Rav Kook on Vegetarianism

Selections From “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace” By HaRav Avraham Yitzchak Kuk As edited by his disciple, HaRav David Kohen, the Nazir of Jerusalem Translated by Rabbi David Sears

The Just Treatment of Animals
Chapter 1

There is a fundamental part of a lofty, humane, and progressive sensibility that, according to the present state of the prevailing culture, exists today only in the pleasant dream of a few extremely idealistic souls: an innate ethical striving, a feeling for what is humane and just, to consider the rights of animals, with all that this entails.

Certain cruel philosophies, especially those that denied belief in God, according to their views on human ethics based upon reason, have advocated that man completely stifle within himself any sense of justice for animals. However, they have not succeeded, nor shall they succeed, with all their self-serving cleverness, in perverting the innate sense of justice that the Creator planted within the human soul. Although sympathy for animals is like the glow of a smoldering ember buried under a great heap of ashes, nevertheless, it is impossible for them to negate this sensitivity within every feeling heart. For as a rule, the lack of morality among all humanity consists in failing to heed the good and noble instinct not to take any form of life, whether for one’s needs or physical gratification.

Our sages did not agree with these philosophical views. They tell us that the holy Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was visited with afflictions because he told a calf being led to slaughter, that had sought refuge in the skirts of his garment, “Go! This is the purpose for which you were created.” His healing, too, was brought about by a deed, when he showed mercy to some weasels (Baba Metzia 85a). They did not conduct themselves like the philosophers, who exchange darkness for light, for the sake of pragmatism. It is impossible to imagine that the Master of all that transpires, Who has mercy upon all His creatures, would establish an eternal decree such as this in the creation that He pronounced “exceedingly good,” that it should be impossible for the human race to exist without violating its own moral instincts by shedding blood, be it even the blood of animals.

Man’s Original Diet Was Vegetarian
Chapter 2

There can be no doubt in the mind of any intelligent, thinking person that when the Torah instructs humankind to dominate – “And have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves upon the Earth” (Genesis 1:28) – it does not mean the domination of a harsh ruler, who afflicts his people and servants merely to fulfill his personal whim and desire, according to the crookedness of his heart. It is unthinkable that the Torah would impose such a decree of servitude, sealed for all eternity, upon the world of God, Who is “good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works” (Psalms 145:9), and Who declared, “The world shall be built upon kindness” (ibid. 89:3).

Moreover, the Torah attests that all humanity once possessed this lofty moral level. Citing scriptural proofs, our Sages explain (Sanhedrin 57a) that Adam was not permitted to eat meat: “Behold, I have given you every tree… yielding seed for food” (Genesis 1:29). Eating meat was permitted to the children of Noah only after the Flood: “Like the green herb, I have given you everything” (Genesis 9:3). Is it conceivable that this moral excellence, which once existed as an inherent human characteristic, should be lost forever? Concerning these and similar matters, it states, “I shall bring knowledge from afar, and unto my Maker I shall ascribe righteousness” (Job 36:3). In the future, God shall cause us to make great spiritual strides, and thus extricate us from this complex question.

Vegetarianism and Enlightenment
Chapter 12

When humanity reaches its goal of complete happiness and spiritual liberation, when it attains that lofty peak of perfection that is the pure knowledge of God and the full manifestation of the essential holiness of life, then the age of “motivation by virtue of enlightenment” will have arrived. This is like a structure built on the foundation of “motivation by virtue of the law,” which of necessity must precede [that of “motivation by virtue of enlightenment”] for all humanity.

Then human beings will recognize their companions in Creation: all the animals. And they will understand how it is fitting from the standpoint of the purest ethical standard not to resort to moral concessions, to compromise the Divine attribute of justice with that of mercy[1] [by permitting mankind’s exploitation of animals]; for they will no longer need extenuating concessions, as in those matters of which the Talmud states: “The Torah speaks only of the evil inclination” (Kiddushin 31b).[2] Rather they will walk the path of absolute good. As the prophet declares: “I will make a covenant for them with the animals of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; I also will banish the bow and sword, and war from the land [and I will cause them to rest in safety. I will betroth you to Me forever; and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, with justice, with kindness, and with compassion; and I will betroth you to Me with faith, and you will know God]” (Hosea 2:20).

Shechita: Humane Slaughter
Chapter 14

The act of slaughter (shechita) must be sanctified in a unique manner – “as I have commanded you” – with a minimum of pain to the animal. Thus, the person will take to heart the fact that this is a sentient being; he is not involved with a random object that moves about like an automaton, but with a living, feeling creature. He must become attuned to its senses, even to its emotions, to the feeling it has for the life of its family members, and to its compassion for its own offspring. Thus, it is biblically forbidden to kill the mother bird with her children on the same day, or to slaughter a calf before it is eight days old; and it is a positive precept to send away the mother bird before taking her young.

Cover the Blood
Chapter 17, abridged

“If anyone of the Children of Israel or a convert who joins them traps an animal or bird that may be eaten and spills its blood, he must cover [the blood] with earth” (Leviticus 17:13).

The obligation to cover the blood teaches us to see the shedding of a [non-domestic] animal’s blood as an act akin to murder; thus we should be ashamed to shed the blood of a [domestic] animal, as well. It was not deemed necessary to cover the blood of a domestic animal because it is slaughtered in an area where people are commonly found. Thus it is preferable to leave the blood of the animal in plain sight, that it may remind others that slaughtering an animal is like murder. This is not the case with [non-domestic] animals and birds that are trapped and slaughtered far from human habitation, whose blood is not seen. Here, by contrast, the obligation of covering the blood teaches that this is a shameful act.

Do Not Cook Meat and Milk Together
Chapter 20, abridged

“The first of the new produce of your land you shall bring to the house of the Lord, your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19).

The mother animal does not live so that a person, simply by his right of ownership, may exploit her for his own purposes; rather, her milk is intended for her own young, whom she loves. The kid, too, is entitled by its natural disposition to the pleasure of its mother’s loving breast. However, the cruelty of the human heart, produced by our coarse materialism and moral weakness, distorts and perverts these principles. Thus, the tender kid, according to the assessment of man’s inferior ethical sensitivity, has no right to nestle against its loving mother, nor to enjoy the light of life, but deserves only to be slaughtered in order to provide food for the bellies of gluttonous human beings, whose debased souls insist, “I will eat meat” (Deuteronomy 12:20).

According to this, what should be the purpose of the milk, if not to cook in it the slaughtered kid? Is this not a natural combination of these two essential foods, the milk and the tender kid that derives nurture from it? However, humanity, let your ears hear something behind you, the voice of God that loudly cries out: “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” No, the purpose of the kid is not merely to be food for your sharp teeth, sharpened and polished by your lowliness and gluttony in eating meat; and certainly the milk is not intended to be a condiment for the satisfaction of your base desire.

The Law of the Treifah
Chapter 26, abridged

“People of holiness you shall be unto Me; you shall not eat the flesh of an animal that was torn (treifah) in the field…” (Exodus 22:30).

Distinctive [among the traits of Israel] is the compassion that waits to blossom into manifestation from amidst the feelings of the pure-hearted, and spread from humanity to all living creatures. This compassion is nascent within the prohibition of eating neveilah (an animal that has died as a result of sickness) or a treifah (an animal that has died as a result of bodily injury).

Just as we naturally feel greater pity for sick or injured human beings than we feel for the healthy, the unfortunate injured animal deserves our additional sympathy. Having internalized the ethical implications of the Torah’s prohibition of eating the flesh of a torn animal, our hearts can fully experience the spirit of enlightenment that relates the precept of visiting the sick, prompting us to relieve their distress.

