Jewish Thought and History

The Hasidism of Rav Kook

Rav Kook
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Bezalel Naor

Editors’ Note: On January 7, 2018, Lincoln Square Synagogue will host a book launch for the new Koren Rav Kook siddur, with commentary by Rabbi Bezalel Naor. In that forum, Rabbi Naor and Prof. Marc B. Shapiro will discuss the legacy of Rav Kook. More details may be found here.

We usually associate the term “Neo-Hasidism” with thinkers such as Martin Buber, Hillel Zeitlin and Abraham Joshua Heschel. It may come to many of us as a surprise that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook also proposed a new Hasidism, but it should not.[1] During Rav Kook’s lifetime, there were those who perceived him as the founder of a new Hasidic movement. Both admirers and detractors understood that this charismatic teacher embodied a renewed spirituality.

Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Harlap, eminent disciple of Rav Kook, wrote a letter to the Gerrer Rebbe in which he portrayed his mentor as a modern-day Hasidic master reaching out to alienated Jews in an attempt to bring them back to the fold.[2] A cynical writer of the Agudah camp, critiquing Rav Kook’s seminal work Orot (1920), segued to the secular “tzaddik” Martin Buber and expressed fear lest there develop around Rav Kook yet another mystery religion.[3]

What are the facts? How did Rav Kook himself envision the new Hasidism? Was it to be a reincarnation of the East European variety attributed to Rabbi Israel Ba‘al Shem Tov?

Untrained observers have the answer ready. One need merely point to the spodik, the tall fur hat perched on his head, to determine that Rav Kook viewed himself as a Hasidic rebbe. However there is an historical context to the headwear. Rav Kook’s predecessors in the Ashkenazic Jerusalem rabbinate—his father-in-law Rabbi Elijah David Rabinowitz-Te’omim (Aderet) and Rabbi Samuel Salant, staunch Lithuanian Mitnagdim—wore the identical fur hat. Excuse the cultural confusion and move on to Rav Kook’s own words.

In his much calumniated Orot, Rav Kook threw down the gauntlet, calling for a “great Hasidism,” “very superior Hasidim,” and “great Hasidim, unique in greatness of knowledge.”[4] He even pushed the term to its extreme limits, signing off: “Give strength to the higher knowledge; to the exalted, radical, godly Hasidism (Hasidut ha-elohit ha-radikalit ha-romemah)!”[5] And with that, the reader is left wondering where exactly Rav Kook’s poignard is pointing.

This year, yet another heretofore unknown journal of Rav Kook was released in Jerusalem.[6] An entry in the journal fleshes out Rav Kook’s vision of a new Hasidism.

We should pay careful attention to this recently released passage. It should disabuse us of many well-intentioned but ill-conceived attempts to reduce Rav Kook to the status of one more Hasidic rebbe with a fur hat on his head. The entry, which is easily an essay in its own right, contains several subtle nuances which might be missed in our contemporary pop culture. Evidently, Rav Kook anticipated our ability to manufacture facile acronyms such as HaBaKuK (Habad, Breslov, Kook, Carlebach). In a “preemptive strike,” he unleashes his own byword, KeMaH, the initials of Kabbalah, Madda, Hasidut (Kabbalah, Science, Hasidism).

Kemah: Kabbalah, Madda, and Hasidut

Early on in the piece, Rav Kook holds up as a lodestar the book Sha‘ar ha-Shamayim by Abraham Cohen Herrera (a.k.a Alonso Nunez de Herrera).

Herrera (d. 1635) studied in Ragusa (today Dubrovnik, Croatia) under Rabbi Israel Sarug, a peripatetic teacher who transmitted a form of Lurianic Kabbalah to several distinguished students in Italy, the greatest being Rabbi Menahem Azariah of Fano.[7]

Herrera’s Spanish work of Kabbalah, Puerta del Cielo (Gate of Heaven), remained until recently an unpublished manuscript. Luckily, Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca (1605-1693), eventual Hakham of the Portuguese community of Amsterdam, translated the work (which is to say, portions thereof) into Hebrew at Herrera’s behest. The book was printed in Amsterdam in 1655 under the title Sha‘ar ha-Shamayim.

What strikes the reader of Sha‘ar ha-Shamayim is the ease with which Herrera juxtaposes arcane Lurianic Kabbalah and Neo-Platonic philosophy, prompting Alexander Altmann to title his 1982 study of Puerta del Cielo, “Lurianic Kabbalah in a Platonic Key.” Herrera shuttles between Israel Sarug and Marsilio Ficino without batting an eyelash.

