Sunday 1 April 2018


1804 Dubna printing of Shaar haShamayim by R. Avraham Cohen Herrera (1570-1635). This book formed the basis of Rav Kook’s thesis for the creation of a ‘superior Chassidism’.


In a fascinating article which I will paraphrase, R. Bazalel Naor shares an extract from some of Rav Kook’s writing where it appears evident that Rav Kook did indeed attempt to start a new form of modern Chassidism.[1]

For those familiar with the style and tenor of Rav Kook’s teachings, it does seem that he was captivated by a new and invigorating type of spirituality. His supporters seized upon this, much like the early followers of the Baal Shem Tov, while his detractors opposed him with almost as much vitriol as the early Mitnagdim.

This idea of a new Chassidism is not just speculation by modern day re-interpreters of Rav Kook.  It was something already expressed by one of Rav Kook’s students, R. Yaakov Moshe Harlap, who wrote to the Gerrer Rebbe, expressing this selfsame notion that Rav  Kook was a new Baal Shem Tov, invigorating the mundane lives of both religious and particularly irreligious Jews.

And Rav Kook himself started making references to a type of Neo-Chassidism in his Orot haTechiya:

Rav Kook expressed the need for “a great Chassidism, flowing from a sophisticated understanding of G-d”.
He said that the time had come for “a superior Chassidism”, an extremely “elevated Chassidim...And in this way, the nation will be able to open its eyes and relate with a proper heart to its practical challenges (which lie ahead).”[2]

Rav Kook was well acquainted with the Chassidic movement. His mother was related to the Tzemach Tzedek of Chabad. She inherited a button from the coat of the Tzemach Tzedek which she sewed onto the top of her young son’s yarmulka. He understood Chasidism well and he knew how successful the movement had become. He was cognizant of its achievements.

But he also knew its flaws.

He wanted to discard what he considered to be the non-sophisticated aspects of the movement and replace them with ‘higher knowledge’.  He too was a mystic and wanted to perpetuate the mystical doctrine - but in a contemporary way that traditional Chassidim would never have dreamed of. 
He continues:

The nation (now) needs to establish great Chassidim...(with) elevated people...with exceptional aptitude for knowledge...”

Give strength to the higher knowledge, to a radical and sophisticated Chassidism...”

It is not even necessary to read between the lines to see what Rav Kook is referring to – he wants to create new radical Chassidism and a mysticism which is deeply spiritual but at the same time uniquely and radically ‘sophisticated’, ‘worldly’ and one which ‘opens the eyes’.

He wants to infuse traditional mysticism with worldly wisdom!

Recently, another hitherto unknown piece of Rav Kook’s writing surfaced. (For more, see The Censored Writings of Rav Kook, and A Recently Discovered Document.) It is a journal entitled Pinkesei haRa’ayah.
In the journal, Rav Kook elaborates in more explicit detail, on his vision of a new form of Chassidism.

Rav Kook finds precedent for his thesis in a 17th-century work, called Shaar haShamayim (Gates of Heaven), by R. Avraham Cohen Herrera (1570-1635)[3].
Let us see who exactly R. Herrera was and why Rav Kook chose him to base his innovative ideas upon:

R. Herrera, born to a family of Spanish Marranos, became a student of R. Yisrael Sarug who was teaching Lurianic Kabbalah which he had learned from his teacher, the Ari Zal himself.[4]

He was highly respected by the Moroccan Sultan and he became his diplomatic representative. In 1596, when a joint force of English and Dutch sailors captured the Spanish port of Cadiz, he was detained for a ransom of 120 000 ducats, and was held a prisoner for five years in the Tower of London. When he was released he started living openly as a Jew.
Later, in the port of Ragusa (in Croatia), he met R. Yisrael Sarug and eventually he had a hand in spreading Sarugian Kabbalah throughout Europe. Many Italian Kabbalists were profoundly influenced by Sarugian Kabbalah.

In his book, R. Herrera moves with great ease from Lurianic Kabbalah to Neo-Platonic rationalism and philosophy as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

While many may have criticised R. Herrera for his blending of Kabbalah and secular knowledge, Rav Kook believed that this was to be held up as an example for all to see.[5]

Rav Kook was inspired by the notion of creating a synthesis between Kabbalah and modern science.
To achieve this amalgamation of the two disciplines, Rav Kook was anticipating a revolutionary form of ‘expansive’ Chassidism.

He did not just skirt lightly around the issue of blending Kabbalah and science in a poetic sense. He expressly wrote about bringing about a real blend of Kabbalah and Maddah (science).

He even coined a new phrase to underscore this idea, by introducing the concept of ‘KEMACH’ (flour[6]) – an acronym for:  Kabbalah, Maddah (science) and Chassidut.

Lest one think that this new Chassidism would lead to secularism because of its inclusion of the secular science component, Rav Kook wrote: “Such a (form of) Chassidism will certainly not lack the (spiritual) wealth of the latter-day Chassidim (referring to the Chassidim of the Baal Shem Tov).”

Rav Kook’s new Chassidut was, therefore, not to be a watered-down form of secular Chassidism, but rather an intensely mystical and spiritual movement which also demanded proficiency in matters of secular knowledge and science.

