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The Making of Rav Kook - Book Review

Towards The Mystical Experience of Modernity
The Making of Rav Kook 1865 - 1904
By Rabbi Dr. Yehudah Mirsky
Published by Academic Studies Press, Boston, USA, 2021
392 Pages
Available on Amazon $30.59
Reviewed by Morton Leibowitz

Few figures in recent Jewish History evoke more admiration and awe, coupled with non-familiarity with his oeuvre, than the late Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook who served as a founding Rabbinical figure in pre-state Israel. Rav Kook published little during his lifetime and the previously available works written in his name were heavily edited by his son, the late Rabbi Yehudah Kook. In addition, Rav Kook's writing in Hebrew combined both the mystical and the poetic, making the resulting texts poorly structured and hard to follow. All of this serves to underscore the importance of two books on Rav Kook's life and thought authored by Rabbi Dr. Yehudah Mirsky, Professor in the Department of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University in the U.S.

The first, Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution published in 2014, is an intellectual biography tracing Rav Kook from his birth in 1865 till his death in 1935. This volume contains a 28-page chapter trying to capture and summarize the complex combination of Talmudic learning, mystical Kabbalah, exposure to both the Mussar movement and Hassidic thinking, intermixed with exposure to and immersion in the nascent religious Zionist movement that constituted the infrastructure of Rav Kook's philosophy. The second, more recently published volume entitled Towards The Mystical Experience of Modernity: The Making of Rav Kook 1865 - 1904, was inspired by the very recent availability of Rav Kook's personal spiritual diaries reflecting his innermost thoughts and speculations as his belief system was evolving. This 347-page volume, heavily footnoted and with an extensive and frequently referenced Bibliography, is a tour–de–force of academic research and provides an incredible overview of all the 19th century intellectual ferment that yields the secular, religious, mystical, Kabbalistic, Hassidic, and Zionistic thoughts that are the foundations of current trends in Jewish life today.

The dominating concept that emerges from this maelstrom of intellectual exploration, forms the experiential foundation for post-modern orthodoxy as it is emerging today. Citing "expressivism" as expounded by Charles Taylor (Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity), Mirsky contends that the ultimate of religious existence as characterized by Rav Kook is the nurturing of one's individual spiritual self, mediated by both the intellect and the imagination.

The book also deals with Rav Kook's early integration of emerging Jewish nationalism with his personal sense of religious beliefs. He viewed the secular pioneers as driven not only by the need to escape the tribulations of Jewish life in Eastern Europe but was convinced that they were responding to the mystical Jewish spark that burns in every Jewish soul. His early move to Palestine and his interactions and respect for the secular pioneers pre-dated his meeting and engaging with them in Jaffa in 1904.

In closing, Prof Mirsky pays tribute to his own religious and intellectual mentor the late Rav Yehudah Amital, the founding Dean of the Har Etzion Yeshiva. He relates that Rav Amital smuggled some of Rav Kook's early writings into the Nazi labor camps and that he later modelled his own Rabbinic teachings on those of Rav Kook. His legacy is tangible in many of the leading lights in Jewish Thought today. 



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