Sunday 12 February 2017


Painting of The Philosopher by Rembrandt 1632


“I don't speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don't have the power to remain silent.” (Rav Kook)

Rav Avraham Yitzchak haCohen Kook (1865-1935) was the first Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, and one of the founders of religious Zionism. He tried to bridge the gaping chasm between Jew and non-Jew, and particularly between religious and irreligious Jew. But he also defined (redefined?) the essence of Judaism as he saw it.

For much of my religious life, I have been discouraged from reading Rav Kook. Now I know why. His writings pose a serious threat to those who would rather keep us in little boxes and bubbles.

If you are not too familiar with Rav Kook’s pragmatic, often mystical and always fearless writings, here are some aspects of his astonishingly profound thought:


How can it be that some who are involved in the pursuit of organised religion are often recognisable by a lack of any semblance of spirituality?

Rav Kook wrote:

Expanses divine my soul craves.
Confine me not in cages,
Of substance or of spirit.”[1]

Rav Kook points out something that for him was blatantly obvious – not all spirit sets one free. Sometimes religion chains one to a prison-cell of thought and deed...instead of freeing the mind and opening up ‘expanses divine’.

He knew that it was common and likely to be drawn into a state of ‘religious sociable confinement’ without even being aware of it, and prayed that he be spared such a fate.

Everyone knows there are physical chains. But Rav Kook wanted us to be aware that there can also be spiritual chains of religion which entrap just the same.


Religion today has a huge social and political component and agenda. One needs to be conscious of this. The leadership certainly is conscious of this and often uses society as a very effective tool.

The shepherds of our people are in a deep slumber. This is not the way. We shall not seek conferences at this time, but we shall create a literature.”[2]

Religious conferences and committees (which deal with socialisation as opposed to spiritualization) do not usually determine any halacha or Torah we don’t already know. We have this information already in our seforim - but instead, they determine policy. There is a big difference between policy and halacha. The former is a social construct the latter is an authentic tradition.

Our ‘shepherds’, who attend conferences and determine policy, lay down new norms of social and peer behavioural Judaism for their flock. They are in a ‘deep slumber’. This does not mean that they are not successful. On the contrary, they are extremely successful and run some very powerful organisations. 

But we are supposed to be more than an effective religious ethnic group bound by societal constructs. We are spiritual thinkers and need to focus less on the social order and more on ‘creating a literature’. We are not just societal beings that mirror each other – we are also cerebral. 

When we lose our intellectual component we don’t just slumber...we die...even whilst being part of a well-coordinated group.


Not only must we move from obsession with the group to a passion for intellect, but the intellect must be expansive and not parochial or narrow as that would defeat its very purpose:

As long as Orthodoxy maintains stubbornly; ‘No we shall concern ourselves only with the study of Talmud and the legal codes. But not with aggadah, not ethics, not Kabbalah, not scientific research, not the knowledge of the world, and not Chassidism, it impoverishes itself. And against this I shall continue to wage battle.[3] 
This is an amazing piece of writing. In it, Rav Kook sets himself apart from much of the religious mainstream. Some do study Torah, but only Talmud and halacha. Ethics and mysticism are considered extraneous. Some study Talmud and mysticism but ethics is considered superfluous.

Different aspects of Torah are an anathema to different groups of people. 

Few, however, in their wildest dreams would think that ‘scientific research’ or secular ‘knowledge of the world’ would be permitted, let alone form part of...or even be of benefit to...their religious order.

But Rav Kook felt it would, to the extent he was prepared to ‘continue to wage battle’ in this regard, even against the mainstream.

Rav Kook talking to Chaim Bialik


Rav Kook wrote:

“I walk around with an overwhelming jealousy of the secular world. It is a jealousy that consumes me. For is it possible that the power of creativity has ceased within the religious world?...A piercing pain stabs my heart when I see secular thoughts and dreams spread throughout the world, winning people’s hearts, acquiring followers, and eventually becoming actualized in concrete deeds – whereas dreams and thoughts of holiness are left alone like a dead stone that no one picks up or notices.”

Rav Kook was consumed with the notion that religious Jews should make visible contributions to the world, on all levels, instead of viewing their insularity as their only bequest to mankind.


