Israeli Culture

A Prehistory of Rav Kook

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

There is a particularly jarring type of experience that most people have had at one point or another: they run into a teacher outside of school, or they hear stories about their parents’ pre-parenthood youth. When this happens, the parent or teacher suddenly becomes unfamiliar as the student or child learns new things about who they are, who they were, or who they could have been.

Something similar is at play in Yehudah Mirsky’s Toward the Mystical Experience of Modernity: The Making of Rav Kook, 1865–1904.[1] Rabbi Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook has long been seen as the spiritual “father” of Religious Zionism in Israel (though this was not always the case).[2] With time, and as English translations have become more accessible, Rav Kook’s influence has grown outside of Israel as well. His writings are vast, covering a huge variety of topics and genres. Despite this, he is often pigeonholed as “the Zionist Rabbi” or simply dismissed and ignored by people who do not identify with Religious Zionism. This narrow vision of Rav Kook derives from both the way Religious Zionism claims him as its founder and from the way Rav Kook’s editors and publishers very carefully curated how he would be presented to the public.

This picture of Rav Kook was dominant until relatively recently—and still persists in many circles—and Toward the Mystical Experience of Modernity seeks to break it wide open. In the book, Mirsky explores Rav Kook’s writings from before he immigrated to the land of Israel, inviting the reader to expand their notion of who Rav Kook was and who he could have been. As Mirsky notes, Rav Kook’s most popular and accessible writings all either derive from his post-1904 life in the land of Israel, or they were published in such a manner as to obscure their pre-1904 origin.[3] Since the end of the twentieth century, more of Rav Kook’s other texts have begun to be published, and Mirsky’s 2007 dissertation was an early attempt to flesh out a picture of Rav Kook that took the newly released texts into account.[4] The present volume updates and expands upon his dissertation, including analyses of both the primary texts by Rav Kook and the secondary texts on Rav Kook that have emerged in the intervening years.

An illuminating blend of intellectual biography and textual analysis, Toward the Mystical Experience of Modernity charts the course of Rav Kook’s intellectual development throughout his first twenty years of public life. Avoiding the twin pitfalls of historical determinism and ideological essentialism, Mirsky shows how the contingencies of Rav Kook’s life—such as his father-in-law’s monetary woes, or the death of his first wife—shaped Rav Kook’s writing and teaching in this period.[5] The vicissitudes of Rav Kook’s life and his own inner experiences, Mirsky suggests, both develop over time and radically shape his literary output in ways nearly unrecognizable in his later life—such as his brief stint traveling around polemicizing about the proper wearing of tefillin based on Hevesh Pe’er, a book he anonymously authored on the topic (109–121).[6]

Intellectual Ferment

Throughout the book, Mirsky returns to another aspect of Rav Kook’s “prehistory,” attempting to position him within the diverse intellectual currents of European Judaism in his day, such as the Mussar movement, medieval rationalism, and Lithuanian Kabbalah influenced by Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto (Ramhal). The Mussar movement had a widespread, institutionalized presence in the yeshiva world of Rav Kook’s day (150), and while he appreciated the movement’s concern for individual piety and virtue, he was concerned that they privileged emotional ecstasy in Torah learning. Torah learning, Rav Kook argued, should be an intellectual endeavor, though it was central to a larger process of human perfection (154).

This concern for the role of the intellect carries over to Rav Kook’s engagement with medieval rationalism as well. Rav Kook was deeply engaged with the texts of Saadiah Gaon, Maimonides, Yehudah ha-Levi, and others. After turning down the position of mashgiah at the Telz yeshiva, Rav Kook suggested they institute “a curriculum of Bible, midrash, Zohar, Ha-Levi’s Kuzari, Se’adyah’s Emunot Ve-De’ot, Maimonides’s Eight Chapters, and Bahya’s Hovot Ha-Levavot” (153).[7] His early discussions of prophecy in the rabbinic periodical he founded, Ittur Sofrim, strike a distinctly Maimonidean note (82–85). His aggadic commentary on the stories of the Babylonian Talmud, Ein Ayah, similarly explores the relationships between imagination, intellect, and body (a topic of widespread medieval concern) repeatedly and at length. The volumes of Ein Ayah on Berakhot—completed by 1902, by Mirsky’s estimation (188)—are the focus of a full chapter in the book. Tracking subtle thematic shifts in the text as the commentary progresses, Mirsky shows how Rav Kook drifts over time from his once more austerely Maimonidean intellectualism toward a richly expressive understanding of the self.

This new understanding of the self flowed together with a final critical element of Rav Kook’s intellectual context: Lithuanian Kabbalah, and particularly the elements it carried forward from Ramhal. This Kabbalah was both intellectual and messianic, with a particular emphasis on “the arc of history”—the details of how God guides history toward its eschatalogical end.[8] Painted in this mystical, teleological light, Rav Kook sees the development of the individual self as an irreplaceable element of the cosmic process of redemption. This conceptual move would be key to a later development in Rav Kook’s theology, what Mirsky calls his “Theodicy of Modernity” (223, 275–279, 301), wherein Rav Kook provided theological justifications for the emergence of secularization, “normative nonobservance” (305), and mass heresy among his fellow Jews.[9]

Eastern Europe, where Rav Kook lived during these years, was rife with intellectual ferment, both Jewish and non-Jewish. In addition to the intellectual developments discussed above, the rise of secular Zionism—in all its forms—rocked European Jewry. Mirsky shows how Rav Kook slips into place among dominant intellectual trends, blending and adapting them in a search for novel theological ideas which might be able to respond to the demands of the day.

