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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.