Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook was the epitome of multifaceted. More than anyone else from the rabbinic world, he spoke of the awakening nationalist yearnings of the Jewish people. But more than anyone else in Judaism, he spoke of universalist goals of all humanity, of which Judaism was just one part. He could write with equal eloquence about the spiritual role of the non-religious pioneers in Israel and of the spiritual emptiness of religious Jews living outside of Israel. Just when one thinks one finally has a handle on what Rav Kook really believed on a given issue, one finds some letter or some essay that seems to say the exact opposite. He was unfathomably deep and he was unsettlingly broad-minded. He was an enigma.
Zionism was just a dream when he was born. It was little more than a dream when he became a rabbi. When he finally immigrated to Palestine in 1904 to assume the post of rabbi of Jaffa, it was a reality. His life’s work was spent developing a religious philosophy that not only accommodated nationalism, but enshrined it as the core around which everything else revolved. He was never afraid to challenge mainstream rabbinic thinking on returning to Israel and building a nation despite the glaring problem of the messiah not having arrived. This was an impossibly huge obstacle in the rabbinic world of Rav Kook’s time. He was almost alone in insisting that Zionism was the fulfillment of Judaism and the end of nearly 2000 years of exile.
His core philosophy was religious Zionism, but weaving in and out of the nationalism is an ever-present theme of universalism, in which the Jews and the fulfillment of their national dream is only a steppingstone to a greater message for humanity as a whole. One constantly sees in Rav Kook’s vast writings references to light, hidden or revealed. Light is his metaphor for godliness, and godliness resides within everything, whether or not it can be detected. The Jews and Israel reveal some of this light, but all of creation reveals an even greater light. The inevitable tension between these two potentially conflicting sources of godliness is one of the great enigmas of Rav Kook’s writings. He even hints at this in asking the purpose of creation:
'What is God's Will? What is the ultimate goal of creation? To meditate on God's will by considering the multitudes of peoples and nations that God created - for what purpose did God create all of these souls stamped in His Divine image? Surely God intended that ultimately, they will be elevated, raised from the depths of ignorance and brought to the level of the righteous that delight in God and His goodness. According to this view, the mission of the Jewish people is to inspire all nations to strive for Divine enlightenment and a life of holiness. The ultimate purpose in keeping the Torah and its mitzvot is not to elevate the Jewish people, but for the more universal goal of benefiting all of humanity. The focus of one's life should not be love of one's people but love of God and His Torah, for the Torah encompasses the true goal of elevating all of humanity, and love of Israel is merely a means to this end.'
This is from the man who embodied religious Zionism more than any other. God’s ultimate goal in creation was to elevate humanity ‘to strive for Divine enlightenment and a life of holiness’. If that is truly the case, who needs Zionism? For that matter, who needs the Jews? Perhaps the Torah is needed for this ultimate goal, but certainly it would have been more effective to give it to all humanity than to restrict it to one small group, influential as they may be. How does this square with the rest of Judaism?
There is no question that while others saw the ‘light unto the nations idea’ emanating from the Torah itself, and the Jews as the vehicle to show that it works, Rav Kook saw that same system coming to its true realization only as an independent nation in their own land. Anything short of that would be incomplete. All Torah activity, as great and as enlightening as it may be, is not the real thing. This means the Talmud Bavli, the bulk of great commentators and mystics, the philosophers, the Hasidim, the Lithuanian rabbis and their successors, the secular scholars, the scientists, the writers – everything – was only a passing phase to get to the final stage in which things would come to fruition. As difficult as this may be to accept, this was, and perhaps still is to some degree, the true spirit of religious Zionism. Rav Kook emphasized this in his writings:
‘The basis of keeping all the commandments, from the aspect of their inner and ultimate being can take place only in the land of Israel. Those commandments not specifically related to the land of Israel, which apply as well outside the land, are not intended to attain to their ultimate purpose outside the land. Rather, they bring the Jewish people to the land; they guard our holiness, so that when we return, we will not need to begin from nothing, like a young nation which only recently has come to the altar of life. They will ensure that our path in life - eternal and temporal - will be firm before us, as is proper for a powerful and ancient nation, whose sources are primal, from the beginning of the world.’
