The Making of a Spiritual Giant

A fascinating new biography of Rav Kook's early years reveals a surprising lack of interest in Zionism.

Yehuda Mirsky’s Towards the Mystical Experience of Modernity: The Making of Rav Kook is a masterful work; one might almost say a masterpiece. Small wonder. It is based on his 2007 doctoral dissertation at Harvard, An Intellectual and Spiritual Biography of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhaq Ha-Cohen Kook from 1865 to 1904. I will relate to the difference in titles between the thesis and the present monograph towards the end of this review. The latter has been revised mostly in order to include reference to other material penned by Rav Kook (as he is known in Israel) and published between the two iterations of Mirsky’s work. Mirsky’s original dissertation is as rigorous as one might expect it to be: wide scope of knowledge, extensive documentation, readings from diverse bodies of knowledge (Jewish and non-Jewish) in tandem and more. It is a rewarding reading for the specialist. It is, however, more of a challenge for the general reader, inasmuch as half the book consists of footnotes, at times technical and dense. Mirsky, it should be noted, has already published a more popular biography of Rav Kook (1865-1935). In his own testimony he did so intentionally, prior to the publication of this work, which to some extent would allow a general readership to gain better appreciation of this earlier work as well. For those unfamiliar with him, Rav Kook is one of the foremost Jewish thinkers of the modern period, whose writings explored both classical Jewish topics like faith and modern topics like a nationalism and atheism. It is my claim that there are four possible ways of approaching this book.

The first is as a biblio-biographical presentation of the works of Rav Kook during the designated time period, 1865-1904. This period, we learn from Mirsky, has never been studied in its own right. Most of the scholarly attention directed to Rav Kook has been directed to the later developments in his thought, in the period after 1904, after he emigrated to Eretz Yisrael, then part of the Ottoman province of Syria. The importance of this work’s contribution is not only in devoting attention to this period, in which the foundations for the later work of Rav Kook were set in place. It also consists of the first-ever extensive analysis of Kook’s writing from this period, most of which had not been previously studied because they were only published in recent decades. What we knew of Rav Kook up until the end of the twentieth century consisted primarily of edited works. Access to his own voice, as revealed primarily in his journals, has only became available in the past 25 years. Studying Rav Kook directly from his journals, and analyzing them in context is a major methodological breakthrough and allows us a direct approach to Rav Kook’s mind, soul and process. From this perspective, Mirsky’s work is a fundamental Handbuch, a guide to Rav Kook’s thinking whose usefulness will surely endure over several decades. Any student of the works featured here—notably Midbar Shur, Ein Aya, Linvuchey Hador, and the various pinkasim—will find in Mirsky’s work the definitive historical, literary, and bibliographical framing for approaching these works. This is an enormous contribution not only to scholarship but to Torah learning. In a personal vein, I might add that I have been reading these works systematically, one after the other, over the course of several years. The treasures and perspectives that opened up to me by means of Mirsky’s presentation were nothing less than illuminating. This book is, then, essential background material for the future student, and will be appreciated for decades to come as a standard reference work. More broadly, this is probably the best introduction in the English language—and probably any language—to the biography, context, formation, and social and intellectual context within which Rav Kook operated. If nothing else, this superb bio-bibliographical introduction to Rav Kook is enough to make this book a classic.

A third approach to the book is as a straightforward introduction to the works of Rav Kook. Taking what might be termed a “canonical” approach to Rav Kook, namely working through his corpus seriatim, Mirsky offers us summaries and analyses of all his subject’s major works. This is itself a valuable contribution, in that it allows us to become familiar with the content of Rav Kook’s literary output. I must confess, however, that I found myself wondering more than once how adequate the summaries are, and consequently what history of Rav Kook’s own evolution can be based on them. His earliest journal, Metziot Qatan, only came to light in the period between the publication of Mirsky’s dissertation and its present revision. As a later addition to the work, Mirsky seems to acknowledge that he cannot do it full justice. He therefore reads it in light of the themes that he highlighted in his analysis of Kook’s other works, notably Jewish and gentile morality, and the relationship of body, mind, and soul.  This is an obviously partial, and in context tendentious, reading. As I read through Mirsky’s analyses of other books, similar concerns arose. It would require a parallel extended study of each of these works to establish whether and how justified these concerns are. I noted, however, that Ein Aya, a work I have studied for decades and even taught many years ago at Hebrew University, has been reduced to a series of selective citations, around the key concerns identified by Mirsky. What he presents is there. But is it adequate as a summary of the work? Would a more systematic mapping of the concepts yield a richer range of topics, and would such a broader catalogue alter the image of Rav Kook as Mirsky develops it? Even the analysis of Midbar Shur, including his discussion of Jewish and gentile morality, does not capture the universalistic streak in that work (I have published on this elsewhere). In other words, it may be impossible to summarize Rav Kook and his work by means of key themes, in the manner undertaken by Mirsky. The wealth of his thought likely yields multiple readings and multiple emphases. A different methodology might be required, in which themes are mapped out extensively before a comparative and developmental analysis is undertaken. Mirsky certainly offers us a reading of Rav Kook in the works presented here. I ask myself whether he has really offered us the definitive reading.

