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Bildner Center hosts virtual event on Rabbi Abraham Kook's interpretation of Zionism

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook's ideology and beliefs were examined and discussed in a webinar held by the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life on the College Avenue campus.  – Photo by

On January 31, the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life, located on the College Avenue campus, held a webinar focusing on themes of Mystical Zionism and its origins, which approximately 100 people attended.

The webinar, titled "Mystical Zionism's Surprising Origins: Rav Kook's Early Decades," was presented by Yehudah Mirsky, a professor in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, who examined the ideologies of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of what is present-day Israel.

Mirsky discussed Kook's complex legacy, his impact on the early Zionist movement as an important supporter and how his ideas are still relevant in conversations surrounding Judaism and Zionism.

Kook was chief rabbi of Jaffa and Jerusalem in the early 1900s and is credited with being the founder of religious Zionism, Mirsky said. Kook's journey in Zionism is rooted in theology and philosophy rather than politics.

During Kook's formative years, he saw traditional Jewish identity being destabilized while living in the former Russian Empire. Jewish people were emigrating, modernizing their religious beliefs or radicalizing to more Orthodox practices during this destabilization, Mirsky said.

After the death of his wife, Kook took a journey through Lithuanian and Jewish mysticism, and his early writings are not about Israel but instead discuss abstract philosophical questions, Mirsky said. Some of these questions dealt with morality and addressed the political discussions circulating during this time about socialism, liberalism and ethics.

Mirsky said a part of his research came from examining Kook's journals, which included reflective writing that was uncommon for Jewish mystics.

"(The journal) becomes this sort of laboratory for intense theological explorations," Mirsky said.

Kook never joined the mainstream Zionist movement, setting him apart from other supporters of the State of Israel at the time, Mirsky said.

Kook found Orthodox theology to be lacking when addressing contemporary challenges and questions, such as modern philosophy and science.

"He's a great example of people who come to Zionism as a way of dealing with certain philosophical problems, theological problems and, in his case, even religious problems or questions that are preoccupying him," Mirsky said.

Kook grappled with the changing Jewish landscape and began to view the collapse of traditional Jewish life as a potential rebirth or a revolution against outdated norms, Mirsky said.

Mirsky said Kook was interested in and sympathetic to his peers who dissented from the traditional culture and engaged in Jewish nationalism.

Instead of casting aside religion, Kook decided to look further into Judaism to find answers, Mirsky said.

"And so, over time, he begins to develop this notion that what looks like the collapse of traditional Jewish society might actually be … a new kind of rebirth of the Jewish people," Mirsky said. "A revolution against old things that don't necessarily need to be discarded, but that need to be synthesized into something new."

He saw the idea of traditional Jewish society falling apart as a way of divine intervention in moving Jewish people forward. Part of this transition was the move to the biblical Land of Israel, which Kook viewed as physically and spiritually connecting the people to the religion, Mirsky said.

After becoming the rabbi of Jaffa, Kook became invigorated in connecting religion with the land and started connecting further with his dissenting peers and traditional concepts of Zionism. Mirsky said Kook's vision was deeply rooted in his theological outlook, seeing the return of Jews to the biblical Land of Israel as a step toward redemption.

For Kook, creating a nation and government was unimportant compared to the people, Mirsky said. His works were edited from his original journals by his disciples and his son.

His son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, confronted the State of Israel's creation as well as the Holocaust and formulated the messaging of his father to be more aligned with contemporary views, Mirsky said.

After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when Israeli political leaders were seen as disempowered, religious Zionists began to adopt the narratives of religious Zionism to push ideas of revolution and Jewish nationalism, Mirsky said.

Taking Kook's perspective into a contemporary context would be difficult in terms of addressing the treatment of Palestinians, Mirsky said.

Kook was not genuinely involved with Palestinians and did not witness the Nakba of 1948 or the subsequent declaration of the State of Israel, said Nancy Sinkoff, a professor in the Departments of Jewish Studies and History and a host of the event.

"It's sort of the same way we can take a thinker from the American founding and say, 'What would Benjamin Franklin have thought about the Missouri Compromise?'" Mirsky said. "We can sort of extrapolate, but we don't really know."

Mirsky said Kook emphasized love for humanity and recognizing different cultures and peace. He said Kook would most likely be against demonizing Palestinians and believed the creation of the State of Israel could be executed peacefully.

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