By: Betzalel Naor
Orot/Kodesh Press 2021, New York NY
When opening Rabbi Betzalel Naor’s newest offering titled Navigating Worlds, one is met by a formidable tome of over 600 pages.
If you aren’t familiar with Rabbi Naor, some words of introduction are in order. A multifaceted scholar with interests in many fields of Judaic studies, Rav Naor has translated and annotated hundreds of pages of Rav Kook’s writings. These include Orot, When God becomes History and The Tales of Rabbah Bar Rave Chana. (All available through Kodesh Press.) Other books include sections of Rav Kook’s Midbar Shur and Ein Aya, as well as his Haggadah and Siddur.
His style is intellectual and instructive, but the narrative is inviting as well. He invites the reader into the discussion and controversy being debated by breaking down the topic at hand, adding the historical background to put the issues into context.
This particular book is a collection of Rav Naor’s essays. Each is a veritable “world” of Jewish thought, containing layers of exegesis and explanation to explore within each topic. We are introduced to Rav Naor’s musings as well as vignettes of encounters with the authors, students and heirs of the texts in question. The book is divided into topical sections, including Chumash, Talmud, the Rambam, Kabbalah, and Chassidus; as well as the thought and history of Rav Kook, Moshiach, and book reviews (which are essays on the topics discussed in the reviewed book).
Each essay is a voyage through the topic at hand, exploring questions, concepts and the history of ideas encapsulated therein. Rav Naor’s footnotes make for veritable rabbit holes to fall down, adding more depth and complexity to the comparatively easier read of the essays.
We meet the occupants of Rav Naor’s imagined library, general philosophers as well as musicians of Western culture (where else does Leonard Cohen engage in dialogue with Rav Kook?). We become acquainted with various kabbalists ranging from members of the Arizal’s inner circle like Rav Meir Poppers and Naftaly Hertz Bachrach through modern scholars such as Yosef Avivi. Rav Naor introduces us to Chasidic Rebbes and their thought systems, and competing courts. (Did you know the differences between three different Chabad schools?)
We visit with European and Israeli rabbis who moved to America; some of whom you’ve heard of and some who you’ll want to learn more about, like Rav Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University and Boston and his family and cousins in Yerushalayim analyzing the Rambam. We’ll be able to “listen in” on the Rav’s class on Moreh Nevuchim from 1950-1. We’ll meet Lithuanian kabbalists and Israeli poets, Zionists and their opponents. Rav Naor will lead us on a search for Rav Kook’s yeshiva from Yafo and its students who seem to have faded into anonymity. It’s an overall heady and exciting read.
His title is very apropos. Each essay is a “world” of its own, seemingly connected only by the binding which closes the book. How, then, can we understand Rav Naor’s navigation? What is the direction? What is the thread that connects parshat ha’shavua, the Talmud, Maimonides, kabbalah, chassidus, and reviews of recent books? It would seem that the topics are too varied and too far-reaching to be cerebrally related.
Upon further consideration, I realized that each essay contains a discrete or overt connection to Rav Kook. He is the lodestar helping the reader navigate these worlds. I believe Rav Naor to be primarily influenced and therefore deeply connected to Rav Kook and his worldview. It is through his lens that the topics are viewed, weaving the disparate essays into the tapestry that is Rav Kook’s weltanschauung. Indeed, there are few topics that Rav Kook himself did not think, learn, and write about.
The volume would benefit greatly from an index since the footnotes are such expansive mines of information that it becomes difficult to remember the location of each nugget.
One can enjoy the essays as stand-alone worlds or can see how they are all luminaries in the cosmos of a broad thinker.