Orot: Rav Kook – A review

Orot-smI have heard it said that if we all followed Rav Kook we would be Modern Orthodox Kabbalists! Over the past few years I have been inspired again and again by Rav Kook. His approach to all Jews, no matter how religious, his appreciation for art (see here) and his love for the land of Israel show us all how Judaism can be vibrant, modern, mystical and yet not budge from the path of Halakha and Masoretic Judaism.

“…Rav Kook emerged as a breath of fresh air and as a beacon of light, or perhaps better stated, a harbinger of Messianic light (‘oro shel mashia’ah).”

I was extremely excited to receive my copy of Rav Kook’s Orot as translated by R. Bezalel Naor (originally published 20 years ago and reprinted by Maggid Books last year). Having struggled to learn Rav Kook’s beautiful poetic writing for many years I was looking forward to learning this key text and develop my textual skills with the Hebrew and English presented side-by-side. As the Translator of this volume notes “Translating Rav Kook is no easy task.” The English only edition is available here and I have seen the bilingual edition in Jewish book shops in London including here.

Amazingly, Rav Kook’s text feels as relevant today as it was when first published in 1920.

My first glance over the book took me to chapter 34. In his fascinating book, Changing the Immutable, Marc Shapiro notes that this chapter, dealing with the importance of physical exercise, has been edited out of some editions. One of the most troubling statements for the censors was (p355):

“..if youths sport to strengthen their physical ability and spirit for the sake of the nation’s strength at large, this holy work raises up the Shekhinah (divine presence), just as it rises up through songs and praises uttered by David, King of Israel in the book of Psalms.”

Equating physical exercise with the recital of Psalms was seen by many as a step too far. I was therefore very pleased that this new bilingual edition does contain previously censored material.

R. Naor writes a fascinating essay in his introduction to the book detailing the historical context of the work as well as the vicious attacks on Rav Kook, on the publication of the Orot. The tragic divisions surrounding Rav Kook’s ideas and the visits of the Gerrer Rebbe are presented in a fascinating and sometimes shocking manner.

For ease of reference R. Naor informs us that he utilised the chapter headings formulated by Rav Kook’s son, Rav Zevi Yehuda Hakohen Kook. From a brief perusal of these chapter titles it is clear that the book is one of hope, the importance of the Land of Israel and the Messianic era (especially in view of the post-first world war feeling that the Great War was seen as the war of Gog uMagog). The opening paragraph (Degel Yerushalayim) tells us (p107):

“We are speaking of the soul of our national renascence, the root-of-life of the aspiration to build the land, by the living people – that is, the renascence of the holy.”

and in the opening chapter Rav Kook continues this idea and laces it with mysticism to inform us of the size of the job ahead (p115):

“The Land of Israel is not something external, not an external national asset, a means to an end of collective solidarity and the strengthening of the nation’s existence, physical or even spiritual. The Land of Israel is an essential unit bound by the bond-of-life with the Nation, united by inner characteristics with its existence.”

The breadth of Rav Kook’s write is astonishing, in Orot me-Ofel (Lights from Darkness) he deals with  Christianity: The New Korahism (chapter 15) and the Role of Family and Cosmic Harmony (chapter 26) and Moses and Elijah: The Light of Torah and the Light of the Body (chapter 29). In Orot ha-Tehiyah (Lights of Renascence) he deals with wide ranging topics such as; Whole God-Knowledge (chapter 1) to a critique of Marx (chapter 10) and Halakha and Agadah (chapter 55). This review can in no way do justice to Rav Kook’s incredible and inspiring work. However, what is clear from the outset is that R. Naor has provided the English speaking community with an invaluable resource for us to begin (or indeed continue) the journey whose course Rav Kook set for us nearly 100 years ago.

As an aside, I have found one other bilingual text of Rav Kook’s works very useful. Rav Moshe Weinberger’s translation and commentary on the Orot HaTeshuva is an extremely accesible work. Side-by-side hebrew and English with a commentary at the end of each chapter are fascinating and helpful in bringing another of Rav Kook’s works into the English speaking world. Details can be found here. At the time of writing three volumes have been completed and the fourth (and final) volume is due to be published shortly. I will be reviewing these volumes in the near future.



About bookabazza

I am an Osteopath and University Lecturer who is trying to keep up with the 7 year daf yomi cycle. I thought I would try and share a few small thought on the daf each week.
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