The reader may find curious the fact that Rav Kook, rather than viewing this Spanish work of Kabbalah chock-full of Western philosophy as an aberration or serious departure from tradition, regards it as mainstream. Furthermore, Rav Kook holds it up as a role model for the direction in which he wishes to lead us. As he writes regarding Sha‘ar ha-Shamayim, “So did the great throughout the ages.”

Rav Kook’s perception of Sha‘ar ha-Shamayim may have been influenced by the publisher’s introduction to the Warsaw 1865 edition. Israel Jaffe of Kalisz wrote: “All that was investigated by the great godly geniuses—Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto; the Vilna Gaon; his disciple Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin; Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi; his son Rabbi Dov; and his disciple Rabbi Aaron, all of blessed memory—all their systems are gathered together in this book.” Jaffe certainly engaged in hyperbole, but his point was well taken. Herrera’s book did in fact set the tone for an entire approach to Lurianic Kabbalah that came to be known as “hasbarah” or conceptualization. In Padua, Vilna, Volozhin, Liadi, Lubavitch, and Starosselye, Kabbalah was demythologized and translated to the language of reason and discourse.

But that is not exactly what Rav Kook is saying. Rav Kook asserts that in Sha‘ar ha-Shamayim we have a rapprochement between Kabbalah and the science of the day. In this, Rav Kook may be barking up the wrong tree. In the seventeenth century, in Holland as well as in Italy, there was a demarcation (however blurred) between philosophy and science. Rather than choosing Herrera as his role model, Rav Kook might have done better opting for Herrera’s contemporary, Joseph Solomon Delmedigo (or as he is known in Hebrew, “YaShaR mi-Candia”) as an exemplary amalgam of Kabbalah and science. (By the way, Delmedigo’s Kabbalah too is of Sarugian lineage.)

Be that as it may, Rav Kook advocates the marriage of Kabbalah and science. Where does Hasidism enter into the discussion?

Midway through the essay, Rav Kook rather abruptly quotes the rabbinic maxim, “The greater the man, the greater his inclination (yetzer)” (Sukkah 52a). Yetzer is usually understood as yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination. In truth, yetzer derives from the root yatzar, “create.” Rav Kook seems to be saying that the new creativity unleashed by the fresh synthesis of Kabbalah and madda (science) demands a new ethic.[8]

Rather than the mediocre Mussar of the masses, Rav Kook writes, a new Hasidism is called for. Here, both the terms Mussar and Hasidism beg definition. What Mussar? What Hasidism?

By “Mussar,” Rav Kook undoubtedly refers to the Mussar movement founded in Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter. Rav Kook was a product of the Volozhin Yeshiva, whose heads (Rabbi Naftali Zevi Yehudah Berlin and Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik) rejected the Mussar movement. Rav Kook finds Mussar enervating. The new Hasidism he proposes is empowering. “It takes them out from fear and darkness to confidence and light; from servitude and weakness to sovereignty and strength of spirit.”[9]

To put his new Hasidism into clearer perspective, Rav Kook juxtaposes it to the previous Hasidism. “Such a Hasidism will certainly not be lacking all the (spiritual) wealth of the latter-day Hasidism.” “The latter-day Hasidism” (ha-hasidut ha-me’uharah) is code for the Hasidism that originated with the Ba‘al Shem Tov (Besht). In Orot, Rav Kook refers to Beshtian Hasidism as “the latest Hasidism” (ha-hasidut ha-aharonah).[10] This is done to distinguish between East European Hasidism and earlier pietist movements, such as Hasidei Ashkenaz, the medieval Pietists of the Rhineland.

So what would Rav Kook’s Hasidism look like? Perhaps the Hasidism advocated in Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto’s classic, Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Just) could serve as an analog. In its original form, Mesillat Yesharim consisted of a dialog between a Hakham, a wise man, and a Hasid, a pious man.[11] Luzzatto, a Renaissance man in the tradition of Italian Jewry, combined Kabbalah and the science of his day. In Padua, a university town renowned for its medical school, Luzzatto’s immediate circle included physicians Moshe David Valle and Yekutiel Gordon. In Mesillat Yesharim, Luzzatto included an entire section on Hasidut (chaps. 18-21). So enamored was Rav Kook of Luzzatto’s work that he penned a digest, Kitzur Mesillat Yesharim.[12]

Many years ago, a famous Rosh Yeshivah by the name of Rabbi Abba Berman (quoting his father who led a metivta in Lodz, Poland before World War Two), told me in private conversation: “The only Hasidism is that of the Mesillat Yesharim.”

Speaking of his new Hasidism, Rav Kook writes: “It must be expansive. It must reach to the depth of its source in the nation and the individual, and it must reach to the heights of God’s loving-kindness (hesed).”

