Essays About Rav Kook – Illuminating Faith by Dr. Yehuda Gellman

An Analysis of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook’s
Orot ha-Emunah (Lights of Faith)

Ours is an age of externals-glitter and tinsel. How do you look? How do you talk? How do you dress? What do you profess to believe? What do you eat? If that’s o.k., then you’re o.k. The world is much too complicated for us to look deeper, to see beneath the surface; not enough time, and not enough patience.

Also, there are too many dangers. We must stay strong to keep the outside out. We must be able to easily identify the enemy, and our friends. We need constant encouragement that we are in the right place. We want to be able to check often and quickly, to make sure we are not being insidiously infiltrated by the outside. How do you look? How you talk? What do you eat? That’s enough for me. I am secure.

…And in my security, I succumb to a terrible danger, the danger of superficiality, of inaction, and of weakness of the will.

…And the world grows cold for me, and loses its excitement and its freshness, as I move along the surface of life in increasingly intricate patterns, but always moving, alas, only on the surface. No adventure for me, no discoveries, no surprises.

Ours is an age of lack of self-esteem. we don’t trust ourselves. We want to be protected, for we feel small, afraid, far from the center of spirituality. In being humble, we think we are modest, but really we are weak. In being excessively cautious, we think we are being exceptionally frum, but really we just don’t trust ourselves. We see ourselves as vulnerable enclosures whose boundaries must be clearly demarcated, whose territory must be secured, whose way in the world must be defensive.

“Excessive fear of sin destroys the goodness in a person, and makes of him a lowly creature, who does nothing but lie there, shaking.” So writes Abraham Isaac Kook, in the opening paragraph of Orot Ha-emuna. “A person must believe in his life, in both his physical and moral powers.” The lack of emunah in oneself is the greatest of all the curses in the Torah, “Your life will be in the balance…and you will not believe in your life.” You will be plagued by self-doubt (Your life will be “in the balance”) and lack inner confidence. Because of this inner anxiety, “In the morning you will say, ‘Who will give evening?’ and in the evening ‘Who will give morning?’ “katnut ha-emunah,” “insufficient emunah,” is a lack of confidence in oneself, and “comes from the inability to raise one’s own self-worth to the point of understanding how he is deserving of the Divine Greatness.”

When we believe in ourselves we are not afraid-cautious, yes, but not afraid. And when we are not afraid we can look at the world again, and see in it the kaleidescopic possibilities of existence. We can look outside, and see beneath the surface. And beneath that surface, we may even find something of ourselves.

Orot Ha-emunah was written by Rav Kook more than 50 years ago, but only now has been published for the first time. Who can guess why it has been withheld from the public all these years? Not a book in the usual sense, but a loose collection of separately written paragraphs constituting a kind of spiritual diary, Orot Ha-emunah is one great call not to be afraid, to look below the surface, and to ascend thereby to great spiritual heights. “When a person believes in himself he discovers great contentment in his spiritual endeavors, and ascends upward.’’ In this work Rav Kook explores emunah by comparing and contrasting it with kefirah (atheism, denial), avodah zarah (idol worship), and “minut,” which is the term favored by him to refer to Christianity, and by examining its relationship to the doing of mitzvot, and to general culture.

From these writings there emerges a profound teaching that belief in oneself is conceptually and existentially inseparable from emunah in God. For first and foremost, for Rav Kook, emunah is a state of being. As he writes elsewhere, “Emunah is the most basic self-revealing of the essence of the soul.” And this self-revealing is really the Divine within us made manifest: “Too much fear spoils emunah, because one doesn’t trust himself and his understanding, thereby diminishing his awareness of the Divine spark in his soul.” The essence of emunah is an awareness of the perfection of the Infinite and that “whatever experience of the infinite] enters the heart is but a minute spark of what can be imagined.” Emunah, then, is a self-affirmation in which one experiences one’s own self-revealment as the revealing of the Divine within. Emunah is a state of being.

It follows that emunah is not constituted by an act of “belief” or by a linguistic, cognitive affirmation. The latter are important both as external expressions of emunah, and as a means of bringing to emunah.

But even in their absence, emunah can be alive. And more, emunah can live even where there is no conscious awareness of one’s self divinity and even when one denies the Divine: “Sometimes you will find a kofer with an inner, shining strong emunah, flowing from the source of transcendent holiness, stronger than a thousand believers, who are “small of emunah.” How is this possible? Because “the inner spiritual basis of the holiness of emunah transcends all language.” A kofer can manifest the Divine power of his being even while denying faith with his mouth, and a believer can be lying, shaking with fright, all the while proclaiming his faith through chattering teeth.

Kefrah can itself even emanate from holiness. This can happen for example, when linguistic affirmations are rejected precisely because they are sensed to be inadequate, as but a weak shadow of the power of being. Thus, “there is denial (kefrah) that is like consent, and consent that is like denial.” Inadequate articulations of Judaism may force their own rejection, out of the depths of holiness. If we are to return the kofer to the practice of Torah, our elucidations of Torah contents must be adequate to the power of his being.

Rav Kook’s concept of emunah provides hope for our seemingly faithless world. For, “There are many apikorsim who are deniers, in accordance with the standards of Halacha. However, when we examine their soul we will discover in them a connection to the Divine content, in a hidden form. And that is why in our generation there is a tendency toward merit and kindness even toward absolute deniers.”