The commonality that exists between our feelings of compassion [for both animals and human beings] also expresses itself in connection with the need to guard our health, both spiritually and physically, and in not putting ourselves on the same plane as the predatory beasts. Rather, [the Torah] imposes upon us the further obligation to bring about their good, to benefit and to enlighten them. How could we consume the treifah lying in the field, which would appear like “dividing the spoil” with [the wild beasts], and constitute a tacit approval of their predatory habits?

It is true that, among the various categories of treifah discussed by the Talmudic sages, we must distinguish between a mortally injured animal in the field and a terminally ill human being. However, the suffering of both creatures calls for our compassion, which initially should be awakened on behalf of the wretched and the outcast. The law of the animal that died as a result of sickness prepares the heart to feel even greater repugnance toward exploiting the misfortune of other creatures in the event of their deaths. This sensitivity signals a sense of comradeship, sharing another’s pain, and our having entered the borders of their inner world. With this, the “motivation by virtue of enlightenment” will supercede the “motivation by virtue of the law,” causing us to distance ourselves from committing any evil upon these, our comrades in the universe, since we all come forth from the hand of One Creator, the Master of All His Works.

Animals During the Messianic Age
Chapter 31

At the end of days an inner thirst will prompt each person to search for someone upon whom to confer benevolence, upon whom to pour forth his overflowing spirit of kindness, but none will be found. For all humanity already will have attained happiness, living lives of delight, gratification, and prosperity in every sense – materially, ethically, and intellectually.

Then, with all its store of wisdom, its collective insight and experience, humanity will turn toward its brothers on lower levels of Creation, the mute and the downtrodden, including the animal kingdom. And they will seek means to share wisdom with them, to instruct and enlighten them according to their abilities, thus to elevate them from level to level. There is no question that humanity will take an active part in this when the time comes to accomplish this mission. Beyond all doubt, humanity will share the enlightenment of the Torah with the animal kingdom, affecting their physical development and, all the more so, their ethical and spiritual development. This state of enlightenment will reach such a lofty level that we cannot imagine it at present, due to our lowliness and lack of wisdom. All beings shall receive a new, exalted form – a new world. [This is implied by the words of our sages:] “If they so desired, the tzaddikim could create a world” (Sanhedrin 65b).

The Spiritual Perfection of Animals
Chapter 32

As a consequence of their spiritual elevation in general, the lofty level attained [by animals] in the course of their development will also affect their senses and feelings, to attune and refine them. Indeed, a higher nature comes with this. “And the oxen and the young donkeys who work the soil shall eat enriched food that was winnowed with the shovel and with the fan” (Isaiah 30:24). For according to the loftiness of their souls, the faculty of taste will be developed to a higher degree of sensitivity, as befits their spiritual stature.

With a “still, small voice” does the wisdom of Israel, the Kabbalah, speak: the level of animals in the future will partake of the level of humanity as it is today, due to the “ascent of the worlds.” [3]

This is the radiant vision the prophets disclosed to us of the civilized state that will be attained by the predatory animals of today: “And a wolf shall dwell with a lamb, and a leopard shall lie with a kid, and a calf and a lion cub and a fatling together, and a small child shall lead them. And a heifer and a bear shall graze together; their young shall lie down together, and a lion, like the ox, shall eat straw. And an infant shall play over a viper’s hole, and over the den of an adder shall a weaned child stretch forth his hand. They shall neither harm nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the knowledge of God shall fill the Earth as the water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:6-9).


[1] Bereishis Rabba 8:4.
[2] See Sefer HaIkkarim 3:15.
[3] Kabbalistic literature describes the sequential emanation of four “worlds,” or levels of reality: Action, Formation, Creation, and Emanation. When the spiritual disharmony on a lower level attains tikkun, or rectification, that level enters into a state of unification and harmony with the level above itself. This process is known as aliyah, or ascent.

Rav Kook on Shehitah versus Vegetarianism


©2004 by Bezalel Naor


In a letter datelined Jaffa, 7 Tevet 5669/1909, Rav Kook describes to his disciple, Benjamin Menashe Levin, the custom that was prevalent in the Moroccan abattoir, as was related to him by a recently arrived shohet (ritual slaughterer) from Maghreb (Morocco):


He has found employment here [Jaffa] with the Sephardim. It was a discovery for him that the sh[ohet] ub[odek] (slaughterer and inspector) has to do the actual slaughtering. In Maghreb this is not the case. There the hakham (sage), who would be the analog to our sh[ochet] ub[odek], inspects the knife, and then passes it to a tabah (butcher). The butcher knows but the five laws of shehitah (ritual slaughter): shehiyah, derasah, haladah, hagramah, and åikkur. He slaughters, and after the hakham inspects the lung of the animal. With that, the work of the hakham is concluded.

I will tell you the truth. This arrangement finds favor in my eyes; it conforms more to the spirit of Yisrael Saba (the Jewish People). It goes against the clear emotions of the heart that a talmid hakham (Torah scholar), a spiritual man, should be permanently engaged in the taking of animals’ lives. Though shehitah (ritual slaughter)—and in general the consumption of animals—remains a necessity in this world, nevertheless, it would be fitting that this work be done by men who have not yet evolved to the level of refinement of feeling. The educated ethicists, on the other hand, should be supervisors (pekidim) to insure that the killing of the animals be not barbaric, and that there enter into this entire area of meat consumption an ethereal light which might one day illumine the world. This [light] is truly contained in the laws of shehitah (ritual slaughter) and tereifot (unfit animals), as is well known to us. (The footnote refers to Rav Kook’s essay, Afikim ba-Negev, published in Ha-Peless [Poltava, 1903], chaps. 8, 10.)

(Igrot Rayah, Vol. I, p. 230)

Rav Kook’s remark that the actual slaughtering should not be done by a sensitive person but rather by someone of more coarse emotions, may have its source in the mystical work Zohar. It is a well known fact that in olden days when sacrifices would be offered, the intial act of shehitah or slaughtering the animal could be performed by a zar, a person other than a kohen (priest descended from Aaron). The commandments of the priesthood commenced with receiving the blood in a vessel. The Zohar takes this a step further: Not only was the slaughtering acceptable if performed by a person other than a kohen—the slaughtering should not be performed by a kohen. The reason the Zohar gives for this prohibition (which is not standard Halakha or Jewish law) is that the kohen represents the attribute of hesed (love); therefore he should not be involved in the taking of life which is an act of din (judgment). See Zohar III, 124a; Rabbi Reuben Margaliot, Nizuzei Zohar ad locum; Rabbi Abraham Mordecai Alter of Gur, Mikhtevei Torah (Tel Aviv, 5747/1987), p. 108 (Letter 74).


Therefore, one is surprised when presented with the next several letters in which Rav Kook encourages his son Zevi Judah, a most sensitive soul, to learn the theory and practice of shehitah (ritual slaughter). Let us preface these letters with a bit of biographical background. In the year 1914 Rabbi Zevi Judah went to Europe to pursue secular studies. His ≥sponsor,≤ so to speak, was Rabbi Dr. Isaac Auerbach of Halberstadt, Germany. In Halberstadt, Rabbi Zevi Judah continued his Talmudic regimen while pursuing the field of mathematics and the study of European languages. Eventually, due to the outbreak of World War One, Rabbi Zevi Judah was forced to relocate to neutral Switzerland. Over a series of several letters we see Rav Kook goading his son to learn the discipline of shehitah. These letters span the years 1916-1917:

“It would please me if you would learn the work of slaughtering, in theory and practice, to fulfill the words of the sages. (If you could also learn circumcision, I would be very happy.) (According to the Talmud, Hullin 9a, a talmid hakham or Torah scholar must learn three things: writing, ritual slaughter and circumcision.—BN)

After looking into the future regarding justice for all animals, we recognize the steps prerequisite for the physical and spiritual world to ascend in order to reach the lofty goal, one of which is the theory of shehitah with all of its minute laws. Those very minutiae are what will bring about the holy light, the light of higher justice for the souls of all living creatures. It is a holy work to observe them [i.e. those laws] willingly and joyfully.” (Igrot Rayah, Vol. III, p. 48)

“Have you begun the study of shehitah, the use of the knife? Have you slaughtered fowl? I would be pleased if you would learn another one of the three things that a talmid hakham (Torah scholar) must know (Talmud Bavli, Hullin 9a). (Ibid., p. 49)

“I am pleased that you agree to study shehitah. I accept that you delay the study until after the holidays of Tishri. These days do not afford the tranquility necessary for one starting this expertise, especially if he be a poetic soul.