Ein Ayah and the Ha-Peles Essays

Two chapters from the book deserve particular mention. The first is the chapter on Ein Ayah Berakhot. While Ein Ayah is far from Rav Kook’s most esoteric work, it often goes under-studied. The reasons for this are not hard to guess. First, it is structured as a commentary on the non-halakhic portions of the talmudic text, so people often refer to it when looking for interesting interpretations rather than studying it as a primary text. Second, while individual passages from the Ein Ayah can be quite gripping, it can be hard to grasp the text as a coherent whole. This results in part, as Mirsky notes, from the fact that it simply isn’t fully coherent. It is “a textual laboratory” which “begins as a philosophical commentary in an expository mode, then… increasingly dramatizes Rav Kook’s internal conversation, much of which is his attempt to reflect on the increasingly expressionist stances he works to articulate” (186). For example, early in the work, Rav Kook frames the development of the intellect as the peak of religious life and gives the imagination a central but merely instrumental role in this process. Later, however, he gives the intellect the instrumental role and makes the imagination the central religious faculty. Of course, “intellect” vs. “imagination” is a binary holdover from medieval discourses and, as Mirsky shows, in Ein Ayah it slowly and gently makes room for the more modern “feeling” (regesh) over the course of the work (187, 201). In tracing these and other themes throughout Ein Ayah Berakhot, Mirsky provides the reader with a framework for reading the work as a whole. While a full study of Ein Ayah would be a book unto itself (184), Mirsky’s chapter will serve as a useful guide until such a book exists.

The penultimate chapter of the book focuses on a series of essays on Jewish nationalism that Rav Kook published in the Orthodox rabbinic journal Ha-Peles during the period of 1901–1904. Beginning with the “Little Notebooks of Boisk”—Rav Kook’s personal spiritual diaries from that same era—Mirsky shows how Rav Kook’s thinking on Jewish nationalism developed. In this period, Rav Kook saw Zionism as a source of cultural renaissance which should challenge religious Jews both to renew their Judaism and to join the ranks of Zionism itself (rather than creating a separate Religious Zionist movement), while he calls for the secular Zionists to appreciate the value of traditional religious life and take it up once again (the mitzvot, he said, could be seen as instruments of national unity). He similarly calls for both sides to lay down the barbs of cynicism and sarcasm and to engage with one another in good faith—different understandings of national destiny need not tear a people apart. Moreover, the secular Zionists must be willing to embrace their national past, without which they can never succeed in Israel’s universal historic mission: the liberation of all humanity (271). Rav Kook thus depicts Jewish nationalism as rooted in unity, a common past, and a national mission with a universal horizon. Notably, the land of Israel is largely absent from his writings of this period, and when it does appear, it lacks the metaphysical proportions it sometimes takes on in his later work (277).


Toward the Mystical Experience of Modernity paints a picture of Rav Kook’s early life that flows from one point to the next, showing shifts and developments, without flattening individual links in the chain into a homogenous whole. Each step has its own significance, while also taking part of a coherent narrative. Toward the Mystical Experience of Modernity also displays particular sensitivity to the issue of genre, and it is worth pausing to reflect on it here.[10] As Mirsky highlights, Rav Kook moves through different genres of writing over the course of his life, beginning with traditional genres like the sermons collected in Midbar Shur or the polemical pamphlet Hevesh Pe’er, through the model of the aggadic commentary that was popular at the time, before eventually settling primarily on the genre of spiritual diary for most of his writing. Most of the books in which Rav Kook’s writings can be found (at least until recent decades) consist of texts carefully culled and curated from his private notebooks in which he spilled out his soul, teasing out the threads of his theology and his experiences through the medium of text. This shift in genre reflects quite fittingly Rav Kook’s expressivist sensibility of the self, together constituting an important facet of Rav Kook’s engagement with modernity. (This is not to draw a teleological picture from the traditional to the modern; Rav Kook wrote essays throughout his early life for the paradoxically modern genre of the Orthodox rabbinic periodical.) Thus it is not just in the content of Rav Kook’s ideas that he was grappling with modernity, but also in the very forms in which he wrote those ideas down.

Perhaps the most significant theme that arises throughout the work is Rav Kook’s burgeoning “expressivism”: his sense that the individual self is something of great significance, and that realizing it fully (both in terms of internal development and in terms of practical life in the world) is very important.[11] Mirsky shows how Rav Kook begins with a stronger sense of engagement with Torah as something outside the self, with individual perfection as a religious goal that is strictly mediated by the intellect. Then, over time, the inner life of the individual takes on both larger proportions and a greater sense of ultimate importance. Ultimately, developing and expressing this inner life becomes a key religious ideal.