How is it all supposed to work? The Jewish state is the medium for the Jews to be a light to the nations. According to Rav Kook, the state of the Jews was not to be a country like any other country. It was to be an ideal society, a utopia, in which all the goals of the Torah would be realized. Any other nation would be able to look at this Jewish state and see the manner of life that human society was capable of attaining. Justice, equality, freedom, culture, personal and national fulfillment – all these were to be shining in blazing colors amidst a Torah-abiding people who cherish spirituality not as a luxury but as a necessity. Rav Kook did not see the secular intellectual and artistic abilities of the Jews, in opposition to Torah values, as did many of his rabbinic peers. He considered them to be complementary to the wisdom of the Torah, essential for human progress and for human understanding.
It all sounds very idyllic and wonderful. One wonders when reading all this if Rav Kook was just dreaming. The modern state of Israel is indeed successful in many ways. It is a fully functioning modern society with world-leading technology. It has survived and thrived despite facing almost impossible odds. Of this there is no denying. But it is equally undeniable that it is not what Rav Kook envisioned. It has problems just like any other country. The society is far from perfect across the spectrum from religious to secular. Social and personal morality, rather than being a light to the nations, is more of a blight. Even in the religious world, corruption and nepotism rule the roost. Even within the various religious factions that perpetually battle one another, unity is rarely found.
Nevertheless, Rav Kook’s dream is still alive. Who knows what is in store for the future? Maybe Rav Kook’s vision still has a chance. He knew that messianic hopes and dreams could only come about through convulsions that force introspection on a national scale. He saw that Israel was only a steppingstone for the true Jewish mission, which was nothing short of the salvation of the world. It takes a wider scope to appreciate the magnitude and the gravity of this mission. Not everyone will be able to see through the haze. Some get caught up in their own lives, some in the local community. Some go beyond the community to the national scale. And some go beyond even that. In Rav Kook’s immortal words:
‘There is a person who sings the song of his soul. He finds everything, his complete spiritual satisfaction, within his soul. There is a person who sings the song of the nation. He steps forward from his private soul, which he finds narrow and uncivilized. He yearns for the heights. He clings with a sensitive love to the entirety of the Jewish nation and sings its song. He shares in its pains, is joyful in its hopes, speaks with exalted and pure thoughts regarding its past and its future, investigates its inner spiritual nature with love and a wise heart. There is a person whose soul is so broad that it expands beyond the border of Israel. It sings the song of humanity. This soul constantly grows broader with the exalted totality of humanity and its glorious image. He yearns for humanity’s general enlightenment. He looks forward to its supernal perfection. From this source of life, he draws all of his thoughts and insights, his ideals and visions. And there is a person who rises even higher until he unites with all existence, with all creatures, and with all worlds. And with all of them, he sings... And there is a person who rises with all these songs together in one ensemble so that they all give forth their voices, they all sing their songs sweetly, each supplies its fellow with fullness and life: the voice of happiness and joy, the voice of rejoicing and tunefulness, the voice of merriment and the voice of holiness. The song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, the song of the world—they all mix together with this person at every moment and at all times.’
What is practical about dreaming? What is practical about singing songs about the enlightenment of humanity and the unity of all worlds? Nothing, and everything. Dreaming puts no food on the table, nor does it facilitate the invention of the next time-saving gadget. But it does something that money-making practical-minded ideas can never do. It gives people something to live for. If it’s just meat and potatoes and credit cards and faster Internet service while fighting traffic on the way to work, then what is really the point of it all? This is where impractical dreamers like Rav Kook come in.
Rav Kook talked to more than just Jews from Israel. His message included the entire Jewish people, and on a broader scale, all of humanity. Do we ever sing the songs of our people? If not, why not? If yes, do we ever get beyond the limitations of our people and include everybody, not matter how alienated we may feel from them? There is no reason why a Jew cannot include all of humanity in his or her dreams. Is our Jewishness just a source of personal pride, or is it a motivation to be the best person we can be? Do we ever include all of creation in our dreams? Do we ever sing the song of creation and sense our part in the great symphony? Well what are we waiting for? This is our life, our chance to reach for the stars and touch a bit of heaven. We can sing our own song and still have room to sing the songs of our people, our world, our universe. It is our song, but we are part of something infinitely greater. We, you and I, are children of the universe.
Food for Thought
In the end, don’t personal and national goals conflict with universal goals? It’s all well and good to dream that they don’t, but is it really true? How does one really balance the two to make them blend into one?
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