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 out across the political/religious divide by visiting the kibbutzim, publishing articles and letters in secular media, trying to align secular concerns with the Jewish law, and giving a (conditional) blessing for the establishment of the country’s first secular university, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. While all these acts aroused ample admiration throughout the Jewish community, they were just as harshly rejected by both the ultra-secular and the ultra-Orthodox. In one of many such examples in his book, Mirsky recounts the story of the rabbi being chased away from a secular kibbutz where he’d gone to distribute matzah for Passover, only to be attacked two days later by the haredi zealots on his way to prayers at the Western Wall.
As a public figure, Rav Kook worked in administrative positions, whose petty scheming and divisiveness were foreign to him. “Don’t we see in this base rumbling a sacred discourse?” he wrote in desperation to his son Zvi Yehudah. “Is there not radiant light in this darkness?” He relied on his faith, patience, and integrity to sustain himself through the torments of public life.
He also found refuge in writing in his private journals that he kept throughout his life. There he struggled to find a balance between God’s presence, which he felt keenly in everyone and everything, and human beings’ free will. As Mirsky summarizes the rabbi’s internal debate:
“Everything is alive. Nothing is inert. A seething dynamism pulses through everything, and everything is part of an eternal, organic whole. All is animated, illuminated from within by God, who vibrates in each and all with absolute, radiant, and loving presence. . . But if God is truly everywhere, what room is left for anything that is not Him, for human personality or will? How to square the great, jagged diversity of life with the all-encompassing circle of a living, animating, infinite God?”
The theological answers he found, Rav Kook applied to the practical issues he was facing, such as what is the role of secular Jewish pioneers in the redemption of people Israel? And thus, how should he treat them as the land’s chief rabbi in a way that would be true to the holy teachings?
One aspect of Rav Kook’s life this biography leaves underexplored is the impact of his family life on his writing. Rav Kook’s family was small, yet he suffered a series of devastating losses. Each one left him, in his own words, “very broken” and “wound[ed].” How did these losses – or, conversely, the times of happiness with his loved ones – influence his formation as a writer, a mystic, a teacher, shaping his deeply personal vision of the world? The book does not elaborate on the subject.
Rav Kook left us a Jewish theology that values authenticity and inclusion, and espouses deep faith in goodness that animates the world. Yehudah Mirsky’s book augments our knowledge of Rav Kook’s public persona by showing his mystical, Kabbalistic mind at work. In this way, Mystic in a Time of Revolution highlights the life of a complicated soul that left an indelible mark on modern Israel, but also continues to inspire to this day.
Lane Igoudin, M.A., Ph.D., is professor of English and linguistics at Los Angeles City College. He regularly blogs for Applied Jewish Spirituality and produces Blessing the Sea, a monthly newsletter on Jewish mindfulness. For more information, please visit his website.