Photo Credit: Yehudah Mirsky

Title: Towards the Mystical Experience of Modernity: The Making of Rav Kook, 1865-1904
By Yehudah Mirsky
Published by Academic Studies Press. 410 pages



Rava said to Bar Hedya, “I saw in a dream that my mansion had fallen, and all came and took it away brick by brick.”

Bar Hedya said to him, “Your teachings will spread throughout the world.”

The great sage has a distinct, organized system in which all the specific opinions are interwoven with his permanent inner theory, just as parts of a building relate to the structure as a whole. However, people of smaller stature cannot absorb the overall theory and greatness of spirit of the sage; they are unable to recognize how all these specifics flow from the general theory and how they are interrelated. They receive each specific as a separate entity….

So for the generation, there is no “mansion” here, no palace of wisdom, but rather “brick by brick,” a collections of opinions, laws and ethics that all appreciate, though they do not recognize their value as parts of the palace. “Through wisdom a house is built” (Proverbs 24:3).

“The mansion fell, the teachings spread throughout the world.” Each lovingly grabs a piece, though by doing so, one is unable to encompass the overall theory that produced this specific. Nevertheless, even in their state of disarray, the pieces are dear. They attract attention because of the greatness of their author and recognition of his value in his generation and in generations to come.

(Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, ‘Eyn AYaH, commentary to Berakhot 56a)


Rav Kook’s interpretation of Rava’s dream (channeled through Bar Hedya, a professional dream interpreter) best describes the state of Rav Kook’s spiritual legacy today, nearly a century after his passing. In what reads almost like an autobiography, Rav Kook accurately predicted the state of disarray, whereby various students grab pieces of the Nachlass [unpublished works], even as the totality, the gestalt of the great man’s teaching, disappears beyond the horizon. And though Bar Hedya sought to assuage the sage’s anxiety, the frustration remains palpable.

Nowhere is the fragmentation of Rav Kook’s literary estate felt more keenly than in the great divide between the yeshiva and the academy. While academicians might relegate the late Rabbi Moshe Tsevi Neriyah’s many biographies of the Rav to the realm of hagiography, hovshei beit ha-midrash might tend to dismiss Professor Mirsky’s biography as a secularization. A great yihud (a term Rav Kook borrowed from the Kabbalistic tradition) – a great unification – is called for. Attempts in this direction have been made in the past and one hopes that further overtures will be made in the future. And maybe, just maybe, the outline of the elusive palace will once again appear on the horizon.

This is Mirsky’s second book on Rav Kook. The first, Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, appeared in Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series. The present work, based on Mirsky’s doctoral dissertation, is restricted to the four decades of Rav Kook’s life in Eastern Europe before his arrival in Jaffa in 1904. Geared to a general audience and encompassing an entire lifetime, the biography had a lyrical quality to it. The present study reads more like a textbook for specialists in the field. Prepare for a “hard landing” – and a deep dive into Lita, Lithuanian Jewry.


Three Traditions in Competition

The book belongs to the genre of literary biography. By juxtaposing biography and textual analysis, the author aims to trace Rav Kook’s intellectual development. The reader may find it fascinating how Abraham Isaac Kook, living at the intersection of the Chasidic, Mitnagdic and Haskalah movements that competed for the minds and hearts of young Lithuanian Jews, integrated elements of all three traditions in his being and his oeuvre.

We are introduced to a figure such as Rabbi Yosef Zechariah Stern of Shavel, a member of Rav Kook’s extended family, having married the daughter of Rav Kook’s great uncle, Rabbi Mordechai Gimpel Jaffe. The Rabbi of Shavel, famed for his prodigious memory and breathtaking command of Talmud, displayed in his works Maskilic tendencies, especially in his fondness for the writings of Naphtali Hirz Wessely and Moshe Mendelssohn. (For example, in his commentary to Berakhot 12b, he cites R[abbi] M[oshe] D[essau]’s introduction to Maimonides’ Millot ha-Higayon; see Zekher Yehosef, Warsaw 1859. Mirsky speculates that he influenced young Rav Kook in this respect.

If Rav Kook’s father’s family were staunch Mitnagdim with roots in the Volozhin Yeshiva (and perhaps mild Maskilic tendencies), Rav Kook’s mother’s people were devout Chabad Chasidim. In fact, it was Rav Kook’s maternal grandfather, Refael Felman, who established the Kopyster shtiebel in Rav Kook’s birthplace of Grieva (a suburb across the river from Dvinsk), Latvia, and brought there R. Yehezkel Yanover as mashpia. (As Mirsky notes, some of Yanover’s explanations of Tanya are recorded in Rabbi Abraham Tsevi Brudno’s Kuntres Likkutim Be’urim, Jerusalem 1922. Brudno, a Chabad Chasid, married the daughter of a gevir of Grieva by the name of Aronowitz and resided there for some time before assuming the rabbinate of Kupishok.

