Sunday 7 January 2018



I have always been intrigued by how Rav Kook is both revered in many circles yet how he is almost hidden away at the same time.

We do know that much of his writings have been censored and have ‘vanished’ and were it not for good detective work we would not have access to them today. See The Censored Writings of Rav Kook.

I recently discovered a fascinating site called My Rav Kook, which is an important resource for people wanting to explore some of Rav Kook’s teachings, which have been beautifully translated into understandable English.

The translator is Rochi Ebner - daughter of R. Michael Bernstein who was a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University - and she has created a magnificent work.

I have taken the liberty to quote parts of the Introduction, where she describes her relationship with her father and gives us some insight into his thinking.

I am sharing much of this Introduction for three reasons:

1)    R. Bernstein’s absolute commitment to a fiercely independent learning style resonates with me so strongly because it reminds me of the style of the Kotzker Rebbe. So does his ability to step out of Social Judaism, and so does his fearlessness.
2)    I was quite (but not totally) surprised to see that the social norms which are a hallmark of much of the more (religiously) right wing Judaism with which I am familiar, are just as active in the so called Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist circles too.
3)    And I liked the way Rochi Ebner was able to transcend her societal pressures and follow her soul, acknowledging how Rav Kook has been ‘re-framed’ by his lukewarm modern followers. (The Kotzker was also re-framed, except perhaps in the opposite direction).


This work would never have come to be without the devotion of my first teacher, my father, HaRav Michael ben Efraim Bernstein, z"l, who bequeathed me the boundless inheritance of Torah study, as well as a very peculiar childhood. For someone who’d been a Rosh Yeshiva, Papa had very non-conformist ideas about Jewish education: one of them was learning with his daughter every day.

He had not grown up in the 'yeshiva system,' but came from a simple family on the Lower East Side of New York where he attended public schools and an after-school Hebrew program. He was mainly self-taught in Torah when he became a student of Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, from whom he received ordination. Self-teaching characterized his whole life, as did a kind of radical individuality.

Papa was fiercely independent in his learning style and his halachic father studied Christian texts in the original Latin and Greek and had many books in his vast, well-used library that were considered heretical by halachic authorities); the great men who came to seek his advice over the years testified to widespread respect for his creativity and devoutness. He was a holy elitist of sorts, at war with what he perceived as a deadening mediocrity in the world of Jewish learning and teaching: he did not trust institutionalized learning 'systems.'


He sent me to a Yeshiva elementary school for a while, but not with a whole heart. "What did you skip in school today?" he'd ask when I got home everyday – and, indeed, sometimes sections of Torah dealing with sexuality had been skipped by the teacher, or sections deemed 'too complicated.' "Get your Chumash," he'd say, "and let's look at it now." And Papa found the practice of teaching young American children 'ivrit be'ivrit'– ancient Hebrew texts discussed in modern Hebrew – absurd: "They don't know what 'vayomer' means and they don't know what 'hu amar' means," he complained to the school board after seeing all the time I put in memorizing sheets of Hebrew-Hebrew translations in third grade. Torah texts, he felt, should be explained in 'mama loshen,' in the person's native language. This did not mean, of course, not learning Hebrew.

My father was a scholar of Semitic languages and the infinite richness of Biblical Hebrew was his true love; he delighted in it in a way that infected his many students over the years with his own wonder and delight. He just felt that matters of God and belief were so important that they should be explored with the fewest obstacles, which meant probing them in the language one was born into, the language of one's own mind, while at the same time keeping the Hebrew text central.

My father lost his battle with the elementary school board, of course, but in the time he spent teaching Torah to me, after school and during summers in the mountains, the language of our learning was English, and pushing the boundaries of that tongue to extract dimensional meaning from the sacred Hebrew text expanded my knowledge of both languages, and of human perception itself.

But he was a stubborn man, my Papa, and was not content to remedy the sins of the American yeshiva day school system in a piecemeal way. By the time I was ready for high school he put a more radical plan into effect and pulled me out of the yeshiva system entirely, while leaving my brothers in it. I was sent to Hunter College High School, a good New York public high school for girls (it’s now mixed) where I could get a solid secular education, something Papa deemed essential. And he took on my Torah education himself, with his own unique methodologies.

We learned together every day.
Papa didn't think of himself as a Rosh Yeshiva or a Professor of Semitics; he called himself a 'melamed', simply a teacher of children, although most of his students at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School were candidates for rabbinic ordination and post-graduate degrees. And the goal of all his teaching methods was independence in learning.

He was an auto-didact whose goal was to teach others to be auto-didacts and I was lucky enough to be one of them. The Talmud says that it is incumbent on a father to teach his child to swim, and while my father did not fulfill that directive – actually, he never learned to swim himself – he taught me to swim in the 'ocean of Torah,' to get where I needed or chose to go in it under my own power. To search for my own answers to my own questions, independently.

I didn't know it when I was growing up, but this is unusual. I thought that all Jewish fathers learned Torah with their children, and I thought the ultimate goal of all teachers – including parents, of course – was to liberate students to take their own intellectual and spiritual journeys. As an adult, of course, I know that this often isn't so: most parents don't learn Torah with their children (apart from homework), and most Torah teaching has as an aim (whether conscious or unconscious) – of keeping students attached and dependent on teachers and experts and dogma, never on themselves and their own explorations and intuitive wonderings and knowings.


