A Change of Heart: Rav Kook’s Religious Zionism

A Change of Heart: Rav Kook’s Religious Zionism

by Rav Yosef Kanefsky

In 1897 , just after the meeting of the First Zionist Congress in Basel , Switzerland, a young Latvian rabbi, who had heard  – somewhat, but not completely mistakenly – that the conference had declared that “Zionism has nothing to do with religion”, published the following reaction:

The Congress’ decree that that Zionism has nothing to do with religion is harsher than the decrees of Pharaoh or Haman. This abomination, this perverse statement is the poison within Zionism that is destroying it and turning it into an empty vessel… Until this deposit of error is expunged from their hearts, Zionism will languish lifeless, incapable of protecting itself from rot and destruction, so that that the worthless will triumph. It shall putrefy and be covered with worms.

In 1902, this same young Latvian rabbi, expressing his feelings about secular Zionists, wrote that:

The inner difference between those who are faithful to the Torah and those who have abandoned it, is greater than the difference between Israel and the nations…..Those who observe the Torah do not and cannot recognize any national solidarity with those who have washed their hands of the soul of the people and the source of its very life… [they are] heretics….who have cast off the yoke of Torah and faith….

Lots of us would be surprised to hear that this young Latvian Rabbi was none other than Rabbi Abraham  Isaac HaKohen Kook. The very same Rav Kook who, now as chief rabbi of Yaffo in 1904, boldly chose to  eulogize Theodor Herzl, describing Herzl, yes, as a flawed and incomplete leader, but as a Messianic figure nonetheless. And the very same Rav Kook who, as the decades proceeded, came to embrace socialist labor Zionists as indispensible partners in the Redemptive process, as people whose strength and whose chutzpah filled a historical breach, whose boldness broke through the paralysis of  Sages who did not know how to arouse the people to bold, redemptive action. “Fiery spirits”, Rav Kook called them, “who refused to be bound by any limitation.” Jews who, despite being terribly spiritually misguided, nonetheless managed to  fix  what thousands of years of exile had shattered. The very same Rav Kook who – although it was clear that he was hoping for something more like Yeshiva University – joined Haim Weizman, Haim Nachman Bilaik, and Ahad Ha’am among others to formally mark the opening of the Hebrew University. The very same Rav Kook who even found value in the atheism of  the many “freethinkers” among the secular Zionists.  “Atheism cleanses the dross of ‘petty religion,’ the narrowness and provincialism of established Jewish religion that frequently becomes arrogant, rigid and judgmental. We need these people, these atheists, whom we seek to befriend.”

As the great scholar Dr. Aviezer Ravitsky wrote, Rav Kook underwent a dramatic transformation after emigrating to Eretz Yisrael in 1904, from holding a worldview in which the messianic vision was being undermined by the faithless, to developing a more nuanced view of how redemption works,  one which  drew him, emotionally and religiously, toward those very same people. As Dr. Ravitsky carefully documents, Rav Kook slowly developed and adopted a theory of progress and of history that enabled him to dramatically change his views. Its foundation was in the intellectual zeitgeist of the time, which held that humanity was moving inexorably toward greater and greater perfection. “As the human spirit develops,  Rav Kook wrote –  man’s intellect and volition aspire more and more to the absolute good, which is the Divine good.” Upon this foundation  Rav Kook laid a Hegelian view of history, in which progress is never a linear process, but a dialectical one, in which forces and counter-forces play off each other,  ultimately sorting themselves out, and propelling humanity forward.  Rav Kook came to believe  that the Jewish historical march forward  – beginning with the revolutionary break from exile  –  would similarly be characterized by a dialectical rhythm, as antithetical thrusts animated the arena, thrusts which would ultimately form a greater harmony. He was certain that the return to Zion was a critical leap in our unfolding messianic vision, and that all of the people who were making it happen – including those who held ideas that were contrary to the ultimate messianic realization – had a role to play in that unfolding. And that in the end, when the Jewish State was both materially strong, and religiously devout, everyone would  be able to look back and see how all the pieces fit together.

Each year, when we mark Yom Ha’atzmaut, we celebrate so many different things, both Divine miracles and human accomplishments. And we should be sure to include in our celebration the vision of Rav Kook, no matter how, unrealistic, or utopian it may have been. For although Medinat Yisrael isn’t –  and couldn’t realistically have become – what he had hoped for,  the ideas that he originated:

  • that Jews can and should recognize the value and contributions of Zionists who sit across the aisle from them,
  • that the Jewish State needs to go beyond simple nationalism, and possess a higher purpose in order to be a fulfillment of the Zionist dream
  • and that Religious Zionism is very much about crossing boundaries and fostering unity within the nation,

are ideas that are vital to Israel’s health and prosperity, and security in the decades to come. They are ideas to be celebrated as part of the epic Zionist story, ideas for the coming stages of the Zionist endeavor, ideas about which we say, תקותינו עוד לא אבדה”, “Our hope is never lost”…

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