That does not at all mean that it does not matter for Rav Kook if you are atheist or believer, as long as the inner emunah manifests its power in you. Far from it. Linguistic affirmations of faith lead in the direction of transcendent truth, whereas protestations of atheism lead in the direction of falsehood and inauthenticity. He who is faithful to conceptual assertions of emunah has a covenant with God that he will merit that emunah which is beyond conceptualization and language From that high vantage point he will apprehend the correspondence between the elements of the conceptualized emunah and its transcendent counterpart.

Yet sometimes, when we look outside, and beneath the surface, we do see something of ourselves.

Idol worship, too, in its deepest essence knows the power of being of emunah, but covers it over with corruption and evil: “In the filth of avodah zarah great is the spirit of emunah, in its wildness and coarseness, its frenzy and horselike power. Avodah zarah knows the visceral, immediate engagement with the Divine in the world, and total, passionate, self-actualization and self-affirmation.

This “core of holiness’ in avodah zarah is passed into the Jewish people via Abraham, who began as a worshiper of idols. It is written “From the womb of the morning, yours is the dew of your youth.” Bereishit Rabba interprets this as being addressed to Abraham. He too was afraid and self-doubting, because of those years he had spent in the worship of idols. He is told, “Just as dew is the blessing for the world, so too are you a blessing for the world.” We might think the Midrash means to encourage Abraham in spite of his worshiping of idols. But Rav Kook quotes the Midrash differently: “Just as dew is a “good omen” for the world, just so, those years you worshiped idols are a good omen for the world.” The source of dew is in the heavens. Then the dew transcends to the ground, to a lowly place, to be raised heavenward by the rays of the morning sun. Just so, the core of avodah zarah is in the holiness of emunah, but avodah zarah plummets to the lowest forms of human existence from there to be raised back to its source, heaven ward. The passion and engagement that avodah zarah encompasses in self-affirmation is taken up by Abraham into the true religion. Avodah zarah is returned to its source.

Our history begins in disgrace, and issues in praise.” For in the beginning “Worshipers of idols were our forefathers.” The process of history brings the praise out of the disgrace. Thereby, and “God had brought us close to His service.”

Abraham first came to knowledge of God via contemplation of the world. Had it not been for the passion and engagement in the world which he inherited from avodah zarah, his religion might have been nothing more than an arid exercise in abstract philosophical reasoning. The power of Halacha with its life engagement traces its ancestry back to Abraham, the father of emunah.

Christianity, on the other hand, knows nothing of the power of life of ancient avodah zarah. Since it arose after the desire for avodah zarah was nullified, it is empty of life at its core. At its center, instead, stands an abstract, philosophical system of cold reasoning. As a result, “the general religion of the nations receives a form of shaking and weakness, which does not mix well with the breadth of life, but instead assumes the form of dark monasticism, which is less able to go with life than any sort of avodah zarah.”

Kohelet says, “And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands; whoever pleases God shall escape from her, but the sinner is trapped by her.” Our Rabbis identify this woman with “minut,” that is, Christianity. Thus, Rav Kook writes: “The Epicurean kefirah is death, whereas the distortion of emunah is worse than death.” What is the “Epicurean kefirah?”

Epicurus taught an austere physicalist ontology, including only physical entities and physical interactions between them. He was an arch anti-metaphysical philosopher. On the other hand, Christianity the “distortion of emunah, ” knows the intricate structures of the ‘science of God,” systematic theology. Yet Epicureanism is death, while Christianity is worse than death! To be anti-life is worse, far worse, than being anti-metaphysical! The power of life can exist hidden, deep within the dead body of the anti-metaphysician, to be aroused and awakened in a resurrection of the dead. But there is no life at all in the forces of anti-life. For this reason, Divine Providence has allowed the spread of materialist philosophies of kefirah, as a defense against something far worse.

Because so divorced from life, Christianity makes impossible demands that have no chance of being implemented. She has no concern for the realities of life. “Therefore, she says to offer the other cheek in return for a slap. Obviously, people can only believe that this is a sublime trait, but cannot attain it.” The result is inevitable failure and perpetual guilt. In a subtle inversion, chesed metamorphising into din! The aim of Christianity then becomes the alleviating of guilt, by the granting of forgiveness. But the forgiveness is not a prelude to a holier life. “Forgiveness becomes the whole goal.” The believer/sinner (for they are one) needs the Church to receive forgiveness. “By the sinner is trapped by her.”

To believe that which can be practiced is the special genius of Jewish spirituality. This is the “balance of the Torah” which knows how to weigh the ideals against possibility of implementation.

Emunah is an ineffable state of being. How does it relate to the details of Torah practice? “Emunah is the highest poetry (shira) of the world, with its source in the Divine nature in the depths of the
soul. High poetry is unstructured, without meter and rhyme. It has total freedom of imagination without restrictions. It is a spontaneous outpouring of individual creativity. The Torah is the translation of the higher poetry into measure and beat, into conventions and rules. Torah is the poetry of emunah in its practical rhythm. “There are those filled with the glory of the poetry, who are pained by the restrictions of the practical life, but they accept the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.

But there are also impatient souls “who cannot bear the measure, and they are full of rebellion. But even in this rebellion the Divine pleasantness lives, albeit in an unclear way.”

Rav Kook once wrote ‘ Just as there are laws in poetry, there is poetry in laws.” When one loves a poem, he does not experience the restrictions of its form. The possibility exists to live a life of mitzvot as a form of poetry.

The poetry of emunah is not to be found exclusively in Torah. It informs every aspect of human endeavor that is “Divine creativity”: “The pure understanding sees the appearance of the Divine in every improvement of life … It is all included in Divine creativity.” The realization of our humanity is included in the power of emunah— “Everything is included in her, and everything exists in her.”

