The Spiritual Diary of Religious Zionism’s Chief Theologian

Aug. 15 2018

In the early 1890s, Abraham Isaac Kook—later the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine—served as the rabbi of the Russian shtetl of Žeimelis, where he kept a Hebrew-language spiritual diary. Although about half of this material made it into his published works, the rest did not, until the manuscript was edited and published in Israel earlier this year. The diary, as Yehudah Mirsky explains, reflects a crucial period in Kook’s intellectual development: all the elements of his unique mystical theology are present, but without his application of these ideas to the spiritual rebirth of the Jewish people through the return to Zion, which eventually became the hallmark of his thought:

The notebook Kook called M’tsiot Katan freely mixes halakhic, philosophical, [homiletic], and kabbalistic discussion and affords an indispensable window into Kook’s development in those crucial years of his first rabbinate. We can, for now, present an overview of this work, and in particular of the first appearances here of philosophical and theological themes which set the terms of many of Kook’s future [writings]. This in turn helps us better understand the roots of his thought and its trajectory over time.

Two questions predominate in this collection. The first is the relationship between the body, mind, and soul, and its corollary of the status of nature in God’s creation. The second is the relationship between Jewish and Gentile morality. . . .

Most interestingly, Kook relates [his] concern with the relationship between the body and the mind to a more social and political question—the meaning and significance of disagreement, and of heresy, an interest of his echoing the vivid ideological disagreements of the time and a question that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life.

Of course, the natural body’s potential to corrupt the mind was for centuries a staple of Jewish ethics and moral philosophy. What is striking here, though, is [Kook’s view of this] failing as the corruption of a fundamentally good, God-given nature, a nature that includes moral sentiments. This [view] in turn makes possible, for him, a recasting of principled debate and disagreement as the working-out of the various elements of that God-given sense of the good. Thus, he says, peace is the fundamental character of the world, and the multiplicity of contending views of the good all point toward the final end point—peace—which will emerge precisely from the cauldron of disagreement.

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More about: Abraham Isaac Kook, Jewish Thought, Kabbalah, Religion & Holidays, Religious Zionism

Syria’s Downing of a Russian Plane Put Israel in the Crosshairs

Sept. 21 2018

On Monday, Israeli jets fired missiles at an Iranian munitions storehouse in the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia. Shortly thereafter, Syrian personnel shot down a Russian surveillance plane with surface-to-air missiles, in what seems to be a botched and highly incompetent response to the Israeli attack. Moscow first responded by blaming Jerusalem for the incident, but President Putin then offered more conciliatory statements. Yesterday, Russian diplomats again stated that Israel was at fault. Yoav Limor comments:

What was unusual [about the Israeli] strike was the location: Latakia [is] close to Russian forces, in an area where the IDF hasn’t been active for some time. The strike itself was routine; the IDF notified the Russian military about it in advance, the missiles were fired remotely, the Israeli F-16s returned to base unharmed, and as usual, Syrian antiaircraft missiles were fired indiscriminately in every direction, long after the strike itself was over. . . .

Theoretically, this is a matter between Russia and Syria. Russia supplied Syria with the SA-5 [missile] batteries that wound up shooting down its plane, and now it must demand explanations from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. That won’t happen; Russia was quick to blame Israel for knocking over the first domino, and as usual, sent conflicting messages that make it hard to parse its future strategy. . . .

From now on, Russia will [almost certainly] demand a higher level of coordination with Israel and limits on the areas in which Israel can attack, and possibly a commitment to refrain from certain actions. Syria, Iran, and Hizballah will try to drag Russia into “handling” Israel and keeping it from continuing to carry out strikes in the region. Israel . . . will blame Iran, Hizballah, and Syria for the incident, and say they are responsible for the mess.

But Israel needs to take rapid action to minimize damage. It is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep up its offensive actions to the north, mainly in Syria. If that action is curtailed, Israel’s national security will be compromised. . . . No one in Israel, and certainly not in the IDF or the Israel Air Force, wants Russia—which until now hasn’t cared much about Israel’s actions—to turn hostile, and Israel needs to do everything to prevent that from happening. Even if that means limiting its actions for the time being. . . . Still, make no mistake: Russia is angry and has to explain its actions to its people. Israel will need to walk a thin line between protecting its own security interests and avoiding a very unwanted clash with Russia.

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More about: Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Russia, Syrian civil war