Rav Kook on Culture and History

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Zach Truboff



Modern Orthodoxy has long attempted to claim Rav Kook as one of its own. Who else but a Modern Orthodox rabbi could extoll the beauty of a Rembrandt or proudly proclaim that “the old will become new and the new will become holy”? A closer look at Rav Kook’s life and writings, however, presents a far more complex picture. The same individual who could sing the praises of modern life also wore a spodik and protested against women’s suffrage because it deviated from their biblically ordained role in society. It would be more accurate to state that while he was not Modern Orthodox in the sense that we use the term today, Rav Kook nevertheless grasped the ramifications of modernity in a way unlike any of his contemporaries.

Where most rabbis saw modern life as bringing only catastrophe in its wake, Rav Kook’s kabbalistically inflected vision enabled him to see it as full of radical possibilities. His mystical philosophy perceived modernity as not just another stage in Jewish history but as history’s culmination. It is for this reason that he saw great spiritual importance in all modern political movements and cultural sensibilities. As a result of Rav Kook’s philosophy of history, he was the only prominent modern Jewish thinker to develop a comprehensive theological framework to explain both secularism and Zionism, the two dominant forces that have shaped Jewish history in the modern era.

Ever since the publication of his translation of Orot over thirty years ago, Bezalel Naor has been at the forefront of making Rav Kook’s writings accessible to English speaking audiences. Rav Kook’s writings are difficult even for a native Hebrew speaker, yet Bezalel Naor has consistently produced excellent translations that capture both the depth and beauty of his teachings. As an interpreter of Rav Kook, he has pushed against the tendency to read selectively and thus has emphasized how Rav Kook’s personality and spiritual vision defies easy categorization. Naor’s recent translation effort, When God Becomes History, is a collection of five important essays by Rav Kook that explore his philosophy of history and the unique potential of the modern era. Even though the essays were written more than a century ago, they continue to illuminate the perplexities of our own time.

On Translating Rav Kook

Any attempt to translate Rav Kook’s writings will encounter several obstacles that render the task nearly impossible.[1] Rav Kook’s oeuvre draws upon a diverse array of influences including the entire scope of biblical and rabbinic literature, the kabbalistic tradition, and a dose of European thought, as well. His works overflow with references and allusions, yet contain no footnotes documenting their sources.

Perhaps the most significant challenge is that Rav Kook’s writings are stylistically much closer to poetry than to prose. [2] For Rav Kook, prose can only capture the external nature of reality but not its inner essence, whereas poetry can express the divine reality that is disclosed within all aspects of creation and human experience.[3] By its very nature, poetry privileges the emotion and the imagination and therefore can intimate understandings that standard language cannot. The difficulty, however, is that poetry contains multiple levels of meaning, many of which cannot be conveyed in a second language.

Another serious problem faced by the would-be translator is the cryptic nature of Rav Kook’s writings. Rarely does he fully explain his concepts or flesh them out with examples. Rav Kook felt that only the insights of Kabbalah could enable Jews to confront modernity and understand its deeper implications; only Kabbalah could illuminate for the Jewish people that the challenges of modernity were actually gateways to higher spiritual possibilities.[4] Though Kabbalah was traditionally the purview of scholars, Rav Kook was willing to set aside the norms mandating keeping such knowledge hidden because of the unique conditions of his time. His writings attempted to eliminate much of Kabbalah’s technical language, but even such an approach has its limits. Despite his attempts to express kabbalistic insights in a direct way, there are many places where his language remains obscure and enigmatic, so as not to vulgarize the insights of Kabbalah. In response to a request that he simplify his writing to ensure that it would reach an even broader audience, he explains: “you asked for me to explain the secrets of the world. It is difficult for me to speak even in the general chapter headings that I permitted myself to write … However, to place these ideas in a style that is completely ‘popular,’ to make them accessible to all who pretend to deep wisdom—I am unable to permit this.”[5]