The bifurcation of reality into that which is the Lord’s, and that which is Caesar’s, originates in the anti-life of Christianity which severs the material world from its foundation of holiness. This poison has also infected the body of the Jewish people. For there are those amongst us who in their zealousness to fight evil believe we must suppress science, arts, and political activity because they are not part of the Divine aspect of the world. Hence, “They hate culture, the sciences, and statecraft, in Israel and in the world.” This is a lack of emunah.

The Jewish people excels at integrating opposing forces into a balanced whole, the power of Torah, the power of Tiferet. Therefore we must not stifle any talent, any human propensity, from developing to its fullest. It must first be allowed to exhaust the individuality buried within it. Once its full nature has been revealed and drawn out, then, and only then may the Jewish genius for integration and synthesis, including the rolling back of excessive development, be brought into play. If we impede the power of human creativity in the name of “faith” we sin against emunah.

“The enslavement of human reason and its silencing destroys the world. The holier the source of enslavement, the greater the damage.”

What are we to do? It is not enough for intellect and emunah to dwell side by side within our soul. For we must not allow emunah to settle in a corner of ourselves where our intellectual powers have not reached. Our emunah would then be weak, and not worthy of us. We must unite intellect with emunah, so that in proportion to our intellectual achievement, emunah will be raised up.

“This is true not only of the individual, but also of the nation in general, and of the whole world, in the generality of humankind.”

These are the teachings of Rav Kook in Orot Ha-emunah.

. . . and the world grows warm for me, as the increasingly intricate pat terns of reality reveal themselves in the rays of the morning sun, in an on going adventure of discovery. Orot Ha-emunah—the lights of emunah.


Essays about Rav Kook – The Prophet of Spiritual Renewal by Matis Greenblatt

Mattis Greenblatt

Thoughts in honor of the 50th Yahrzeit of
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook zt”l

“There are souls which serve as receptacles for the ‘light.’
But there are more sublime souls which are themselves the ‘light.’”
(Sfas Emes)

AS THE YEARS SLIP BY SINCE RAV KOOK’S PASSING, HIS figure grows larger and more impressive. The problems he grappled with and the solutions he proposed can be even better appreciated today than they were in his own day; the intensity and reality of his faith inspire us and strengthen our own faith; and his vision, breadth and courage can help to guide us through the seemingly overwhelming problems of our own tumultuous and difficult era.


Faith and Divine Mission

From the vantage point of our basically cynical, secular world, perhaps the most striking factor about Rav Kook was the certainty and reality of his faith. For Rav Kook, the Divine Presence was a daily, tangible experience, and Providence, he felt, had selected him to bridge the great and growing gap between the religious establishment and the religious builders of the new Yishuv.

Shabbetai Don-Yahia, the late editor of Hatzofe and a former disciple Of the Rav, once said: “Rav Kook was different than normal human beings. He . . . at times could detach himself completely from his terrestrial surroundings and communicate with higher spheres. If you should ask me, what is Ruach Hakodesh, I would not be able to answer you. But in the presence of Rav Kook I felt what Ruach Hakodesh must be like.”

Isaac Halevy, the brilliant historian and founder of Agudas Yisroel, wrote to Rav Kook, “I well know and make known publicly that God has sent you to Eretz Yisroel to be a sustainer of life.’

The profound inner harmony of the Rav s soul was reflected in his face. Dr. Pinchas Cohn, political secretary to Chaim Weizmann during the London period, relates: “In the midst of the dark, anxiety-ridden days of World War 1,1 was undergoing a personal crisis and decided to visit the Rav and relate to him what troubled me and surely he would be able to provide me with words of encouragement and strength. To visit the Rav one needed no entrance pass, not even prior notification. His home was open to all and the Rav helped each needy person as best he could. Between visitors, he went back to his study and writing.

“When I entered the hall where the Rav sat, no one else was present and the Rav sat at the head of the table completely immersed in learning a sefer. I looked at his face and it was exceptionally serene. A quiet sublimity surrounded him, a peacefulness out of place in the stormy world about. I remained as if glued to my spot and so I stood and continued to peer at him. Gradually, my anxiety dissolved, my heart was quieted and my soul was restored. I had no need to speak. I quietly backed away and left. From the peacefulness of the Rav, I had derived all that I needed.”

Rav Kook’s two leading disciples, the Gaon and Zaddik Rabbi Y.M. Charlop and Rabbi David Hakohen, were both first drawn to the Rav by hearing him pray. That experience changed the course of their lives.

Emphasis on the Thought, Spirit and Ethics of Judaism

Rav Kook never ceased to stress that religious Jewry’s inability to influence contemporary Jewry was in large measure due to our failure to emphasize and communicate the inner spiritual force of Judaism as expressed in the whole range of our ethical, philosophic, Kabbalistic and Aggadic literature.

Maran, the late Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner zt”l, was greatly influenced by Rav Kook’s emphasis and even utilized the Rav’s precise terminology “Hilchos Dayos V’chovos Halevovos” in describing his own profound mamorim (lectures).

Creating a Devout, Learned, but Self-Confident Generation

The Rav’s faith enabled him to confront the whole range of modern day problems with confidence and courage. He strove to help create a thoroughly learned and devout generation, who at the same time could contribute to and influence the shape and character of the exploding renaissance going on around them. He sought to replace the image of the Golut Jew as a bent, fearful, somewhat pathetic figure, with a deeply spiritual but joyous, self-confident new generation.