In his youth, Rav Kook studied under the Rabbi of Dvinsk, Rabbi Reuven Levin (known as “Reb Reuvaleh Denaburger,” Denaburg being the previous Germanic name of Dvinsk). Mirsky rightly bestows upon him the accolade “a Talmudist’s Talmudist” (p. 57). According to a tradition preserved by the Soloveichik family of Jerusalem, the bachur from Grieva conveyed a specific halachic query from the sages of Volozhin to Reb Reuvaleh. (Heard from Rabbi Yosef Soloveichik.) In this country, the adherents of the “Malach,” a.k.a. Rabbi Abraham Dov Baer Hakohen Levin of Kurenets and Ilya, recorded that as a young man, he studied Talmud and Codes under “Reb Reuvaleh Amchislaver.” (Before Denaburg or Dvinsk, he served as rabbi of Amchislav.) As is well known, the Malach was singlemindedly anti-Zionist. He thought heavenly-invoked death a suitable punishment for Chief Rabbi Kook! (See his letter to R. Asher Zelig Margulies of Jerusalem in the anonymous collection Otsar Igrot Kodesh, Brooklyn 1988, [Letter 85].)

Mirsky devotes an entire Chapter Four to ‘Eyn AYaH, Rav Kook’s voluminous commentary to the Eyn Ya‘akov, Legends of the Talmud, undoubtedly his most important work from this early period. In discussing the emerging importance of the faculty of imagination in Rav Kook’s thought, Mirsky provides helpful comparisons to the Kabbalah of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov (a disciple of the Vilna Gaon) and to the Chasidic thought of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (although to the best of my knowledge, Rav Kook engaged with Breslov Chasidism only after his arrival in Jaffa).

One must complete the picture by adding the importance of imagination in the Kabbalah that arose in Volozhin. Recently Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz has shown how Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin’s Nefesh ha-Hayyim drew on the Hasidei Ashkenaz, inasmuch as they sought to bridge the gap between the infinite incorporeal deity and finite man by way of imagery. (See Lifshitz’s Ehad be-Khol Dimyonot.) This involvement with imaging of the divine becomes all the more pronounced in the son, Rabbi Isaac (Itzeleh) of Volozhin. (See e.g. Rabbi Isaac of Volozhin, Peh Kadosh, ed. Dov Eliach, Jerusalem 1995.) Long after the passing of Reb Itzeleh, his Bible commentaries, preserved by the students of Volozhin, continued to exercise them, and it is not unreasonable to assume that Rav Kook was exposed to them. (R. Naftali Tsevi Yehudah Berlin [Netsiv], Rav Kook’s mentor in Volozhin, was the son-in-law of Reb Itzeleh.)

In that chapter, Mirsky assumes that Rav Kook’s coinage “ahavat ‘atzmo” or “self-love” is a Hebrew translation of the French amour propre, somehow co-opted from Rousseau. However, an entire section on ahavat atzmo occurs in Rabbi Eliezer Papo’s ethical work Pele Yo‘ets (Constantinople 1825; Bucharest 1860).

On occasion, Mirsky engages with Rav Kook’s halacha. Addressing another work from this period, Li-Nevukhei ha-Dor, Mirsky speculates that Rav Kook adopted the position of the medieval Provencal authority Rabbenu Menahem ha-Me’iri. This stands to reason, as later, in a letter datelined 21 Menahem-Av, 5664 to his disciple Moshe Seidel, Rav Kook will write: “The main opinion is that of the Me’iri, that all the peoples who are bound by proper mores between man and man are already considered gerim toshavim, “resident aliens,” with all the human obligations” (Igrot RAYaH, vol. 1, p. 99 [Letter 89]). By the same token, in his role of posek, Rav Kook would later adopt the position that “Ishmaelites,” or Muslims, since they are monotheists, qualify as gerim toshavim. (Given that perspective, the prohibition of “Lo tahanem,” would not apply to them. This became the basis for his “heter mechirah” in regard to Shemitah.)

As the biographer of Rav Kook’s fellow Lithuanian kabbalist, Rabbi Pinchas HaKohen Lintop, I must point out that, contrary to what is written on page 282, Rabbi Lintop never set foot in Eretz Yisrael. He died in Birzh, Lithuania, in 1924, before he had the opportunity to avail himself of the certificate Rav Kook procured for his aliyah.

Though stories abound of Rav Kook’s youthful longing for and love of Eretz Yisrael, Professor Mirsky finds the thought category of Eretz Yisrael to be lacking from the writings of this period. The reader might find it ironic that for the first four decades of his life, Rav Kook, whose name later becomes synonymous with the Land, was not thinking – or at least not writing – in such terms. One is left wondering whether the identification with Eretz Yisrael was born of necessity or was the result of a mystical conversion such as described by Rabbi Abraham Azulai: “When one merits to enter Eretz Yisrael, there comes to one a new soul of Yetzirah and is garbed in one’s old soul; and the first night that one sleeps in Eretz Yisrael, the two souls depart [from the body] and rise above, and [upon waking] only the new soul returns [to the body]” (Hesed le-Avraham 3:12).


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