palette of ideas is actually a religious and moral imperative.

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