Smadar Cherlow- Rabbi Kook’s Secret Mission and Mystical Experience – review by Tomer Persico

There is a solid review by Tomer Persico from Haretz Jan 25, 2013 of an important new book on Rav Kook by Smadar Cherlow (Yuval is her husband).

The book claims that Rav Kook saw himself as a hidden Tzaddik who had to maintain the world and that he was endowed with prophecy. Cherlow deals with Kook’s mystical diaries and claims of the holy spirit.

After WWI, his messianism peaks and is the drive behind his goal to raise the sparks of the secular settlers. Rav Kook see an inner light of God in the secular, while Rav Sonnenfeld said that we look at halakhah not inner hearts.

During this time, Rav Kook’s diaries contain a wealth of religious revelation, visions, entering pardes, and holy spirit: He wrote  “… and I shall listen and hear.. the voice of the Lord calling” ‏(“Shmona Kevatzim,” 4:17‏). Because of its audacity, the sentence was censored when Kook’s words were transferred from his diaries to the book “Orot Hakodesh.”

The review is from Haaretz premium here  Read the selection from the review below-Any thoughts?

“Tzadik Yesod Olam: Hashlihut Hasodit Ve’ha’havaya Hamistit shel Harav Kook” ‏(“Tzaddiq Yesod Olam: Rabbi Kook’s Secret Mission and Mystical Experience”‏), by Smadar Cherlow. Bar-Ilan Press, 435 pages,

Considering the immense influence that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook ‏(1865-1935‏) has had on the fate of the State of Israel in our day, it is surprising how few scholarly books have been devoted to him. The thinker who lay the foundations for the national-religious viewpoint that sees in the state the beginning of the budding of Jewish redemption − and in its sovereignty over its territory reliable signposts marking the progress of this redemption − has indeed been the subject of several doctoral theses. But in bookstores the number of titles about him and his philosophy does not exceed a single digit, and approximately half of these are more than 20 years old.

As the subtitle of Smadar Cherlow’s book attests, her work presumes to expose a hidden and secret dimension of the life and importance of the figure known popularly as Rav Kook: his mission as a tzadik yesod olam, literally, a righteous man who serves as a foundation of the world. This mission led him to view himself as one who had been endowed with prophecy − and ultimately also as a tzadik in the role of a messiah waiting for revelation.

Cherlow introduces these characteristics of self-perception from a close reading of Rav Kook’s diaries ‏(which were made public only a dozen or so years ago in the volumes “Shmona Kevatzim”‏), and via a reading of the words of his close students Rabbi David Cohen ‏(“The Nazirite”‏) and Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Harlap. Delving deeply into “Shmona Kevatzim” enables Cherlow not only to suss out what is hidden in Rav Kook’s heart, but also to weave his statements into a chronological axis of development.

After publication of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the subsequent end of World War I, messianic expectations from Rav Kook reached their height. These hopes emanated from Rav Kook’s own view of himself as a tzadik, and in fact tzadik hador− the righteous man of his generation. Cherlow brings a variety of his statements, which point to the mission to which Kook saw himself as enlisted as early as his tenure as the rabbi of Jaffa, starting in 1904.

Rav Kook determined that the secular immigrants of the Second Aliyah ‏(wave of immigration‏) − “the impudent transgressors of roads and fences,” as he put it, who came to the Land of Israel between 1904 and 1914 − were the ones who, by their actions, were implementing the divine plan that called for the return of the people of Israel to its land. If to date the preoccupation focused on these views, then in the new book the emphasis is on the mystical intuitions behind them. With the help of assorted quotations from his diaries, Cherlow shows how Kook’s self-perception as tzadik hador led him to perceive himself as responsible for “raising” the pioneers’ enterprise and inserting it as another stone in the evolving tablet of the priestly kingdom that was taking real shape.

About his own times, Rav Kook asks: “Then what are tzadikei hador to do?” and answers himself: “Rebelling against the spirit of the nation … that is something one cannot … but they have to perform great work, discover the light and the sanctity in the spirit of the nation, the light of God that is inside all these” ‏(“Shmona Kevatzim,” 1:71‏).

Kook expresses himself in the third person, but his writing style elsewhere tells us that he is referring to himself, and from his view of himself as tzadik hador, he rolls up his sleeves to try to discover the light of divinity in the actions of the heathen Jews.

It is worthwhile juxtoposing these statements by Rav Kook with the position taken at the same time by Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the first rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox Edah Haredit in Jerusalem. With reference to Kook, Sonnenfeld stated that, “the path of this one is not straight in my eyes. What have we got to do with their inner lives? The Lord sees into the heart, but we, human beings, we have but things that are visible and to rule according to the law and the halakha ‏(traditional Jewish law‏).”

Sonnenfeld recognizes that the venerated rabbi is developing his theological method in accordance with “inner sight,” and finding in the secular pioneers a divine spark that is not evident in their actions. From the Haredi rabbi’s standpoint, however, we are talking about a presumption to vision into the Holy Spirit, and he refuses to play on that field. In contrast to him, Rav Kook saw himself as a lead player on that same field.