This is Rav Kook’s way of reminding us subtly (or not so subtly)—as did Luzzatto in Mesillat Yesharim—that the word “hasidut” (piety) derives from “hesed” (loving-kindness).[13]

In his modus vivendi, Rav Kook certainly internalized the words of the “Hasid Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto”[14]: “It is worthy for every hasid to intend with his actions for the good of his entire generation, to acquit them and protect them…for the Holy One, blessed be He, loves only the one who loves Israel; and the more a person loves Israel, the more the Holy One, blessed be He, loves that person.”[15] 

Translation of Text of Pinkesei Ha-Ra’ayah[16]

Kabbalah must bond with all the sciences; to live with them and through them. So did the great [sages] throughout the ages; and more than they achieved—it is obligatory upon us to achieve. The spiritual world that bestows its spirit upon the thinking man, was enhanced by constant appearances of the light of intellect. This enhancement dulls the oppositions between one science and another, and once the barriers have come down—the different sciences actually come to one another’s aid.

Science in all of its breadth, in all of its various aspects—spiritual and practical, societal and global—must find its place alongside the supernal wisdom [i.e. Kabbalah].

A shining example of this would be the book Sha‘ar ha-Shamayim by Rabbi Abraham Cohen Herrera, who was the second in a line extending from Rabbi Isaac Luria through Rabbi Israel Sarug, disciple of Rabbi Isaac Luria. Herrera was inspired to write his book in Spanish, in full view of the cultured world of the day. With a breadth of intellect and feelings of respect and affection, the author toured all the philosophical studies that represented the finest literature of his time. Rabbi Isaac Aboab [da Fonseca] who admired Herrera—translating the work into Hebrew for the benefit of Hebrews—followed in his spirit, which is the spirit of true culture worthy of Torah scholars who are truly “men of holiness.”

It is understood that according to the changes of the Zeitgeist, so must the synthesis (between the supernal, divine wisdom and all the human thoughts that proceed from the sciences) shift, but the principle remains the same. The preparedness of the thinker—pure of knowledge and holy of thought—to absorb into his midst the best thoughts of the finest writers, the thinkers, the sages of every people and language, of every subject of science; and to shine upon them, from them and through them, the divine light—this is the unchanging way of the world, upon which we are obligated to travel.

Only “if you have heard the old, will you hear the new” (b. Berakhot 40a) The old must be studied and researched, and it will bring the new, good, and fundamental.

[This synthesis of] science and the supernal illumination that expands the soul, produces a strong character in our entire organic unity, spiritual and material.

Through the supernal splendor and the fullness of life that beats in its midst, the natural inclinations of the soul and the body, and all its senses and faculties, are invigorated, strengthened, and expanded. “The greater the man, the greater his inclination (yetzer)” ( Sukkah 52a). In order to purify great powers; to refine powerful, luminous, lofty ambitions, much preparation is required. So the synthesis of Kabbalah and science immediately beckons us to—Hasidism (Pietism).

We need now a rich, broad, luminous Hasidism to illumine us!

Such a Hasidism will certainly not be lacking all the [spiritual] wealth of the latter-day Hasidism [i.e. of Rabbi Israel Ba‘al Shem Tov], but it must be expansive. It must reach to the depth of its source in the nation and the individual, and it must reach to the heights of God’s loving-kindness (hesed).

[We need] a Hasidism that negates no good; no science, peace, Torah, or talent, but rather crystallizes and purifies all. When understood as such, people with heart will not oppose it.

This Hasidism is needed by men of powerful spirit, just as the average Mussar (Ethics) is necessary for the masses. This Hasidism contains all the ways of Mussar, but it surpasses them; it takes them out from fear and darkness to confidence and light; from servitude and weakness to sovereignty and strength of spirit. This Hasidism must be combined with Kabbalah and science, so that greatness of spirit not grow inimical to routine ethics (which the average acquire through revulsion brought on by fear).

When we will have this order in hand—first in theory, and later in action—we will have the basis for all the light of Torah; for the theory of Halakhah and for all the parameters of action, education and true hiddush (creation). A hiddush that is at once sharp and esthetic; straight and clever.

And the more enhanced the knowledge and understanding of Torah—real Torah, permeated with the everlasting Holy Covenant—the more the ideal soul will expand, as it fills with the splendor of Kabbalah, the sciences, and Hasidism.

In this regard I invoke the adage: “If there be no KeMaH (Flour), there be no Torah; if there be no Torah, there be no KeMaH (Flour)” (m. Avot 3:17). [KeMaH being an acronym for Kabbalah, Madda, Hasidut or Kabbalah, Science, Hasidism.]

This is the straight way of the Lord that the new life and the feelings of freedom ringing throughout the sacred soil at this time require us to embark upon.

