Caught Between Two Worlds: A Study of the Intellectual Spiritual Biography of Rav Kook

Reviewed Book: Yehuda Mirsky, Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014)


Since his death in 1935, the works of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook have had a major impact upon intellectual and sociopolitical life in Israel. The cryptic and poetic Hebrew used in the vast majority of Rav Kook’s writings have made the works difficult for even native Hebrew speakers unfamiliar with his style and terminology, and have kept his works virtually closed to an English speaking audience. Yehuda Mirsky, associate professor at Brandeis University, attempts to bridge that gap with one of the first academic treatments of Rav Kook’s ideas geared exclusively for an English speaking audience. His book, Mystic in a Time of Revolution, is an intellectual biography of Rav Kook that provides a broad overview of his life and thought. While English works featuring Rav Kook’s thought have been published before, the works have largely been limited to individual scholarly articles or translations and anthologies of his writings from non-academic publishing houses.[i] The works of Zvi Yaron (The Philosophy of Rav Kook) and English translations of Shalom Ish-Shalom’s and Benjamin Ish-Shalom’s academic studies of Rav Kook (The World of Rav Kook’s Thought and Between Mysticism and Rationalism respectively) are notable exceptions to this trend. Nevertheless, the amount of original English scholarship pales in comparison to the Hebrew literature available, and a comprehensive introduction to Rav Kook’s thought has not been published previously. In recent years there has been a renaissance of learning and scholarship in English-speaking communities, as attested to by an increase in titles from Modern Orthodox publishing houses such as Koren. This increase in publishing indicates a growing segment of English speakers who could be a receptive audience to a more scholarly treatment of the ideas of Rav Kook presented in English.

Although an English biography of Rav Kook, An Angel Among Men (Simcha Raz, Urim Publications March 10, 2003), has already been published, the work, while inspirational and full of rich stores about the life of Rav Kook, is far from a critical or academic work, at times reading more like pseudo-hagiography. Mirsky’s Mystic in a Time of Revolution offers the first English academic biography of Rav Kook, and therefore sets out to describe the context within which Rav Kook produced his revolutionary ideas. The presentation of Rav Kook’s thought chronologically rather than by systematic analysis sets Mystic in a Time of Revolution apart from previous works and offers the reader a fresh perspective. Placing Rav Kook’s publications and ideas in their historical context offers a unique window to the issues facing all thinkers at the time. The context of Rav Kook’s life experiences and their potential influences on his thought offer the reader a wealth of information, previously unavailable in English, with which to approach Rav Kook’s writings. An overview of the different channels of editing (and at times censoring) which Rav Kook’s works went through prior to their publication likewise offer a new context to understanding the writings of Rav Kook.

Mirsky’s objective to deliver an overview of Rav Kook’s writing through a biographical medium is an ambitious project, and the work delivers unique insights in both the intellectual and biographic realms. However, the scale of such a goal carries a price, and throughout the work the reader is reminded of the words of Elijah to the Jews on Mt. Carmel “’How long halt ye between two opinions” (1 Kings 18:21)[ii], when remarkable biographical or intellectual ideas are given only brief consideration. The goal to provide an overview of the sixty year life of Rav Kook and over 30 volume corpus of his writings at times necessitate providing only a cursory examination of the ideas to both maintain the narrative as well as limit the size of the book. However, the necessity still leaves the reader at many times with a desire for a more complete biographical insight or systematic study of Rav Kook’s thought, neither of which is fully satiated.

The aforementioned tension between the biographical and philosophical examinations of the book is most noticeable in the issue of sources. While the discussions of Rav Kook’s ideas are extensively sourced from the broad corpus of his writings, the sourcing of biographic details is quite scant. Facts and works the author draws upon for basic biographic details are not readily presented, and some of the most intriguing biographic details are often not sourced at all. While the bibliographic essay in the end of the book discuses some of the biographic material used, including references to “the research of Yosef Avneri, Kalman Frankel, Menachem Friedman, Yehuda Laib Maimon’s, Moshe Zvi Neriah’s multi-volume, as well as the author’s own Harvard PhD thesis”[iii], the works are never cited directly in either footnotes or endnotes in the text. One example is the lack of reference to the story of Rav Kook living with a maskil cousin, whose library Rav Kook was alleged to have used while studying in the Yeshiva of Liutsin. While Mirsky makes reference to some of the maskilic tendencies Rav Kook developed as a result of this experience, and Rav Kook’s father’s subsequent disappointment, there is no readily apparent source for the story. Furthermore the impact of this early exposure to maskilic literature is never examined in the broader context of Rav Kook and his writings.

