The Kook Perplex
In late May, a file began to circulate on the Internet of a lengthy and hitherto-unknown work by Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), one of the greatest and most consequential of modern Jewish thinkers. Though he died 75 years ago, Kook's provocative ideas still play a pivotal role in contemporary Israeli political and religious debates, and the long-playing controversies surrounding his literary estate reflect something of the aura of his mystical personality and teachings. This latest revelation, and the round of polemics spurred by it, illustrate some enduringly high-voltage issues within Jewish life today.
The work, titled For the Perplexed of the Generation, was written at the turn of the 20th century, before Kook's 1904 move from Latvia to the land of Israel. Its existence is not a total surprise—it had been listed in 1937 among other forthcoming posthumous publications, never to be heard of again. Zvi Yehudah Kook (1891-1982), Kook's son and successor as head of his yeshiva, and spiritual leader of the post-1967 settlement movement inspired by their reading of the elder Kook's thought, went so far as to deny the work's existence; after the electronic version surfaced this year, Zvi Yehudah's disciples brought out, in book form, a highly censored version. The reason will become clear.
For the Perplexed of the Generation is a sustained effort to formulate a compelling Orthodox response to the Jewish radicalism of the time, and in particular to the challenges to tradition posed by secular nationalism, Zionism, ethical universalism, and critical scholarship. The title echoes Maimonides' monumental Guide of the Perplexed, as well as the lesser-known work by Nahman Krochmal (1785-1840), Guide of the Perplexed of the Time. But, though he takes his cues from Maimonides, particularly in his openness to contemporary secular philosophy, to seemingly heretical doctrines, and to universal ethical ideas, Kook stakes out his own independent path.
Thus, for him, modern nationalism is a form of élan vital that, in its secular form, will self-destruct in chauvinism, but if disciplined by Jewish ethics can be a positive force in the world. The same élan vital animates the processes of Darwinian evolution and is no contradiction to Scripture. Modern Jewish heretics—many of whom were Kook's yeshiva classmates—with their critiques of dry Talmudism, childish theology, and superstition, should spur the faithful to rethink their own stale ideas and practices.
The volume is full of similarly far-reaching thoughts. Kook's formulations can be arresting and profound—if also dated, naïve, and apologetic. What cannot fail to strike a reader is the drama of his wrestling with his own affinities to the revolutionary spirit of his times. Especially remarkable in this respect are his comments on the moral and spiritual value of other religious traditions, to which he accords a significant place in the religious past, present, and redemptive future. No less noteworthy is his emphasis on universal ethics as the foundation on which Judaism seeks to build and which Jewish nationalism must serve. Both themes abide in Kook's later work, but there they are embedded within broader and more obviously mystical contexts; here, they are salient and central.
And there is one glaring absence—namely, the land of Israel, which, in marked contrast to its centrality in Kook's later writings, plays no conceptual role in the theological or educational programs he lays out here. To someone like myself, who has spent years working on Kook's neglected early writings, this absence, along with the emphasis placed on universal ethics and the assertion that halakhah itself will evolve along those same universalist lines toward the messianic future, is hardly surprising. But it is deeply unsettling to the official keepers of the Kook flame and to the religious vanguard of the settler movement, which traces much of its motivating zeal to his later teachings.
That, then, is what accounts for the polemics and counter-polemics over this seemingly obscure volume. It also accounts for Zvi Yehudah's having ordered his disciples not to publish many of his father's early manuscripts or to reprint those that had appeared in his lifetime.
The later Kook legitimized pioneering secular Zionism by seeing it—along with modern science, art, and philosophy—as part of a larger process of universal redemption. Several generations have now lived, and died, by the terms of his vision. Indeed, his writings have taken on a canonical status of their own, and many of his latter-day followers view critical study of them as no less threatening than Bible criticism itself.
But what if the parts don't all fit together? What if he was able to dispense, at least at some points, with the land of Israel, or with ethics? How beholden was he to secular philosophy and 19th-century ideas of progress? Did he ever change his mind? These questions about how to read a sprawling—and growing—canon touch upon still explosive questions of Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora. That the youthful manuscripts of a long-dead rabbi can still generate so much passion is itself a testament to the centrality of the problems he set out to address, and in itself a source of wonder.
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