“Rabbi Kook, the Man and his Teaching, Kabbalah and the New Era in the Development of Judaism”, published by Machanaim, is the first Russian language work dedicated to the description and analysis of the foundations of Religious Zionism, a movement virtually unheard of in diaspora, yet which plays an enormous role in Israeli life. Dr. Pinchas Polonsky of Bar-Ilan University, who specializes in modern Jewish religious philosophy, put together the compilation of Kook’s writings. This article summarizes the central points of the book.
The book can be ordered in Israel by e-mail at email@example.com, or by telephone at (+972)54665890, in USA - firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-332-0864.
Rabbi Abraham-Yizhak ha-Cohen Kook (1865, Latvia – 1935, Jerusalem) is one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished authorities on the Jewish religion. In 1904 he moved to Eretz Israel to assume the rabbinical post of Yaffa and agricultural settlements nearby. In 1921 he was appointed the Rabbi of Jerusalem and soon after that he became the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine. A kabbalist who united in his teachings the ideas of Vilna Gaon and the legacy of Chassidism, Rabbi Kook created the philosophy of religious Zionism, the movement symbolized by the knitted kippa, which now claims as its adherents more than half of Israel’s Orthodox Jews. His teachings have attracted great attention from the entire Jewish intellectual world, and his approach is widely seen as a turning point in the development of Judaism. But few people, even among Kook’s supporters and followers, understand the true essence and philosophical underpinnings of Kook’s religious revolution. This analysis is the subject of the book “Rabbi Kook, the Man and his Teaching, Kabbalah and the New Era in the Development of Judaism”, which has just been published by Machanaim. This article will outline the central elements of this religious revolution.
Rabbi Kook’s religious revolution is distinguished by the fact that it exists entirely within the framework of Orthodox Judaism, presenting itself as “Modern Orthodoxy.” But what, exactly does that mean; is it not a contradiction in terms?
Can one preserve intact all of the religion’s content, laws, and commandments and at the same time modernize?
In order to see how this could possibly be done, we will introduce an analogy from an apparently different sphere altogether. Imagine that we have a picture hanging on the wall, which we gaze at and study for a long time. We study it for a day, a year, ten, a hundred, nearly two thousand years. We have learned the picture by heart, we know its every line and detail, and we believe that we understand its meaning. Then, suddenly, the entire wall is lit up, and we realize it is all one great picture, and that our original painting is merely a fragment of the whole. In that moment, although the painting remains unchanged, all of its meaning changes. We had thought that a person in the painting was sitting alone, but when the wall is illuminated, we see that someone sits opposite him; they converse. This is Modern Orthodoxy: all of the details remain, but the meaning changes – or, rather, becomes clear.
To turn from the analogy back to Judaism: for millennia we thought that Judaism occupied only the “religious sphere,” that science, literature, art, government, and other such “worldly” concerns were not an essential aspect of religion. Rabbi Kook showed us that the whole wall – the universe, all of culture and civilization – is a unified whole to be interpreted in a religious context. He broadened Judaism to the dimensions of civilization – not only “Jewish civilization” (the Jewish life that had taken shape in the diaspora over the last millennium), but also all of human civilization.
We will examine the ways in which he did this below.
What are the principal characteristics of monotheistic religion? Why did the transition to monotheism bring about such striking advances for humankind? The essence of monotheism, and its difference from idolatry, lies not only in its assertion that there is a single god.
In any system of idolatry there is a single higher power, but it is always represented as an impersonal force: for the ancient Greeks, it was Fate; for the Buddhists, it is the law of Karma; for the Chinese, the law of Heaven. Zeus was not the highest deity in Greek mythology; he was far from omnipotent. The highest power was Fate, who reigned over all. Why did the Greeks pray to Zeus rather than to Fate? Because Fate has no character. It does not converse with us, does not respond when called upon; it is a soulless law of nature. Therefore, it is pointless to pray to Fate or to try to engage with it, and one must turn to Zeus who, though he stands lower than Fate, enters into dialogue with human beings. A similar logic exists in every pagan system, from ancient Babylon to Siberian Shamanism.
But if the Highest Power is an impersonal and indifferent law of nature, then there is no unified meaning in the world, and there never can be.
The central idea of monotheism is that God – a Highest Power, who created the world and its laws and who is omnipotent – created humankind in His likeness. The individual is the image of God, and all of our life is a dialogue with Him. All that we do and believe, all of our decisions and actions, are the words we speak to God, and everything that happens to us is His answer to us.