The primary sources the author engages with are the writings of Rav Kook himself. While other Jewish texts are occasionally drawn on to further illustrate ideas or parallels to Rav Kook’s writing, their appearance is rare, and Rav Kook’s ideas are usually discussed in a vacuum. The almost exclusive focus on the writings of Rav Kook with little comparison of the ideas to parallels in either Rabbinic or secular texts seems to result from the desire to maintain the narrative flow of the biography, resulting in another instance where the ambitiousness of the project forces some of the ideas to remain underdeveloped.

Even when discussing the biographic details of Rav Kook’s life, the limited sources Mirsky provides for these biographic details consist primarily of firsthand accounts from individuals involved in the incidents, or selections from secondary sources recording the  first hand experiences. Many of the events described in Rav Kook’s life, including monumental moments such as his first meeting with his future student and publisher The Nazir have no additional supporting historical sources other than the journals of the individuals involved. Mirsky’s almost exclusive focus on primary sources displays Rav Kook’s charisma in a way unobtainable from drier historical records. The multiple attestations of the spiritual impact of merely meeting Rav Kook paint a vivid portrait of the man’s magnetic charisma and raw spirituality. Accounts of brief encounters with figures ranging in diversity from The Nazir to the French painter Marc Chagall attest to this aura, in a way other historical documents could not do justice. However, the almost exclusive focus on this type of source, and the lack of reproduction or even sourcing of primary documents discussed, such as the offer to become Chief Rabbi, demonstrate an additional dimension missing from the biographical aspects of the book.

Even with the difficulty of balancing the intellectual and biographical aspects of the book, Mirsky offers for the first time to the English speaking audience a critical insight to the editing and publishing process of Rav Kook’s writings. Understanding the different source materials and editors who contributed to R. Kook’s various works provides a new window to interpreting their content, and how they figure in the larger complex of Rav Kook’s thought[iv]. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that both the Nazir as well as Rav Kook’s son, R. Tzvi Yehuda, edited and censored their mentor’s works by either totally removing theologically challenging ideas, or tempering them by adding or deleting key words. Understanding the possible editorial bent of R. Kook’s various works offers readers the ability to contextualize the writings, and more accurately understand the author behind the sometimes conflicting voices[v].

Mirsky also provides insight into the context that fostered the development of Rav Kook’s thought and ideology. The unspoken yet continually proven assumption of the author is that the events of Rav Kook’s life had an impact on his thinking and publishing. For example, the work Midbar Shur which collects sermons Rav Kook delivered during his early years in the city of Zeimelis, near present-day Latvia. Mirsky attributes the sermons’ focus on the synthesis of Jewish and universal ethics to the larger ethical radicalism and revolutionary movements sweeping Russia at the time. Later, during his tenure as Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, Rav Kook became especially well known for his ability to see positive aspects in the secular, and even anti-religious, actions of the secular halutsim of the New Yishuv. Mirsky implies that this ability too had a historical context, and grew out of Rav Kook’s first-hand interactions with members of the New Yishuv where he was able to personally detect their hidden ‘sparks of holiness’.

The strength and weakness of Mystic in a Time of Revolution is its role as an intellectual biography of Rav Kook, at once introducing both of these realms to an English audience, but also leaving many unexamined areas in each. The survey-like treatment of the historical context of Rav Kook’s writings highlights the need for a further, deeper analysis of the interaction between the historical context, contemporaneous social movements, secular ideas and Rav Kook’s thought. An additional facet of study left open by the book is an analysis of the potential role that personal, rather than historical events played in influencing Rav Kook’s writings. While Mirsky alludes to personal tragedies in Rav Kook’s life, he does not examine their potential impact on Rav Kook’s thought in depth, leaving this field of study open.

Mystic in a Time of Revolution enables an English speaking audience to engage in a critical analysis of Rav Kook’s life and works. The book provides an excellent introduction to the complex character of Rav Kook and his pioneering works. However, like many introductory works the book is limited in the scope of its ability to analyze the enormous corpus of Rav Kook’s writings, and paves the way for new academic ventures suited for an English speaking audience interested in the innovative and inspiring world of Rav Kook’s thought.

[i]           See for example Ben Zion Bosker (ed.), The Essenstial Writings of Rav Kook (Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press, 2006) as well as the works of Chanan Morrison,  and David Samson.

[ii]           Translation is my own

[iii]          Mirsky, 255.

[iv]          See for example Avinoam Rozena, “Hidden Diaries and New Discoveries: The Life and Thought of Rabbi A. I. Kook,”  Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies Volume 25, No 3, Spring 2007: 111-147

[v]           One example of this is the heavy emphasis on the holiness and centrality of the land of Israel that pervades the writings of Rav Kook edited by Rav Tzvi Yehuda, a prominent example being Orot, opposed to the works of The Nazir where they play a less central role such as in Orot HaKodesh.