One Nation

Rav Kook sharply decried and was deeply pained by all forms of irreligiosity, but never gave up on all Jews who continued to identify themselves as part of Klal Yisroel. He was strongly opposed to dividing religious and irreligious Jews into separate camps as if the irreligious were no longer part of Klal Yisroel. In this regard he pointed to the symbolism of the arava on Succos and the foul-smelling chelbana used in the ketores (incense). He wrote with great feeling:

“The pure Zaddikim do not complain about evil, but increase justice; do not complain about lack of faith, but increase faith; do not complain about ignorance, but increase wisdom.”

Once a group of workers who were unable to finish constructing a building before Rosh Hashanah continued their work on the Holy Day itself. The neighbors immediately notified the Rav, and shortly there after, the Rav’s messenger arrived at the building site, Shofar in hand.

He approached the startled workers, blessed them with a good year, and informed them that the Rav had asked him to blow Shofar on their behalf, so that they could fulfill their obligation. He therefore asked if they would interrupt their labor to listen, whereupon he said the bracha and began to blow.

The Rav’s words and the Shofar’s blast fulfilled their purpose. With each blast the Jewish core was touched and aroused. The workers left their tools and work, gathered round the blower and some began to cry. They recalled the images of their parents, the shtetl and the synagogue and asked themselves, “What happened to us?” After the blasts were completed, they said little but all agreed to discontinue their work. They changed their clothing and joined the prayers at the synagogue of the Rav.

Material and Spiritual Renewal

Rav Kook’s perspective was panoramic and all encompassing. Though renowned for his love of every Jew, he was also an extremely penetrating, perceptive and sophisticated critic. While discerning sparks of Yiddishkeit in the intense devotion of the irreligious settlers to the physical rebuilding of the land, he was sickened by their disregard of Torah observance. However, he saw their generation as transitional, to be ultimately supplanted by descendants loyal to Torah.

With prophetic insight he predicted 80 years ago that the irreligious pioneers’ ideological zeal would wane and wither, and that believing Jews would launch the true, spiritual renewal.


Besides his interpretation of the return to and renewal of Eretz Yisroel, Rav Kook provided a world view unmatched by any other modern Jewish thinker in its scope, originality and loyalty to the mainstream of Jewish thought. He enabled intelligent, observant Jews to view the world as a place which must be improved rather than neglected. He sought for the spiritual unity of life and demonstrated that Torah was not removed and distant from the flow and flux of everyday life.

But perhaps his greatest contribution was to provide meaning, by his inspired thought and extraordinary deeds, to the profound historical changes that Klal Yisroel was and is experiencing in the modern era. He clarified the special role that our generation has to play in the dramatic unfolding of Jewish history.

Herman Wouk has written that to present Judaism to our age requires two qualities: prophecy and monumental scholarship. In the person of Rav Kook, both qualities were present in abundance. Yet unfortunately, the true nature of his life and works have been clouded by misunderstanding. The time is right to clarify and communicate his message for our confused generation.

Rav Kook on Education

On the individual level, Rav Kook emphasized the necessity of providing each child with the opportunity to develop in the specific fields for which he had a unique gift or inclination, rather than forcing him into a prescribed learning mold. He warned that such compulsion could and did lead to defections from the ranks of Judaism which could easily have been avoided. (Orot HaTorah pps. 43-44)

On a broader level, he recognized the importance of knowing secular subjects as well as gaining familiarity with the spirit of the times as a prerequisite to making an impact on the contemporary world (Ikvay Hatson p. 129). He also recognized the need for and supported vocational education.

On the other hand, he warned against under-estimating the continuing value of the old style cheder. In a letter to Rabbi Fishman (Maimon), who had spoken disparagingly of an old style yeshiva, Rav Kook sharply rebuked him for his remarks and pointed out that the pure, unadulterated method of Torah education was still the main source for sanctity and outstanding scholarship. (Letters v. 2, pps. 206-7)

And in his frequently referred to (but seldom read) address at the dedication of Hebrew University, Rav Kook underscored the profound apprehensions which must accompany education partaking of outside knowledge.

His perspective did not reflect an empty tolerance of diverse approaches, but rather a profound grasp of the legitimacy of different approaches, each in its own way, contributing to Kavod Shamayim.

In the end, the primary goal of education, was seen by Rav Kook as a means to develop the best in man by attaching himself to the divine through the medium of Torah. All other considerations are secondary. (Letters v. 1, pps. 218-9; Orot HaTorah p. 14)


The Mysterious “Meir”: Rav Kook’s Missing Student

Bezalel Naor

The Mysterious “Meir”: Rav Kook’s Missing Student

Missing Mayer 

Rav Kook’s Missing Student[1]

Click here to read the article as a PDF file

Recent years have seen a breakthrough regarding the elusive identity of “Monsieur Chouchani,” the mysterious vagabond who in the capacity of mentor, exerted such an incredibly profound effect upon the Nobel-laureate novelist Elie Wiesel as well as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in the post-war, post-Holocaust years in France. I am referring to the identification of Chouchani as none other than Hillel Pearlman, an early student of Rav Kook in his short-lived Jaffa Yeshivah.[2]

Pivotal to the identification (which we shall not enter into here) is a letter that Rav Kook penned from exile in St. Gallen, Switzerland to two students of the Yeshivah. We offer the letter in English translation:

With the help of God

6 Tishri 5676 [i.e., 1915]

A good conclusion[3] to my beloved soul-friends, each man according to his blessing,[4] the dear “groom,” the Rabbi, sharp and encyclopedic, crowned with rare qualities and character traits, our teacher Rabbi Hillel, may his light shine; and the dear “groom,” exceptional in Torah and awe of heaven, modest and crowned with rare character traits, Mr. Meir, may his light shine.

