Jewish Journal


The Rav Kook Exchange, Part 3: On Orthodoxy

by Shmuel Rosner

July 3, 2014 | 4:11 am

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

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 parts one and two of the exchange here and here.


Dear Rabbi Prof. Mirsky,

After delving into some Zionist history in round two, I’d like to dedicate round three to Rav Kook’s intriguingly secular-friendly religious philosophy.

While you make it clear in your book that Rav Kook’s vision of God and the world is deeply rooted in Jewish mysticism and Jewish tradition, your descriptions of his theology seem to present us at times with a very progressive-minded pantheist, who sees the divine in everyone and in everything. The basic virtues which Tzadikim possess and which we should all aspire to, according to Rav Kook, seem to be of a very philosophical nature (‘seeing the light everywhere’, ‘loving the world’, ‘having a keen aesthetic sense’), and his idea of spiritual enlightenment appears to be one which could theoretically be as accessible to a non-Jewish philosopher, or to an idealistic Kibbutz member, as it is to a Torah Scholar…

My question: how Orthodox was Israel’s first Chief Rabbi? What can his thought teach us about the evolution of Israel’s rabbinical establishment and about the changes Israeli orthodoxy has gone through since his time? 

I’d like to thank you again for the book and for participating in this exchange.




Dear Shmuel,

One of the most interesting things about Rav Kook, as you’ve likely noticed by now, is how he scrambles familiar categories, and this from within a deep and rich traditionalism.

Before getting directly to your question, a few words about “Orthodox Judaism.” The term itself is, of course, a modern invention created to describe the living tradition that has become ‘traditionalism,’ a tradition that has self-consciously stood in opposition to change in response to the massive changes – and the belief in the goodness and necessity of radical change – central to modernity. It is Torah become ideology – in self-defence, against a slew of other ideologies. The tradition mobilizes in response to an acute and painful awareness of its new fragility. Because the tradition itself is varied, its formulations as Orthodoxy are varied too and, as I’ve written at greater length elsewhere, it makes more sense to speak of Orthodoxies – be they Hasidic, Litvak, Mizrahi, Modern, Religious, Feminist etc. – all sharing a fundamental commitment to traditional halakha and rabbinic authority, however differently they interpret it.  Orthodox Judaism as a whole offers powerful answers to fundamental questions – Who am I? How can I come to know and understand the world? What should I do? What can I hope for? (How that power has enabled Orthodoxy to withstand modernity and whether its answers can hang together in an ethically and intellectually compelling way over the long haul, and after the advent of feminism in particular, is a big question, and one I’ve gotten into here.)

I say all this to convey why I think that in some crucial ways “was Rav Kook Orthodox?” isn’t the right question. (Recall that one reason we are so deeply engrossed by these great figures is how in their life and thought they create, deconstruct, and recreate the formal categories and living patterns through which we try to understand our lives.)

So, was Rav Kook absolutely committed to living his life in accordance with traditional halakha as he had learned it, and as he himself taught it, and to encouraging others to do the same? Yes, without a doubt. Indeed, in a number of ways he fell on the more conservative side of the rabbinic ledger. At the same time he developed a personal theology – rooted both in his deep and wide study of Rabbinic texts, philosophy and, above all, the Kabbalah – which affirmed some of modernity’s radical assaults on the tradition and, in the farther reaches of his thinking, seemed to dissolve the very categories of Jew and gentile, male and female, and, crucially, body and soul. This was rooted in his seeing all of existence, again, via the Kabbalah, in all its multifariousness and complexity, as an expression of God’s will – not an abstract God choosing this or that, but rather the divine will as itself the very stuff of life, the energy coursing through everything, down from its transcendent source, creating, animating and working through the torturous paths of human history, and back upwards again, bringing with it a redeemed world.