Rav Kook’s writings are further complicated by the fact that he wrote at a time when the modern Hebrew language was still in its infancy. He routinely deviated from what would later become standard Hebrew syntax. When in need of a term or concept not found in the traditional Hebrew lexicon, he would simply invent a new word. All of these factors can leave the translator in a state of puzzlement, and even Rav Kook’s closest students, who were familiar with his philosophy and literary style, struggled to fully understand his writings. In a letter written to Rav Kook by Moshe Zeidel and Binyamin Menashe Levin, each a great scholar in his own right, they describe an experience that is common to anyone who has attempted to decipher Rav Kook’s writings:

I have read this many times and we still have not arrived together, Mr. Zeidel and myself, to the depths of its meaning. There are several places in it that we did not fully understand because of the profundity of the concepts and the limitations of our understanding. It is especially difficult for us to clarify the specific ideas without example, and therefore it is impossible for us to express them in our own words and be able to understand them with full clarity so that they are not as ‘words floating in air.’[6] 

Because Rav Kook understood that his essays required greater elucidation, he often turned to others to assist in the editing of his public writings. Numerous individuals endeavored to do this at various stages of Rav Kook’s life, but the most well-known are his son, Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, and his close student the Nazir, Rav David Ha-Kohen. In his own capacity as a translator of Rav Kook, Bezalel Naor should be seen as joining this rarefied company.[7] Even a cursory reading of Naor’s translations demonstrates the various ways in which Rav Kook’s writings pulsate with verve and vitality. Despite the limitations of the English language, Naor is able to capture the original Hebrew’s lyrical qualities, and, as an expert in a kabbalistic literature, he is uniquely qualified to recognize the nuance of Rav Kook’s words.

In addition to his excellent translations, Bezalel Naor’s erudite introductions, footnotes, and appendixes are also worthy of accolade. He carefully situates Rav Kook within his unique historical context and often points to additional sources which shed further light upon Rav Kook’s writings. He cites extensively from both traditional and academic scholarship and is particularly adept at mining the more obscure writings of Rav Kook’s contemporaries to provide further insight. Some are even mini-essays in their own right, touching upon wide-ranging historical, philosophical, and theological issues.

The Divine Dialectics of History

The essays in “When God Becomes History” primarily revolve around Rav Kook’s historiosophy, his unique philosophical understanding of the unfolding of human history. The essays are not intended to be detailed historical studies of the Jewish people but rather an attempt to read history in a way that offers spiritual insights. Understanding that Judaism had undergone significant changes throughout the centuries was the key to developing historical consciousness, an essential feature of Jewish engagement with modernity.[8] But even before the modern period, history had long been of importance to the Jews. Where most ancient civilizations had perceived time as undifferentiated and were primarily concerned with primordial myths that stood apart from history, Judaism saw time as having a direction and a purpose. The creation of the world, the exodus from Egypt, the revelation of Mount Sinai, and the coming of the messiah were all events that took place in history and revealed God’s plan for creation. In the words of the great Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, “It was ancient Israel that first assigned a decisive significance to history and forged a new world-view … ‘The heavens,’ in the words of the psalmist, might still ‘declare the glory of the Lord,’ but it is human history that revealed his will and purpose.”[9] However, the title chosen by Bezalel Naor for this collection of essays, When God Becomes History,” hints to the innovative nature of Rav Kook’s philosophy of history. Not only does God guide history, but God actually becomes part of it. Such a claim begs further explanation and is essential for understanding the essays that appear in the volume.

In order to appreciate the implication of this title, we must first carefully examine Rav Kook’s theology of creation. Like many of the thinkers who came before him, Rav Kook struggled to understand why it is that an infinite and perfect God would choose to bring forth a finite and imperfect creation. Rationalist Jewish philosophy, such as that of Maimonides, finds no answers to these kinds of questions. A perfect God has no need to create.[10] The kabbalistic tradition, on the other hand, understands perfection in a different way. First and foremost, God is not perceived as divorced from creation. Rather, all of existence is a manifestation of the Divine, as it says in the Zohar, “There is no place devoid of Him”[11] and “He fills all worlds.”[12] Although it would appear to us that the world is imperfect and full of constant change, that too is a manifestation of divine perfection. Rav Kook explains:

We understand that there are two aspects to the absolute perfection of God. One aspect of perfection, from the perspective of its greatness and completeness, lacks nothings and therefore nothing can be added to it. However, if there is no possibility of growth then this in itself is a deficiency. Perfection that comes from growth and constant improvement has an advantage and satisfaction that we deeply yearn for, to go from strength to strength. Therefore it is not possible for divine perfection to be lacking the quality of improvement. This is the impetus for divine creativity. Existence progresses without limit and becomes elevated. It is found that the divine soul of existence sustains its constant growth. It is the divine foundation that calls creation into being and drives its constant improvement.[13]

According to Rav Kook, God creates so that existence can manifest divine perfection. It is not the static and unchanging perfection of the ein sof, but rather a dynamic perfection striving for constant growth. Under such conditions, imperfections and contradictions are a necessary consequence of continuous improvement. In many of his writings, Rav Kook identifies and defines the cosmic process of incremental perfection as teshuvah.[14] It is the divine force within creation that yearns for God and constantly pushes towards transcendence. This process exists not just within human culture but is embedded within nature itself through the ongoing process of evolution.

However, despite all of Rav Kook’s optimism, he cautions that history’s drive for perfection is not a linear process. Influenced by the teachings of Rav Yitzchak Luria, Rav Kook perceives history as a dialectical progression that oscillates between shevirah (shattering) and tikkun (rectification). The divine within creation yearns for a good that is beyond its ability to achieve, resulting in shattering. What follows is the ongoing process of reconstructing the broken pieces into a stronger, more beautiful form that is better able reveal the divine light therein.[15] For Rav Yitzchak Luria, tikkun was to be accomplished through the redemption of divine sparks embedded throughout creation, understood primarily as a metaphysical process achieved through the unique mystical intentions of the tzaddik. Redemption was not dependent on the unfolding of history. Rav Kook, however, following in the footsteps of the Ramhal, saw redemption as a historical process.[16] History progresses as a series of dialectical contradictions (reason/imagination, national/universal, physical/spiritual) that ultimately lead to a higher synthesis, representing the ongoing divine perfection of creation. Opposing forces within religion and human culture are meant to be in conflict because only then can a greater unity be achieved. This is what Rav Kook described as ahdut ha-hafakhim, the unity of opposites.[17] 

It is this understanding of history that enabled Rav Kook to perceive the radical possibilities of modernity. Modern historical phenomena such as atheism and Zionism may appear antagonistic to traditional religious life, but, on this approach, they present the opportunity for the Judaism’s elevation. Atheism’s denial of God was to be a purifying force that rejects antiquated theological beliefs and paves the way for a more exalted form of faith.[18] The same is true with political and cultural Zionism. Though outwardly Zionism acts as a secular replacement for Jewish religious identity, it also exhibits a love of Jewish peoplehood that strengthens the Jewish national body and lays the groundwork for Judaism’s eventual renewal.

Five Historical Essays

Of the five essays contained in this collection, the first three were written by Rav Kook between 1904—when he moved to Israel in order to become the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa—and 1914—when he found himself stranded in Europe due to the outbreak of the first World War. His early years in Jaffa were a time of tremendous theological creativity. Many of the ideas he had begun to develop outside the land of Israel were now further advanced in exciting new ways. Each essay explores a different duality present within Jewish history and the Jewish psyche that reaches its final resolution in modernity. Of primary concern was the secular Zionist enterprise. It was Rav Kook’s deepest aspiration that the process set in motion by the Jewish people’s return to the Land of Israel would lead to a resolution of the crises that modernity had unleashed upon the Jewish people. Most importantly, he saw Zionism as ushering in the fulfillment of his philosophy of history. The Jewish narrative that had begun thousands of years ago was finally reaching its messianic conclusion.


