Abraham Isaac Kook Receives the Call

For a visionary rabbi in London, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 signified nothing less than the advent of the messianic era.

Yehudah Mirsky will discuss his new biography of Abraham Isaac Kook, from which this article is adapted, on Sunday, February 23 at the JCC in Manhattan.

On November 2, 1917, Britain endorsed the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. The news, contained in the document thereafter known as the Balfour Declaration, hit Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook like a thunderbolt.

A committed if decidedly unconventional Zionist, Rav Kook was then living in London, serving as the rabbi of an immigrant Orthodox community, continuing to elaborate the complex and dazzlingly original ideas that would fill volumes of philosophical, theological, and mystical writing, and building the reputation that would in time propel him to the position of founding chief rabbi of Jewish Palestine and one of the most enduringly influential shapers of modern Zionism and Jewish thought.

Born in Russia in 1865, Kook had begun life as a child prodigy, educated almost from infancy to scholarship and religious leadership. As a young man, in addition to mastering Talmud at the famed Lithuanian yeshiva of Volozhin and elsewhere, he studied secular philosophy and Hebrew with adherents of the Jewish “Enlightenment.” Broad as his interests were, however, and voracious as was his appetite for revolutionary ideas, Kook had taken almost no part in the early stirrings of Jewish nationalism. It was not until the early years of the 20th century that he emerged as a supporter of Zionism, and even then with reservations. In particular, he was skeptical of the secular brand of political Zionism promoted by Theodor Herzl, contending that a Zionism divorced from religion, and from a sacred reading of Jewish history, was destined for failure.

The opportunity would soon arise for Kook to create a Zionism of his own. In 1904, he left Europe to accept an appointment in Palestine as rabbi of Jaffa. He arrived two months before Herzl’s sudden death at age forty-four from a heart attack. To Kook, steeped in kabbalah and given to interpreting visible and mundane events in terms of the unseen, the mysterious, and the messianic, this death took on spiritual significance. In his journal, he had toyed with the idea that Zionism itself might be a manifestation of the traditional rabbinic idea of a “messiah descended from Joseph”—a preliminary redeemer of Israel who would serve as precursor to the ultimate messiah descended from King David. In the first act of this messianic drama, according to the Talmud, the precursor would die. Could that be the meaning of Herzl’s premature demise?

Over the next decade, acting on his intuition, Kook attempted to reach out to the new and largely secular Zionist immigrants in Palestine, many of them clustered in the agricultural settlements around Jaffa. For all their open rebellion against tradition, he concluded, they were acting, at terrible personal cost, for the sake of the Jewish people and the cause of social justice; and this, whether they knew it or not, made them the harbingers of a spiritual revolution, even of redemption. Increasingly, he tried to embrace them in both word and deed.

In so doing, however, he became a thorn in the side of his rabbinic peers in the Old City of Jerusalem, home to an Orthodox community that predated Zionist immigration. This was a characteristic pattern in a life made up of contradictions. A religious traditionalist through and through, Kook was nevertheless at one with the secularists’ critique of the indigence, the indolence, and the reactionary mindset of the Jerusalem community. At the same time, his defense of Jewish tradition and exhortations to Sabbath observance provoked the ire of the secularists. To complicate things further, his efforts at founding a modern and more dynamic body of Jewish religious law antagonized both groups—as well as the Jaffa city council, which expected the rabbi in its employ to behave as a functionary, not an ideologue.

Tired of internal political wrangling, at which he was far from adept, Kook accepted an invitation in 1914 to attend a conference in Frankfurt organized by Agudat Yisrael, the umbrella body for non- and anti-Zionist Orthodoxy. There, he hoped, he could encourage his rabbinic peers to see Zionism in a more favorable light. But no sooner had he arrived in Germany than he found himself stranded by the outbreak of World War I. Facing internment as a Russian national, he found refuge in neutral Switzerland. In the town of St. Gallen, freed of communal responsibility, he devoted himself to thinking and writing.

