Sunday 30 December 2018



People can say what they like about R. Avraham Yitzchak haCohen Kook (1865-1935) - also known by the acronym HaRAaYaH - but one thing is certain: he had courage.

He touched on issues which go directly to the heart, soul and psyche of contemporary Judaism and he did not back down. He was so outspoken that even members of his own family censored his teachings and withheld many aspects of his spiritual and intellectual legacy.

Although he was both a mystic and a Talmud scholar, much of the religious right has not only ignored his thinking but has ridiculed him and relegated him to the waste bin Jewish religious leadership. I too was guilty of such an attitude.


It is important to point out that the default setting for Torah study has essentially become Gemara.

Any serious place of learning, whether school, Yeshiva or Kollel would offer Gemara as the main subject matter for study. Other topics may be thrown in here and there as well but serious Torah study is generally defined by Gemara.

As we shall see, Rav Kook had some interesting observations about this.

In this article, we shall look at Rav Kook’s bold definition of the parameters of Torah learning - and particularly Torah study-material.

His views on this topic were subject to much censorship and it only recently that they are being discovered and published.

Some sensitive Readers may take umbrage to Rav Kook’s controversial views, particularly on this matter - but it must be borne in mind that it was for these very reasons that he was so severely censored.

This article is written for those who struggle with relating to Gemara in a meaningful manner, not for those who are nurtured by it.


I have drawn from The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook by R. Ari Ze’ev Schwartz[1], which offers an introduction to, and translation of, some pertinent and important writings of Rav Kook – many of which were unknown until now.

In his introduction[2], R. Schwartz concurs that Gemara is the main focus of Torah study which is emphasized in most learning institutions. He says:

“...I spent eight years in yeshiva, and the majority of time was spent on Gemara. I do not wish to diminish the importance of this form of learning, but there are many who connect to other parts of the Torah, yet are forced to spend their time on topics they feel least connected to...

Unfortunately, many have not been introduced to most areas of the Torah...

...Rav Kook encourages us to find a personal Torah – and to realize that there is not only one type of Torah, but an endless variety that can speak to countless individuals.”


We shall quote from parts of the severely cropped and censored section of Orot haTorah (9:6) of Rav Kook, which R. Schwartz now presents and translates as follows:

“Many people have left religion because in their learning and spiritual perfection, they have betrayed their unique personalities.”

This is a most powerful analysis of contemporary religion. 

Contrary to the belief of many religious leaders, not everyone is happy to be the proverbial sausage in the sausage factory.

Imagine; Rav Kook is telling us that the root cause of many people turning their backs on Judaism is because their learning - the very glue which bonds them to their faith - is betraying their true inner personalities!

In other words, according to Rav Kook, there exists a certain regimen of Torah study which jolts roughly against the essential spiritual makeup of many individuals. This can be most damaging.

When this occurs, there are one of two options:

Either the student numbs his or her mind to their intuitive personality, and suppresses that mind as being the ‘evil inclination’, which then gets ‘rectified’ by even more intense study to quieten its protest.

Or the student adopts - ironically a more straightforward and logical approach - and leaves religion.

Rav Kook continues:

[Note that the terms Halacha, Gemara, Talmud are used interchangeably in this context.]

“For example, a person might be naturally talented in matters of aggadah [non-legal subject matter like philosophy and mysticism etc.[3]] and be unsuited to constant immersion in matters of halachah [minutia of laws].

Yet because he does not recognize his unique talents, he occupies himself in matters of Gemara and its commentaries, since he sees that this is customary in the religious world today.”

What strikes one about this statement of Rav Kook is his use of the word ‘today’. Is this reference merely incidental, and has this always been the practice within the religious world – or is he alluding to a particular overemphasis on Talmudic study which has taken place in relatively recent times and is now ‘customary in the religious world today’?


Rav Kook pulls no punches when he then writes with his typical intellectual honesty:

“But deep inside his [the Gemara student’s][4] soul he feels a hatred towards the material he is learning, since constant involvement in it does not suit his unique natural gifts.”

It is hard to think of any other leading rabbinic figure who has written of Gemara in such a manner.


Rav Kook writes about a type of ‘Halachic depression’ that can sometimes set in:

“Sometimes, one who has the type of soul that is capable of climbing to the greatest spiritual heights will become depressed and saddened when immersed in the little details of halacha.

Such a person may feel imprisoned, almost as if chained inside the law.

Nevertheless, the solution is not to abandon halacha. Rather, one must train oneself to seek the value of every detail until one finds its spiritual source and significance.”[5]


Once a person reaches such a state of feeling spiritually 'depressed' and harbouring an inner ‘hated’ towards a religious study programme predominantly comprised of technical legalities, Rav Kook suggests that it is time to move on to ‘another type of Torah’.

Before he does this, though, he gets even more descriptively graphic, while at the same time careful not to criticise the important role of Talmudic study. And he weaves this bold yet extremely fine line all into one poignant paragraph:

“However, if he were to find the specific type of Torah that fits his unique talents and immerse himself in it, he would then immediately recognise that the nauseating feeling he experienced when immersed in matters of Halacha was not coming from any flaw in that holy and important type of learning. It was rather his soul expressing its desire to be absorbed in another type of Torah.

This person would then stay truly faithful to the Torah and become an expert in the type of Torah that is unique to him.”

Most would concur that ‘hatred’ and ‘nauseating’ are very unusual adjectives for describing Gemara, especially when used within rabbinic literature.

But, again, Rav Kook is careful to use these terms to describe the subjective feelings of the student (not the subject matter itself) whose soul just does not jell with a study curriculum primarily focussed on the intricacies of a legal disciple and code.