The first relates to readings and analyses of books. If the summary of the message of a book is partial, then the conclusions that relate to development in light of that reading will obviously suffer. The second relates to periodization. In tracing evolution and development, we naturally assume that stages are presented in relation to one another. How these stages are framed is a matter of periodization. Periodization is often implicit; one of the challenges of history writing, as well as of the writing of biography, is that of justifying a periodization. Mirsky’s periodization is essentially geographic. The periods of Rav Kook’s life are broken up in accordance with where he dwelt. Context is provided accordingly. While the context is helpful to understanding the circumstances of his life and even of the emergence of the particular work, questions remain regarding the division into periods. Time and again, I asked myself whether earlier and later periods described in the book could really be distinguished with the precision that Mirsky proposes. I do not doubt that Mirsky’s book develops our thinking about Rav Kook. I do question, however, whether defining the stages in line with his places of dwelling gives us the best tools for understanding this development. Rather than the essentially external criteria of dwelling places, one must ask whether we can identify internal criteria, conceptual and ideological foci, by means of which an alternative periodization might emerge.

If we were to adopt a geographically based periodization, then surely we cannot refer to the period in the Land of Israel as one period. We would be forced to study Jaffa, London, and Jerusalem as distinct periods. Perhaps they are. They are beyond the scope of Mirsky’s study, so he cannot be faulted for treating them briefly as a whole. Still, one must ask: when does the reality of a place and its circumstances contribute to the evolution of thought, and when do these become a distinct period?

Related to this is the problem of reading later passages in a work of a given period as representing a more developed stage of Rav Kook’s thinking. This seems to be the method by means of which selected passages of Ein Aya are analyzed. Again, one wonders how much development one can ascribe and how distinct the stages of thought are, when these pertain to one text that is being commented upon within a time frame that is otherwise considered as one of the periods under discussion.

In the process of Mirsky’s attempt to portray development, he moves from the realm of ideas to the realm of psychology. There is nothing wrong with this turn—much needed, I think, given the subject matter. However, I found myself less than convinced by Mirsky’s psychological turn. There is a major and a minor point here. I begin with the minor. Mirsky makes much of Rav Kook’s early widowhood. Mirsky frames the death of Rav Kook’s first wife as a formative and transformative event: it leads to the spiritual deepening of Rav Kook, and is ultimately a foundational moment not only in his personal but also in his spiritual biography. The point is developed on the basis of the dating of a poem in which he mourns his wife, coupled by a grim description of his second wedding, in the shadow of the death of his first wife. To me, this suggestion is the price of trying to present a spiritual and intellectual biography. To be fair, Mirsky himself recognizes that this analysis is, at least in part, a case of armchair psychology. And of course, the death of Rav Kook’s wife was a major event. But so was life itself and all the other circumstances that Mirsky describes: the rabbinate, financial challenges, rearing children, and in fact fatherhood itself. Moreover, are we to assume that his second marriage was only an ersatz marriage? If we follow Mirsky’s approach, then how do we account for Rav Kook’s later expressions on romantic love and sexuality? Are these divorced from his experience? Or did his experience of a loving relationship with his second life only kick in after the period described by Mirsky?

These questions might not have mattered as much had they not been related to a key thesis of Mirsky’s concerning Rav Kook’s increasing interiority and development of self. Again, I do not doubt that Rav Kook underwent a deepening of experience in his life. However, the progression that Mirsky suggests seems to me too facile. All the descriptions of Rav Kook’s early life, prior to his literary career, cannot be understood without the presumption that he possessed a strong inner life. What, then, does the articulation of the inner world mean in terms of actual spiritual growth? When do the conceptual elements presented by Mirsky indicate new insight, and when do they indicate deepened subjectivity? This leads me to an additional point about Mirsky’s arguments.