My father taught me to honor my own questions. "Nu, what's your question?" he'd ask after every verse of Torah we learned. Even as I grew older and our learning became more complex, and there were all the Sages and commentators' questions to be examined and appreciated, he would still ask: "And what's your question?" And there were no restraints on questions, there were no 'forbidden questions.' And he, as a teacher, was never afraid to say "I don't know." "I don't know, but let's look it up," or "I don't know but let's think about it." This did nothing to prepare me for life in the real world where, I found out later, there are forbidden questions, especially in the world of religion. And even if the forbidden-questions rule is not spoken out loud, we get socialized very young not to ask them.

"If God is everywhere, is He in the toilet?" is a question a four-year-old might ask, making his parents uncomfortable. They might try to change the subject, and if the little one keeps asking the question they might finally say that we don't talk about God that way. Certainly by the time a child is studying in a day school or yeshiva he knows not to ask it. And if he dared to, many a teacher would turn it against the child, telling him that it's a disgusting or impertinent question; the child might be sent from the room for inciting the other students to laughter. Because most teachers find it so hard to say 'I don't know' – which, of course, might be a fair answer to whether God is in the toilet or not – they turn the question against the asker; it is the asker who is at fault for having the question. Never is the question validated as a question with meaning, which, of course, it is.


The fact that some questions are forbidden reshapes the permissible dialogue of Torah Judaism. It often feels like the only questions one may ask are halachic questions: how big does my etrog have to be; how many days do I count before I go to the mikva; is this chicken kasher or tref? Spiritual questions about my relationship with God are answered, at best, by a list of behaviors that He wants of me: shaking a lulav on Sukkot; eating matza on Pesach; not sleeping with my neighbor's wife. Spirituality, the inner journey, tends to be neglected territory, forbidden territory, even though spirituality is what religion says it is all about.

What do we do with our forbidden questions? What do we do with our innocent wonderings about God and the world and ourselves? We hide them away, but they do not disappear. They show up as spiritual unease and dissatisfaction; an ache. A longing for something that we cannot even name....


Traditionally, Kabbalistic knowledge has always been exclusive, restricted. Before becoming a student of Kabbala under the tutelage of a Mekubal (a Master of Kabbala who had received the tradition from a Master of Kabbala), a man (yes, it was always a man) was required to be very learned in the Body of Torah, the Written and Oral Law. He must have shown tremendous spiritual dedication and he had to have developed the maturity that only life experience brings – one did not begin to study Kabbala before age 40 or before marriage. The secrets of Torah were carefully kept from the masses – they weren't ready, the time wasn't ripe.

But now it's time. The very first piece by Rav Kook which we will look at together declares it clearly – the time has arrived for the revelation of the secrets of Torah. We're a little late, in fact – Rav Kook wrote this piece during the First World War and the 'now' he speaks of is a century old. His call for revealing the Hidden Torah and pursuing new spiritual skills was not exactly taken up by the religious establishment. It is almost 100 years later and we are still choking on forbidden questions.


It was painful that Rav Kook's ideas about a new mode of Jewish relatedness to God had no room to grow in the religious-Zionist environments in which I lived, neither in New York nor in Jerusalem. His call was for radical individuality and a huge expansion of the modalities of Torah study, but the Modern Torah-Zionist circle into which I had been born and which I loved so deeply had, right before my eyes, grown more and more narrow in its definitions of halachic behavior, more and more rigid in its thinking, more and more exclusive about membership (and, frankly, more and more bizarre about what Rav Kook's own Torah might mean). To be accepted, one had to wear the uniform, speak a certain political vocabulary and send your kids to the right schools. God didn't come up often in conversation. I'd been terribly uncomfortable in this world for a long time; it felt like serving a God I did not know, and Who certainly couldn't be very fond of me. Nonetheless there were rewards for it – I was accepted in its inner circles as long as I kept any criticism to myself. This dissonance was deadly for me.

But without Rav Kook's voice in my ear I do not know if I would have had the courage to change my life; without his 'permission' to see things a new way, to take the call within me as seriously real, I don't think I would ever have dared to leave my secure, comfortable position within that world, my family and friends, and set out on a journey into the desert, in pursuit of the Beloved who had sent me the love letter.

The Religious-Zionist world is still uncomfortable with Rav Kook, even though it claims him as its own. Whenever I offered to teach Rav Kook's spiritual works at Jewish educational institutions, I was struck by the almost total uniformity of response. The dean or director – who was often, but not always, a man – would get a look of discomfort, shift position in his chair, stroke his beard if he had one, and say: "Hmm... that's very difficult material."

It is a kind of code, with many layers of meaning. One possible meaning is that he or she was saying "I read Rav Kook and didn't understand a word." Another implication might be – or perhaps this is all in my mind – how could a woman understand it? But it could also be that the discomfort is natural, that it comes because Rav Kook's work is so different from what we traditionally think of as Torah. It doesn't have the usual form of verse by verse or topic by topic.

Rav Kook writes in short pieces – I call them Glimmerings. His work is really a spiritual diary, daily recordings of visions and insights, which only afterwards were edited and ordered by his son and his students and scattered amongst many texts. His work is not the familiar dialectic of learning we are used to – argument and counterargument – and is not even written in the more or less familiar language of other Kabbalistic works, with their vocabularies of sefirot and gematriyot.

And most discomfiting of all – and you will find this discomfiting, too, and stroke your beard if you have one – is that Rav Kook's works are not about ideas out there… they're about you. His sweet voice whispers in your ear about your infinite potential.

[1] Sub-Headings are mine.

1 comment:

  1. very interesting, i think if you frame these personalities with those from the torah, it makes much more sense.
    yisroel ben eliezer, besht - yisroel/yaakov
    eliyahu ben shlomo, gra - eliyahu hanovi
    rebbi nachman and the alter rebbe a continuation of the besht and gra intermingled.
    rav kook - aharon hacohen, and the chafetz haim - moshe rabenu.