Many admirers, few disciples

The life and legacy of Rav Kook.

In the fall of 1913, Avraham Yitzhak Kook, then serving as chief rabbi of Jaffa, set out on a journey north. Accompanied by other rabbis, Rav Kook, as he was commonly known, traveled to the new Zionist settlements along the coastal plain and in the fertile Galilee region of Ottoman-ruled Palestine. The rabbi’s goal was to teach and preach to the young socialists who had founded these small communities, part of a wave of Jewish immigration in the years leading up to the First World War that came to be known as the Second Aliyah. Between 1904 and 1914 some 20,000 Jews arrived in Palestine, mostly from the Russian empire.

These pioneers — as they were known — were fiery idealists, hoping to remake themselves, the land, and Jewish history through communal labor and cultural revolution. They were also vociferously anti-religious, having abandoned traditional, commandment-bound observance for the Zionist promise of a new Hebrew life, a fact that Rav Kook knew well. On kibbutz settlements like Deganya, Kinneret, and Ein Harod, kosher food was not to be found, and even (and especially) Yom Kippur went uncelebrated.

In his own way, Rav Kook was no less radical than the young pioneers. Unlike other representatives of traditional Judaism in Palestine, he did not dismiss the anti-religious Zionists as heretics and sinners. Rav Kook’s response to Zionism’s revolutionary, secular challenge to tradition — its claim to have wrested the mantle of Jewishness from Judaism — was to transform it into theology. Even as the pioneers sought to sacralize their secular undertaking, Rav Kook intended to re-appropriate Jewish nationalism as a religious movement springing from the deepest wells of the faith. The pioneers might have seen themselves as socialists and enlightened rebels; in Rav Kook’s admiring eyes they were unwitting saints. Through their active commitment to building Jewish life in the Holy Land they were unknowingly fulfilling a divinely ordained plan. Returning them to traditional piety would, the rabbi believed, strengthen their resolve and hasten the swiftly approaching messianic age.

Read the full review of Yehudah Mirsky’s Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution from 2014 in Marginalia.