More Than Just “The Zionist Rabbi”: Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz’s “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook”

More than just “The Zionist Rabbi”:
Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz’s “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook”

If you ask most people about Rav Kook’s worldview, they likely won’t know anything about him. If they do, they will probably start talking to you about Zionism. They will tell you about how Herzl was a spark of Mashiach Ben Yosef, and about the critical roles that the nation, land, and state of Israel play in the ongoing process of redemption. For many of Rav Kook’s followers, and likely all of his detractors, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook can be adequately summed up as “the Zionist rabbi.”

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Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz’s new book of translations, collected from across the entire corpus of Rav Kook’s published writings, means to overturn this common misconception. While most translations of Rav Kook have focused on a specific book by him, “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook: The Writings of a Jewish Mystic” organizes hundreds of paragraphs from Rav Kook’s various writings into seventeen chapters, each dedicated to a specific topic. While there is a chapter on Zionism, and it is one of the longer chapters, it is still just one of seventeen. What is more, that chapter contains more pieces discussing the importance of universalism than the importance of the land! While Rav Kook was certainly a Zionist, he was also far more than that.

The other sixteen chapters are where “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook” really shines. Some of the chapters are dedicated to classical topics, like “Prayer” and “Torah.” In these, Schwartz has managed to find and present passages highlighting Rav Kook’s unique ideas. We are forbidden to think that prayer changes God’s mind, says Rav Kook, and we must learn the Torah that inspires us as individuals. Other chapters focus on more surprising topics, like “The Spiritual Importance of Creativity” and “Listening to the Inner Child.” Here it is not just what Rav Kook says that is unique, it is that he is talking about these topics at all. Most rabbis simply don’t talk about the necessity of creative writing, or how important it is to maintain the idealism of our inner child. Before reading “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook,” I didn’t know Rav Kook had anything to say about the inner child at all, let alone a consistent, fleshed-out approach to the topic. Schwartz’s novel categorization means that the book should have something new even for people already familiar with Rav Kook.

Moving from the level of the chapter to the individual text, we find one of the most helpful and unique aspects of Schwartz’s translation. He has given each passage a title summing up its main idea. For some texts the title-summary felt unnecessary, but for others it was a godsend. Schwartz did mighty work turning Rav Kook’s effervescent poetry into lucid prose, but some of his longer passages can still be very difficult to follow. In such cases Schwartz didn’t just give a title to the piece as a whole, he also broke the piece down into smaller paragraphs and gave each of those paragraphs a title as well. The longest passages of the book, spanning three to four pages, thus become much more understandable.

Perhaps most usefully, the book ends with a short biography of Rav Kook, and with a “Spiritual Letter to the Reader,” where Schwartz summarizes each chapter of the book. Importantly, while the letter sums up the book, it does not just do that. The letter aims at inspiring the reader to act based on Rav Kook. Schwartz doesn’t want “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook” to be just another interesting book on the shelf; he wants it to inspire a spiritual revolution for each and every reader. Each chapter offers the reader an opportunity to revolutionize a part of their life, and the letter frames the ideas in exactly that light.

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Rav Shagar Comes to America: “Faith Shattered and Restored”

Faith Shattered and Restored” is the first major English publication of writings of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known more colloquially as “Rav Shagar.” Rav Shagar (1950-2007) was a Religious Zionist thinker, teacher, and rosh yeshivah who was known for incorporation Hasidut and Postmodernism into his understanding of Judaism. This was part of his effort to shape a religious language for the Jews of our time, one that would resonate with our tradition and our daily lives (for more on that linguistic project, see my post on it and the conclusion to my longer essay on his understanding of “accepting the yoke of Heaven”). Such a language would feel like home to contemporary Jews, or at least the ones Shagar had in mind. Significantly, this suggests that if Rav Shagar’s unique combinations of tradition and philosophy do not speak to you, in translation or otherwise, then you are simply not his intended audience. That said, there is still much to be gained from how Rav Shagar tackles each individual topic (such as pluralism, providence, romance, or doubt), even if his overall project does not speak to you.

Getting to the heart of the matter, the most important thing to understand about this volume is that it was intended for an American Modern Orthodox audience, something that I think helps explain a few issues with the book. First is the selection/inclusion of the first essay in the book, “Uncertainty as the Trial of the Akedah.” Based on my own experience, and backed up by numerous conversations with other readers, the essay is hard to follow, and at the end it’s not entirely clear what Rav Shagar wanted to convey to his audience. This is not a problem with the translation, however, as the reading experience of the original Hebrew is just the same, begging the question why it was selected for inclusion in the translation. While the essay deals with important ideas, the real answer, I think, lies in the fact that in this essay Rav Shagar explicitly puts himself in dialogue the thought of Rav Soloveitchik, exemplar of American Modern Orthodoxy. The essay thus enables readers to begin to locate Rav Shagar in relation to Rav Soloveitchik’s thought, with which they are likely more familiar.