The first essay in the volume, “The Lamentation in Jerusalem,” is also the best-known. It was delivered by Rav Kook as a eulogy for Theodore Herzl just months after he arrived in Yaffo.[19] Though it makes no direct reference to Herzl, it addresses the dialectical relationship of mashiah ben Yosef and mashiah ben David in Jewish history.[20] Each messiah comes to redeem a different aspect of the Jewish nation: ben Yosef redeems the body and ben David the soul. It was the Jewish people’s sins during both Temples, along with the consequence of exile that fractured Jewish consciousness and ultimately created this dualism. Rav Kook concluded that as long as the physical and the spiritual exist as opposing forces in Jewish history, the Jewish people will be weak and will fail to live up to their true potential. After two millennia of exile, the Jewish national body had become feeble. It was the secular Zionists led by Herzl who had taken up the redemptive task of strengthening the nation through settling the land and building a self-sufficient Jewish society. Yet the true spiritual destiny of the Jewish nation cannot be achieved through secular Zionism alone. Eventually its energy will be spent, paving the way for the spiritual redemption brought about by mashiah ben David.

The second essay, “The Way of the Renascence,” published in 1909, explores the tension between the intellectual and spiritual sides of the human personality, a topic that Rav Kook would return to again and again throughout his writings.[21] The analytical capacity of the intellect can only present a partial picture of life, whereas spiritual perception rooted in the imagination reveals the inner character and unity of existence. The problem, though, is that as long as the intellect remains unrefined, unbounded spirituality retains the ability to become antinomian. The imagination runs wild and humanity deceives itself with seductive illusions. In ancient times this led to paganism, but in later years it led to the rise of charismatic religious leaders such as Jesus and Shabtai Zvi, who had a calamitous influence on Jewish life. The tension between the intellect and spirit also exists within the Jewish people throughout their history as can be seen in the conflict of Hasidim and Mitnagdim.[22] Each group represents a different side of the dialectic. Hasidim emphasized spiritual experience where their opponents, the Mitnagdim, affirmed the importance of analytical Torah study. For most of the exile, the Jewish people had privileged the intellect; however, with the Jewish people’s return to their homeland, the time had arrived for the spiritual dimension to intensify and prophecy itself would return.[23]

The third and most important essay in the volume is “To the Process of Ideas in Israel.” Whereas the previous two essays attempt to articulate a vision of Jewish history from the perspective of a single dialectic (body/soul, intellect/spirit), it is here that the full complexity of Rav Kook’s thought is on display. While it’s not possible to do the essay justice in a short summary, at the heart of the essay is an exploration of the two animating forces of human culture: the divine idea and the national idea. These ideas subsume all other dialectics within them and each one represents a fundamental claim about human nature: the first, that all human beings instinctively yearn for God and much of what they do is a reflection of this desire, and the second, that the ultimate building block of society is not the individual, as it is often conceived in modern life, but the nation. The ultimate goal is for the two ideas to become unified. All human beings form national collectives in their aspiration to transcendence, but the ideal nation in its laws, morality, and culture will be a manifestation of the Divine. This is a model that can only be achieved by God’s chosen people. During the times of the First Temple, the divine and national ideas were unified. Jewish monarchy was strong, and Jewish spiritual intensity was alive in the Temple and among the prophets. However, an atmosphere of paganism eventually corrupted Jewish society, leading to the Temple’s destruction. The Second Temple period saw the rise of the individual along with an intensification of morality and the intellect as represented in rabbinic learning. Yet it was also during this time that the divine idea became impoverished through the institutionalization of ritual and an emphasis on the detailed application of Jewish law. The national idea also became diminished, as evidenced by the incredible Jewish factionalism during the Second Temple. Over the next two millennia of exile, the divine idea was in retreat, limited to the synagogue and the home, while the national idea also lay dormant within the Jewish collective that was spread out across the world. Only after human culture had undergone massive change and improvement would the time be right for the divine idea and the national idea to be reconciled once more. Only then would the Jewish people finally live up to their destiny of becoming a light unto the nations.