I would like to return to the two titles, that of Mirsky’s dissertation and that of the book under review here. The dissertation’s title presents a very factual account of the contents of the work—an intellectual and spiritual biography. The book has a more attractive (commercial) title – ‘The Mystical Experience of Modernity.’ I believe Mirsky has delivered on “modernity.” I do not think he has delivered on “mystical” let alone on “mystical experience.” Certainly, modernity does not figure in Rav Kook’s mystical experience as described here. It does figure in his ideas, as they address a variety of modern concerns. But what of mysticism? Rav Kook is a foremost mystic. The coda, in which Mirsky cites passages from the later Kevatzim, without analysis, provides perfect proof of his mysticism. Yet, Mirsky’s work tells us little about his subject’s mysticism, in the sense of intense personal awareness of God and spiritual reality. For most of his discussion, mysticism = kabbalah. Mirsky is aware of the problematic use of the term, as indicated in his introduction. Yet he uses it liberally, identifying it with Kabbalah, and applying it primarily – if I appeal to the categorization of Moshe Idel—the scholar of Jewish mysticism—whom he cites – as theosophy, rather than as ecstasy. This, to me, is a drawback in Mirsky’s analysis. Not seeking the experiential dimension (even while affirming the theoretical turn to interiority and to feeling), deprives us of an important criterion for the appreciation of Rav Kook—his subjective experience. While Mirsky has made room for the subjective self and its expressive modality, his revised dissertation does not justify the revised title, which in turn points to what seems to me its major challenge, perhaps even shortcoming. It is an intellectual biography, and not necessarily a spiritual, let alone a mystical, one. The point is not trivial. While, as Mirsky correctly notes, there is no “pure” experience, one must nevertheless consider experience as a dimension in and of itself. I recognize this in texts such as the one cited in Mirsky’s coda. I recognize it in shemona kevazim, and I believe also in some of the earlier works. But I do not find mysticism, in a more universal sense, distinct from an appeal to kabbalistic tradition in Mirsky’s description of Rav Kook. What does this mean? Is this a reflection on Rav Kook, who only became a “mystic,” in a sense recognizable in a comparative religious context, after his emigration to Eretz Israel? Or is this a reflection on Mirsky’s method? This in turn brings us back to the question of readings, thematics, and what to cull from the rich resources that Rav Kook bequeathed us even in this early period.

It would take a work as extensive, and as refined, as that undertaken by Mirsky in order to revisit all or many of the sources with an eye to identifying the formative impact of religious and mystical experience on Rav Kook’s thought, and from this to establish alternative and complementary criteria through which we can recognize or suggest spiritual growth. The exercise is certainly worthwhile. Mirsky has laid solid foundations that will allow others to gain a deeper appreciation of Rav Kook. For the everyman, he has provided a roadmap for studying his early life. For the scholar, he has constructed an edifice that justifies a re-reading of the key texts in light of some of the questions posed above. For both audiences, this first-rate work constitutes an invitation to further study and to deepen our understanding of Rav Kook.

This brings me to a final point about Mirsky’s focus on the early Rav Kook, before his emigration from what was then part of the Russian Empire to the Land of Israel. Many readers will be interested to learn more about the intersection between the evolution of Rav Kook’s thought and his love for the Land of Israel, and more broadly the Zionist project. Rav Kook is considered by many as providing the ideological superstructure for religious Zionism, and many look to him as the guiding light in contemporary political matters, especially as this relates to settling the land. What do we learn from Mirsky’s work about Rav Kook’s formative years, until the age of 38, and this set of spiritual concerns. To Mirsky’s amazement, and that of the reader, the Land of Israel was not an important dimension of Rav Kook’s thought before his emigration. Moreover, we discover that Rav Kook was not even a Zionist thinker, or affiliated with the Zionist movement—making his appointment as the Rabbi of Jaffa somewhat unintuitive. While no stranger to the importance of the Land of Israel within Judaism, it is not as if his emigration to Palestine was the next logical or spiritual step on his path as it emerges from his writings up to that point. As Mirsky describes it, it occurred by force of circumstance more than of ideals; as Ze’ev Yabez suggested, Rav Kook might have been better off staying in Russia.

What this means, then, is that to a large extent Rav Kook’s thought concerning the Land of Israel was formed in the Land itself. That things changed so radically after Rav Kook moved to Israel is validation of the method applied by Mirsky. To understand Rav Kook’s thinking, we need to appreciate its context. The emergence of a robust body of reflection when he is in the Land of Israel shows how contextual a thinker he was. But it also invites us to consider the relationship between addressing external and objective concerns and Rav Kook’s own subjectivity, and his spiritual and mystical experience. Here is the question that emerges from Mirsky’s important recognition with reference to the Land of Israel. When Rav Kook gives expression to a full-bodied theology of the Land, is this an exercise in thought, drawing on the rich heritage described by Mirsky? Is it an answer to contemporary challenges that he addresses creatively? Or is it an expression of his own interiorizing of the spiritual reality of the Land, leading to what is ultimately a mystical experience of dwelling upon it, in continuity with a tradition that points back to the prophetic roots to which he aspires? If we have learned anything from Mirsky, it is that these questions are not a matter of either/or. Rav Kooks’ greatness is in how all these dimensions combine to produce spiritual, intellectual, and ideological novelty. So much for applying Mirsky’s method to this interesting question. The rest, as the Talmud says, is for us to go and study.

*Yehuda Mirsky, Towards the Mystical Experience of Modernity: The Making of Rav Kook, 1865-1904, Academic Studies Press, 2021, pp. 410




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