And a highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called the way of holiness…the redeemed shall walk there (Isaiah 35:8-9).


[1] Incidentally, both Buber and Zeitlin met with Rav Kook in Jerusalem and were favorably impressed.

[2] See my introduction to Orot (New Milford: Maggid, 2015), 33.

[3] Ibid., 53.

[4] Orot ha-Tehiyah, ch. 4.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Pinkesei ha-Ra’ayah 4, ed. Tsevi Mikhel Levin and Benzion Kahana-Shapira (Jerusalem: Makhon ‘al-shem RZYH Kook, 2017).

[7] Gershom Scholem lavished much scholarly attention on both Herrera and his teacher Sarug. In the first case, Scholem published a small biography, Abraham Cohen Herrera: Leben, Werk und Wirkung (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1978). As for Sarug, in an early essay, caustically entitled “Israel Sarug: Student of the Ari?” (1940), Scholem attempted to expose this sketchy figure as a fraud. Scholem presumed that Sarug was an impostor who passed himself off to unsuspecting Europeans as an erstwhile disciple of Rabbi Isaac Luria in either Egypt or Eretz Israel. Lately, researchers such as Ronit Meroz and Yosef Avivi have made some headway in rehabilitating Sarug’s image as a genuine conduit of Lurianic teaching.


[8] Rav Kook revisits this theme in a later journal: “One who feels in his soul that he needs much divine illumination, many ethical studies, and much contemplation, let him not delude himself by saying that he can throw off this burden and be like everyone else and like the masses of “b’nei Torah” (Torah students); that he can engage totally or for the most part in practical affairs, and that will suffice for him. “The greater the man, the greater his inclination.” In direct proportion to the potential that one has for spiritual ascent, are the deficiencies, the strange desires and the pull to gross corporeality—that have no comparison among the average. The only way that one can be spared them (and even profit from them, inasmuch as their mighty power can be harnessed to pull one to a supernal loftiness) is if one fortifies one’s character, raising thereby one’s essence to its proper place: to “stroll in the Garden of Eden” of lofty matters, and the splendor (Zohar) of the joy of the Lord shall be his strength. But if one should wish to be like the masses of “b’nei Torah,” one will actually end up much lower than them, descending to the depth of bad traits. He shall find himself extremely corrupted—until he reassumes the spiritual quality that is unique to him.” See Pinkesei ha-Ra’ayah 4 (Jerusalem, 2017), Pinkas ha-Dapim 2:14 (p. 232).

[9] Rav Kook’s critique of Rabbi Israel Salanter’s Mussar movement deserves a separate study. I hope one day to treat that subject at length. For now, one would do well to consult Rabbi Moshe Zuriel’s collection, Otzrot ha-Ra’ayah (Rishon le-Zion, 2002), vol. II, 311-312, 314, 329-330.

[10] Orot ha-Tehiyah, ch. 35.

[11] See Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto, Mesillat Yesharim (Dialogue Version from Ms. Guenzburg 1206, Russian State Library, Moscow; and Thematic Version from first edition, Amsterdam, 1740), ed. Avraham Shoshana (Jerusalem: Ofeq, 1994).

[12] First published as an appendix to Rabbi Zevi Yehudah Kook’s Li-Sheloshah be-Elul, vol. 2 (1947), 23-31, Kitzur Mesillat Yesharim has since been reprinted in Ma’amrei ha-Ra’ayah, vol. II (Jerusalem, 1984), 273-276; and in Rabbi Moshe Zuriel, Otzrot ha-Ra’ayah, vol. II, 297-300.

[13] Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto, Mesillat Yesharim, ed. Avraham Shoshana (Jerusalem, 1994), chap. 19 (p. 282).

[14] Thus did Rav Kook refer to the author of Mesillat Yesharim. See Rav Kook’s eulogy for Rabbi Israel Salanter in Ma’amrei ha-Ra’ayah, vol. I (Jerusalem, 1980), 121; and Rabbi Moshe Zuriel, Otzrot ha-Ra’ayah, vol. II, 311.

[15] Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto, Mesillat Yesharim, end chap. 19 (p. 296).

[16] Pinkesei ha-Ra’ayah, vol. IV, ed. Z.M. Levin and B.Z. Kahana-Shapira (Jerusalem, 2017), Pinkas ha-Dapim 1:34, 88-92.

Bezalel Naor is the author of several works of Jewish thought with concentration upon Kabbalah, Sabbateanism, and Hasidism. Recently, his annotated English translation of Rav Kook's seminal work Orot was published by Koren/Maggid (2015). Naor is presently at work on a kabbalistic novel and collection of poems.