The fourth and fifth essays date from the latter part of Rav Kook’s life, after he had already been installed as the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. “To the Two Houses of Israel,” written in 1920, discusses the ways in which the Sefardic and Ashkenazic Torah learning traditions both complement and contrast with each other. Sefardic Torah learning emphasizes comprehensiveness, clear organization, and the selection of the proper halachic position. Ashkenazic Torah learning prioritizes the importance of seeing contradictions among the various opinions and creating novel ways to resolve them. Rav Kook sees these differences as not just about learning, but as reflective of the Sefardic and Ashkenazic cultural orientations throughout their histories. Because Ashkenazim focused on the importance of distinction, they perceived the spiritual dangers inherent in foreign cultures and therefore were more insular in their outlook. Sefardim, with their more inclusive philosophy, saw everything, including that which is outside of Torah, as part of a broader divine tapestry. This, Rav Kook explains, is why they were more open to integrating from their cultural surroundings. It was Rav Kook’s hope that the direct encounter between Ashekanzic and Sefardic Jewry in the land of Israel would lead to a greater synthesis of these two approaches for both the individual and the nation.

The final essay of the collection is Rav Kook’s “Address at the Opening of Hebrew University of Jerusalem” in 1925. The event was an important milestone in the development of the Yishuv and was attended by many Zionist leaders and foreign dignitaries. Most striking in Rav Kook’s words is his enthusiastic embrace of what was ostensibly a secular institution. Rav Kook himself never attended university and did not have much firsthand experience with institutional academic study. However, he saw the university as a key part of his spiritual vision for the renewal for the Jewish people. He explains that there are two paths of the Jewish spirit. One is the inner-directed path of Torah study that is found in the yeshiva. The fruit of its labors are only for the Jewish people. The second is the outer-directed path that involves the import of foreign ideas along with the export of Jewish ideas to the broader world. In the burgeoning Jewish state, one path was to be embodied by the Central Yeshiva (Merkaz ha-Rav) that Rav Kook would go on to found and the other path was to be accomplished through the Hebrew University. Though Rav Kook’s words show a measure of caution, it is here that we also can see Rav Kook’s naiveté as it relates to the secular Zionist project. It was his belief that the sacred role of an institution like the Hebrew University required that “the name of heaven must be desecrated neither by the administrators nor by the instructors and students. Especially, the teachers of Jewish studies … must be men who with all their scientific ability are also whole in their Jewish belief, sentiment and lifestyle.”[24] It is extremely difficult to see how such an ideal would be feasible in a secular university built upon the value of academic freedom. As was to be expected, the Hebrew University would fail to live up to Rav Kook’s hopes.

(Why) does Rav Kook matter today?

Considering that the essays contained in When God Becomes History were written over one hundred years ago, it is certainly fair to ask whether they remain relevant. The philosophy of history offered by Rav Kook has long had its opponents.[25] A central reason for such opposition is that this approach to history has the tendency to deny the autonomy and agency of its human actors. Most secular Zionists would have fundamentally rejected Rav Kook’s assertion that they were bit players in a larger divine drama.[26] Also, while prescient in many ways, Rav Kook’s philosophy of history fails to account for the Holocaust. In his writings, he saw the apocalyptic horrors of World War One as heralding the birth of a new era and makes no mention of further catastrophe descending upon Jewish people. In later years, his son, Rav Zvi Yehuda, would attempt to apply his father’s insights to the Holocaust by claiming that the years of exile had permanently corrupted segments of the Jewish people, and that a process of divine purification was necessary to heal the Jewish collective and bring large numbers of Jews to Israel.[27] Such an approach finds few adherents today within the Modern Orthodox community. Even prominent thinkers who have embraced many aspects of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook’s thought, such as Rav Yehuda Amital, have protested against Rav Zvi Yehudah’s interpretations.[28] Perhaps in the end, the most damning critique of Rav Kook’s philosophy of history is that it has not yet been fulfilled. The messianic era, which was supposed to be just beyond the horizon, now appears more distant than ever.