“When I lived in London, I used to visit the National Gallery. My favourite pictures were those of Rembrandt. I truly think that Rembrandt was a Tzadik...We are told that when G-d created light, it was so strong and penetrating that...he reserved that light for the righteous to use when the Mashiach would come. But now and then there are great men who are blessed and privileged to see it in their lifetime. I think Rembrandt was one of them, and that the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created...”[4]

Whether one agrees with Rav Kook’s assessment of Rembrandt or not, he certainly makes the point that G-dly radiance is not restricted or limited only to the four cubits of the law.


Rav Kook the individual was essentially a mystic:

It is no accident, but rather of the very essence of my being, that I find delight in the pursuit of the divine mysteries in unrestrained freedom. This is my primary purpose. All my other goals, the practical and the rational, are only peripheral to my real self. I must find happiness within my inner self, unconcerned whether people agree with me, or by what is happening to my career. The more I shall recognise my own identity, and the more I will permit myself to be original, and to stand on my own feet with an inner conviction...the more will my potentialities develop to serve as a blessing to myself and to others.”

While it is important to be open to various disciplines, Rav Kook was true to himself with an unabashed sense of individuality.  He chose to give pre-eminence to the mystic in him, but he could just as much been a rationalist or religious scientist. It wouldn’t really matter as long as he was honest and true to himself and unconscious to the protestations of the world.


Although an avowed mystic, Rav Kook displayed not just tolerance, but even understanding and respect towards those who chose a different path. This is what he had to say about religious rationalists:

Fundamentally we are compelled to say that there is a certain richness of the mystical among the devotees of the revealed, which makes it unnecessary for them to labor over refined, spiritual subject matter. They already possess satisfactory substantive matter from the realm of the spiritual. This sufficiency leads them occasionally to feel impatient with all mystical matters.”[5]


His deference towards the irreligious, for example, was legendary:

Ordinary people who are not learned (or religious) have many advantages over the learned. This is because of their natural ability to think. Their basic decency has not become clouded by mistaken perceptions, fatigue and irritability that may arise out of scholarship. For these reasons, the learned need to adopt some of this innate capacity of ordinary people - both with regard to general outlook on life and also to basic human decency. This will greatly help the religious to expand their minds.”[6]

Never mind simply getting along with and tolerating the irreligious, but the religious are duty bound to sometimes learn the basics of normative behaviour from their secular co-religionists.

“The fear of heaven must never quash the natural morality of man, because it then ceases to be a pure fear of heaven. . . A sign of pure fear of heaven is when natural morality, implanted in man’s upright nature, ascends higher than where it would stand without it [the morality of the Torah].”[7]

Religion, in Rav Kook’s mind, must never cause people to become less ethical than they naturally would have been, had they never come into contact with it. He was worried that sometimes religion could have the effect of making some people less sensitive and less ethical.


Rav Kook had the most novel approach towards atheists. Instead of viewing them as ideological enemies, he believed they had a positive role play. Their job was to purge us of some of the ‘foulness that has attached itself to religion.’ 

Atheism has a temporary legitimacy because it is needed to purge the foulness that has attached itself to extirpate the dross that obscures from man the true light of G-dliness....Through the clash of these contradictory forces (atheism and religion), mankind will be aided greatly to appreciate an enlightened knowledge of G-d.”[8]

What Rav Kook may be saying is that just because something comes packaged and labelled as ‘G-d’ or ‘religion’ doesn’t necessarily mean it is. A distorted image of G-d doesn’t come into focus simply because the believer is religious. Sometimes it takes an outsider to make that point.

By definition, spirit always had to have elements of paradox and even contradiction. To Rav Kook, it was obvious that faith was hidden in atheism, as was atheism hidden in faith.


Rav Kook spoke of the inevitability of ideological conflict:

Ideologies tend to be in conflict. One group at times reacts to another with total negation. And this opposition becomes more pronounced the more important a place ideas have in the human spirit. (This is like) the separation of plants, which serves as an aid to their growth, enabling them to absorb from the soil their required sustenance. Thus will each one develop to its fullness...One begins with separation but concludes by unification.[9]

Sometimes ideological conflict is positive because it creates different spaces for each ideology to nurture unabated. Disharmony can be beneficial, but only if it creates space for growth.


According to Rav Kook man was originally intended by G-d to be vegetarian. Adam was to eat only fruit. It was only later, in the time if Noah when man had sunk to a terribly low level of morality that the Torah permitted the eating of animal flesh. This was to prevent depraved man from sinking even lower because he was just one step away from eating human flesh. However, this dispensation was supposed to only be a temporary concession until man evolved to discover his higher self.