Peace! Peace! Blessing with abundant love.

My dear friends, for too, too long I delayed the response to your dear letter. In your goodness you will give me the benefit of the doubt. Only as a result of the preoccupation brought on by the pain of exile and the heart’s longing produced by the general situation (God have mercy), were things put off.

Many thanks to you, our dear Mr. Meir, for your detailed letter, whereby you deigned in your goodness to write to us in detail the state of our family members in the Holy Land, especially the state of the girls, may they live.[5] May the Lord repay your kindness and gladden your soul with every manner of happiness and success, and may we together rejoice in the joy of the Land of Delight upon the holy soil, when the Lord will grant salvation to His world, His land and His inheritance, speedily, speedily, soon.

And you, my beloved Mr. Hillel, all power to you for your dear words, upright words pronounced with proper feeling and the longing of a pure heart. We are standing opposite a great and powerful vision previously unknown in human history. There is no doubt that changes of great value are hidden in the depths of this world vision. There is also no doubt that the hand of Israel through the spirit, the voice of Jacob,[6] must be revealed here. Far be it from us to treat as false all the deeds and events, the longing for general life, that we experienced the past years. As much as they are mixed with impurities; as much as they failed to assume their proper form, their living description, their true life—we see in them in the final analysis, correspondence to the holy vision, unmistakable signs that things are happening according to a higher plan. The hand of the Lord holds them, to pave a way for His people, weary from its multitudinous troubles, and also for His world, crouching under the weight of confused life.

It is certainly difficulty at this time to trace which is the way of the process, but in this respect we may be certain: The terrible wandering of such great and essential portions of our nation residing in Eastern Europe, where the spiritual life of Israel is concentrated, and the necessity of rebuilding physically and spiritually new communities, educational institutions and Torah academies—will bring numerous new results, certainly for good. From those new winds that have been blowing in our world for the past half-century and more, something is to be derived, if we can purify them, erecting them upon foundations of purity and holiness. The opinions and longing for spiritual and physical building of Israel; the mighty desire of building the Land and the Nation, despite external and internal obstacles; the visions tucked away in the hearts of numerous thinkers to uplift the horn of Israel and its spirit, to bind together the strength of life with the sanctity of the soul, the talent of understanding with the depth of faith, immediate implementation with longing for salvation—all these are things that will bear fruit, and the Master of Wars, blessed be He, will grow from all of them His salvation.[7]

One thing we know for certain, that we are invited to great projects: philosophic projects; literary and publicistic projects; practical and social projects; projects at the interior of eternal life and projects of temporal and secular life; projects that remain within the border of Israel; and projects that overflow and touch the streams of life of the world at large and their many relations with the world of Israel, which was, is, and will be a blessing to all the families of earth,[8] as the word of the Lord to our ancestor [Abraham] in antiquity.

My beloved, I request that you write to us whatever is [happening] to you, your situation in detail, whether in spiritual or material matters; whatever you imagine might interest us, whether of private or public affairs. For all I will be exceedingly grateful to you, with God’s help.

I am your fast friend, looking for your happiness and success, and your return together with all our scattered people to the holy soil in happiness and success. May the Lord bless you with all good and extend to you peace and blessing and a good conclusion, as is your wish and the wish of one who seeks your peace and good all the days, longing for the salvation of the Lord,

Abraham Isaac Ha[Kohen] K[ook][9]

In order to understand the contents of the letter, the better to grasp the identities of its two recipients, we must first acquaint ourselves with the circumstances in which it was written.

For one decade, from 1904 to 1914, Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook served as Rabbi of the port city of Jaffa (precursor to Tel-Aviv). During those years in Jaffa he taught a select group of students in a yeshivah of his own making. (This yeshivah is not to be confused with the famous Yeshivah Merkaz Harav founded by Rav Kook in Jerusalem in the early 1920s.) In summer of 1914, Rav Kook set sail for Europe to attend the Knessiyah Gedolah or World Congress of the recently organized Agudath Israel movement. Due to the outbreak of World War One (on Tish’ah be-Av of that year), the conference was cancelled. Unable to return to Jaffa, Rav Kook remained stranded in Europe for the duration of the War, first in St. Gallen, Switzerland, where his needs were provided for by a sympathetic Mr. Abraham Kimhi, and later in London, where Rav Kook served as Rabbi of the Mahzikei Hadat synagogue in London’s East End.[10]

Much concerning the Jaffa yeshivah remains shrouded in mystery. No archive remains of this short-lived institution.[11] Thus we are pretty much left in the dark as to the curriculum,[12] enrollment, and even location. Fortunately, significant headway has been made in this direction in the recent article by Moshe Nahmani of the Yeshivat Hesder of Ramat Gan, “She’areha Ne’ulim—Yeshivat Harav Kuk be-Yaffo” (“Closed Gates—The Yeshivah of Rabbi Kook in Jaffa”).[13] Through painstaking research, the author was able to put together a list of students. Researchers had no difficulty identifying the “Hillel” of the letter as Hillel Pearlman. It was merely a case of “connecting the dots.”[14] But Nahmani was baffled by the “Meir” who is one of two co-addressees in our letter.[15]

I believe that I have solved the mystery of the missing Meir. In 1977, I was a visitor to the home of Rabbi Mayer Goldberg of Oakland, California. Rabbi Goldberg was a successful businessman (at that time in real estate) and a Jewish philanthropist, especially supportive of yeshivot or rabbinical academies. Rabbi Goldberg revealed to me that he had studied under Rabbi Kook in Jaffa.[16] He then went on to share with me a teaching of Rav Kook that I have since repeated on many an occasion. He said that before being exposed to Rav Kook’s teaching, the term “yir’at shamayim” (“fear of heaven”) had only a restrictive, narrowing connotation. Rav Kook explained the term in a totally different light. By the term “yir’at shamayim,” Rav Kook conveyed to his young listeners the vastness, the enormity, the infinitude of the universe.