When all is said and done, the most enduring aspect of Rav Kook’s philosophy of history may be its deep grasp of the human condition. Rav Kook’s dialectical thinking allows him to identify modernity’s radical possibilities along its the dark underside that is all too often ignored. Living at the end of the nineteenth century, Rav Kook was a witness to the birth of incredible freedoms that facilitated great spiritual possibilities. At the same time, he also saw the terrible disruptions brought about by the forces of modernization. Industrialization offered the hope of greatly improving material conditions, but along with it came increasingly bureaucratic structures that led to alienation and despair. Millions migrated to cities for new opportunities, but, in doing so, precipitated the dissolution of traditional notions of community. The rise of the nation state came promised liberal democracy and greater freedom, but also challenged long held beliefs about identity with far reaching and sometimes dangerous consequences.

The essays in When God Becomes History all describe various aspects of these problems. In “The Way of the Renascence,” Rav Kook points out how modernity’s emphasis on intellectual rationalization fails to appreciate the power of irrationality from which spirituality is often drawn. Spirituality, though, cannot be ignored, and any attempt to cordon it off will eventually lead to its reemergence in unpredictable and even uncontrollable ways. In “To the Process of Ideas in Israel,” Rav Kook identifies the enduring nature of national community. Human beings have an instinctual need for a sense of home, finding great meaning in their identification with a larger collective. Liberal cosmopolitanism, in its attempt to erase national borders and create a universal human identity, often runs against the grain of human nature. Finally, the most dangerous aspect of modernity is the way in which secularism eliminates the divine idea from human life. Rav Kook noted that all human culture, whether the realm of economics, science, art or philosophy, is a manifestation of humanity’s search for transcendent meaning. Secularism, however, limits human endeavor to the pursuit of self-fulfillment. Without transcendent meaning to guide their lives, human beings will descend into anger, frustration, and societal decay.[29]

He describes the consequences of a culture that has become completely disconnected from the search for transcendence. On the outside it may appear to be improving itself but “eventually this will catch up with it … the mechanical energy will continue to push for some time the collective machinery, but the lifesap will wither away … the needs of the individual and his private demands will surpass the value of harmony.”[30] With the loss of collective meaning, society will begin to fragment. The conclusion is that “death, black, still, and cold, cannot give life. Only from the source of life can life pour forth.”[31]

Rav Kook’s words should serve as a warning for all of us. In many ways, our current historical moment is not terribly different from the time of Rav Kook. In recent decades, globalization has unleashed many of the same forces that were alive in Rav Kook’s world. Nationalistic passion has once again returned and appears to be sweeping across the globe. At the same time, many today struggle with the question whether liberal democracy and unfettered capitalism can truly offer a sense of ultimate purpose.[32] Rav Kook’s vision was that the crises of modernity could only be answered by the redemptive act of the Jewish people building a nation in their homeland. Only then could the conflicts of the human soul be brought into balance and Israel and the Jewish people would then serve as a desperately needed role model for the rest of the world.

There is no question that this redemptive future has not yet come to pass, but Rav Kook’s philosophy of history can at least remind us that the challenges we face may yet propel further growth and development. As long as we have Rav Kook’s teachings, we will not be left groping in the dark. Even after one hundred years, they can still provide us with sparks of light. For that we owe a great debt to Bezalel Naor. His translations help ensure that Rav Kook’s Torah continues to shine.

[1] For Bezalel Naor’s description of these issues see his Translator’s Preface, Orot (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993), 1-7.

[2] Rav Kook was deeply self-aware of his need to write in poetry and saw it as an expression of his unique spiritual personality. See Hadarav, 3rd ed. (Mevaseret Zion: Dabberi Shir, 2008), 63, “My ideas are as wide as the sea. In prosaic language I am not able to express them. It is not for my benefit. I must be a poet, but in free verse. I am not able to be tied to the count of rhyme and meter. I flee from simple prose because of the heaviness that is found in it, because of its narrowness.”

[3] Orot Ha-Emunah, 40; Shemonah Kevatzim 1: 65.

[4] He argued that the study of the “secrets of Torah” should be part of the yeshiva curriculum and that Torah scholars must spend their efforts plumbing the “inner essence of Torah”. See Iggerot ha-Ra’ayah, vol. 1, Letter 43. The drive to disseminate kabbalah was also part of Rav Kook’s vision of the unfolding of the messianic era through the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. He saw his role as unique in helping make this possible. See Jonathan Garb, The Chosen Will Become Herds: Studies in Twentieth-Century Garb, (New Haven: Yale university press, 2009), 23-29.