Much of his thought centered on the war itself, and on the motive forces he perceived to be behind it. Ignoring such obvious factors as international politics and the European balance of power, he came to see the war as history’s most vivid enactment of God’s alienation from the world and the world’s alienation from God (which he boldly blamed on Christianity). Yet even as he lamented the spiritual nadir made manifest in the war’s vast physical destruction, he saw hope of redemption. The war was cathartic: once the horror was past, the “natural faith” that Israel shared with the rest of humanity would assert itself. With its vision of universal religious truth, the Jewish nation would actualize its grasp of that truth in its collective life here on earth, and thereby herald the redemption of the human race.


In the winter of 1915, feeling isolated in St. Gallen, Kook gladly accepted the invitation to serve as rabbi of the Spitalfields Great Synagogue in London’s East End. From the moment of his arrival in January 1916, he became the leading rabbinic figure of England’s East European Orthodox community. But aside from a single open letter excoriating established Anglo-Jewish leaders for opposing Jewish nationalism, he was largely uninvolved in the frenzied debates and diplomacy that led up to the Balfour Declaration. Despite the high esteem in which he was held, he was simply too marginal a figure in Anglo-Jewry, too removed from the quotidian realities of English public life, and too independent a thinker.

Nor did Kook’s idiosyncratic understanding of Zionism—esoteric and highly dialectical—suit him for conventional political action. In March 1917, he met with Nahum Sokolov, a leading Zionist intellectual and journalist and right-hand man to Chaim Weizmann. It was Weizmann’s monumental diplomatic efforts that would eventually secure the Declaration, and Weizmann himself had urged this meeting between Sokolov and one of the most powerfully interesting Jewish minds of the day.

It turned out there was little to discuss. As Sokolov reported to Weizmann:

As much as I would like to induce him to some Zionist propaganda work amongst our Orthodox brethren I realize the great difficulty in the way of doing it. Rabbi Kuk [sic] has ideas of his own concerning Zionist politics, ideas which may be somewhat interesting and are undoubtedly well meant but are full of sancta simplicitas and impracticable.

For Kook, characteristically, the significance of the Balfour Declaration was spiritual, not political. Now there could be no doubt as to the messianic import of the era. Ten days after the release of the Declaration, he wrote to his son Zvi Yehudah, still living in Switzerland, that God had pierced the darkness, and “the soul flows with light.” The new developments, he added, were rousing in him “old-new thoughts of spiritual and practical work.”

Kook was not the only rabbinic thinker to be electrified by the Balfour Declaration. On hearing of it, Israel Meir Kagan, the Orthodox rabbinic authority popularly known as the Hafetz Hayim, interpreted it in kabbalistic terms as “akin to the arousal of divine potencies from below.” Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, a leader of Jerusalem’s traditionalist Orthodox community, and a major critic of Kook during the latter’s tenure in Jaffa, reportedly pronounced: “Imagine there was no rain for 2,000 years, and then all of a sudden a slight cloud appeared in the sky. Wouldn’t everyone be shaken and say, anxiously, ‘And maybe, in spite of everything. . . ?’ And isn’t this declaration at least a slight cloud like that?”

But Rav Kook was the only one ready with a philosophy of sacred history, fashioned from elements old and new, through which to interpret the meaning of the event. For him, despite God’s infinite otherness, endless rivers of light streamed between Him and creation, and between Him and His people. More particularly, the slaughter of World War I, whose catastrophic toll on the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe would be outdone only by the Nazi apocalypse to come, was being redeemed by the Balfour Declaration. From Israel’s return to Zion there would emerge an ethic capable of sustaining a world newly attuned to its own participation in the divine plan.