Reading Moshe Nachmani’s article concerning Rav Kook’s yeshivah in Jaffa, and his bafflement as to the full identity of the student named simply “Meir,” I recalled my meeting with Rabbi Mayer Goldberg. I resolved that during my forthcoming visit to the East Bay area (as it has come to be known) I would meet with the late Rabbi’s children to learn from them more details of their father’s involvement with Rav Kook. What emerged from our discussion (conducted on February 14, 2013) is the following reconstruction of events.

Mayer Vevrick was born circa 1890 “near Kiev.”[17] At some time before World War One, Mayer boarded a ship from Odessa to Jaffa. In the words of his daughter Rachel Landes:

Once he arrived in Jaffa, he sought out the yeshiva of Rabbi Kook. Rabbi Avraham Kook was a world renowned scholar and it was there my father headed to study further. He became a “hasid,” a follower of the Rabbi, and thoroughly enjoyed his studies there. He lived in Rabbi Kook’s home.[18] He studied Talmud…with Rashi and the commentaries, for many hours a day with the other young men. These were the happiest days of his life, with uninterrupted Torah study, and the joy of learning with Rabbi Kook. Mayer adopted [Rabbi] Kook’s philosophy and was guided by it for the rest of his life.[19]

In World War One, Mayer left Jaffa for Egypt. There he was held by the British in an internment camp. Eventually, with some ingenuity, he was able to book passage on a boat to the United States.[20] Initially he resided on the East Coast. In Boston, he received a ketav semikha (writ of ordination) from Rabbi [Joseph M.] Jacobson. The semikha was written by Rabbi Jacobson on the spot in recognition of Mayer’s knowledge of Torah.[21] Later, Rabbi Mayer relocated to the West Coast, first to Washington State and finally to California.[22]

What becomes apparent from the letter of Rav Kook is that Meir remained in Jaffa after Rav Kook’s departure for Europe (followed almost immediately by the outbreak of World War One), and thus was in a position to give the Rav an update on the welfare of his daughters left behind in Jaffa. What also becomes apparent, is that in the Fall of 1915, Meir and his companion Hillel were no longer in the Land of Israel but somewhere else, for in his concluding remarks Rav Kook expresses the wish that they return to the Holy Land. This is consistent with Rabbi Goldberg’s biography, whereby he (along with countless other Jews of Erets Israel) was forced to flee the Holy Land at that time.[23] This also coincides with the reconstructed biography of Hillel (Pearlman). Both students of Rav Kook, Hillel (Pearlman) and Meir (Goldberg) ended up in the United States in World War One. Whereas we are being told that Hillel (Pearlman) later left the United States for Europe and North Africa, reinventing himself as the mysterious “Monsieur Chouchani,” Mayer Goldberg remained in the United States.

Rabbi Mayer Goldberg passed away on September 25, 1992, a centenarian.[24] Shortly before his passing, Rabbi Goldberg had published in Jerusalem a collection of kabbalistic insights (culled from his marginalia in the books of his library), entitled Margaliyot shel Torah (Pearls of Torah). Much of the material in the book is attributed to the kabbalistic work Yalkut Reubeni.[25] My attention was riveted to an unattributed piece, which would appear to originate with Rabbi Mayer Goldberg himself:

In Exodus 2:12 we read that Moses slew the Egyptian (who was beating a Hebrew) and buried him in the sand. The Hebrew words are: “Vayyakh et ha-mitsri vayitmenehu ba-hol.”


Rabbi Goldberg observes that the word “ha-mitsri” (“the Egyptian”) has the same numerical value (gematria) as the word “Moshe” (“Moses”). In other words, Moses slew himself! The Rabbi then goes on to explain that what is truly conveyed by the verse, is that Moses slew the opinions of Egypt. Moses, growing up in the house of Pharaoh, had imbibed secular knowledge stripped of Godliness. So in other words, on a deeper level, what Moses was actually slaying was himself, or a part of himself that was thoroughly Egyptian in outlook. He then buried that secular learning devoid of Godliness “in the sand.” Here the Rabbi plays on the word “hol,”which may have another meaning beside “sand”: the secular. This is to say, Moses buried that tainted learning in the secular realm.[26]

©2013 by Bezalel Naor

[1] The writer wishes to express his gratitude to Eve Gordon-Ramek and Robert H. Warwick, children of the late Rabbi Mayer Goldberg, for their invaluable contribution to the preparation of this article.