And as God created us, He loves us, and therefore the central commandments, to love God and to love our neighbor, are two sides of the same idea. It could even be said that a person’s love for God is measured by his love for his neighbor, and that the spiritual level of a society can be measured by the degree to which that society treats the individual as the image of God, respecting his worth and freedom.
And as God created people in his image, He regards them as his children, so that each of us is the child of God, and He strives for our advancement. This means that there is and will always be progress toward the good. Thus, God’s love for humankind gives meaning to the world, making monotheism a fundamentally optimistic belief system.
All of these central ideas of Judaism lay at the foundation of Western civilization, and they continue to spread today. The idea of monotheism brought extraordinary progress to humankind, as the concept of man as the image of God endowed every individual with the status of person and creator, laying on him responsibility before God for his own actions, making it his task to strive for the world’s progress towards good, and offering the certainty of divine support in this endeavor.
With this general preface, we will move on to discuss the ideas of Rabbi Kook.
Rabbi Kook explains that the Jewish understanding of life as a dialogue with God has not one but two central themes. The first, presented above, is the dialogue at the individual level. The second is at the national level: a dialogue between God and the nation. In other words, the nation as a unified whole, including all of its generations, is also a person, with freedom of choice and the ability to act – and its decisions and actions are the words the nation wishes to say to God. And what happens to the nation is God’s answer to the nation. And if, in the case of the individual, the dialogue unfolds within the framework of the person’s life story, in this case, it develops over the course of many centuries of national history.
And as we speak to God above all not with our words and prayers, but with our actions, in order for a people to enter fully into dialogue, it must be able to act as a unified whole. For this it needs a national organism, a body, some form of government.
Applying this idea to the Jewish people, it follows that Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel brings the Jewish people back into a full dialogue with God. The main religious significance of the State of Israel is not that people there observe Shabbat and kashrut, important as that is, but that its very creation compels the Jewish people to make decisions and act as a whole. National actions create national responsibility; this not only advances and educates the nation, it allows it to realize monotheism at the national level and to bequeath it to all humanity.
Rabbi Kook explains that the balance between the ideas of the national and individual dialogues with God has changed over the course of the four-thousand-year history of the Jewish people. Both of these ideas were instilled at the beginning, at the time of our ancestors and the revelation of the Torah; during the time of Tanach (until the fifth century BC) both aspects played a role and flourished. However, humankind as a whole was not able to assimilate both of these levels of dialogue at once: it was not yet ready for them. Therefore, during the time of the Second Temple, the awareness of the individual dialogue was preserved in Jewish culture, while the sense of a national dialogue was gradually wiped out, so that by the end of the period it had nearly disappeared entirely, as a result of which the Jewish state fell as well. It was at that moment that Christianity arose from Judaism, an occurrence which brought monotheism to humankind at the level of the individual dialogue with God and began to disseminate Jewish ideas. The Jewish people, in exile and dispersed, almost completely lost the idea of the national dialogue, and concentrated on improving themselves at the individual level.
In our time, according to Rabbi Kook, these processes have reached their conclusion. In other words, humanity has gradually digested the idea of the individual dialogue with God, while the Jewish people have improved themselves at the individual level. The time has come, he says, to begin to pass on to humanity the second portion of Divine light. To make this possible, Zionism has appeared, the State of Israel is built, and the Jewish people once again enter into national dialogue with God. And although the Zionists never planned it, the people must begin to carry on and gradually recognize this dialogue in order to offer it later to all humankind. It is in this that the role of the Jews as the chosen people will be revealed; its task, as the prophet Isaiah puts it, “to be a Light for the Nations,” to advance humankind.
In addition to the dialogue at the national level, Rabbi Kook presents the idea of God’s dialogue with all of humankind. This does not replace His dialogues with the nations of the world; it supplements them, and can only be built on their foundations.
Thus, the idea of the national dialogue with God – which is only the first part of Rabbi Kook’s religious revolution – gives us an entirely different perspective on Judaism.
Above all, it gives us an understanding of history as a religious process – an understanding which is vividly reflected in the Bible. Without this concept, for instance, we would have no way to interpret Chanukkah and Purim. This also explains the absence of historical holidays in all Christian cultures, and the almost complete lack of attention by Christian thinkers to the national history.
This approach also throws an entirely new light on many contemporary Jewish religious problems. For instance, almost all of the Halacha in the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch was formulated after the loss of the state, at a time when there was no national dialogue. Therefore, all of the individual commandments have been examined in extreme detail, while the national commandments have barely received attention. Accordingly, there is almost no Halacha on the national commandments, and we must develop it now in the State of Israel. The idea of the existence of national commandments significantly changes our perspective on many aspects of Jewish life.
