Saturday, December 2, 2017

Rav Kook and the Artists of Jaffa (Derashah Vayishlach 5778)

I gave this derashah this morning, and liked it enough to post it here. Feedback wanted!

Yosef Chaim Brenner, one of the top Hebrew writers of a century ago, was born in Russia in 1881. He made aliyah in 1909, and settled in Yafo – where Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook was the Chief Rabbi. Brenner was a legend for his fiery insistence on what he believed to be truth, and he was viciously anti-religious.

Brenner wrote a particularly strong article in 1911, “על חזיון השמד: On Predictions of Assimilation”, in which he declared that Jews should stop bemoaning Jewish conversion to other religions. Mocking Jewish antipathy toward Christianity, he wrote, “The New Testament is also our book, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh… [I say that] a Jew can be a good Jew, devoted to his nation with his entire heart and soul, and not fear this legend as some form of treif, but rather relate to it with religious fervour like the non-Jew Leonardo daVinci in his day.”[1]

Yosef Chaim Brenner also had no great respect for his city’s Chief Rabbi. Brenner was once brought to seudah shlishit at the home of Rav Kook, and he walked out, insisting he would never return. Once, when seated with S.Y. Agnon and others, they went to daven minchah with Rav Kook, but Brenner refused. There are reports that toward the end of his life he changed his mind, but in his writing we find that he dismissed Rav Kook’s religious beliefs as handmaidens to clerical ambition, his ideas as illogical and confused, and his writing style as antiquated and opaque.[2]

And yet! Yehoshua Radler Feldman, a Hebrew novelist of the day,[3] wrote that Rav Kook said the following about Brenner: “Brenner had a great soul; he was tossed about by great spiritual suffering… Once I met with Chaim Nachman Bialik in Yaarot haKarmel, and he told me that Brenner burned entirely with a fire of love for Israel, and he burned with the pain of Israel.”[4]

How do we understand Rav Kook’s apparent appreciation for Brenner? I think we need to examine Rav Kook’s optimistic view of human culture.

1: Culture expresses Divine Light
To Rav Kook, “culture” refers to the unique way an individual human being expresses herself, or a community expresses itself. [5] It includes art and literature and music. It includes the breadth of society, from urban design to political structure to religion. Our civilization is culture. But most important, Rav Kook invoked a well-known midrash to explain what we are doing when we express ourselves in culture. This midrash says that like a builder working from plans, “Gd looked in the Torah and created the world.[6]

In other words: The world – which includes earth, sea and sky, beast and bird and human being – expresses Gd’s Torah. And Rav Kook extrapolated from this idea to teach that all we produce as human beings also expresses Torah.[7] Everything – our laws and ethics, our science and art, our culture – reveals Gd’s will.[8]

Rav Kook expressed this idea in numerous ways.
·         In his introduction to Shir haShirim, he wrote, “Literature, painting and sculpture aim to bring to realization all the spirtual concepts impressed deep in the human soul.[9]
·         The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design was established by Dr. Boris Schatz in Jerusalem in 1906. Two years later, Rav Kook wrote Dr. Schatz a letter of passionate encouragement, and guidance.[10] He said, “It is heartwarming and exciting to see our talented brethren, geniuses of beauty and art, finding a proper place… And a spirit from Heaven has carried them to Jerusalem, to beautify our holy city.” As he wrote, this art institute would “open sensitivity to beauty and purity” for all of us.
·         And perhaps most famously, Rav Kook said that when he lived in London, he would visit the National Gallery, and he most loved the work of Rembrandt. He said, “When G-d created the light [on the first day], it was so strong and luminous that it was possible to see from one end of the world to the other… From time to time there are great men whom G-d blesses with a vision of that hidden light. I believe that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his paintings is that light which G-d created….[11]
To Rav Kook, everything we create spreads beauty, and spreads enlightenment, channelling that Divine light which created us.[12]

2: You can corrupt the light
I find this reverent view of culture a powerful idea, one that lends itself to a remarkable respect for all humanity and its varied cultures. But there is a glaring problem, perhaps best expressed with a set of names from recent headlines: Lauer. Keillor. Spacey. Rose. Weinstein. Franken. Zahn. How seriously can we take the idea that culture expresses Divine light, when the most successful creators of contemporary culture seem to express the opposite?[13]

And the problem isn’t just in music or literature or cinema – we said before that Religion is also culture, and we have seen our own Spaceys and Keillors among our religious leaders. How seriously can we take the idea that culture expresses Divine light, when even Religion can be corrupt?

Here we need to invoke a second idea from Rav Kook: That it is possible to corrupt the Divine light we express, to produce a vulgar form of culture. That was his understanding of Greek culture.[14] But Rav Kook had a solution: This is why we have halachah, to shape our expression of that light. Halachah places boundaries and implements structure for that cultural expression.

