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Straus Center Course Spotlight: Rav Kook with Rabbi Shalom Carmy

Rav Kook
Rabbi Abraham Isaac HoKohen Kook

In the Spring 2023 semester, Rabbi Shalom Carmy, Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Bible at Yeshiva University and renowned scholar of Jewish Thought, taught a course at Yeshiva College on the philosophy of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook.  YUNews sat down with Rabbi Carmy to reflect on the course, which was offered in partnership with the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. 

It is sometimes said that Rabbi Kook is for Israeli religious-zionists what Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik was for modern orthodox American Jews. To what extent was the Rav like the Rav?

It could be argued that Rav Kook and the Rav are the major thinkers of modern Judaism in the 20th century. They tackled important ideas of Jewish nationality, identity, and zionism, and, much more then that, they thought seriously about creative confrontation with secularism. They developed an understanding of different periods in Jewish history. They thought about the nature of God and the spiritual life of the individual and the community. Rav Kook actually met the Rav on the latter’s only trip to Israel in 1935. The encounter reminded Rav Kook of his youth in the yeshiva of Volozhyn [where Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, Rav Soloveitchik’s grandfather taught.] Rav Kook told his son Tzvi Yehuda of Rabbi Soloveitchik that “the voice of the grandfather is heard in the grandson.” In later years, Rabbi Soloveitchik would sometimes cite Rav Kook. He especially liked Rav Kook’s writings on teshuva [repentence].

Rabbi Kook’s writings are sometimes esoteric and difficult to interpret. Some of his works seem to contradict eachother. What was the methodology of the course? What works have students studied in class?

Rav Kook wrote a lot. Some of his writing is essayist and some is exegetical. A lot is private, in diary format. Those personal writings we have from notebooks and letters preserved by Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook and the Nazir [Rabbi David Cohen]. Because those writings were not writen for the broader public, they are difficult to interpret. Those writings presuppose that the audience has had mystical training and familiarity with topics discussed. Thus, Rav Kook is not easy to read. A lot of the course was reading, trying to figure out the meaning of a piece and its intended audience. We mostly explored essays from 1908-1910, when Rav Kook penned many of his boldest ideas, some of which were not published within his lifetime. One of our main area of focus were Rav Kook’s writings on the philosophy of halakha. In Orot HaKodesh [a compilation of Rav Kook’s philosophical writings published by Rabbi David Cohen] we explored Rav Kook’s approach to the nature of knowledge, the nature of the world, and ethics.

Here at YU, we emphasize the union of Torah Umadda, Jewish tradition with secular knowledge, what was Rav Kook’s approach to Torah Umadda?

Rav Kook was inclined to the view that all ideas have some kernel of truth, and that conflicting ideas within religion, such as hassidim and misnagdim [the anti-hasidic movement], each have their own strengths and limitations. He approached differing philosophies the same way, and it was a big part of his unique approach to secular Zionism. Rav Kook learned to be melamed zechut [to expound the positive aspects] regarding the often militantly anti-religious sacular Zionists. Rav Kook notes that the may be bothered by parts of the Jewish religion that develop in galut [the diaspora], such as passivity and cloistering in the Bet Midrash, ignoring the larger public arena. Rav Kook learned to appreciate what they were doing in cultivating Israel as positive and view their rejection of religion as resulting from a failure to see the broader picture. He saw their modern activism as corrective to the limited passivity of diasporic Jewish attitudes.

What do you hope students gained from the course?

There are several things. One is, knowledge of the material. Students should know Rav Kook and not merely what people say about Rav Kook. Next has to do with developing critical acumen. We examined to what extent were his arguments made based on assumptions about the people of his time. In doing so, students have greater understanding of the kind of issues people confronted in the 20th century. Last but not least: learning not to be afraid to take the book in your own hands and read it!