Abraham Isaac Kook

According Kook, Jews can only reach their full spiritual potential in the Land of Israel.

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Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of the Palestine mandate, among other achievements. He is considered one of the fathers of religious Zionism. The following article examines his Zionistic beliefs. Reprinted with permission from The Land of Israel: Jewish Perspectives, edited by Lawrence A. Hoffman (The University of Notre Dame Press).

Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel], Kook wrote, was the spatial center of holiness in the world, radiating holiness vertically to the Jews who lived upon the Land as well as horizontally to other portions and peoples of the earth. The spirit of the Land was entirely pure and clean, while spirit elsewhere was mired in kelipot, or "husks" of impurity. The air of the land really did "make one wise," as the Rabbis had said.

abraham isaac kookIn a typical elevation of sociology to theol­ogy, Kook argued that the Jewish imagination outside the Land had become stunted and even deformed. The cause was not merely assimilation to Gen­tile cultures possessed of far less light and holiness than Israel. In addition, the Jews had depleted over two millennia the store of creativity carried away with them into exile. During their absence, the flow of spirit had ceased; its gradual diminishing was responsible for the character of galut [Diaspora] life. Realizing these facts, the Jews had grasped the urgency of return. Moreover, since the entire world was poor in holiness and sunk in wicked­ness, it was utterly dependent upon the Jews for a renewal of light and spirit. Israel's return to the Land would thus mark the end of a worldwide era of darkness and initiate the redemption of all humanity.

It is astounding to react such claims in a 20th-century work. In­stead of engaging in apologetic, Kook merely notes that the unique qualities of the Holy Land cannot be comprehended by reason. Once his assump­tions have been granted, however, they legitimate a powerful critique of galut life and galut Judaism, and sanctify political activities and concep­tions that would otherwise have been unacceptable. The Jewish spirit meant to guide the rest of creation had sunk to imi­tation of "the uncircumcised" Gentiles, while the Jewish body, sorely neglected in exile, had suffered a comparable impoverishment The full and varied character of Jewish life could not achieve expression, given oppression and exposure to foreign winds.

For Kook, this low estate explained a phenomenon, which rightly understood, was a contradiction in terms: Jewish atheism. Many Jews of thoughtful and moral character had cast off their inherited faith, only because that Jewish faith had degenerated to the point where superstition passed for true belief, and Jewish practice had become frozen in old forms.

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Dr. Arnold M. Eisen

Arnold M. Eisen, Ph.D. is Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Prior to this appointment, he served as the Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and Religion and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University. Prior to joining the Stanford faculty in 1986, he taught at Tel Aviv University and Columbia University.