Regarding circumcision, it was but a suggestion. If you have the opportunity and the capability, it would be very worthwhile to fulfill the words of the sages regarding these three things by which a talmid hakham (Torah scholar) is distinguished. To my chagrin, I did not merit to this because of several obstacles.” (Ibid., p. 53)

“Let me know the state of your health and your eating habits. Do you eat meat in general or just fowl on the Sabbath, or perhaps during the week as well? How do you feel? Do your eating habits suit your physical and psychic health?” (Ibid., p. 69)


“It is several letters now that I have forgotten to inquire whether you are practicing shehitah. How does the matter appear to you? How do you relate to this holy work? For sensitive, thinking people, it requires will power, strength of character blessed with patience.” (Ibid., p. 79)


“Regarding your eating, my main concern is that you be exceedingly careful that your abstinence from eating meat not cause any weakening of your physical and psychic strength. Do not be captivated by those who Òskip over the mountainsÓ (a reference to Song of Songs 2:8—BN) within the movement for the prevention of cruelty to animals. It would appear that most of them have within the depths of their spirit a misanthropy and all the characteristics that accompany it. The proof of this is the place this movement occupies in the dark camp of the antisemites. Though there is room for this spark of light [i.e. animal welfare] to penetrate at times the great of spirit who aspire to holinessÉThe holy concept of uplifting the soul of the animal and the sparks of holiness, which is one of the mysteries of the Torah (razei Torah), contributes much more to the fortification of the human ethic, and to the wellbeing of all life, all existence, than anything that might be contributed by a spiritless compassion with its weakness and its anger combined.” (Ibid., p. 82)


(Rav Kook alludes to the Lurianic kabbalistic teaching that by consuming meat within a context of holiness, man raises the sparks of holiness contained within the animal to a higher level.—BN)


“Congratulations! I was overjoyed that you successfully completed the study of shehitah on a practical level. Beloved are the words of the sages who counted shehitah among three things that a talmid hakham (Torah scholar) is required to learn (Talmud Bavli, Hullin 9a).

Sensitive souls see the holy evolution of the world; generations progress according to a Divine plan. They rise up from the deep abyss to lofty heights of holiness. After several generations in which mankind went down from its greatness, from its specialty among life forms, from its ≥zelem Elohim≤ (image of God), Noah was permitted to eat meat (Genesis 9:3). Afterward, the world was further uplifted by the soul of Israel, which was instructed as to the kosher species and the method of killing wrapped in holy mysteries (razei kodesh)äIt is precisely these pathways that uplift all, man and beast togetheräFrom the North, from whence comes bad, will appear the light. [In Kabbalah, the North is associated with the attribute of judgment, din or gevurah. The slaughter of many, but not all, of the sacrifices took place in the north of the Temple.—BN]äGirded with stength (gevurah), full of love (hesed), we evolve to the love of all creations.

My profound thanks to Rabbi Dr. Asher, who prepared and instructed you in the work of shehitah.” (Ibid., pp. 119-120)


Rav Kook on Sabbatianism

Bezalel Naor, Post-Sabbatian Sabbatianism (1999), pp. 109-113. Copyright 1999 by Bezalel Naor

Between the two world wars, there roamed the streets of Jerusalem a man who made a nuisance of himself, pestering the populace that he was the Messiah.
Finally the “Messiah” was brought to the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. Rav Kook asked to meet with the deranged man alone. After a few moments with Rav Kook, the “Messiah” never again boasted his claim.
Sometime later Rav Kook revealed what produced such a wondrous effect. “I told him: ‘The truth is, there is a spark of Messiah in every Jew. You obviously have received an especially large endowment. But the quality of the spark is such that it works only as long as one does not speak of it to others.’”

Unlike many Orthodox thinkers, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook did not shy away from the subject of Sabbatianism. His published works reveal a more than fleeting interest in the entire Sabbatian phenomenon, from the initial impetus of Messianic activity surrounding the person of Shabbetai Zevi, to the Hayyon and Emden-Eybeschütz controversies, to that Polish offshoot of Sabbatianism, Frankism. This interest extends to both the external, historical, as well as internal, philosophical and psychological aspects. Rav Kook is even willing to rebut the author of ‘Or la-Yesharim ‘s comparison of Herzlian political Zionism to Sabbatianism.

In one of his earliest published essays, Derekh ha-Tehiyah, which translates into English as, “The Way of Renascence,” Rav Kook casts all human history, and specifically Jewish history, as a tug of war between the forces of learning and intellect on the one hand and the currents of psyche and charisma on the other. In general, Rav Kook views the various pseudomessianic movements that plagued the Jewish People in exile, and Shabbetai Zevi and Jacob Frank in particular, as eruptions of the soulful side of the collective Jewish personality. He refers to Zevi and Frank en passant as he attempts to put Hasidism in perspective:

Hasidism too came out of the demand of the psychic current that lay dormant. After the unsuccessful attempt of the latest false Messiah, Shabbetai Zevi, who lowered the psychic current to the level of insanity and wicked intoxication, and that culminated in all of its apostasy in the semi-official false Messiah Frank and his entourage—after all these, there was great apprehension lest the nation totally revile any vestige remaining to it of the hidden power of the living psychic currents, and revert to repetition of the letters and observance of the deeds, the commandments and the customs with a bent back and broken heart. (If that were the case) eventually the nation would not be able to survive for lack of freshness and upliftment of the soul.
This thing was felt by the great personality of the fathers of Hasidism, in which the godly psychic current was alive.

The approach to Sabbatianism is ambivalent. It may best be summed up by the advice of the Talmud regarding renegade Jews: “Push away with the left hand and bring close with the right.” Condemnatory of the excesses of Sabbatianism, the mental instability of its founder, and the self-imposed apostasy (nokhriyut ) of his spiritual grandson Frank, Rav Kook at once acknowledges the kernel of redeeming value in all this lunacy—a hankering for vital, existential, as opposed to rote, religion.
This “ambidexterity” will be Rav Kook’s approach to various chapters in Jewish history, whether it be the Christianity of Jesus of Nazareth, the pantheism of Baruch Spinoza7, or the Zionism of Theodore Herzl. Those who have criticized Chief Rabbi Kook for his support of and involvement in the Zionist movement, have too often failed to notice that the posture vis-`a-vis Zionism is but the most recent application of Rav Kook’s historical method.
Convinced of the essential godliness of the Jewish People, he is forever seeking to glean meaning from the aberrant and absurd. This posture of attempting to uncover hidden good in the ostensibly evil, is itself reminiscent of Sabbatian theology, thus exposing Rav Kook to unfair attack, when in truth, this paradoxical outlook precedes Sabbatianism, having its source in Zoharic and Lurianic Kabbalah.

