Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Yehudah Mirsky's "Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution"

Yehudah Mirsky is Associate Professor of the Practice of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. He served in the U.S. State Department’s human rights bureau, lived in Israel for the past decade, and has contributed to the New Republic, the Economist, and many other publications.

Mirsky applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, and reported the following:
From page 99:
There is a term for the divine light pulsing through nature: the land of Israel. As he puts it: “The holiness within nature itself is the holiness of the Land of Israel; the Divine Presence that went into exile is the ability to maintain holiness in opposition to nature. But that combative holiness is incomplete; its higher essence must be absorbed into the higher holiness, which is the holiness within nature herself.”

In those years, Aharon David Gordon, Rav Kook’s secular counterpart, was calling from his kibbutz for Jewish regeneration through nature as the life-giving alternative to the disembodied Jewishness of exile. Kook, like Gordon, sought redemption in and through nature, but characteristically wanted not to abandon the centuries of exile but to assimilate them into the dialectic of self-realization that is holiness.

What did nature mean for Rav Kook? It was a synonym for the state of being what one most truly is; which is why it is also, paradoxically, a synonym for freedom, whose expression in action is the will: “Those who argue over nature and human freedom forget that the spirituality of man and the world also has a nature, and seeks her freedom. And the freedom of spirituality and her naturalness are the foundation of morality and the Torah.”

We usually apply the term nature to the physical world (for example, trees, oceans, solar systems) because it is so obviously and powerfully itself. Nature is serenely confident and self-knowing, vigorous and forceful, exact. But it is blind, wild, a slave to necessity, and devoid of will, intention, or self-consciousness. Left to its own devices, it goes nowhere. Properly understood, it holds the key to redemption: “We will draw from nature its vigor, strength, its exactitude, endurance, and persistence, its moderation and self confidence ... but we will free ourselves of its blindness, wildness, slavish necessity, negation of intent, and lack of idealism. And then we go upright, marching on the high places of the earth, inheriting a legacy unconstrained [Isaiah 58:14 and BT Shabbat 118a], dressed in strength and grandeur, and laughing at the last day [Proverbs 31:25].”
My book is an account of the life and thought of Rav (Rabbi) Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), a colossal figure, immensely consequential in the history of modern Judaism, Zionism and the State of Israel. Largely unknown in the West, he was the founder of the Chief Rabbinate, and, more importantly, the first and still the greatest Orthodox rabbinic figure to endorse secular Zionism. Most rabbis of the time rejected Zionism, for its secularizing such hallowed traditional ideas as redemption, Jewish nationhood and the Land of Israel, as for its open revolution against Jewish tradition and attempt to supplant the tradition with a new, Hebrew culture.

Kook, a brilliant Talmudist and widely read in Western culture, arrived in Palestine in 1904 from the Rabbinic heartlands of Eastern Europe, to become rabbi of Jaffa and the surrounding agricultural settlements. He was from them on thrust into the hard-fought culture wars around the Jewish national revival. He developed a singular perspective – that the Zionist and Socialist rebellions against tradition were actually to be welcomed, since they were nothing less than the first steps heralding the coming of the Messiah.

Kook arrived at this perspective not only through broad-mindedness and a conciliatory personality, but also through his study of the Jewish mystical tradition, the Kabbalah. He was in particular drawn to doctrines which saw all of being as an arena of contending and complementary energies – tradition and change, the particular and the universal, body and soul – all reflecting God’s own complexity, all coming to final, magnificent and paradoxical resolution in the revolutionary changes of modernity.

Kook’s laboratory was his spiritual diary, in which he brought the vast range of Jewish learning and his own theological intensity to bear both on perennial questions and the complexities of his time. Page 99 of the book is from the chapter about his diaries. This passage, the merest sliver of his vast output, presents his reflections on nature, to him as spiritually charged as anything else in creation – indeed, the Jewish people’s new return to the Land, to agriculture, to living in their bodies on their native soil, was to his mind part of a process in which the body and spirit, nation and ethics, would be unified, healing the alienation of God and world, Jew and gentile, body and soul.

Kook died in 1935, thirteen years before the creation of the real-live State of Israel. Some of his disciples, after 1967, took his Messianic reading of the times as a call to settle the Biblical heartlands of Judea and Samaria. Others saw his ethical interpretation of the Jewish people’s historical mission as pulling in the opposite direction. His ideas and legacy are still widely studied and hotly debated in Israel today. The larger than life mix of passion and intellect coursing through his life story and writings makes even writings as seemingly esoteric as the one presented here deeply consequential for the pressing political and moral question that never goes away: How do we want to live our lives, as bodies and souls in our world?
Learn more about Rav Kook at the Yale University Press.

--Marshal Zeringue