A second issue this helps explain is Rav Shalom Carmy’s afterword. The afterword is striking in that it is clear that Rav Carmy bears no particular love for Rav Shagar, and is perhaps more interested in how Rav Shagar can be used to critique the progressive end of Orthodoxy. While neither of these aspects is necessarily problematic, one might have expected a more sympathetic afterword from the first major publication of Rav Shagar’s writings in English. What explains this afterword (the reader will have to decide for herself if this justifies it) is that Rav Carmy is one of the people best acquainted with both Rav Shagar’s writings and the state of American Modern Orthodoxy. Most of the afterword is dedicated to showing how Rav Shagar’s thought fits in (or doesn’t) with more familiar works and thinkers, an effort that the average reader will no doubt appreciate.

A final issue that needs to be understood in this light is a paragraph from the essay “Religious Life in the Modern Age” which is troubling due to its absence from the original Hebrew version of the essay:

I should add that in discussing Modern Orthodoxy I refer not only to the American scene. For decades, Modern Orthodoxy in the United States and national religious Judaism in Israel constituted two distinct movements. However, with the rise in the standard of living in Israel, and as the country is swept by Western cultural influences, I predict that the differences between the two groups will erode, along with the differences between the challenges they both face. (Faith Shattered and Restored, p.43-44)

When I asked the translator about the appearance of this paragraph in the English essay, he said that it was a footnote the editors decided needed to be in the body of the essay itself, and it’s easy to see why. Rav Shagar did not speak, or even read, English, and he did not ever travel to America. Absent a specific statement to the contrary, it would be perfectly sensible to assume that his sociological statements were specific to Israeli Jewry, and that no extrapolations to American Jewry could or should be made. Since this book is intended for an American audience, it was worth the slight change to emphasize that Rav Shagar’s statements apply to both communities, and Rav Shagar’s citations of Rav Soloveitchik in this context would seem to bear this out. Notably, I have not yet been able to locate this footnote in the original Hebrew text (published as “Halakhah, Halikhah, ve-Emunah” in the collection of Hanukkah Sermons, “Le-Ha’ir Et ha-Petahim”), and if anyone locates it I would greatly appreciate the reference.

The fact that the book is aimed at an American Modern Orthodox audience does not just solve issues, it also raised a few of its own. By way of example, there were two translations that struck me as being very problematic (against the background of an otherwise excellent and readable translation throughout). The first essay translates the word “רציונליות,” in context of the practice of putting non-verbal experience into words, as “rationalism” when it should be “rationality.” What makes this worth pointing out is that “rationalism” has specific connotations in the American Modern Orthodox community where “rationalism” immediately recalls “rationalist judaism” and specific positions on issues of Torah and science. Whether “רציונליות” should be translated as “rationalism” or “rationality” might be debatable in the abstract, but for this audience it becomes obvious and important to translate it as “rationality.”

A second translation issue is the translation of the word freier (פראייר) as “gull.” The word freier, roughly referring to a person who lets themselves get taken advantage of, is so central in Israeli culture that it has its own Hebrew wikipedia page. The word “gull” (the noun form of “gullible”), on the other hand, peaked in popularity in 1922 and has been in steady decline since 1963, to the point where I had to look it up when I read it. While the best translation of the word could be debated (I like “loser”), translating a culturally important term with one that is culturally non-existent is incredibly problematic (it’s worth noting that this seems to have been a change made by a later editor rather than the original translator).

 

This handful of critiques should not overshadow how grateful I am that Maggid decided to publish this translation. I’ve spent the last few years deeply immersed in the writings of Rav Shagar, and I think they have a lot to offer the English speaking world of American Jewry. The selection of essays in Faith Shattered and Restored is broad, and touches on many of Rav Shagar’s most unique ideas, including his head-on tackling of relativism and his embrace of science-fiction literature as a new mythology that provides a mystical, almost messianic, reading experience. It includes his unique understanding of bitahon as a sense of security that in reality secures nothing (for more on this, see my translation of one of his Purim derashot), and a fascinating proposal regarding the role of the Jews in the global order of nations. It does not include his extensive discussions and critiques of Zionism and the modern state of Israel, but that is understandable for a book aimed at an American audience. Taken as a whole, the book is not perfect, but it is a good start, and I hope to see more translated volumes of Rav Shagar’s writings in the future.