Later on, Kook exhibits a prophetic and even messianic self-perception. The rabbi’s diaries contain a wealth of terms that describe religious revelation, starting with tzefiyah ‏(vision‏), through tiyul bapardes ‏(a walk through the orchard; pardes, lit. orchard, signifies mysticism), and ending with ruah hakodesh ‏(the holy spirit‏) and nevuah ‏(prophecy‏). Cherlow points out the increasing frequency of these phrases following Kook’s immigration from Russia to Israel and the start of his tenure as the rabbi of Jaffa, based on the assumption that a complete prophecy is only possible on Israeli soil. That was when the rabbi wrote: “… and I shall listen and hear from the depths of my soul, from the heart’s emotions, the voice of the Lord calling” ‏(“Shmona Kevatzim,” 4:17‏). Because of its audacity, the sentence was censored when Kook’s words were transferred from his diaries to the book “Orot Hakodesh.”

Rav Kook’s self-perception as a tzadik and prophet developed into a self-perception as messiah with the end of the Great War. The terrors of World War I inspired him to hope that it was in fact “the war to end all wars,” as it was dubbed at the time. In similar fashion to the impact that the horrors of the Holocaust had on Chabad rabbis, the sensation grew on him that out of such great darkness must burst forth light, and he saw himself as responsible for spreading that light. To that end he worked to found a spiritual-political movement and to revive the Sanhedrin.

Contact with the divine

Cherlow’s formulation of these insights was done based on things − explicit and insinuated − contained in Kook’s diaries. This method is dangerous sometimes, since scholars tend to find in writings whatever they are looking for. But in many cases there is no other choice, for rarely will a mystic ‏(let along a Jewish mystic‏) relate in a simple manner what he feels and the image he has of himself. Cherlow is aware of these dangers. She focuses in her book on Kook’s experiences, at the expense of looking at his activity or his philosophic and halakhic writings. This choice underscores the mystical dimension in his life − i.e., his constant striving for immediate contact with the divine.

One of the interesting insights that arise from this study pertains to the image of Kookian mysticism, which focuses on one’s subjective inner life. The prophetic source as far as Kook is concerned lies in the depths of his psyche. His world is divided into the subjective interior and the objective exterior. This also gives rise to the tension between the inner revelations and hovot ha’evarim − the duties to be performed by the bodily organs, which is to say the mitzvoth and social ties by which he is bound.

His words suggest that his mystical self-perception is utterly different from that shared by mekubalim ‏(mystical masters‏) in the past, in whose eyes the mitzvoth are the mysticism − i.e., that their mystical journey ‏(which includes mating of spheres or impregnation of souls, prophetic revelations or elevation of sparks‏) takes place by means of the mitzvoth, and out of an affiliation with a group of mekubalim around them.

“Cherlow devotes two chapters to examining the strains in the rabbi’s life between his inner identity as a mystic and his social role as a public leader. Again and again, Kook writes about the sorrow caused him by the necessity to go out into the world, and even by the obligation to be a stickler for halakha. His words suggest that his mystical self-perception is utterly different from that shared by mekubalim ‏(mystical masters‏) in the past, in whose eyes the mitzvoth are the mysticism − i.e., that their mystical journey ‏(which includes mating of spheres or impregnation of souls, prophetic revelations or elevation of sparks‏) takes place by means of the mitzvoth, and out of an affiliation with a group of mekubalim around them.

Rav Kook presents a modern mystical consciousness, which he shares with other Jewish figures who were active in the early 20th century, such as Martin Buber, A.D. Gordon, Hillel Zeitlin and the Grand Rabbi of Piaseczno. In a spiritual world such as theirs, mythic thinking, which unites inside and outside, and above and below, gave way to a modern consciousness and a perception that makes a harsh distinction between consciousness and action, between the subjective world and the objective world. Their reunification is precisely the challenge facing the mystic, and meeting it is perceived as the height of mystical accomplishment.

In the eyes of the Jewish mystic, that is a new situation, the first signs of which appeared in the Hasidic movement. From Cherlow’s book emanates Rav Kook’s passion not only to redeem the world, but to redeem his soul as well, through the total unification of the aspects of his life − the mystical, the halakhic, the social and the national. Rav Kook, a dedicated optimist, was convinced it was possible.”

Tomer Persico teaches in the program for contemporary religious studies at Tel Aviv University.

6 responses to “Smadar Cherlow- Rabbi Kook’s Secret Mission and Mystical Experience – review by Tomer Persico

  1. At what point does an “inner” mystical experience whose source is in the depths of the psyche cross over into madness and how can we tell the difference?

  2. Dear Alan,
    Thank you for bringing this translation of my review of Cherlow’s here.
    The whole review can be found here:
    http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/inside-the-mind-of-rav-kook-redeeming-not-only-the-world-but-one-s-soul.premium-1.496398

  3. The flip side to Yossi’s question is at what point does mystical experience move beyond mystical experience to something that needs to be problematicized as prophecy? That Rav Kook had strong mystical experience is obvious from reading the old English translations. How that fits into the broader picture of 19th and 20th orthodox Judaisms is an interesting question — I wonder whether either the book under review, or Mirsky’s forthcoming biography, address that question.

  4. I read somewhere, not too clear where, that Rav Kook thought of himself as the gilgul of Reb Moshe Chaim Luzatto. I don’t know why the Vilna Gaon was so enthusiastic about the Ramchal’s kabbalah seforim, and how exactly some synthesis of the Gaon’s and Ramchal’s ideas influenced Rabbi Kook’s mystical visions? I’ve noticed that a fair number of rabbis who were involved in hastening the coming of mashiach, ended up thinking they were an essential part of the process.

  5. EJ: In the volume “Ha-Gara u-Bet Midrasho'” there is an article by Mordecai Pachter that discusses the relationship of the Kabbalah of the Gra and that of the Ramhal. Baslcally the Gra said that the Ramhal understood the nimshal of the Ari.

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