Monday, April 30, 2012

Misunderstanding the Gedolim

In a comment on my post here, R' Micha expressed surprise at the longevity of the ideologies of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook and Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, given events which occurred after their respective times, which pose challenges to their visions.

I am not expert enough to explain how the ideologies of Rav Kook the elder and the younger would address these realities, although my limited knowledge does suggest that it can be done. To me, the greater point is this: Many people who claim to be "Rav Kookniks" - and I speak of those outside of Israel, for I know less about those in Israel - do not actually have expertise in the thought of Rav Kook. Rather, they are impressed that someone who was as brilliant and Torah-observant as Rav Kook was a supporter of Zionism, worked with the secular chalutzim, and that's good enough for them. Certainly, they won't question Rav Kook's ideology based on new developments; they don't have enough familiarity with that ideology was in the first place.

The same is true within the YU community and its embrace of Rav Soloveichik; many claim to be followers of the Rav, without having heard his shiurim or read his writing.

And, presumably, the same occurs in other sectors of the Jewish world – perhaps with those who claim to follow the Lubavitcher Rebbe, or to be Breslovers, or to follow in the footsteps of Rav Hutner or Rav Moshe. Gedolim are adopted as role models for what they did, not for what they said. [And my use of the loaded term "Gedolim" here is meant to be translated as "role models".]

At first, one might consider this approach benign. A medical student may emulate a physician who is kind and dedicated and conscientious without knowing what motivates that role model. An athlete may imitate some star who has a particular training regimen without knowing the ideas behind it.

But there are risks involved: Consider the medical student who thinks he is emulating the physician, but only because he didn't understand what he was seeing, or where it applied. Consider the athlete who imitates a star without realizing that the star's approach is fine for someone at a later stage in his career, but won't help at his stage. Consider the fan of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch who knows Rav Hirsch talked about the beauty of the Alps, but who doesn't know when Rav Hirsch recommended they be visited and when he recommended one sit in the classroom.

I don't think there is anything malicious in this path of adopting role models without learning more about their ideas. But I do suspect it's dangerous.


  1. You don't see a lot of Rav Kook's books around, even in places where you would expect to see them. Maybe that simply means that people are busy learning Gemara and doing their university+IDF stuff. I don't know. It is an insular world.
    Personally I think that he must have been influenced by Hegel and the Divine being embodied in the Nation State. Once I was asked by a friend that learned in a Zionist kollel if I thought there was any kabalistic support to some basic ideas of Rav Kook. I answered yes because of the "soul of Israel" thing ("kneset israel"= shechina) is obviously an important aspect of the Zohar). But in terms of the nation state this might be more an Hegelian idea. At any rate this fellow was in a basically Zionist kollel but he himself was more or less charedi so he used to have these types of arguments with people in the kollel so he asked me what I thought. Still I don't want to say that just because it is an Hegelian idea it is bad. While in general I am appalled at the ideas of Hegel and consider him to be the source of the modern totalitarian state (USSR, Nazi Germany, present day USA) still the State of Israel I think is a great thing. Not because of the nation state idea but because of the fact that the Torah considers Jews being in Israel as of paramount importance and also experience. If I would not have evidence of Israel being a great place all the Bible thumping in the world would not help.

  2. On the other hand, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks states that as well as text-books, we need "textpeople", who teach us not by their words and books, but by their deeds and lives. He uses this term in his book To Heal a Fractured World to refer to 'ordinary' people who led lives of quiet ethical greatness (lamed-vavniks, as he says),
    but I think Rav Kook would qualify as a textperson too.

    How much would you say you have to have studied a thinker to call yourself his disciple? I have read a little of Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook (in translation) and both have influenced my outlook in different ways, but I am by no means expert in their systems of thought. I agree that it may be dangerous to claim to be influenced by a thinker without any real knowledge of his thought, but how do you judge when you know enough?

  3. Since the lives of the Gedolim are of great instructive value, we must make absolutely sure not to make up or pass along fictional stories about them, no matter how great the temptation and apparent benefit. Fiction includes recasting their views according to our own differing positions.

  4. Adam-
    I think it is generally accepted that Rav Kook was influenced by 19th century German philosophy, but I'm no expert.

    I'm not sure. I'd like to say that person should be רבו מובהק - a mentor whose influence is clear in his conduct - but I'm not sure that's legitimate.


  5. R. Hershel Schachter screaming about rabbis who think they are emulating RJBS but don't know a thing about him:

  6. There is also the power of ideas to be transformed and reinterpreted to fit current conditions. If Rambam's Aristotelian-Ptolomaic cosmology is outdated from a modern scientific perspective, the power of his vision keeps his work influential, so he serves as the model for integrating modern science and religion in thoughtful ways. But it is only those who really grapple with the Rambam and what he wrote are the ones who are able to work out the kinks and hone his methods.Similarly, as you wrote, you can only work out the "kinks" of R. Avraham Kook and R. Tzvi Yehuda (and the differences between them) through seriously grappling with the issues they wrote about; that will keep their thought alive and relevant.

  7. I have nothing against 19th century German philosophy. It is just Hegel that i am appalled at. Yet I must admit Rav Kook created healthy spiritual group. This I have to begrudgingly admit is a real feat. especially looking at the rest of the Jewish world . healthy and spiritual just don't go into the same sentence.

  8. Israeli kookniks most definitely learn and are familiar with Rav Kook's writings. Doubting whether Lubavitchers learn the writings of the Rebbe sounds like a joke. Ask instead whether they learn anything else. I am pretty sure that with Breslov it is like what it is in Chabad (ask instead whether they learn anything else).

    The not bothering to read phenomenon is just an American MO thing (maybe also an American charedi thing, although I don't think that Rav Moshe wrote anything that his followers could point to as defining their derech -- also, how many people say "I am a Rav Moshenik"? The few who identify as followers of Rav Hutner definitely read his writings...).

  9. There may be a few Breslovers who get into Breslov through the teachings of modern-day rabbis without having read the works of Rebbe Nachman himself, but I'd be very surprised if that was the case. Many of his writings, particularly Sichos HaRan and Likutei Eitzot, are extremely accessible and an affinity with his writings is often what stimulates people to affiliate with Breslov. For those who are interested, a translation of Likutei Eitzot can be read here, by clicking on any chapter:

    I am currently reading Horeb by Rav Hirsch. I am really amazed by how beautiful and compelling it is. But how many people actually study this amazing work? It seems like few do.

  10. I wanted to read Horeb but at the time I had the interest i got involved in Talmudic study. But I still assume that Rav Hirsh must have had some good ideas.

  11. The introduction to Horeb alone (by Rav Isidore Grunfeld, is 120 pages long and really fascinating, full of enlightening historical detail.)

    Hegel's influence on Rav Kook doesn't necessarily bother me. If what Rav Kook took from Hegel was just the idea of a dialetical progress of history, then that's just taking one aspect of his thought, which is not necessarily connected to Hegel's authoritarian tendencies. While I personally have no affinity for Western philosophy, I find it very interesting that some of the greatest exponents of Rav Hirsch's philosophy were actually Kantian philosophers as well as Orthodox Jews!

  12. mor-
    Could well be; that's certainly the sphere with which I have the greatest experience.

    I love Hirsch, and taught Horeb in a weekly series for 2+ years in Allentown. Incredible writing and insight, although I do sometimes feel that parts are driven by need rather than insight.