Rav Kook was essentially vegetarian except that he made a point of eating a small amount of chicken only on Shabbat (perhaps in order to fulfil the mitzvah of eating meat on Shabbat or to show that he believed man had not yet found his higher self).
However, he had a fascinating interpretation of the future vision of ‘animal sacrifices’ in Messianic times:

In the future, the abundance of enlightenment will spread and penetrate even the animals...The gift offerings of vegetation that will then be brought as sacrifices will be as acceptable as the (animal) sacrifices of ancient days.”[10]

He believed, as did R. Yosef Albo, that in Messianic times we will once again become the vegetarians we were originally intended to be, and our future sacrifices in the Third Temple will be vegetarian and not animal. He (like Rambam) viewed animal sacrifices to have no place in a future world of ‘abundance of enlightenment.’


Perhaps one of the most amazing of all Rav Kook’ s teachings is his description of the ‘anguish’ one experiences upon entering the ‘confined world of halacha’:

Great anguish is experienced by one who leaves the wide horizons of pure contemplation, where poetry and the most exquisite beauty was experienced, and now enters the study of the confined world of halachic enactments...A person who is stirred by a soul ennobled with the splendour of holiness suffers frightful anguish at the chains of confinement when he leaves the one branch of study for the other.”[11]

This teaching becomes even more poignant when one remembers that Rav Kook was also a great halachist, and the head and founder of Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva. Yet he wasn’t afraid to admit that he experienced ‘frightful anguish at the chains of confinement’ when he went from spiritual pursuit to the discipline of code and legislation.

Do not allow the Names, phrases and letters swallow up your soul. They have been given over to you – not you to them.[12]


Rav Kook had much opposition from all over the establishment, to the extent that some printers no longer published his approbations to their new editions of older books that originally carried them.

In 1920, a twelve-page booklet entitled Kol Shofar was distributed in Palestine criticising Rav Kook, the then Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. He was ridiculed for his endorsement of secular education and attacked for his interaction with the non-(and anti-)religious early Zionists. He was criticised for his tolerance of other faiths even accused of creating a ‘Christian-like cult’.

It is said that the Chazon Ish, a founder of Chareidism in post-independence Israel, said that one can study Rav Kook’s halachic writings but not his hashkafic or philosophic books.

Even at the other end of the spectrum, Rav Kook was regarded as being so controversial that the followers of his son, R.Tzvi Yehudah Kook, meticulously and intentionally censored vast swaths of his teachings.

But Rav Kook spoke from his soul and did not fear the consequences. In this sense, he was like the Kotzker Rebbe who felt the need to infuse basic honesty and truth back into a system he believed had gone off message.

Although Rav Kook regarded himself primarily as a mystic – he was equally at home in love for ethics, art and poetry, humanity, animals, rationalists, secularists and even atheists.

In this sense, it may be more accurate to describe him as a mystical rationalist, or as a spiritual pragmatist, whose words resonate with those who straddle multiple worlds and do not wish to compromise on any of them...

[1] From a poem of Rav Kook.
[2] Igrot, Vol. I, Letter 184.
[3] Igrot, Vol. 2, Letter 602.
[4] The Jewish Chronicle, London 13 September 1935, p. 21.
[5] Orot, Vol 1, pp.88-89.
[6] Shmona Kevatzim 1. 463 see also 1. 75.
[7] Orot HaKodesh, vol.3, p.27.
[8] Orot, pp.126.
[9] Orot, Vol. 1, pp. 15.
[10] Orot, Vol.2, p.474.
[11] Orot, Vol. 1, p.28.
[12] Orot haKodesh 1, pp. 83-84


  1. Rabbi Kook's speech in 1925 at the inauguration of the Hebrew University is truly a beacon of light.
    Here is the link.

  2. this is why I fell in love with him at 16, went to his Yeshiva at 18 (bitterly disappointed by his son) and continue to nourish from his well of spirituality 40 years later...he is the ultimate Gadol for our century.

  3. Rav Zvi Yehuda TZ'L abd others did not censor 'vast swaths' of his writings . The changes have been documented and they are overall not that significant. His radical writings have been available for a long time. They are a great blessing for the serious student of real Torah.

  4. The problem with rav Kook was his Zionism. You have to tear out that page and read the rest.