Rabbi Kook is definitely no Sabbatian9. He points out to his correspondent Samuel Alexandrov the folly of considering the present decrepit world order the future of which it is said, “The commandments will be null in the future10,” citing as an example of this fool’s paradise the experiments of the Sabbatians “sunk into the depth of evil.”
He is not loath to point out to Rabbi Yahia Kafah of San’a that the book he quotes from,’Oz le-Elohim by Nehemiah Hiyya Hayyon, is an heretical work by a Sabbatian.
It is also not beyond Rav Kook to display empathy and understanding for Rabbi Jacob Emden’s disparagements of certain passages in Zohar, motivated as Emden was by the desire to undercut the Sabbatians, who to a large degree based themselves on Zohar.
And while on the subject of Emden’s untiring campaign against crypto-Sabbatians, let us mention that Rav Kook, when pressed by his personal secretary Simon Glitzenstein, revealed what he knew (or thought he knew) of R. Jonathan Eybeschütz’s youthful ensnarement by the Sabbatian heresiarch Löbele Prossnitz.
Abutting all this, Rav Kook knows the mysterious light, the pathetic, yet unredeemed sparks that beckon to us from fallen Messiahs.

. . . mysteries of Torah that as a result of their influence on those who delved into them without the proper preparation, have come to be rejected and abused. From this very light of life, from which improper influences produce world catastrophe and peril—precisely from it, will sprout eternal salvation.

Alter B.Z. Metzger, English translator of Orot ha-Teshuvah, correctly caught the veiled reference to Shabbetai Zevi and Frank, who in distorting the teachings of the Kabbalah, caused them to be reviled by a good portion of Jewry. But Rav Kook reassures us that these teachings need not produce the excesses of which Zevi, Frank and their followers were guilty. The potential for turning the elixir of life into poison, exists on every level of Torah understanding. All depends on the spiritual preparation (or lack thereof) of those involved in its study.
Perhaps the most startling of all Rav Kook’s statements concerning the would-be Messiahs, is the one occurring in the ill-fated ‘Arpilei Tohar 18 (and later in the more widely circulated Orot 19):

. . . the fetuses who stood to be Messiahs but fell, were trapped and broken. Their sparks were scattered and seek a living, enduring correction (tikkun) in the foundation of David, King of Israel, “the breath of our nostrils, the anointed (meshiah) of God.”

While it is not at all clear that Rav Kook includes in his list of Messiahs-in-potentia the likes of Shabbetai Zevi, perhaps reserving this distinction for a Bar Kochba revered by Rabbi Akiba, this does not dull the daring of the thought. That the child born after so many miscarriages (bar niflei ) will encompass in his soul the souls of his stillborn brothers, is truly remarkable. There is a poetic justice here. None of the unsuccessful Messiahs’ attempts at redemption were in vein; all contribute in some sense to the final Redemption.

Finally, for Rav Kook as for—mutatis mutandis—Sabbatians, “the light of Moses” and “the light of Messiah” are antithetical, being united only at the root of their souls in the “supernal splendor of Adam” (zihara ‘ila’ah de-adam ha-rishon). Though Messiah himself is not portrayed by Rav Kook as abrogating Mosaic law, the entire phenomenon of Messianism is painted in distinctly antinomian tones. Whereas Torah requires an attitude of shamefacedness and humility, Messiah thrives paradoxically on shamelessness, chutzpah. And Rav Kook is quite explicit as to what the chutzpah consists of: Sexuality, fleshliness, and forsaking Torah. As alarming as all this is, it is well within kabbalistic tradition that again, predates Shabbetai Zevi. One may find in MaHaRaL of Prague and SheLaH, and needless to say, in Zohar, similar expressions of the extralegal origins of Messiah, conceived from the less than immaculate unions of Lot and his daughters, Jacob and Tamar, Boaz and Ruth the Moabitess, David and Bathsheba, and Solomon and Na’amah the Amonitess. Yet there is a clarity and profundity of thought in Rav Kook’s pitting the two traditions, Mosaic and Messianic, against one another.

What puts Rav Kook decisively beyond the reaches of Sabbatian thought, is his formulation of a future in which, “once again the ‘supernal splendor of Adam’ will shine through the gathering of the two luminaries that are one, Moses and Messiah.” Unlike the Sabbatian who revels in the antinomianism of Messianism, Rav Kook’s ideal is the reunification of two traditions that have grown apart, the legal tradition of Moses and the extralegal tradition of Messiah.

Rav Kook On Jewish Universalism

From In the Desert A Vision (Midbar Shur): Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook on the Torah Portion of the Week / Translated by Bezalel Naor (Orot, 2000), Parshat Vayishlah (pp.43-49)

He said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “Jacob.” He said, “No longer will your name be called Jacob, but rather Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and you have prevailed.Bar Kappara taught, “Whoever calls Abraham, ‘Abram,’ transgresses a positive commandment, as it says, ‘Your name will be Abraham.’” Rabbi Eliezer says, “He transgresses a negative commandment, as it says, ‘No longer will your name be called Abram’” . . . Perhaps the same should apply to one who calls Jacob, “Jacob”? There it is different, for the text itself later reinstated it (the name Jacob), as it says, “God said to Israel in visions of the night: ‘Jacob, Jacob’”