Rav Kook’s ability to see providence at work in the agonizing carnage of the war was nothing short of astonishing. “Death is a mirage,” he wrote not long after arriving in London. “What men call ‘death’ is but the strengthening of life in its essence.” What made such a statement utterable at all could only have been his faith in the ultimate reality and goodness of the living God; what made it plausible could only have been the historic magnitude of Jewish suffering and longing. His providential reading may have represented, to him, the vindication of his instinctive certainty, from the first days of the war, that so great a conflict would have to yield an equally great deliverance.

That deliverance, now made manifest in the Balfour Declaration, also sparked a reconsideration of his earlier ideas about politics. While in Switzerland, Kook had written that the war demonstrated the real face of conventional politics, and the Jews rightly wanted none of it: “We left world politics under a duress that had an inner will, until that fortunate time when it would be possible to run a polity without evil or barbarity, the time for which we hope.”

Thus, if Israel was to return to politics, it could not be of the conventional kind. There were, he wrote, two fundamental, deeply antagonistic worldviews: that which unifies, and that which divides. “Statesmen, societal leaders, are rooted deep in the perspective of division . . . and the world is yet unfit for leadership deriving from the unifying vision.” The two would be synthesized only in the messianic end-time; until then, it was the very elusiveness of unity that kept pushing humanity and the world upward.

Through this line of thought, writing in St. Gallen while the war was in full fury, Kook had deflected the inescapably political nature of Zionism and its necessary connection with an actual land; that land itself, he argued, was ultimately beyond politics. For all his messianism, there lingered here a deeply ingrained exilic perspective, a wariness of power and of the seductions of a still-unredeemed world.

Those final scruples were washed away by Balfour. Soon he tried to overcome the dichotomy between unity and divisiveness by means of a transpolitical move of his own.


On December 20, 1917, six weeks after the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, Nahum Sokolov wrote to Rav Kook that “The sacred work is not ours to do, [we] vessels of the mundane. . . . The duty and mitzvah of sanctifying the renaissance movement is up to you.” The next day, Kook wrote to his son: “Truly great things for our future are being done here [in England]. . . . Our obligation now is to illuminate things, raise and exalt them.” Within a matter of weeks he would issue a ringing proclamation, published in London in Hebrew and Yiddish, entitled The Banner of Jerusalem (Degel Yerushalayim).

Throughout Jewish history, Kook wrote in this pamphlet, “Zion” has signified political sovereignty, indispensable and partaking in its own way of the sacred, while “Jerusalem” has signified the sacred in and of itself: the loftiest goal of Israel and humanity. Our goal, he declared, is for Jerusalem to walk peacefully with Zion under a single banner. There could be no doubt that God’s power was being revealed through world events; that being so, the Jewish message of redemption must emerge from hiding. Jews must convey to the whole world that these events, so obviously aimed at their redemption as a people, would usher in the redemption of all humanity.

A disciple from Rav Kook’s days as rabbi of the Baltic town of Boisk (Bauska) had asked in a letter whether he really and truly thought that the messianic advent was under way. Yes, he answered, without a doubt. But Zionism as presently constituted was not the way. It embraced the modernity that had just discredited itself in the war. And, as a movement, it fundamentally did not grasp the nation’s soul. Accomplishing that would take activists of an entirely different kind; they, paradoxically, would emerge from the ranks of the Orthodox, who had, until then, opposed Zionism—and the Degel Yerushalayim movement would be their vehicle.

There was already a religious wing within organized Zionism: namely, the Mizrahi movement, founded in 1902. Kook never hid his ambivalence about that movement, premised as it was on tamping down religious fervor and willingly accepting secondary status within the Zionist cause. But here, as elsewhere, his intuitions regarding the deeper philosophical and spiritual issues at work at the tectonic level were perilously uncoupled from a concrete understanding of the everyday realities out of which politics was made.