Besides being a mystic, he himself was also a great Talmudic scholar and he certainly upheld the primary position of such study. - Except that in Rav Kook’s mind, no one genre of study was to be considered the be-all and end-all of the mitzvah of Torah study.


Notwithstanding Rav Kook carefully qualifying his position, he continues relentlessly:

“Unfortunately, because this person does not recognize the true reason for his feelings of nausea toward halacha, he forcefully ignores his nature.”

The point is that precisely because one ‘forcefully ignores his nature’, that the individual now becomes another victim of a system which has sadly been falsely defined, narrowed and limited. And no rabbinical authority alerted him or her to the fact that there are other equal but different avenues of Torah study which should rather be pursued which may be more appealing to the individual.


Rav Kook offers a brief historical perspective as to why Gemara rose to its position of pre-eminence:

“In the course of time, the concern with the work of the rabbis dominated over the work of the prophets, and prophecy ceased altogether. After some time, the prominence of spiritual and philosophical principles declined; although they were implicit in the details, they were not sufficiently explained.”


Perhaps Rav Kooks is writing so passionately because he is subliminally referring to himself as well. R. Schwartz reminds us about someone who once came to Rav Kook and mentioned that his son was not interested in studying Torah; to which Rav Kook responded:

“When I was young, I also was not excited to study halachah. My heart was drawn to aggadah. However, by studying aggadah, I came to study halacha. I suggest you teach your son aggadah...”


Rav Kook then takes this notion even one step further.

Besides broadening Torah study into other non-Talmudic subjects, he furthermore encourages those individuals who are drawn to other branches of wisdom, including secular learning, to follow their minds as well.

He says:

 “There is a great diversity of wisdom that expands even greater than this. One may be strongly attracted to a certain secular wisdom.

Such a person must also follow his unique talents, while setting aside fixed time for learning Torah.

If he does this, then he will succeed in both, because ‘Torah together with the ways of the world is beautiful’ (Pirkei Avot 2:2).”[6]

[See 'Rav Kook's Jealousy of the Secular World'.]


All these views of Rav Kook, which would be considered radical (or worse) in some circles, stem from his desire for truth. 

He was acutely aware of what today we would call ‘Social Judaism’: This is where a strong culture of religious Judaism exists but has brought with it certain societal (as opposed to spiritual) constructs. Very often people are attracted to the heavily nuanced norms and constructs and not necessarily to the deeper and often hidden soul within the matter.


Rav Kook encourages people to think as individuals and to go beyond group. 

He also understands how difficult it is to break out of the cultural hold which sometimes can be like an invisible vice-grip or a ‘whirlwind’:

“One should not lie to one’s soul; one should not deny one’s inner emotions due to the whirlwind of external approval.

If one feels inspired and holy in a specific area of learning, then one must constantly satisfy oneself from this deep pleasure that one’s heart desires."


Rav Kook felt that the Rabbanut was ‘too focused on Halacha.’ He wrote:

“The Rabbanut that I am trying to raise up...should not be boxed in and focussed only on the world of religious law...because matters of religion are in truth matters of life.”[7]

In a letter to Chairman of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in America, Rav Kook wrote:

“We [the rabbis][8] have abandoned the soul of the Torah....

For too long the most talented among our people have focussed almost exclusively on the practical aspects of the Torah, and even then only on specific sections of it.

Yet the emotional, philosophical, and all the higher spiritual wisdom – where the secrets of redemption and salvation are hidden – we have totally abandoned... our own camp of Torah and faith, we find only darkness”[9]


Almost as if Rav Kook is pre-empting the next step: He seems to know that anyone reading this is going to immediately ask their personal rabbi whether these views are acceptable and whether they may indeed be implemented on a practical level. 

He knows what the answer is going to be, so he warns us not to be, as R. Schwartz puts it, ‘intimidated by non-spiritual rabbis’: 

“Even if one finds great whom matters of spirituality are not’s heart should not despair over one’s inner hunger for ways of spirituality...”[10]

At the end of the day, Rav Kook’s message which has been largely censored and withheld from us till now, is that it is up to us alone as thinking individuals to determine what type of Torah we wish to immerse our souls in.

This is one of those fundamental teachings where there is no middle ground -  the Reader, depending on the individual, will either accept it wholeheartedly or absolutely reject it. 

[For more on Rav Kook's other ideas, see The Censored Writings of Rav Kook.]


The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook by R. Ari Ze’ev Schwartz. (Gefen Publishing House.)

[1] Published by Gefen Publishing House.
[2] Chapter 2.
[3] Rav Kook was a mystic so obviously, he was referring to mysticism as a strong alternative.  It should, however, be equally obvious that for rationalists this would include areas of Rationalist Torah study like the philosophy of Maimonides and such similar matters. 
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] OT 9:8
[6] KYK1, Pinkas Acharon b’BVoisk, 52.
[7] IR 2, p. 28.
[8] Parenthesis mine.
[9] Letter to R. Yehudah Leib Seltzer.
[10] OT 10.4.


  1. Thank you for this beautiful piece.

  2. Rab Kook, alab hashalom, the more I know about him the more I like his ways. Israeli society should turn into Rabs Kooks view more than ever.

  3. (Thanks for the editorial correction)

  4. Zarathustra saw a man who was being strangled by a snake. It seemed that the snake had attacked when the man was asleep. Zarathustra tried to weaken the snake's hold of the man's throat. But the snake was on its way inside, for the final kill. So Zarathustra screamed: Bite, bite! The man bit, killed the snake, and survived.
    This is how hard it is to break out of the cultural hold.

  5. Moshe wrote "you will" and to that "thou shalt" was added. In the future, it shall be every one's prerogative to say "I will."

  6. They yield, those good ones, they submit themselves; their heart repeateth, their soul obeyeth: HE, however, who obeyeth, doth not listen to himself!