It is worthwhile to ponder the difference between these two patriarchs. Such gravity was attached to the change of Abraham’s name, that one who refers to him by his original name, Abram, transgresses both a positive and negative command. The name of Jacob, on the other hand, though similarly altered, remains as a residuum. One would have thought just the opposite. Abraham’s name was changed but once, whereas Jacob’s was altered twice, once by the angel, and a second time by God Himself. If anything, the change of Jacob’s name should have been irreversible.
In order to properly understand the significance of these shifts of nomenclature, we must first understand the essential roles these two patriarchs played in Jewish history. The rabbis opened a window: “‘Abram is Abraham.’ In the beginning, he was a leader of Aram, and at the end, he was a leader of the whole world.” But for the moment, this explication only adds to our confusion. To be father of a nation, of Aram, though not as grandiose as global leadership, is not bad! To bring up to someone who is a player on the world scene, that he was once at the forefront of national affairs, is not an insult. On the other hand, to throw up to an Israel that he was once a Jacob, a Ya’akov, which insinuates subterfuge and deceit, is a clear affront. Certainly, the ruling should have been reversed. Leniency is indicated in the case of calling Abraham by his erstwhile name, Abram; the stiffer judgment should have been meted out to one who slurs Israel by calling him “Jacob.”
The statement of the rabbis concerning Abraham contains a universalist message; it condemns in the harshest terms possible the evil of nationalism. There is a certain convention that has become accepted by practically the entire human race, and that is the right of every nation to aggrandize itself at the expense of other nations. Even supposedly righteous rulers are guilty of having shed blood to bring enhanced material prosperity to their nation, without so much as a thought to the havoc wreaked on surrounding nations. Even though human decency dictates that the individual not pursue success through the destruction of fellow humans, on the national level—so according to conventional wisdom—there is free license to achieve success, come what may. Even those who shun military exploits, are incapable of desiring the success of other nations to the same degree they seek their own nation’s advancement. The most righteous of individuals would find strange the thought that all human beings be given the same advantage seeing as one God created us in His image. This chauvinist thinking is so ingrained in human nature, that even the great champions of justice defend this notion by saying that the scientific and material development of the world requires that nations compete against one another.
Now one might receive the mistaken impression that the Torah endorses this attitude, whereby we should assign a greater value to our own people’s good than to the welfare of others. After all, the Torah commands the Children of Israel to conquer the land from the indigenous nations. But this is clearly unacceptable! How could God, Whose mercy extends to all His creations, oppress His own handiwork?! How could the Most High command that we remove from our hearts the well being of the entire human race for our own selfish good?! Therefore, at the time the covenant was first established with our ancestor Abraham, a divine protest was lodged: The very thought of nationalism is despicable to God, for He equates all mankind. The goal is to seek the true success of all God’s creations. True justice means that one views with equal concern the advancement of the entire human race.
Where then does the the notion of the “Chosen People” enter? The Jews were elected to work at uplifting the entire human race; to bring humanity to the goal the Almighty expects of it. Israel were set aside as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” A kingdom of priests ministers to the other nations in order to morally perfect them. So the separation from the nations is itself the greatest unification, in order to benefit the human race. However, if Israel will desert the good, which is the holy Torah, then its nationhood and its territorialism are an abomination before God. It is inconceivable that for the sake of a people’s natural self-love, other nations should be displaced. All are God’s handiwork. Israel must know that no permission was granted to displace a nation for the sake of national self-aggrandizement. There is one form of justice, whether it be on the individual or collective level.Therefore, several times over, the Torah links the giving of the land to the observance of Torah. Without the raison d’etre of Torah, the setting apart of one nation, would be considered an injustice.
War? A war could be waged only if divine will had ordained that it was necessary for tikkun ‘olam, for setting the world right. Halakhically, a milhemet ha-reshut (optional war) could be authorized only by the king acting in consonance with the Urim ve-Thummim (oracle) and the Sanhedrin.
This is the import of God’s directive to our ancestor, “No longer shall your name be called Abram,” which, as the rabbis say, signifies leadership of the single nation of Aram. I have raised you beyond this norm of nationalism, which is but a convention, not true justice. Your heart should not be devoted exclusively to the benefit of Aram, but rather seek the peace of all God’s creations. “Your name shall be Abraham, father of a multitude of nations.” Your role is as father of all nations, of the entire human race. Seek out the wellbeing of all.
“One who calls Abraham, ‘Abram,’ transgresses.” By doing so, one causes Israel to regress to a state of nationalism. One makes a statement that Israel’s existence can be founded on nationalism. Nationalism, which is no more than a collective form of egoism, is a transgression. Israel’s election is just only if its basis is true universalism. Israel is to be “a father of a multitude of nations.”
Abraham represents a combination of two tendencies, universalism and separatism, but even his being separated from the world is in order to positively influence the world. His son Isaac again combines these two tendencies: Uniting with the world and retreating from it to preserve an ideal of kedusha (holiness). By the third generation, these two tendencies had grown apart; each of Isaac’s two sons inherited a different facet of his personality. In Esau, the aspect of worldliness was pronounced, but he was defiled by the world. In his twin brother Jacob, particularism was more pronounced. His allegiance was to preserving the ideal of kedusha (holiness); the goal of universalism will emerge on its own when the time is ripe. Esau was “a hunter, an outdoorsman,” which is another way of saying, a man of the world; “Jacob, a simple man, a homebody,” a man who cultivates his own innate spirituality in the hope that thereby the world will benefit.
If Esau would have utilized his worldliness with the proper intention, he could have attained true greatness. To share with the world the light of Abraham is indeed a great thing. It was for this reason that Father Isaac was so fond of Esau. Isaac thought that through Esau the promise of Abraham would be fulfilled; through Esau’s dealings with mankind, the world would be ennobled. Unfortunately, in the process of going out to the world, Esau lost the blessing, the gift of Abraham. Jacob’s so-called “usurping” of Esau’s birthright, came out of his desire to acquire the worldliness of his elder brother. To be sure, Jacob’s union with the world would not be immediate as was Esau’s. The world is not ripe yet. Jacob must bide his time. There is much work to be done to prepare the world for the goal of unity.“And Jacob remained alone.” As it says of the Holy One, “The Lord alone will be uplifted,” so “Jacob remained alone.”The situation of Jacob is lonely. The man of God, of the spirit, is lonely. Israel is “a people that dwells alone.” Throughout the generations, the “archangel of Esau” has atttempted to draw Israel out of its isolation. As Maimonides wrote in his Epistle to Yemen, historically, the nations of the world have attempted to vanquish Israel in two ways: Militarily, by the sword, and theologically, by the power of persuasion. This is the meaning of the verse, “For you have striven with angels and with men.” At times, Esau comes in the guise of an “angel”; he musters every possible theological argument to dissuade Jews from Judaism. Alternatively, Esau comes with the weaponry and armaments of “men.”
In the relations between Jacob and Esau there is symmetry. Esau (or his archangel) touches the thigh of Jacob; Jacob holds Esau by the heel. Until the nations of the world learn to respect “Israel,” who “has striven with angels and with men and overcome,” there is yet room for the residual name of Jacob. The Hebrew Ya’akov refers to the fact that at birth, he held onto his twin’s heel (‘Ekev). Jacob must yet hold onto Esau’s heel, just as Esau impinges on Jacob’s thigh.

Rav Kook on Homosexuality

“Rav Kook on Homosexuality” from Bezalel Naor, From A Kabbalist’s Diary (Orot, 2005), Chap. 12 (pp. 157-170)

The thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935), first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of mandatory Palestine, has served as an inspiration to many in this generation. His fusion of Halakha (Jewish law) and Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and his awareness of and responsiveness to issues affecting modern society, have resonated with many souls who, in general, do not warm to the teachings of an Orthodox rabbi. Even when such individuals are in no position to agree with his strict maintenance of rabbinic tradition, they at least recognize that this virtuoso is no mere apologist for Orthodoxy. Rav Kook’s remarks, infused by what was undoubtedly a transpersonal consciousness, are too refreshing to be the stuff of apologetics.

Over the years, as a teacher of Rav Kook’s printed works, I have often heard students venture a guess that Rav Kook’s stance on homosexuals would have to be lenient. The reasoning goes something like this: Since Rav Kook expressed sympathy and understanding for the early secular Zionists, the halutsim, wouldn’t he have to demonstrate the same love, the same ahavat yisrael, toward homosexuals?! Actually, as known to anyone who has studied Rav Kook in some depth, his reaction to secular Zionism is not a simple affair at all, but rather extremely nuanced1 . And we should be surprised if his attitude to homosexuality prove facile or simplistic. The printed work of Rav Kook—as opposed to the jingos, tokens and slogans of party apparachiki—is indeed complex.

I have found two pieces in Rav Kook’s oeuvre that address the issue of homosexuality. The first, embedded in a teshuvah or legal responsum, reads as follows:

. . . That which he2 asserts, that Rabbenu Asher (ROSH) wrote for his time, and in his day, homosexuality was not widespread among the gentiles—he needlessly gives the gentiles the benefit of the doubt. One who knows their mores even today, after the gloating of modern culture3 , through laws emitted by the upper crust among them, and from the arguments of the most highly educated, concerning values of ethics and sexual modesty4 , will understand to what degree even today, there is room among them for to’evah (“abomination,” Biblical term for homosexuality5 ). This applies for several centuries prior to this one. And let his honor not forget that Rabbenu Asher (ROSH) wrote the book of legal decisions in Moorish Spain, in a milieu of Arabs, who even today engage in the “abomination of the Emorites.” One who has sojourned in Asia6 , and whose ears have heard of their everyday abominal practices, knows their character . . .7

It is not within the scope of this paper to comment on Rav Kook’s observations concerning Middle Eastern society. What does concern us, is his perception of modern European civilization. While the wording is ambiguous (a problem with much of Rav Kook’s writing), the author is definitely cynical when it comes to the much touted strides made by Western culture, law, education and ethics. In his seminal work, Orot, written about this time8 , Rav Kook reserves some especially scathing remarks for contemporary European society. The wholesale slaughter of the Great War, provoked in Rav Kook, as in many other sensitive individuals, profound disillusionment with the chimera of progress. The lines he penned from his St. Gallen exile are Zarathustran in tone, reminiscent of the prophecies of Nietzsche’s alter ego:

The sin of the murderers—the wicked kings and all provocateurs—is indelible. The blood that was shed in the land will be atoned only by the blood of those who shed it, and the atonement must come: Total dismantling of all the foundations of contemporary civilization, with all of their falsity and deception, with all their poison and venom. The entire civilization that rings false must be effaced from the world . . . Then the present civilization will disappear with all its foundations—literature and theater, and so forth; all the laws founded on inanity and iniquity, all evil etiquette will pass away. And the Lord alone will be exalted on that day 9. The spiritual fabric that in its present state could not prevent, despite all its glorious wisdom, wholesale slaughter and such fearful world destruction, has proven itself invalid from its inception . . . all its progress is not but false counsel and evil entrapment . . . Therefore, the entire contemporary civilization is doomed and on its ruins will be established a world order of truth and God consciousness10 .