This is, of course, heady stuff. Rav Kook knew that. Like nearly all traditional Kabbalists, his mystical thought and ecstasy were exquisitely connected to the halakha (an important point that usually gets lost in contemporary discussions of Kabbalah).  His deep critique of Christianity was that its attempt to skip over the hard discipline of the law and go straight for love of God and humanity was a dangerous illusion, doomed to failure and worse – and the proof of that, for him, was the wholesale slaughter of World War One.  Rav Kook’s foes from within Orthodoxy accused him – in his endorsement of secular Zionism and enthusiasm for the regularly anti-traditional social justice movements of his time – of fomenting a neo-Christian antinomianism of his own. I believe that Rav Kook knew that his ideas skirted Christian antinomianism – he wrote about it at such length and vehemence precisely because he sensed its power.

What does all this have to do with the Chief Rabbinate?

As early as his mid-twenties, Rav Kook had been thinking and writing about a reconstruction of Rabbinic education and institutions along what is best characterized as neo-Maimonidean lines. By this I mean that he thought rabbis should be educated in a way that enables them to meaningfully engage with general culture, and that rabbinic judicial institutions should be reorganized and streamlined so that they can respond to changing times and circumstances. (Indeed, the first thing he wrote on hearing of the first Zionist Congress in 1897 was an essay on the need to recreate the Sanhedrin, and how, contra Reform Judaism and what he saw as its embrace of exile as an ideal, meaningful halakhic change could happen only in the Land of Israel.) Several decades later, his early agenda of institutional reform joined the vast theology and philosophy of history he had forged in the interim. In other words, the Rabbinate was to become not just more responsive, but play its own role in shepherding the Jews, and thus humanity, into a new and better world, through a patient, faithful reworking of the halakha. 

The Chief Rabbinate was created in 1921, by three sets of actors, each with its own, conflicting, motives. The British wanted a local authority to manage the things they didn’t want to have to worry about (like marriages, inheritance, synagogues etc.). The Zionists wanted a national religious institution, as part of their frenzy of institution-building, and the Religious Zionists wanted an institution of their own. And then there was Rav Kook who saw the Rabbinate – and his yeshiva – as the institutions that would lead the way to the great spiritual revolution that was Zionism’s ultimate – if, unwitting – promise.

Needless to say, it didn’t quite work out that way. Neither the British, nor the secular Zionists, were interested, for obvious and understandable reasons, in having the Rabbinate play a central role beyond its own very limited sphere. The Religious Zionists, then as always (through 1967), wanted to be good team players within the Zionist movement. Rav Kook himself was hobbled in his role as Chief Rabbi for two reasons: First, the broad-minded ecumenism and pacific nature which made him such an attractive figure also made it impossible for him to align himself with any one party or faction; so he ended up with the worst of both worlds: receiving very little political or budgetary support from the Zionists, while being relentlessly attacked – incorrectly but viciously – by the ultra-Orthodox for being a Zionist cut-out. Second, he was, for all his immense gifts and personal incorruptibility, a very bad administrator. And he was, ultimately, naïve about the idealism of politics and politicians and the immunity of rabbinic institutions to corruption, mendacity, and even evil.

There are no historical inevitabilities, and the Rabbinate perhaps need not have turned out to be the alienated and alienating clerical bureaucracy that it is today. (And I have to add that there is plenty of blame to go around here, and the secular political establishment bears more than its share of the blame for how things look today.) Discussions of the isolation, reform or abolition of the Rabbinate today have to proceed on their own terms and with a lucid, wary eye.  One can, as I do, believe in the radical restructuring and perhaps abolition of the Rabbinate while appreciating its founder’s awe-inspiring and sometimes tragic greatness.

And one more thing – Rav Kook was a thinker who celebrated complexity, as itself a sign of the vitality, multifariousness and sheer richness of God and His world.  Part of the enduring fascination he holds, for me and for many others, is his having developed a sensibility and theology that celebrates law and mysticism, the particular and the universal, structure and anti-structure, the prosaic practices that hold our world together and the longings and passions that leave us and the world transformed.

That kind of rich and life-affirming vision is very hard to institutionalize, if it can ever be institutionalized at all. To identify any one institution with God Himself is the essence of idolatry. God is beyond all our institutions, standing in merciful judgment above all of them, and all of us.

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