If this vision of Rav Kook appears unbelievable (as it did to me when I first came across it), the following is how Rav Kook writes all this in his own words, in his newly surfaced Pinkesei haRa’aya: [7]


“Kabbalah must bond with all the sciences; to live with them and through them. So did the great [sages] throughout the ages; and more than they achieved—it is obligatory upon us to achieve. The spiritual world that bestows its spirit upon the thinking man, was enhanced by constant appearances of the light of intellect. This enhancement dulls the oppositions between one science and another, and once the barriers have come down—the different sciences actually come to one another’s aid.
Science in all of its breadth, in all of its various aspects—spiritual and practical, societal and global—must find its place alongside the supernal wisdom [i.e. Kabbalah].
A shining example of this would be the book Sha‘ar ha-Shamayim by Rabbi Abraham Cohen Herrera, who was the second in a line extending from Rabbi Isaac Luria through Rabbi Israel Sarug, disciple of Rabbi Isaac Luria. Herrera was inspired to write his book in Spanish, in full view of the cultured world of the day.
With a breadth of intellect and feelings of respect and affection, the author toured all the philosophical studies that represented the finest literature of his time. Rabbi Isaac Aboab [da Fonseca] who admired Herrera—translating the work into Hebrew for the benefit of Hebrews—followed in his spirit, which is the spirit of true culture worthy of Torah scholars who are truly “men of holiness.”
The preparedness of the thinker—pure of knowledge and holy of thought—to absorb into his midst the best thoughts of the finest writers, the thinkers, the sages of every people and language, of every subject of science; and to shine upon them, from them and through them, the divine light—this is the unchanging way of the world, upon which we are obligated to travel.
[This synthesis of] science and the supernal illumination that expands the soul, produces a strong character in our entire organic unity, spiritual and material.
We need now a rich, broad, luminous Hasidism to illumine us!
Such a Hasidism will certainly not be lacking all the [spiritual] wealth of the latter-day Hasidism [i.e. of Rabbi Israel Ba‘al Shem Tov], but it must be expansive.
[We need] a Hasidism that negates no good; no science, peace, Torah, or talent, but rather crystallizes and purifies all. When understood as such, people with heart will not oppose it.
This Hasidism is needed by men of powerful spirit, just as the average Mussar[8] (Ethics) is necessary for the masses. This Hasidism contains all the ways of Mussar, but it surpasses them; it takes them out from fear and darkness to confidence and light; from servitude and weakness to sovereignty and strength of spirit. This Hasidism must be combined with Kabbalah and science, so that greatness of spirit not grow inimical to routine ethics (which the average acquire through revulsion brought on by fear).
And the more enhanced the knowledge and understanding of Torah...the more the ideal soul will expand, as it fills with the splendor of Kabbalah, the sciences, and Hasidism.
In this regard, I invoke the adage: “If there be no KeMaH [Kabbalah, Maddah and Chassidut], there be no Torah[9]...”
 A very valid question would be why it was that Rav Kook specifically chose R. Herrera’s 17th century Shaar haShamayim as his model for his innovative vision of creating a modern blend of mysticism and rationalism.
- My humble feeling is that Rav Kook decided to go with R. Herrera rather than with anyone else, because he could more strongly root his system within a more genuine[10] form of Kabbalah which stemmed directly from the very student of the Ari Zal. This way his precedent would be more authoritative due to its proximity to the Ari Zal, the founder of Lurianic Kabbalah.
Rav Kook, in fact, states this himself when he refers to R. Sarug as: “second in a line extending from Rabbi Isaac Luria...”  And furthermore, Rav Kook continues to make the point that R. Herrera wrote his book in Spanish, as opposed to Hebrew[11] - under the title Puerta del Cielo -   “in full view of the cultured world of the day.”
Thus emphasizing that at that time, this way of thinking was commonplace and quite acceptable.
Either way, after reading Rav Kook’s own words, it does seem clear that he did indeed want to bring about a unique form of Chassidism:  
- A new movement of spiritually inspired but rational intellectuals who would succeed in combining extreme elements that are usually considered to be mutually exclusive.
Could this fascinating revelation be one of the reasons why this journal of Rav Kook is not well known – and it would have remained so had it not somehow ‘surfaced recently’?

[1] See The Hasidism of Rav Kook, by Bezalel Naor.
[2] Orot haTechiya ch. 4.
[3] Also known as Alfonso Nunez de Herrera.
[4] There is much debate as to which student of the Ari Zal transmitted most accurately the teachings of the Ari Zal – was it R. Chaim Vital or R. Yisrael Sarug? See THE BATTLE FOR THE SOUL OF THE ARI ZAL.
[5] Interestingly, R. Naor writes: “Rather than choosing Herrera as his role model, Rav Kook might have done better opting for Herrera’s contemporary, Joseph Solomon Delmedigo (or as he is known in Hebrew, “YaShaR mi-Candia”) as an exemplary amalgam of Kabbalah and science. (By the way, Delmedigo’s Kabbalah too is of Sarugian lineage.)” For more on R. Delmedigo, see: R. ‘GUISEPPE’ DELMEDIGO AND ‘RABBI’ GALILEO.
[6] As in: ‘If there is no flour, there can be no Torah.’
[7] Pinkesei ha-Ra’ayah, vol. IV, ed. Z.M. Levin and B.Z. Kahana-Shapira (Jerusalem, 2017), Pinkas ha-Dapim 1:34, 88-92. (As cited by R. Naor in his article.)
[8] Rav Kook did criticise the Mussar movement of R. Yisrael Salanter, which he considered a simple philosophy for the average masses, as he said it kept them in a state of ‘fear and darkness’.
[9] Avot 3:17.
[10] As pointed out, some would argue that R. Chaim Vital was the more ‘authentic’ student of the Ari Zal.
[11] It was later translated into Hebrew by R. Yitzchak Avoav (see the title page of later editions of Shaar haShamayim.)

1 comment:

  1. This is very intriguing of Rav Kook, but at the end of the day there is a danger to learning too much secular knowledge ,specifically secular philosophy, which seems to be a big emphasis here. A Jew can be walking and talking about the baal shem tov, the gra, the ramchal, and be incorporating their holy ideas in one's life or can be mixing that with kant, descartes, plato. Why should these holy minds be mixed with these great humans that arent even comparable in service of G-d?