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Rav Kook’s Secret Writings: A Drama In Several Parts

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook

JERUSALEM – Clandestine photocopying of tucked-away documents in Israel’s National Library, hurried text messages of selected passages verifying their pristine, unpublished condition, and question marks surrounding the editing and possible censorship practices of trusted editors from eighty years ago.

These are some of the fascinating aspects of what many assume to be a straightforward phenomenon but that in fact has turned out to be a mysterious, complex and ongoing enterprise – the publication of the writings of the ultimate inspiration of the religious-Zionist camp, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, zt”l.

Up until the mid-1980s, things were simple. One could barely find a self-respecting religious-Zionist home in Israel without at least some volumes of the “White Wave” or the “White Shas” – i.e., the fundamental works of Rav Kook, so named because they all featured a simple white dust jacket with a light-green border.

The books, such as Orot (Lights), Orot HaKodesh (Lights of Holiness), and the Siddur commentary Olat R’iyah became staples not only of philosophical yeshiva study for thousands of students but also the very basis for understanding the rich, profound and novel thought of the saintly and scholarly Rav Kook.

It was common knowledge that these books had been edited by Rav Kook’s two prize students: his son Rav Tzvi Yehuda and the Nazir, Rav David Cohen. The latter had been entrusted with eight of Rav Kook’s notebooks, from which he culled and edited the gems that would later comprise Orot HaKodesh.

Meanwhile, Rav Tzvi Yehuda was doing the same with some twelve other notebooks his father had given him, and produced from them (and partly from the other eight as well) many of his father’s other famous works – Orot, Orot HaTorah, and more.

Rav Kook barely wrote any books as complete, unified entities. Rather, he wrote in an almost stream-of-consciousness format on any and all topics, and he filled many little notebooks with short paragraphs of his deepest and most profound musings.

When Rav Tzvi Yehuda died in 1982, whatever hashkafic material remained in manuscript (not including writings such as commentary on the aggadic passages of Tractates Berachot and Shabbat, which became the four-volume Ein Ayah) appeared to be fated for oblivion. This, because the newly-established Rav Tzvi Yehuda Institute (RTYI) did not go out of its way to convince the Raanan family – direct descendants of Rav Kook and the owners of his papers – to allow them to be published.

Though it was known that Rav Kook had left many manuscripts behind, no publication date appeared on the horizon.

And yet, contrary to expectations, many books of Rav Kook’s hidden writings have been published over the past several years. Just last month, for instance, in honor of Rav Kook’s 77th yahrzeit on Elul 3, a work entitled Yesh Lach Kanfei Ruach – You Have Wings of Spirit – was made available to the public. Named after a line in one of Rav Kook’s poems, it is a compendium of his writings – some of which had not before seen print – on the topic of the confidence a believing Jew must have in himself and his ability to do good.

In short, with the holy writings apparently under permanent wraps, an entire series of Rav Kook’s writings have now seen the light of day. How did this occur?

The answer, it seems, is a man named Boaz Ofan.

Ofaz was learning in Yeshivat Ramat Gan a decade and a half ago when, he said, “we were a bunch of chutzpadik youths who decided the papers should no longer remain concealed.”

Though he is now willing to divulge much of how he came to fulfill this goal, he does not want to say how he actually received his first copies of some of the secret manuscripts. He collected a fair amount but then got stuck: He had too many to ignore, but too few to actually publish.

Knowing RTYI was reticent to publish, he unceremoniously informed the rabbis there, “I have photocopies of all Rav Kook’s writings. Either you publish what you have – or I will.”

They did – and thus was born the first “unedited” volume of Rav Kook’s works, known as Shemoneh Kvatzim, or Eight Collections – the unabridged series of manuscripts from which Rav Kook himself actually commissioned publication. (Another version of the story has it that Rav Yitzchak Shilat, the editor, was actually at work on the project before Ofan appeared on the scene.)

Asked to explain the source of his daring, Ofan told Neta’el Bandel of Olam Katan, “Mostly from the enthusiasm of the many who were thirsty to learn Rav Kook exactly as he wrote his thoughts. The books were grabbed up immediately upon being printed.”

This was not particularly good news for everyone. The students and rabbis represented by the Rav Tzvi Yehuda Institute felt the proper way to understand Rav Kook was by learning passages in the proper context, not free-style. Some say the order was given to buy out the entire printing so that it would not be widely disseminated.

Ofan and his colleagues at Yeshivat Ramat Gan did not hesitate. It took them four years to get it together, but in 2003 they re-published the work – in two volumes instead of three, with the same size and look. The new edition became known as the Ramat Gan Eight Collections.

The ball was now in RTYI’s court, and it published the heretofore unknown “Notebook 13.” However, several important passages – such as those on Spinoza, secular learning, the Divinity of Torah – had been omitted.

Meanwhile, Ofan and a friend, Matanya Shai, had discovered yet another collection of Rav Kook’s writings; what it was doing in the National Library is a mystery in itself. Shai made his way to the library archives, where a librarian stood guard to make sure he wouldn’t photocopy them.

“When the librarian finally left,” Shai related, “I quickly texted my brother entire passages, one after another, and asked him to check if they appeared in any of the books, including the Eight Collections. Each time he said no, it wasn’t there. We had discovered a real treasure, larger than the previous one – and never before published!”

Much of what had been understood of Rav Kook’s philosophical and Kabbalistic thought was based on what he had written during a seven-year period (1912-1919) and which became Orot HaKodesh and other works – but it turns out he wrote in this style well before and after that, for more than three decades. The lion’s share of these spiritual riches had never before been available to scholars or students.

Without transgressing any laws – it is doubtful the National Library has the legal right to prevent photocopying – Shai prepared look-alike documents to keep in the archives while he photocopied one original after the other. Even with the help of friends, it took months.

They again proposed that RTYI publish the new material instead of them but were turned down, and once again a “pirate” version of Rav Kook’s writings was published. Titled Ktavim Mikhatv Yad Kadsho – Writings from His Holy Hand – it too has ignited the interest of Torah scholars and students of Rav Kook around the world.

The end of the story? There is none. Ofan says there are still more writings, but not enough to publish; some argue that the personal musings of even a great sage are not public property; and meanwhile the study of Torah continues, from generation to generation.

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