[2] Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, former Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who was present at the time of Chouchani’s death in Uruguay, was so convinced of the identification that he named his son “Hillel” after his revered master. See Moshe Nahmani, “Mi Kan Hillel,” Mussaf Shabbat, Makor Rishon, 3 Ellul, 5771 [2.9.2011]; Yair Sheleg, “Goodbye, Mr. Chouchani,” Haaretz, Sept. 26, 2003; Solomon Malka, Monsieur Chouchani: L’énigme d’un maitre du XXème siècle (Paris, 1994). Recently, a website has been devoted exclusively  to Chouchani. At we are told that a film is being produced of the life of Mr. Shushani!

I have two anecdotes to contribute to the growing literature on Chouchani, the first heard from Prof. Andre Neher (1914-1988), the second from Rabbi Uziel Milevsky (former Chief Rabbi of Mexico).

  • My dear friend Andre (Asher Dov) Neher z”l had been a distinguished professor of Jewish studies at the University of Strasburg. I knew him in his last years after his retirement to Jerusalem. Neher told me that in his youth, his father had hired Chouchani to teach him Talmud. At their initial meeting it was decided that they would study Tractate Beitsah. Chouchani said to the young Neher: “In the next hour I can either teach you the first folio of the Tractate, or sum up for you the entire Tractate!”
  • Similarly, in the final phase of Chouchani’s career (in Montevideo, Uruguay), Rabbi Aaron Milevsky (1904-1986), Chief Rabbi of Uruguay, hired Chouchani to tutor his young son Uzi in Talmud. Chouchani rewarded Uzi’s diligence by allowing him to quiz him on any entry in the dictionary. Uzi asked Chouchani for the Latin name of some obscure butterfly, which Chouchani was able to supply without hesitation! (Heard from Rabbi Nachum Lansky of Baltimore, shelit”a, quoting Rabbi Uziel Milevsky z”l.)


At the onset of this article I wish to clarify one point. Should the identification of Hillel Pearlman with “Monsieur Chouchani” one day prove incorrect, that would in no way affect the positive identification of Rav Kook’s addressee “Meir” as Rabbi Mayer Goldberg of Oakland, California. The identification of the mysterious “Meir” as Rabbi Meir Goldberg is in no way contingent upon the identification of Hillel Pearlman as “Chouchani,” but rather stands on its own merits.

[3] Traditional blessing for the New Year uttered between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

[4] Cf. Genesis 49:28.

[5] While Rav Kook and his Rebbetzin (as well as their only son Tsevi Yehudah) were together in Europe, their daughters were left behind in Jaffa, and Rav Kook was most anxious as to their welfare. The family would not be reunited until after World War One, when Rav Kook returned from European exile to the Holy Land.

[6] Genesis 27:22.

[7] Allusion to the conclusion of the Yotser prayer recited in the morning service: “ba’al milhamot, zore’a tsedakot, matsmi’ah yeshu’ot” (“Master of wars, Planter of righteousness, Grower of salvations”). A year into World War One, Rav Kook already envisioned that the outcome of the War would be a shifting of the center of Jewish life from Eastern Europe elsewhere, as well as the further advancement of the building of the Holy Land.

[8] Genesis 12:3.

[9] Igrot ha-Rayah, Vol. III (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1965), Letter 740 (pp. 2-3).

[10] Mr. Jacob Rosenheim, organizer of the Knessiyah Gedolah, subsequently penned a letter of apology to Rav Kook, for by extending the invitation to him to attend the conference, Rosenheim had indirectly brought about Rav Kook’s misfortune.

[11] Moshe Nahmani posits that it existed for 6-7 years from 1909/10-1915.

[12] We do know that one subject on the curriculum, namely Kuzari by Rabbi Judah Halevi, aroused the ire of the Jerusalem zealot Rabbi Isaiah Orenstein. See my translation of Orot (Spring Valley, NY: Orot, 2004), p. 236, n. 169.

[13] Available on the website, dated 4/17/2012 or 25 Nissan, 5772.

According to Moshe Nahmani, the true reason that so little is known of this earlier yeshivah of Rav Kook is that Rav Kook himself suppressed publicity concerning its inner life, for fear that should word of the curriculum leak out, the yeshivah would come under attack from the ever vigilant rabbis of Jerusalem. (In fact, Rav Kook’s teaching of Kuzari to the students was sharply criticized by the zealous Rabbi Isaiah Orenstein of Jerusalem.) Nahmani believes that Rav Kook was dispensing the arcane wisdom of Kabbalah to the students—sufficient grounds for keeping publicity away from the yeshivah. (But the Kabbalah may not have been the standard Kabbalah as taught in Jerusalem. We know that one of the instructors in the yeshivah was Shem Tov Geffen (1856-1927), an autodidactic genius who fused the study of Kabbalah together with mathematics and physics.) Of course, this is speculation on Nahmani’s part. What is factual, is that Rav Kook taught in Jaffa the Kuzari of Rabbi Judah Halevi and Maimonides’ Eight Chapters (Maimonides’ introduction to his commentary to Tractate Avot or Ethics of the Fathers)—which in themselves represented a departure from the standard curriculum of the contemporary yeshivot.

[14] In one day, 26 Iyyar, 5675, Rav Kook sent two letters from St. Gallen to America (Igrot ha-Rayah, Vol. II, Letters 733-734). The first letter is addressed to Rabbi Meir Berlin asking that he lend assistance to Rav Kook’s student, newly arrived immigrant Hillel Pearlman. The second letter is addressed to Hillel Pearlman himself, expressing pain that he too was exiled from the Holy Land, and offering encouragement, as well as the practical suggestion that he establish contact with Rabbi Meir Berlin, and with Rav Kook’s staunch friend Dr. Moshe Seidel, who might be in a position to help. In a postscript Rav Kook, noting that Hillel Perlman had spent some time in the house after Rav Kook’s own absence, asks for details concerning the welfare of the two Kook daughters left behind in Jaffa, Batyah Miriam and Esther Yael. Logic dictates that our Hillel is Hillel Pearlman of the earlier letters. What eventually became of Hillel Perlman and whether he in fact “morphed“ into “Monsieur Chouchani” remains something of a mystery. See Moshe Nahmani, “Mi Kan Hillel?”