But what is even more essential is that this approach overturns our understanding of the meaning of Judaism and of Jewish history. Instead of a religion focused on the detailed observance of its commandments, Judaism becomes again a universal world religion, which lit the way for humankind in the past, and which now guides it into the future.
We will now examine the second of Rabbi Kook’s central concepts: the idea of the continuing revelation, which is in some ways more radical, as it changes the very framework of our understanding of religion.
(a) The concept of continuing revelation as an implication of the national dialogue
If God carries on a dialogue with the people as a whole, and what’s more with all of humanity, then there is one long dialogue over the whole course of history. And if this is truly a living dialogue, then God must continue to speak words that are new to the entire people, and that have not been revealed earlier.
In other words, the idea of the continuing revelation follows naturally from the idea of the national dialogue as part of the historical process. This revelation needs no prophets or miracles; God speaks with us through history, through the development of civilizations, through all that occurs in the life of the people and of humankind.
And if we examine the course of history and the development of culture and civilization as God’s continuing revelation, then we have not one source of revelation, as in many religions, but two. The first is the original Divine revelation, which took place at the birth of the religion, at the time of the forefathers and of Sinai, and which we receive through the Tradition. But in addition to this spring, there is the flowing stream. God has not stepped outside of history. He continues to speak with the Jewish people and with the world, and this revelation manifests itself in the development of culture, science, ethics, society and state. Thus, development not only has a spiritual value, it contains within itself the revelation. Therefore, we must always strive to understand what God is telling us.
At the same time, of course, we cannot discard anything from the original revelation, which is the word of God, and so cannot be changed. But neither can we turn away from the continuing revelation given us in the course of history. As religious people, we do not wish to ignore what God tells us.
Therefore, we must preserve entirely all aspects of religion (this is Orthodoxy) and at the same time assimilate the new spiritual information that is revealed in the world (Modernism) in an attempt to integrate the original revelation with the ongoing one (Modern Orthodoxy).
The concept of the continuing revelation and the need to integrate the original revelation with it is an entirely new and revolutionary one, which we do not find in any other religious context. Rabbi Kook bases this idea on the ideas of the classical Kabbalah, and we find elements of it in the works of Jewish authors of the past centuries and even in the Midrashim of the time of the Talmud. But until Rabbi Kook came along, nobody had formulated it so clearly. Before Kook, there was no full realization that the course of history – the development of civilization, science, culture – is God’s dialogue with humankind, continually bringing us new religious insight and demanding religious renewal.
This concept changes the very paradigm of religion, the ways that we interact with it. To be specific, we are accustomed to seeing religion as something given, our relation to which can range from “studying” to “accepting.” It does not enter our head that we have the ability, while remaining Orthodox, to continue this religion and develop it.
Changing the paradigm thus, the concept of the ongoing revelation opens the way to those who are suffocated by the static nature of traditional religion. This concept, by placing creation at the very heart of religion, answers to our intuitive sense of the Divine nature of creation.
(c) Modern Orthodoxy and a program for the development of Judaism over the next century
Rabbi Kook not only proclaims the necessity of Modern Orthodoxy, he also provides an outline and method for modernization. This process of the development of Judaism by means of extracting sparks of divine light from modern secular ideologies is described in detail in the book on Rabbi Kook.
Furthermore, Rabbi Kook provides a program of development for Judaism over the coming historical period of approximately 200 years. Such a feat is indeed unique.
As nearly a century has passed since Rabbi Kook’s time, we are able to see which parts of his program have already been carried out, to evaluate its merits and weaknesses, to correct our understanding of the path of Judaism’s development, and to continue to realize it. This is essentially the project of the Religious-Zionist movement in Israel today.
As we have noted above, Rabbi Kook’s entire approach is based on Kabbalah, interpreted at a new level.
Rabbi Kook’s Kabbalah is a Kabbalah of God’s dialogue with the Jewish people. He examines the Jewish people as a single organism, applying the conceptual model of Kabbalah to interpret the dynamics of social processes within it, thus generating a sociological projection of Kabbalah. In addition, Kook examines us not as empty vessels, containing nothing but the light that we have received from above; he emphasizes the personal nature and unique quality of every individual – the “I” of the person and of the nation. Realizing its individual creative potential, the person and the nation find meaning in life. This realization is the essence of religion.