Like the cultural Zionists inspired by Asher Ginsberg (1856-1927), the Hebrew essayist known by the pen name Ahad Ha’am, Kook saw that in the absence of a vital connection to Jewish history, culture, and ethics, political Zionism would be unable to sustain even its strictly political agenda and the struggles and sacrifices it would entail. He also grasped, as had others, that the traditional masses of East European Jewry, who supplied Zionism with its moral legitimacy and would produce its future demographic heft, needed somehow to be brought into the ranks of the national revival. Yet he deeply miscalculated the reactions of the groups and players he sought to sway, and overestimated his own very limited organizational capabilities.

The official program of Degel Yerushalayim unintentionally illustrated the confusions at the heart of his effort. He announced that he did not intend to compete with, let alone supplant, the Zionist movement in the political or diplomatic sphere. Yet he was willing to engage in independent agitation to convince world public opinion, on religious grounds, of the justice of the Jewish claim to Palestine—and he wrote, with utter sincerity, that Zionism and the national movement as a whole would come to see themselves as a branch of Degel Yerushalayim. When Mizrahi leaders began to accuse him of trying to usurp their movement, he seems genuinely to have been taken aback.

In the end, Degel Yerushalayim did not amount to much: a few supporters and chapters in England, Switzerland, Poland, and Jerusalem; a number of articles and meetings; a scattering of educational projects. The movement aroused little interest and, once Mizrahi leaders took the measure of its prospects, little opposition. The ideas behind it, though, shaped Kook’s efforts in the coming years. On March 10, 1919, he wrote to a rabbi and scholar in Zurich, “I am not a politician and relish not at all divergences of opinion. I see only the good side of phenomena.” That, he added, was precisely why his movement was needed, to bring out the good sides of Zionism.


Back home in Palestine, the Jewish settlers, both old and new, had suffered greatly from the war’s mass deportations, conscriptions, forced labor, social disintegration, and hunger. By war’s end, with the final ousting of the Ottoman Turks by British forces, the old Ashkenazi yishuv, the Orthodox community that pre-dated Zionist immigration, was on the ropes. Although sustained in part by the humanitarian efforts of the Francophone Alliance Israélite Universelle, the Orthodox were disadvantaged by the fact that the disbursement of relief funds from abroad was firmly in the hands of Zionist representatives.

At the same time, however, the Zionists realized they needed the support of religious Jewry more than ever before. Already building the institutions of their emergent national homeland, they were more wary of the symbolic than of the literal price they would have to pay in exchange for formally recognizing rabbinic authority and granting official status to religious education. But with whom could they negotiate? No single commanding rabbi had emerged in Jerusalem since the death of the venerable Shmuel Salant in 1909.

In April 1918, Chaim Weizmann, by then the preeminent Zionist leader, arrived in Palestine and spent weeks trying to persuade the Jerusalem rabbis to institute educational and judicial reforms in exchange for funding. The negotiations, exhausting and ultimately fruitless, also managed to dissolve whatever unity the rabbis had maintained during the war. In its place, three distinct camps emerged: the avowedly pro-Zionist but unmistakably outnumbered circle around Yaakov Moshe Harlap, Rav Kook’s younger confidant and chief disciple; a group headed by Zvi Pesah Franck, a brilliant young rabbinical judge who had developed ties to Kook during the latter’s Jaffa days and whose camp sought neutral accommodation between the religious and the secular; and the zealots led by the Lithuanian Talmud scholar Yitzhak Yeruham Diskin and the much more vigorous Yosef Haim Zonnenfeld, who made no effort to hide their ideological animosity to the Zionist project.

Only one man, it seemed, could bridge these divides. Only one man could offer secular political Zionists the religious legitimacy their movement needed in the eyes of Jewish and Gentile public opinion. Only one man could give religious Zionists the self-confidence to assert themselves within the Zionist movement, and endow moderate rabbis with the halakhic and spiritual authority without which the hardliners would devour them.

And that man was waiting in London.

Yehudah Mirsky, associate professor of Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis University, has contributed to Jewish Ideas Daily, the New Republic, the Economist, and other publications. This essay is adapted from his new book, Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, just out from Yale University Press. © 2013 by Yehudah Mirsky. 

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