January 26, 2014 – Targum Shlishi helped to support the just-published biography Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution by Yehuda Mirsky (Yale University Press, 2014). The first major biography of Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935) in English in sixty years, Rav Kook is part of the Jewish Lives series, published by Yale University Press in partnership with the Leon D. Black Foundation. This series of biographies of major figures in Jewish history is aimed at both general and scholarly audiences.
“Contemplate the wonders of creation, the Divine dimension of their being, not as a dim configuration that is presented to you from a distance, but as the reality in which you live,” Kook wrote. One of the twentieth century’s most influential, yet controversial, rabbis, the first chief rabbi of Jewish Palestine and founding theologian of religious Zionism, Kook is categorized by Mirsky, his biographer, as a philosopher, mystic, poet, jurist, communal leader, and veritable saint who struggled to understand and influence the revolutionary time in which he lived, and whose life and prolific writings remain relevant to a contemporary audience.
Nearly eight decades after his death, he “still towers in contemporary Israeli politics and Jewish spirituality; neither can properly be understood without him,” Mirsky writes in the introduction to Rav Kook.
Kook, born in what is now Latvia, was considered a prodigy in his youth. He immigrated to Palestine in 1904 to become chief rabbi of Jaffa; he later became the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Palestine. He was the first major figure to endorse Zionism as not only a political movement but as a vehicle for Jewish spiritual renaissance and redemption. His prolific writings explored the relationship between secular nationalism and religion and between Jewish identity and universal identity. Kook is widely read and known in Israel, but with relatively few works about him or by him in English, he is much less known in the United States.
Mirsky, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation about Kook prior to this biography, says that after years of studying and writing about Kook, he remains “endlessly fascinated by him, and inspired.” He was initially drawn to Kook due to “his sweep, his empathy, his ability to see all of human culture and history as a human stirring towards God. It was so striking for such a traditional rabbinic figure to positively affirm culture, political activism, art, commerce, and all the human strivings for meaning as manifestations of the divine. I was also so struck by the depth of his commitment to both the Jewish people and to all of humanity, and his great emphasis on universal ethics, all from within the heart of Rabbinic Judaism.”
The biography has generated a very positive response from early reviewers. Leon Wieseltier notes that it “presents this great-souled rabbi in all his startling richness, and responsibly introduces its readers to one of the most influential and misread figures in modern Jewish thought.” Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg praises Mirsky’s “mastery of traditional texts…deep reading of Kook’s writings” and his “scholarly lucidity” and predicts that this volume will become the go-to book on Kook. And David Shatz, a professor of Philosophy at Yeshiva University, comments that “the book moves through Rav Kook’s life and writings in a way that both makes his ideas accessible and provides a sorely needed context for the various stages of his thought.”
Mirsky anticipates that readers of the book will gain a better understanding of the historical roots of many of today’s ideological struggles. He also hopes that the book enriches readers’ lives: “I hope that after reading the book, people will have more resources for thinking about their own religious and moral lives. And I hope they come away with an enlarged sense of human possibility in light of the rich, complex, and tragic yet hopeful story and vision of this extraordinary man.”
Aryeh Rubin, director of Targum Shlishi, notes that “Mirsky’s descriptions of Rav Kook’s frame of mind at different periods in his life facilitates a deep understanding of his thinking. Likewise, the author’s insights into the circumstances of Rav Kook’s decision-making process leads to a broad and vital comprehension of Rav Kook, the man and rabbinical leader—the early yishuv, the players, the characters—and illuminates the historic development of events of the time. On a personal note, I am delighted to have played a role in supporting this important book because of my own background in studying the works of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook with his son, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, during a year at Yeshiva Merkaz HaRav in Jerusalem in the early 1970s.”
About Yehudah Mirsky
Yehudah Mirsky, writer, scholar, and activist, is currently associate professor at Brandeis University’s Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. An alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva College, he received rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem. At Yale Law School, he was an editor of the law review, and completed his Ph.D. in Religion at Harvard. He worked in Washington, D.C. as an aide to then-senators Bob Kerrey and Al Gore, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and served in the Clinton Administration as special advisor in the US State Department’s human rights bureau. He is on the faculty of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York and after the attacks of September 11 he served as a volunteer chaplain for the Red Cross. From 2002 to 2012 he lived in Israel, was a fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Jewish People Policy Institute, and was deeply engaged in activism on behalf of religious pluralism. He has written widely on politics, theology and culture for a number of publications including The New Republic, Daily Beast, and The Economist. He, his wife Tamar Biala, and their daughters, currently live in Brookline.
About Targum Shlishi
Targum Shlishi, a Raquel and Aryeh Rubin Foundation, is dedicated to providing a range of creative solutions to problems facing Jewry today. Premised on the conviction that dynamic change and adaptation have historically been crucial to a vibrant and relevant Judaism and to the survival of its people, Targum Shlishi’s initiatives are designed to stimulate the development of new ideas and innovative strategies that will enable Jewish life, its culture, and its traditions to continue to flourish. For more information on the foundation, visit its website at www.targumshlishi.org.