Rav Kook put little, if any, stock in the veneer of respectability with which Europe cloaks itself. Beneath the surface there is ample latitude for immorality. Though to the best of my knowledge, Rav Kook never mentions him by name, nor does he allude to his theories11 , one is reminded at this point of the discoveries of the Viennese psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud.

As a whole, the piece quoted is unremarkable; all in all, what one would expect from an Orthodox rabbi. No sympathy for homoeroticism from that quarter!

The second reflection on homosexuality is to be found in the book many regard as the magnum opus of Kookian philosophy, Orot ha-Kodesh (Lights of Holiness). Of the two passages, this is without question the bolder. Here Rav Kook goes out on a limb to offer novel exegesis of a well known Talmudic ruling.

The arousal of the new science concerning the natural inclinations that some men have from their conception, and on account of this, they (i.e. the scientists) want to uproot the ethical protest of this—but the word of our God will stand forever12 . Already Bar Kappara interpreted in this regard, “to’evah (homosexuality)—to’eh atah vah (you stray thereby)13 .” For it is an evil inclination, which man, individual and collective, must combat. That small amount of desire that might be found in an individual which is ineradicable, was foreseen by the sages. Regarding it they said: “Whatever a man wants, etc. It is comparable to a fish which comes from the fish market. If he wants, he eats it fried; if he wants, he eats it boiled14 .” Thus, they (i.e. the sages) plumbed the depths of human nature to the point of compassion on those perverted from birth. Nevertheless, they commented: “Why do crippled (infants) arise? Because they “overturn their table” (a euphemism for anal intercourse)15 .” And though it is not a law, nevertheless, it is a conversation of ministering angels, namely sages who resemble angels of God16 . All of the people of God will camp and travel by their word17 . And all the remnant in Zion and the remainder in Jerusalem will be accounted holy18 , and despise perversions19 . And the way of the upright is paved20 .

As much rabbinic writing, this pensee assumes familiarity with Talmudic sources. The first allusion is to a passage in Talmud Bavli, Nedarim 51a. The Talmud relates that at the wedding of Rabbi Judah the Princes’ daughter to the wealthy Ben El’assa21 , one of the wedding guests, Bar Kappara, goaded Rabbi Judah as to the deeper meaning of the Biblical term to’evah (abomination) unique to homosexuality22 .

Every explanation Rabbi (Judah) proferred for to’evah was demolished by Bar Kappara. He (Rabbi Judah) said to him (Bar Kappara): “You interpret it.” He (Bar Kappara) said to him (Rabbi Judah): “First, let your daughter pour me a cup of wine.” She poured him a cup. He (Bar Kappara) said to Rabbi (Judah): “Get up and dance for me, that I should tell you.” (So Rabbi Judah danced.) “This is what the Torah is conveying: To’evah (abomination)—to’eh atah vah (you stray thereby).”

The Talmudic exegete Rabbenu Nissim (RaN) explains: “You stray thereby—by deserting heterosexual activity and choosing a man23 .” The Bible commentator, Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, understands Bar Kappara to mean that a male who engages in homosexual intercourse strays from the course of nature24 . Rav Kook juxtaposes this jeu de mots of Bar Kappara to the outlook of modern science25 . Whereas science, or at least a certain current within the scientific community, regards homosexuality as natural for some men, Rav Kook musters Bar Kappara’s opinion as a way of saying that homosexuality represents a straying from nature.

Nothing very remarkable there. And, let it be stated, the controversy regarding the supposed biologic component of homosexuality, remains a heated debate in scientific circles. To date, it has yet to be proven conclusively that there is such a biologic basis for some men preferring an “alternative” lifestyle.

It is the next nugget in Rav Kook’s pensee that is surprising in its originality. In a seeming volte face, or at least a qualification, Rav Kook grants that in some isolated cases the homosexual urge may be innate. He further suggests that the Halakha’s reluctant acceptance of anal heterosexual intercourse may have been a concession to that urge! This is a groundbreaking concept not only as regards Talmudic exegesis, but in terms of empirical and perhaps observable behavior. The import of Rav Kook’s statement is that husbands who ask of their wives anal intercourse may be expressing a latent homosexual wish! That the Halakha sanctioned it—albeit grudgingly—means the rabbis recognized that in some instances, the individual is born a homosexual, and thus his urges are bound to find expression. By allowing the latent homosexual to engage in anal intercourse with his (female) wife they chose the lesser of two evils26 .

While it might be possible to interpret Rav Kook as saying that a homosexual is drawn to the specific act of anal intercourse per se, rather than to the overall intimacy of male companionship, etc., I believe this a forced interpretation. I think it more reasonable to assume that while engaging in anal intercourse with his wife, the latent homosexual will act out a homosexual fantasy.

Perhaps Rav Kook’s exegesis, at first blush so daring, is but an extension of the rabbis’ method of putting in perspective a number of dos and don’ts:

Lest your evil inclination deceive you saying, “All good things the Holy One has prohibited to Israel,” (therefore) the Holy One said: “Whatever I have prohibited to you, I have allowed you its parallel. How so? I prohibited to you menstrual blood; I allowed you hymenal blood. I prohibited to you blood; I allowed you liver, which is blood throughout. I prohibited to you swine’s flesh; I allowed you the fish called shibuta, whose flesh resembles that of swine. I prohibited to you a man’s wife; I allowed you his divorcee. I prohibited to you a non-Jewish woman; I allowed you a captive woman. I prohibited to you a brother’s wife; I allowed you his widow when he dies childless (levirate marriage). I prohibited to you a mixture of wool and linen; I allowed it in zizit (ritual fringes). I prohibited to you the fat (helev) of a domestic animal; I allowed you the fat of a wild beast 27.”

Yalta, one of the wise women of the Talmud, posed the following riddle to her husband Rabbi Nahman:

Since whatever the Torah has forbidden, it has compensated for—it forbade blood, it allowed liver; it forbade menstrual blood, it alllowed hymenal and postpartum blood; it forbade the fat of a domestic animal, it allowed the fat of a wild beast; it forbade swine, it allowed the brain of the shibuta-fish; it forbade a man’s wife, it allowed his divorcee; it forbade a brother’s wife, it allowed levirate marriage; it forbade a non-Jewish woman, it allowed a female captive—I now desire to eat milk and meat!

Rabbi Nahman said to his cooks: “Roast for her on the spit an udder28 .”