It is this expressivist vision of Rav Kook that his students (and their students) took up and have carried forward in the near century since his death. Mainstream Religious Zionism in Israel remains deeply expressivist, both on the individual and national levels. Just as the individual self must be nurtured and expressed, Kookian thought argues, so too must the national self. Even somewhat iconoclastic thinkers like Rav Shagar and Rav Froman who were willing to challenge Religious Zionist assumptions have tended to remain within this expressivist sensibility.

Confronted with Rav Kook’s early thought, we can see that religious expressivism was not Rav Kook’s only theological sensibility, and it was far from inevitable that he would end up there.[12] He could have been a polemicist, a rationalist, or a mussarnik, or a Micha Josef Berdyczewski![13] It thus becomes easier to imagine Religious Zionist nationalism taking a different path as well, one that might avoid some of the pitfalls of religious-nationalist expressivism, such as what room does or does not exist for a plurality of ways of life in the state. A Kookian nationalism modeled on intellectual self-discipline looks very different from contemporary Religious Zionism’s romantic nationalism. Toward the Mystical Experience of Modernity thus invites the reader to reconsider not just how they imagine Rav Kook, but how they imagine their individuals selves and the Jewish people.

[1] Yehudah Mirsky, Toward the Mystical Experience of Modernity: The Making of Rav Kook, 1865–1904 (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2021). Parenthetical page numbers refer to this text.

[2] For a felicitous demonstration of this, see Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar)’s essay, “Rav Kook as a Father Figure.”

[3] For example, Olat Re’iyah, commonly thought of as Rav Kook’s commentary on the siddur, was composed by Rav Kook’s son, Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, from his father’s writings, primarily from Ein Ayah Berakhot, Rav Kook’s commentary on the narrative portions of the first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud.

[4] Yehudah Mirsky, “An Intellectual and Spiritual Biography of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhaq Ha-Cohen Kook from 1865 to 1904” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2007). Readers interested in a fuller biography of Rav Kook’s life are directed to Mirsky’s Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), recently published in an expanded Hebrew translation as Ha-Rav Kook: Mabat Hadash (Shoham: Kinneret Zmora-Dvir Publishing, 2021). 

[5] In several places, Mirsky translates and analyzes passages from Rav Kook’s poetry, with the most emotionally compelling pieces quoted originating from the immediate aftermath of his first wife’s death (137–138).

[6] The book’s conclusion helpfully lays out seven points of contrast between Rav Kook’s thought in the years under discussion and how it would develop later, as well as noting threads of continuity.

[7] Rav Kook’s thorough engagement with R. Isaac Arama’s Akedat Yitzhak, a text of medieval Jewish thought structured according to the weekly Torah portion, is duly noted by Mirsky (throughout, but particularly at 72, 118, and 123).

[8] The classic text on Rav Kook’s and Ramchal’s thinking about providential history—cited by Mirsky throughout—is Yosef Avivi’s article, “History as a Divine Need” (Hebrew).

[9] As Mirsky notes, this might well be termed an “ethnodicy,” given that the theological crisis in need of justification stems from the Jewishness of the rebellious individuals.

[10] A similar sensitivity can be found in Yoel Finkelman’s Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2011), which explores the way Orthodox popular literature draws boundaries between the Orthodox community and broader American culture while also absorbing elements of that culture—a key example of which can be found in the very genres of popular literature (self-help, fiction, parenting and marriage guides, cookbooks, etc.), none of which originated within Orthodoxy itself.

[11] Mirsky’s theoretical touchstone for this idea is Charles Taylor, specifically his magisterial work, The Sources of the Self, first published in 1989, which also underlies much of the analysis of Kookian Religious Zionism by Shlomo Fischer, another scholar whom Mirsky cites frequently. Mirsky’s other theoretical basis for conceptualizing modernity is the work of Shmuel Eisenstadt, whose insistence on the multiplicity of “modernities” paves the way to recognizing the way thinkers like Rav Kook navigate their relationship with western modernity complexly.

[12] Not that the other options would be radically different—they certainly share elements of his religious expressivism—but the differences are salient.

[13] Micha Josef Berdyczewski was a radical Zionist thinker who studied at Volozhin at the same time as Rav Kook and to whom Mirsky draws incredible, unexpected parallels time after time.

Born and raised in Southern California, Levi Morrow moved to Israel when he was eighteen. After studying at Yeshivat Orayta and Har Etzion, Levi received semikhah from the Shehebar Sephardic Center in the Old City of Jerusalem. He has an MA in Jewish Philosophy from Tel Aviv University, where he wrote his thesis on Rav Shagar's use of Franz Rosenzweig's theology, and he plans to pursue a PhD. Levi has also translated a forthcoming volume of Rav Shagar's derashot for the holidays and co-translated a volume of Rav Menachem Froman’s aphorisms. He teaches Jewish Philosophy in Jerusalem, where he lives with his wife and their two daughters.