top of page

Book Review - Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution

By Yehudah Mirsky (Yale University Press, Reprint edition, 2019, 288 pages)

Reviewed by Lane Igoudin

Earlier this year, I visited Rav Kook’s home, a modest house in Jerusalem’s Beit David neighborhood – a suite of rooms with whitewashed walls and dark walnut furniture, bathed in light streaming in from tall windows. One can imagine the hive of activity these rooms once had been: the din of arguments and the clank of silverware at a long, communal table in the dining room, the Litvak lilt of Hebrew prayers and the scrape of chairs in the in-house synagogue, the puffs of steam from the wide-bellied Russian samovar, dishing out tea to the endless stream of visitors pouring in at any hour of day and, sometimes, night.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook is a venerated figure in the 20th century Jewish history and thought, primarily known as the first chief rabbi of modern Israel and a spiritual founder of religious Zionism.

And yet, Rav Kook was so much more – a poet, to whom nothing was mundane, a restless mystic forever peering into the secrets of Creation, a holy person leading by example, and, a rare quality these days, a tireless advocate for uniting all Jewish people across the spectrum of class, place of origin, and adherence to faith.

It is hard to encapsulate a life lived so fully, publicly, and impactfully in a 288-page volume, so Yehudah Mirsky, professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University, approaches the task strategically. Rather than delve into every issue and controversy that surrounded Rav Kook in his long public life, the biographer deftly sketches the key stages of Rav Kook’s journey, many of which, surprisingly, are hidden in his private diaries and correspondence with friends and family. Out of these highlights emerges a vision of a very complex person.

Rav Kook’s life (1865-1935) spun the end of the traditional Jewish life in Eastern Europe, the time marked by the pressures of rising nationalism, emancipation, secularism, and Socialism, but also the emergence of the Zionist movement and the eventual founding of the Jewish national home, which, after Rav Kook’s death, would become the State of Israel.

Rav Kook’s life trajectory followed these communal wanderings: from his native Lithuania and his first rabbinic posts in the Baltics to the Ottoman Palestine, where he became the leader of the Jewish community of Jaffa. Trapped unexpectedly in Europe during WWI, he served as a rabbi in Switzerland and London, and once the war ended, returned to Palestine to take up the post of the Chief (Ashkenazi) Rabbi of Jerusalem, and ultimately of the entire British Mandatory Palestine, the position he would occupy until his death.

Mirsky’s book shows that despite dramatic sociopolitical and cultural changes surrounding him, Rav Kook’s vision of the world, and of his place in it, never changed, but instead grew deeper. He always spoke his truth, not compromising it for the needs of his public posts.

Believing deeply that Jewish people share one spiritual journey given to them by the Creator, a journey to holiness and redemption in the Land of Israel, he preached, above all, inclusion. One has to embrace all Jews, as every Jew is “a sliver of God’s revelation on Earth,” including secular Jews, who were becoming the backbone of the nascent Jewish national home. “The[ir] inner soul vivifying the socialist doctrine,” he wrote in his diary, “is the light of the practical Torah.”

Rav Kook reached o