[5] Iggerot ha-Ra’ayah, vol. 2, Letter 347. This dynamic is also very similar to Maimonides’ approach to esotericism. See Moshe Halbertal, Concealment and Revelation: Esotericism in Jewish Thought and its Philosophical Implications (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). In the introduction to the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides writes, “For my purpose is that the truths be glimpsed and then again be concealed, so as not to oppose that divine purpose which one cannot possibly oppose and which has concealed from the vulgar among the people those truths especially requisite for His apprehension. As He has said: “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him.”

[6] Yehoshua Beeri, Ohev Yisrael bi-Qedushah, vol. II (Tel Aviv: H.Y.KH., 1989), 274-75.

[7] For a detailed description of the editorial process of Rav Kook’s writings, see Yonatan Meir, “Orot ve-Kelim: Behinnah Mehuddeshet shel ‘Hug’ Ha-Ra’ayah Kook ve-‘Orkhei Ketavav,” Qabbalah 13 (2005): 163-247. Bezalel Naor speaks about his own connection to Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook in his introduction to Orot, 44-45.

[8] See Shmuel Feiner, Haskalah and History: The Emergence of a Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness (Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2002).

[9] See Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish history and Jewish memory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002) 7-8.

[10] See Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:25. There Maimonides describes that the world was created and is directed by divine wisdom, but it is beyond the capacity of human beings to discern its ultimate purpose.

[11] Tikkunei Zohar, 91b, 122b.

[12] Tikkunei Zohar, 5a, 6b, Ra’aya Mehemana, Pinhas 225a.

[13] Orot ha-Kodesh 2, p. 532, Shemonah Kevatzim 4:68.

[14] For just a few examples see Orot ha-Teshuva 4:2-3, 5:3; Shemonah Kevatzim 1:321.

[15] For Rav Kook’s reinterpretation of Lurianic tikkun, see Orot ha-Kodesh vol. II, 526, Shemonah Kevatzim 1:244:

Existence is not able to receive all of the intense good of the supernal substance, power without end. Incomplete existence crumbles from the overwhelming good, from the strength of life. It shatters because of its great yearnings. Nevertheless, the supernal good does not stop from going on its way. It returns and builds after the shattering, and the repaired structure rises beautifully without limit to its value.

[16] The Nazir identifies Rav Kook’s philosophy of history as primarily rooted in the Ramhal; see Orot ha-Kodesh, vol. 1, p. 31-38. The most comprehensive analysis of these issues can be found in Yosef Avivi, “Historiyah Tzorekh Gavoah,” in Moshe Bar-Asher, ed., Sefer Ha-Yovel li-Khvod Mordechai Breuer (Jerusalem: Aqademon, 1992), 709-71.

[17] Rav Kook’s discusses his dialectical approach in multiple places. For just a few examples, see Eder ha-Yakar, 13-14, Orot ha-Kodesh 1, p. 15, Shemonah Kevatzim 5:61, Iggerot ha-Ra’ayah, vol. I, Letter 110. In this sense, Rav Kook’s approach to history is highly similar to the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a point that has not gone unnoticed by scholars. Hegel too saw history as having an ultimate purpose that would only unfold through the dialectical resolution of opposing historical forces, and many of the antinomies discussed by Hegel are also quite similar to the ones highlighted by Rav Kook. For the most detailed analysis of the connections in their thought, see Shlomo Fischer, “Self-Expression and Democracy in Radical Religious Zionist Ideology” (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 2007), 75-126. It is also important to note that Rav Kook was not the first Jewish thinker to take up such a view of Jewish history. Nachman Krochmal, Heinrich Graetz, and Moshe Hess all were influenced in varying degrees by both Kabbalah and Hegel. All three also wrote works of Jewish history with a similar thrust to that of Rav Kook. Some even had a clear influence on Rav Kook’s writings. See Ronen Lubitch, “Tefisat ha-Historiah be-Haguto shel ha-Rav Kook,” Yeshuat Uzzo, (Jerusalem, 5756), 413-36.