Rav Kook might well have added to this litany: “The Torah forebade anal intercourse in a male; it allowed it in a female.” One may argue that there is a world of difference between eating “mock swineflesh” in the form of mullet’s brain29 and stooping to anal intercourse. To this, one may counter that neither is a soldier taking home a female captive (eshet yefat to’ar) recommended behavior. In the latter regard, the rabbis enunciated the famous psychological principle: “The Torah spoke opposite the evil inclination (dibrah torah k’neged yezer ha-ra); better Israel should eat the meat of a dying animal slaughtered than they should eat that animal’s meat unslaughtered30 .” Wedding a non-Jewish captive is far from recommended; it too is a concession to an overwhelming desire. If the Torah were to forbid her, the Jewish soldier would take his warbride in defiance of Halakha. I believe I have made a strong case for subsuming Rav Kook’s innovation within the realm of rabbinic psychology.

The remainder of Rav Kook’s pensee is a paraphrase of the discussion in TB Nedarim 20ff:

Said Rabbi Yohanan ben Dehabai: “Four things were told to me by the ministering angels: Why are children born cripples? Because they (fathers) overturn their table (i.e. engage in anal intercourse with their wives31 ) . . .

Said Rabbi Yohanan: “These are the words of Yohanan ben Dehabai, but the sages said the law is not like Yohanan ben Dehabai, but rather whatever a husband wishes to do with his wife, he may do so. It is comparable to meat that comes from the butchershop. If he wants to eat it salted, he may do so; if he wants to eat it roasted, he may do so; if he wants to eat it boiled, he may do so. It is also comparable to fish that comes from the fish market.”

Said Amemar: “Who are the ministering angels? The rabbis!” . . .

A woman came before Rabbi (Judah the Prince). She said to him: “Rabbi, I set for him a table and he overturned it.” He (Rabbi) said to her: “My daughter, the Torah allowed you32 , so what should I do for you?!”

A woman came before Rav. She said to him: “Rabbi, I set for him a table and he overturned it.” He said: “How is this different from a small fish?!”33

A Talmudic discussion not to be taken lightly! The give-and-take, and especially the anecdote of the anonymous women and the rabbis, become the source for later authorities to decide whether anal intercourse (biah she-lo ke-darkah) is permitted.

Maimonides writes: “A man’s wife is permitted to him. Therefore, whatever a man desires to do with his wife, he may do . . . He may have with her vaginal and anal intercourse, provided that (in the latter case) he does not ejaculate34 . Nevertheless, it is a mark of piety . . . that he not stray from the way of the world and its custom, for this thing (i.e. sexual intercourse) is only for the sake of procreation 35.”

The great French Tosafist, Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre (RI) disagreed with Maimonides, and allowed anal intercourse even if it were to culminate in seminal emission. His is a different proviso—that anal intercourse be only occasional and not habitual36 .

The “final verdict” of Rabbi Moses Isserles (RaMA) in his gloss to Shulhan ‘Arukh, Even ha-‘Ezer 25:2, relects both opinions of Maimonides and Rabbi Isaac:

He (a husband) may do with his wife as he pleases . . . He may have with her both vaginal and anal intercourse, providing he does not waste his seed. Some are more lenient, and allow anal intercourse even if it results in seminal emission, provided that he engage in anal intercourse only occasionally and not habitually.

This is not to say that Rav Kook wrote in a prescriptive vein when he suggested that the Halakha’s careful acceptance of bi’ah she-lo ke-darkah (unnatural intercourse) was a response to a deep-seated psychological need on the part of some individuals. The paradigm for such thinking was established by the sages of the Talmud when they declared,”Dibrah Torah k’neged yezer ha-ra” (“The Torah spoke opposite the evil inclination.”) The application of this principle was Rav Kook’s response to the supposed biological basis for homosexuality current in scientific circles in his day. Already in Rav Kook’s day, the legislature and intelligentsia could be counted upon to support such an interpretation of the phenomenon of homosexuality. The piece that ensues is one more example of the startling relevance of Abraham Isaac Kook’s literary legacy.


1 See e.g. the lengthy letter to Rabbi Jacob David Ridvaz (Wilovsky), published in Rav Kook’s collected letters, Igrot RAYaH (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1961), Vol. II, pp. 184-198.

2 Rav Kook’s correspondent was the wealthy Swiss gentleman, Rabbi Zalman Pines.

3 The word “kultura” occurs in the Hebrew original.

4 In other words, one is able to know the mores of the sociey by the legislation passed and by the arguments the very learned advance.

5 Leviticus 18:22; 20:13. See below note 19.

6 The letter is datelined “St. Gallen, 1916.” Rav Kook, stranded in this Swiss community for the beginning years of World War I, had spent the previous decade (1904-1914) as Ashkenazic rabbi of Jaffa, Palestine.

7 A.I. Kook, Mishpat Kohen (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1985), p. 358.

8 See Abraham Isaac Kook, Orot, translated and introduced by Bezalel Naor (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993), p. 85.

9 Isaiah 2:17.

10 Orot, pp. 98-99.

11 Rav Kook’s son, Zevi Yehuda Kook (1891-1992), does on one occasion refer (negatively) to the theory of the unconscious. See my notes to Orot, pp. 261-262.

12 Isaiah 40:8. The ungrammatical form of the sentence is attributable to the fact that this a passage from a spiritual journal. Eight such journals went into the making of Orot ha-Kodesh (Light of Holiness). See the editor Rabbi David Cohen’s introduction to Orot ha-Kodesh (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook,1969), p. 22

13 Talmud Bavli, Nedarim 51a.

14 Ibid., 20b.

15 Ibid., 20a.

16 Ibid., 20ff.

17 Cf. Numbers 9:20.

18 An improvisation on Isaiah 4:3.

19 Cf. Proverbs 8:13. In the Hebrew original, the word is tahapukhot. It is possible Rav Kook alluded thereby to the rabbinic term for anal intercourse between husband and wife, hafikhat ha-shulhan (“inverting the table”). See TB Nedarim 20b.

20 An improvisation on Proverbs 15:19. Why Rav Kook’s citations of Biblical verses are sometimes inexact, would be a topic for lengthy discussion. Suffice it to say, there is a school of thought which holds that at least some of Rav Kook’s writings are the product of “automatic writing.” Here is not the forum for a treatment of “maggidism” and other automatisms.

Orot ha-Kodesh, Vol. III, p. 297. The editor entitled the piece, “Perversions of the Natural Inclinations.”

21 A wedding may seem an inappropriate setting for such a discussion, but a precedent may have been set by the reading of ‘Arayot (the section on sexual misconduct in Leviticus 18) on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Some commentators connect this to the matchmaking festivities that went on that day (see Mishnah, Ta’anit 4:8). It was hoped injecting this somber note would prevent the gaiety from getting out of hand. See Tosafot and Piskei Tosafot , Megillah 31a.

In the course of the discussion, Bar Kappara goes on to explicate the terms “tevel” (Lev. 18:23) and “zimah” (Lev. 18:17).

22 See commentary of Rabbi Samuel Edels, Hiddushei Agadot MaHaRSHA, ad locum, that though the term “to’evah” may refer to other (non-sexual) sins, it is not used in the context of any of the other forms of sexual misconduct. See above note ? See also Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, Ben Yehoyada, Sanhedrin 82a.

23 Nedarim, ad locum.

24 Epstein, Torah Temimah (Vilna, 1904), Leviticus 18:22. Epstein finds support in the expanded version of Pesikta Zutarti: “You stray thereby, for it does not result in procreation.”

25 I am not sure to which scientists Rav Kook is referring. I do know that a century ago, Sigmund Freud speculated some fetuses developed into homosexuals because the mother was infected with venereal disease!

26 In Leviticus 20:13 homosexual intercourse is a capital offense. Nowadays, since the disappearance of the Sanhedrin (Jewish high court), homosexuality is one of thirty-six offenses subject to karet (divine retribution). See Mishnah, Kreitot 1:1.