[15] “She’areha Ne’ulim—Yeshivat Harav Kuk be-Yaffo,” Part II, note 51. So too in Nahmani’s earlier article “Mi Kan Hillel?”

[16] He told this writer that before arriving in Jaffa from his native Russia, he had studied under the “Gadol of Minsk.”


According to the memoir of Rabbi Goldberg’s daughter, Rachel Landes, “My Father, Mayer Goldberg” (October 15, 2009), her father grew up in Krementchug, Ukraine. She also writes that at one point in his career, her father studied in a Yeshivah Gedolah under Rabbi Zimmerman. Though Landes does not specify that the Yeshivah was located in Krementchug (to the contrary she writes that the Yeshivah was in Kiev), one ventures a guess that this Yeshivah of Rabbi Zimmerman was actually that of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Halevi Zimmerman, Rabbi of Krementchug. The latter was the father-in-law of Rabbi Baruch Baer Leibowitz (famed student of Rabbi Hayyim Halevi Soloveitchik, known as “Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk,” and himself Rosh Yeshivah of Knesset Beit Yitzhak, first located in Slabodka, and between the two World Wars in Kamenetz) and grandfather of Rabbi Dr. Aharon Chaim Halevi Zimmerman (1915-1995), Rosh Yeshivah of Beit ha-Midrash le-Torah (Hebrew Theological College) in Skokie, Illinois. (Rabbi Dr. Zimmerman’s father, Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Halevi Zimmerman was the son of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Halevi Zimmerman of Krementchug.) But again, this is mere conjecture on my part.

[17] According to Rachel Landes’ memoir, her father was born in Krementchug. In his Application for a Certificate of Arrival and Preliminary Form for Petition for Naturalization (1940), Mayer writes that he was born in “[illegible] near Kiev.” Mayer adopted the surname “Goldberg” in the United States.

[18] The fact that Meir (or Mayer) resided in the Kook home would explain how he was able to supply Rav Kook with information concerning the Rav’s daughters. Nahmani noted that Rav Kook had earlier asked Hillel Perlman for details concerning the girls, the assumption being that Hillel Perlman had resided in the Rav’s home (though that is not explicitly stated in Rav Kook’s letter to Hillel Pearlman). See Moshe Nahmani, “Mi Kan Hillel?”

[19] Rachel Landes, “My Father, Mayer Goldberg” (2009), p. 2.

[20] According to Mayer Warwick Goldberg’s Application for a Certificate of Arrival and Preliminary Form for Petition for Naturalization (1940), he booked passage on a Greek steamship from Alexandria, Egypt to New York under the assumed name “Othniel Kaplan” in Spring of 1915 or 1916. Writing twenty-five years after the fact, Mayer could no longer recall the precise date, whether the arrival in New York had taken place in Spring of 1915 or Spring of 1916. We are in a position now to aid his memory. We know from Rav Kook’s letters to Rabbi Meir Berlin and to Hillel Pearlman, both datelined “St. Gallen, 26 Iyyar 5675,” that as of Spring 1915, Hillel Perlman was in America. In order for Rav Kook’s letter of 6 Tishri, 5676 to be addressed jointly to Hillel and Meir, Meir too would have had to reside in America by Fall of 1915. That could only be so if Meir (or Mayer) arrived in New York in Spring of 1915—not 1916!

[21] The fact that Rav Kook does not address Meir by the title “Harav” in the salutation (as he does Hillel) indicates that Meir was not yet an ordained rabbi in the Fall of 1915.

[22] According to information supplied in his 1940 Application for…Naturalization, Mayer resided in New York City and Brooklyn from 1916 to 1917; in New Haven and Colchester, Connecticut from 1917 to 1919; in Seattle and Tacoma, Washington from 1919 to 1922; in San Francisco from 1922 to 1930; and in Oakland from 1930 to 1940.

[23] To quote from Rachel Landes’ memoir (p. 2): “…World War I broke out. The Turks, who were in control of Palestine, sided with Germany, and Russia was on the side of the Allies. My father, being from Russia, found himself classified as an enemy alien. The Turks began to round up all foreign nationals. It became clear that my father could not stay there.”

[24] At the 24th Annual Banquet of the Hebrew Academy of San Francisco, held on Sunday, December 6, 1992, a moving tribute was paid to the recently departed Rabbi Mayer Goldberg.

[25] Yalkut Reubeni (Wilmersdorf, 1681), by Reuben Hoshke HaKohen (Sofer) of Prague (died 1673), is a kabbalistic collection on the Pentateuch.

[26] Rabbi Mayer Goldberg, Margaliyot shel Torah (Jerusalem, 5750), p. 112. The Hebrew original reads:

ויך – 36 כמנין ל”ו כריתות [משנה, כריתות א, א], משה כרת את המצרי, כרת את החיצונים, ויטמינם בחולין. המצרי שהרג משה – הדעות של מצרים שמשה למד, חיצוניות בלי אלוהות –הרג וטמן בחולין, כי מש”ה בגימטריא המצר”י.

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.