In his letter to the Bezalel Academy, Rav Kook wrote that every valuable trait, even justice and wisdom, must be kept within bounds; as Kohelet says, “Do not be too much of a tzaddik and do not make yourself too wise.” In the same way, we must be careful in art and culture “to avoid intoxication and overreach.[15]” Or to use the terminology of Nietzsche, we must be Apollo, not Dionysus, manifesting an ordered beauty rather than an inebriated pursuit of desire.[16] We express ourselves, and the light within us, and with attention to these limits we will avoid pathetic vulgarity, and instead attain gorgeous radiance.

3: Appreciation of Our Potential
So Rav Kook had two ideas: That our culture expresses Divine light, and that this expression is vulnerable to corruption and must be directed. But he had a third idea, and this may be what drove his approach to Yosef Chaim Brenner: That even if someone has yet to express Divine light purely, we look at them as being on the path to redemption and purification.[17]

It’s no surprise, then, that Rav Kook valued Brenner’s creative work even if the author’s poison pen was sometimes directed at him, and at the Jewish religion. That fiery soul, that commitment to the Jewish people, was the Divine Light Rav Kook saw, the Torah that had guided the creation of the world, and Rav Kook optimistically expected it would eventually elevate Brenner’s work. Perhaps it would have, but Brenner was murdered in Arab riots in 1921.

I should note that I don’t think Rav Kook would offer the same respect to the people I mentioned before, who stand accused of harassment and abuse; where there is a vulnerable victim, one dare not display admiration for the corrupt. But with Brenner, Rav Kook saw fit to emphasize his strengths.

This Shabbos we celebrate seventy years of Israeli culture. Yaacov Agam. Nachum Gutman. S.Y. Agnon. Anna Ticho. Naomi Shemer. Daniel Barenboim. Dana International. Uri Zohar. Matti Friedman. In the work of some of them, the light of Gd is obvious. In some, like Brenner, we can see their altruism even if we are turned off by their application of it. And in some, frankly, it’s hard to see the Divine light at all. But Rav Kook promises us that it is there, and orders us to respect it.

But this is about more than respect for others; once we recognize the power of the culture we produce, we must also acknowledge the dramatic influence of the culture we absorb. To view art is to bond with the artist, to invite the creator into my living room and bedroom, into my mind and heart - and it will shape my own expression of Divine light. May we choose our influences wisely.

This morning,[18] Esav offered to Yaakov, “Let’s travel together.” Yaakov declined. Esav said, “Let me send some of my people with you,” but Yaakov denied him that as well. Instead, Yaakov said, “I’ll go on at my own pace, and we’ll meet up in Seir,” Esav’s residence. But that meeting doesn’t happen in chumash; what kind of game was Yaakov playing?

Some write that Yaakov never meant to meet up with Esav. Others say he meant to meet Esav at Seir, but it didn’t work out. But a midrash[19] takes it differently: Yaakov intends to meet Esav at Seir, in the time of Mashiach. Right then, at Yaakov’s moment in history, Esav’s culture was not a good influence; his expression of Divine light was too tainted. But Yaakov anticipates the day when Esav’s light will shine forth as well, and on that day, envisioned with such ardor by Rav Kook, אבוא אל אדוני שעירה, Yaakov and Esav will finally be prepared to join together.[20]

[2] Ibid. pp. 38-40. I may grant him the opaque.
[3] also known as R’ Binyamin
[5] See R’ Yehudah Mirsky, Towards Rav Kook’s Theology of Culture, and esp. pp. 110-112
[6] Bereishit Rabbah 1:1
[7] R’ A. Yehoshua Zuckerman, The World of Rav Kook’s Thought, pg. 189
[8] Arpilei Tohar 2; Orot haKodesh II 289; cited in Benjamin Ish-Shalom, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Jewish Spirituality pp. 182-183
[9] Mirsky, pg 113
[10] Igrot haRa”ayah I 158, found at
[11] Jewish Chronicle, 9 September 1935, cited in Dr. Yehuda Gelman, The World of Rav Kook’s Thought pg. 206
[12] Zuckerman pp. 190-191, and the Mirsky article
[13] Rabbi Dr. Yehudah Mirsky has expressed doubts about Rav Kook’s ideas about culture, too, and his challenges point to our problem as well. He has written, “His an extremely idealistic conception of culture, both in that [his version of] culture enacts ideas, and in that those who participate in it are assumed to be driven by noble motives… Along these lines, there is almost no sense in his writings that culture is a commercial enterprise, that people do it to make money.” (Mirsky, pp. 133-134)
[14] Moadei haRa”ayah pg. 193, cited in Zuckerman p. 192-193
[15] Igrot haRa”ayah I 158, found at
[16] Dr. Yehuda Gelman, The World of Rav Kook’s Thought pp. 195-197
[17] See, for example, much of Orot haTeshuvah
[18] Bereishit 33
[19] Bereishis Rabbah 78:14
[20] See also Rav Kook’s vision of art in, more on the R’ Kook-Brenner connection in and, and Brenner’s critique of Rav Kook  in And R’ Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook and the Brenner Affair at (available on Muse). And bio of Brenner at And Part 8 of