27 Midrash Tanhuma, Shemini, 8.

28 TB Hullin 109b. In other words, the udder of a cow, which contains a residue of milk, is nevertheless allowed to be consumed. This is the Torah’s compensation, as it were, for forbidding meat and milk together. Tosafot, ad locum, cull a different recension of this midrash from the poetry of Rabbi Eliezer ha-Kallir for Parshat Parah. Tosafot write that the Kallir based himself on the Yerushalmi.

29 Assuming “mullet” is the correct identification of the fish shibuta.

30 TB Kiddushin 21b-22a. See also RaSHI, Deuteronomy 21:11.

31 There are some rishonim (medieval authorities) who interpret the euphemism of “inverting the table” to refer not to anal intercourse but rather to alternative positions of vaginal intercourse. Rabbi El’azar Azikri (Safed, 16th century) quotes RaSHI, Nedarim that it refers to the so-called “missionary position,” i.e. female above and male below. This interpretation is not contained in the printed version of RaSHI. See Azikri, Sefer Haredim (Venice, 1601), mizvat ha-teshuvah, chap. 3 (chap. 64). Shitah Mekubezet, Nedarim, attributes this interpretation to the Spanish Rabbi Yom Tov ben Abraham (RITBA). (Not found in the RITBA to Nahmanides’ Hilkhot Nedarim printed at the end of Tractate Nedarim in the Vilna edition of the Talmud.) Rabbi Abraham ben David (RABaD) of Posquieres (Provence, 12th century) interpreted “inverting the table” to mean “performing the (sex) act of animals,” known in the colloquial as “dog style.” See Rabbi Abraham ben David, Ba’alei ha-Nefesh, Kafah ed. (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1982), p. 122. According to the Haredim (ibid.), this definition of “inverting the table” was included by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher in his code Tur, Even ha-Ezer, chap. 25, but nowhere does it occur in the printed version of the Tur. The Tur does quote RABaD to the effect that “inverting the table” would be permitted only with the wife’s consent. See Rabbi Abraham David (Wahrman) of Buczacz, ‘Ezer Mi-Kodesh to Shulhan ‘Arukh, Even ha-‘Ezer 25:2.

I think the reader will gather that none of these opinions are mainstream. The RaSHI and RITBA never made their way into print, and the RABaD failed to surface in the printed edition of Tur.

32 Rabbenu Nissim (RaN) ad locum explains: “The Torah allowed you–For it is written, “If a man takes a woman” (Deuteronomy 24:1), she is his to do with her all his desires.”

33 Aramaic “bonita” or “binita.” The commentators explain that the fish may be eaten roasted, poached or boiled, as one desires.

34 Literally, “waste his seed.”

35 Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 21:9. Thus the halakha (law) is like Rabbi Yohanan; the opinion of Rabbi Yohanan ben Dehabai is recorded as a middat hasidut (mark of piety).

36 Tosafot, Yevamot 34b, s.v. ve-lo ke-ma’aseh Er ve-Onan. This is based on an understanding of Onanism as a deliberate and habitual waste of semen. Actually, this is the second solution of Rabbi Isaac (RI). His first solution coincides with Maimonides’ opinion.

Rav Kook on Art

Translated by Rabbi Yehuda Sarna

Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Levin related: On one of our walks which I used to take with Rav Kook, every day, to Busk (Latvia) in 1901, these holy ideas emerged from his mouth. I immediately handed him my pen, and as he sat on one of the stones near the ruins of the fortification he wrote these words:

“Literature, painting, and sculpting are able to bring to fruition all the spiritual concepts engraved in the depths of the human spirit, and so long as one brush is missing, which is stored away in the depths of the spirit – which ponders and feels – but has not been realized, there is still an obligation on the purposeful work to realize it.

The matter is self-evident, that only these treasuries, that when they are opened they will sweeten the air of all existence. It is good and beautiful to open them.

‘From every utterance which came out out of G-d’s mouth, the entire world was filled with fragrance’ (Shab. 88b)

However those hidden things, whose burial is their nullification, our shovel must be ready to dig out, but also to cover. Woe is to him who uses this shovel for the opposite purpose, for the sake of a woman.

The tremors of the spirit from the natural emotions of love, which indeed has a great portion in our reality, ethics, and life, are worthy to be explained through literature from every angle, since it brings out those things which were hidden. However, they need be guarded from the angle of drunkenness which is sometimes present in these feelings, since this angle turns them from their natural purity to vulgar impurity. Only holy people can be holy ministers.

Source: Hamizrach (1903) p352-354


The true talent of a visual artist, when he is at the peak of his abilities – and especially one whose talent has been sanctified by the Spirit of G-d – is to be able to see the depths of existence, both in their physical and spiritual dimensions….

All these things which are said generally of the Creator – as we value the wonders of the creative wisdom altogether, we must find a model in a wise and whole man devoted to purposeful creation. The highest and most blessed of all artists was Bezalel, who created with the Spirit of G-d. he completed a real picture, which demands a great wisdom of positioning the physical parts in it, positioning its lights and shadows, its buds and flowers, etc., the intention and extreme attention to detail to reach the essence of the purity of existence.

Source: Ein Ayah, Berachot, volume 2, p. 263, article 30.


The beautiful arrangement of life, every preparation for the intensification of a person’s aesthetic sense, blazes paths for higher lights to appear from the higher spiritual treasury, which flows without interruption, and desires to spread to its fullest in every place which it finds ready for it.

Source: Arpelei Tohar, p. 9

When I lived in London, I would visit the National Gallery, and the paintings that I loved the most were those of Rembrandt. In my opinion, Rembrandt was a saint. When I first saw Rembrandt’s paintings, they reminded me of the rabbinic statement about the creation of light. When G-d created the light, it was so strong and luminousthat it was possible to see from one end of the world to the other. And G-d feared that the wicked would make use of it. What did He do? He secreted it for the righteous in the world to come. But from time to time, there are great men whom G-d blesses with a vision of the hidden light. I believe Rembrandt was one of them, and the light of his paintings is that light which G-d created on Genesis day. Interview, Jewish Chronicle, 9 September 1935 The Holy One, blessed be He, dealt charitably with his world by not putting all the talent in one place, not it any one man or in any one nationa, not in any one country, not in one generation or in one world; but the talent is scattered… The store of the special treasure of the world is laid up in Israel. But in order, in a general sense, to unite the world with them, certain talents have to be absent from Israel so that they may be completed by the rest of the world and the princes of the nations. Orot, p. 152, para. 2 Bezalel is considered a leader even though all he did was create the Tabernacle and its vessels. But since the image of the Tabernacle and all its vessels, as well as individual designs which were made as purposeful creation – with G-d’s Hand these images engraved the spirits of Israel with Torah, testimony, and fear of G-d. Designs contain the spirit of their true creator, and according to the high level of the artists’ soul, his attainment of holy traits, a pure and good mind, and the Spirit of G-d, so will his designs enrich and benefit others. Therefore, though we cannot make too many sculptural designs – to establish and entire ethical system based on them – since we have the pure Torah of G-d which includes every path of life to the highest degree. But those designs which we were commanded to make, it is understood that they contained great power to direct souls to the beautiful ideas contained in them. If so, the purity of spirit of the entire nation was dependent on them, since it was G-d’s advice to educate the people through the Tabernacle and the designs of its vessels. It was likewise dependent on the spirit and holiness of the great thinker who conceived of this holy creation – Bezalel. Therefore, he certainly is a leader and shepherd of Israel. Source: Ein Ayah, Berachot, volume 2, p. 261, article 27.