[18] Orot, 124-29.

[19] For a discussion of the historical context surrounding the eulogy, see Yosi Avneri, “Ha-Rav Avraham Yitzhaq Ha-Cohen Kook, Rabbah shel Yafo (1904-1914),” Cathedra 37 (1986): 49-82. Yehudah Mirsky notes that many of the ideas discussed in the eulogy were first explored by Rav Kook during his stint as a rabbi in Boisk in his journal from that time. See Yehudah Mirsky, An Intellectual and Spiritual Biography of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhaq Ha-Cohen Kook from 1865 to 1904 (Ph.D. diss., Harvard, 2007), 370-73.

[20] This was presumably because Herzl was secular and traditional Jewish law forbids a eulogy for one who is an apikores. Rav Kook expresses similar ambivalence in his essay marking the deaths of the secular Ha-Shomer ha-Tzair defenders of Jewish settlements. See “Al Bamoteinu Halalim,” Ma’amarei Ha-Ra’ayah (Jerusalem: n.p., 1984) 89-93.

[21] The date listed in Ma’amarei Ha-Ra’ayah is 1906, but this is incorrect. The essay was originally published in Ha-Nir, which appeared in 1909. See Yonatan Meir, “Orot ve-Kelim: Behinnah Mehuddeshet shel ‘Hug’ Ha-Ra’ayah Kook ve-‘Orkhei Ketavav,” Qabbalah 13 (2005): 233-37.

[22] For another example, see Hakham Adif mi-Navi, Orot, 120-21. This same dialectic was also reflected in Rav Kook’s discussions of the tension and unity between aggadah and halakhah. 

[23] Bezalel Naor has collected and translated many of Rav Kook’s statements about the return of prophecy in Lights of Prophecy (New York, NY: Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, 1990).

[24] Naor, When God Becomes History, 145.

[25] For a detailed discussion see Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993), 79-144.

[26] In the words of Amos Oz, “This is trampling the spiritual autonomy of others, and it has always made me feel insulted and bitter.” See Amos Oz, In the Land of Israel (New York: 1983), 149-50.

[27] Sihot Ha-Rav Zvi Yehuda, sihah 1, 5727, 7-13.

[28] Rav Amital emphasized the importance of Rav Kook’s Torah for himself during World War Two when he managed to smuggle in some of Rav Kook’s writings during his time in a labor camp. See Elyashiv Reichner, By Faith Alone (Jerusalem, Maggid, 2011), 108-10. Many of Rav Amital’s sihot given at Yeshivat Har Etzion draw upon the teachings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. However, there are multiple examples where he rejects the approach of Rav Zvi Yehuda. See ibid., 162-69 and “Confronting the Holocaust,” accessible at Bezalel Naor attempts to defend Rav Zvi Yehuda’s application of his father’s philosophy of history to the Holocaust by claiming that Rav Kook’s writings regarding the catastrophe of World War I should be seen as the start of period that ultimately concludes with World War II. See Orot (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993), 243-45. I would caution against such an interpretation for two reasons. While Rav Kook speaks about the implosion of the non-Jewish nations, he makes no mention of any impending catastrophe for the Jewish people. Furthermore, there was no greater lover of the Jewish people than Rav Kook, and I question that he would have remained completely committed to the specific philosophy of history that he articulated in the early twentieth century had he witnessed the suffering and deaths of six million of his brothers and sisters.

[29] See “Tzimmaon le-El Chai,” Orot, 119-20.

[30] Naor, When God Becomes History, 91.

[31] Ibid., 92.

[32] For an excellent discussion of these issues in our current moment, see Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger: A History of the Present (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).


Zachary Truboff is the Director of the International Beit Din Institute for Agunah Research and Education and the author of Torah Goes Forth From Zion: Essays on the Thought of Rav Kook and Rav Shagar. Before making aliyah, he served for nearly a decade as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio. Currently, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife Jen and their four children. For more of his writing and shiurim, see