Reviewing a recent translation of the writings of Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935)—the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine and the leading ideologue of religious Zionism—Zach Truboff reflects on how the writings of this original thinker have withstood the test of time:
The philosophy of history offered by Kook has long had its opponents. A central reason for such opposition is that this approach to history has the tendency to deny the autonomy and agency of human actors. . . . [But] perhaps . . . the most damning critique of Kook’s philosophy of history is that it has not yet been fulfilled. The messianic era, which [he claimed was] just beyond the horizon, now appears more distant than ever.
When all is said and done, the most enduring aspect of Kook’s philosophy of history may be its deep grasp of the human condition. Kook’s dialectical thinking allowed him to identify modernity’s radical possibilities along with the dark underside that is all too often ignored. Living at the end of the 19th century, Kook was a witness to the birth of incredible freedoms that facilitated great spiritual possibilities. At the same time, he also saw the terrible disruptions brought about by the forces of modernization. . . .
In [his essay] “The Way of the Renascence,” Kook points out that modernity’s emphasis on intellectual rationalization fails to appreciate the power of irrationality from which spirituality is often drawn. Spirituality, though, cannot be ignored, and any attempt to cordon it off will eventually lead to its reemergence in unpredictable and even uncontrollable ways. In [another essay], Kook identifies the enduring nature of national community. Human beings have an instinctual need for a sense of home, finding great meaning in their identification with a larger collective. Liberal cosmopolitanism, in its attempt to erase national borders and create a universal human identity, often runs against the grain of human nature.
Finally, the most dangerous aspect of modernity is the way in which secularism eliminates the divine idea from human life. Kook noted that all human culture, whether in the realm of economics, science, art, or philosophy, is a manifestation of humanity’s search for transcendent meaning. Secularism, however, limits human endeavor to the pursuit of self-fulfillment. Without transcendent meaning to guide their lives, human beings will descend into anger, frustration, and societal decay.