While some books offer a good read, and others encapsulate groundbreaking scholarship, Yehudah Mirsky’s “Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution” (Yale University Press) manages to do both.
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the founding chief rabbi of modern Israel, is read more widely in Israel these days than ever before, and new Hebrew volumes of his work continue to be published. But his extensive writings and teachings are little known in the English-speaking world. Released as part of the Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series, this is the first biography in English in more than 50 years. Mirsky’s book is timely, for in order to understand the nuances of Religious Zionism as it is embodied today in Israeli politics and society — as well as to understand Jewish spirituality — it’s essential to understand the thinking and leadership of Rav Kook.
Mirsky tries to show how Rav Kook’s teachings have been turned into a political doctrine that he neither intended nor believed in. As the main editor and interpreter of his father’s work after his death, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook heightened the nationalist dimensions, while downplaying the humanistic, universalist, pluralist and peace-seeking elements. The former served to inspire the messianic zeal of the settler movement, particularly after 1967.
A scholar who now teaches at Brandeis University, Mirsky finds Rav Kook even more interesting as a rabbi, philosopher, Talmudist, poet, mystic and tzaddik. Mirsky writes, “The endless play of light and shadow in his mind, at times fevered, at others serene, recasts the conventional ideas of his time in new and complicated patterns.” He also describes Rav Kook as a relentless optimist.
Mirsky read in Hebrew the private notebooks and spiritual diaries of Rav Kook. While he has written a long dissertation about Rav Kook, this is a brief and engaging biography; his footnotes indicate the extent of his research. Mirsky previously served in the U.S. State Department during the Clinton administration and has written for The New Republic, The Economist and other publications. From 2002 to 2012, he lived in Israel and was a fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Jewish People Policy Institute. In an interview, he admits that while working for the State Department, he kept a photo of Rav Kook in his drawer.
The author, who grew up on the Upper West Side, explains that while learning at Yeshivat Gush Etzion, led by Rav Yehuda Amital, in Israel in 1978, he was influenced by Rav Amital’s embrace of Rav Kook’s teachings, particularly his urging of a life of spiritual authenticity and honesty. But it was only after he became very interested in the teachings of Rav Kook that he learned of his own family’s strong connections to the religious leader — that his grandfather was a disciple of Rav Kook.
Mirsky writes that in his study and journals, Rav Kook sought to understand “increasingly powerful and contradictory currents coursing through his time, his soul and the soul of the world.” His journals took on a life of their own; his private notebooks became his own house of learning. “The text he was studying was his own increasingly complicated soul.”
Among his many contradictions, Rav Kook was the greatest theologian of Religious Zionism, yet didn’t join the Zionist movement. He was strictly Orthodox in his observance, and “welcomed heresy as a cleansing bonfire whose embers would yield a new revelation.” He was open to leftists and secularists. Mirsky characterizes his writing as including erudite legal opinions, shimmering mystical visions, “penetrating philosophical and human insight alongside evidence of striking political and social naiveté. An ethical universalist, he also embraced nationalism.
The biography is full of engaging stories, from his childhood as a rabbinic prodigy in Lithuania, and a young man “with a lyrical sensibility and vivid imagination” to his yeshiva studies — he became a disciple of the distinguished dean of Volozhin, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, known by the acronym the Netziv — and his work as a community rabbi to his decision to move to Palestine at age 38 in 1904 and accept the post of rabbi of Jaffa.
While being an administrator was not his strong suit, Rav Kook was most generous in his rabbinic duties to help the needy. He spent a lot of time visiting the sick, regularly giving away his own household possessions. One of his disciples, Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Charlap, a native Jerusalemite, regarded him as “Tzadik HaDor, the saint, who in Kabbalistic and Hasidic doctrine, takes upon himself the uplifting of his time, and whose soul challenges God’s energies into the world.”
When Marc Chagall visited Palestine in 1931, he was brought by S.Y. Agnon to meet Rav Kook. Mirsky reports that the painter was very taken with Rav Kook and his “holy face” and asked to paint his portrait. Rav Kook demurred, asking, “What good would it do the Jewish people?”
Readers will gain an appreciation of Rav Kook as a man of complexity and contradiction, a visionary who embraced modernity and Orthodoxy. That the rabbi who saw the spiritual light even in those who wouldn’t see it in themselves would be embraced in recent years by some of the less tolerant element in the Zionist tent seems an unfortunate irony.
Mirsky says he tries to refrain from asking again and again, What would Rav Kook have done now, but readers will no doubt wonder. The struggle over Rav Kook’s legacy continues.