“Lovers of Humanity”: Rav Kook, Christianity, and the Ongoing Censorship of His Writings

In the year 1920, a twelve-page pamphlet was written and distributed in pre-Israel Palestine called Kol Shofar.[i] It contained an extended criticism of and invective against Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was then the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. Some of the criticism was directed toward Rav Kook’s support of secular education. Some criticism targeted his positive comments about the hilonim, the non-religious (and at times anti-religious) Jews of then-Palestine. One of the more interesting claims of the pamphlet was that Rav Kook was a lover of Christianity. They paraphrased a line from Rav Kook’s 1906 essay Derekh HaTehiyah, in which he wrote about certain positive attributes of Jesus, such as Jesus’ “wonderful personal power, his personal power is great.” The pamphlet mocked Rav Kook’s statement, applying these characteristics to Rav Kook himself as a founder of a new Christian-like cult.

Betzalel Naor argues that these accusations of “Christophilia” are completely false.[ii] Not only, he argues, does the very line from Derekh HaTehiyah that praises Jesus denigrate his lack of intellectual and ethical training, Orot itself is a “sustained intellectual battle… [that] hammers away, piece after piece, at the moral turpitude, hypocrisy, and spiritual inadequacy of the Church.”[iii] Thus, Naor argues, since Rav Kook made many statements that denigrate Jesus and the Church, “If anything, ‘Christophobia’ would more likely be the word to describe Rav Kook’s attitude toward Christian civilization.”[iv]

That the authors of the Kol Shofar pamphlet were shocked at the slightest hint of praise toward Jesus, is not surprising. But from this “battle” over Rav Kook’s views, we can clearly see here a complex and perhaps contradictory picture of Rav Kook’s stand on the matter. The reason for this is that Rav Kook’s full position on Christianity has been systematically and intentionally obscured by the followers of Rav Kook’s son, Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook.

This censorship occurring through the publishing house Makhon Rav Tzvi Yehudah is more common than previously thought, extensively discussed by Professor Marc Shapiro on SeforimBlog.[v] He cites several examples where comparing the original manuscripts with the printed version indicates heavy censorship of Rav Kook’s more radical ideas. We especially see this in a “leaked” online version of an unedited notebook from Rav Kook’s time in Boisk (1896-1904). Because of the “leak” (the motivations of which I have been unable to ascertain), we have gotten a glimpse of the censorship that occurs when Rav Kook’s writings are published.[vi]

This relatively new notebook is interesting in its own right. Rav Kook’s closest student, Rabbi David Cohen (known as the Nazir of Jerusalem) named the notebook in his commentary to Rabbi Judah HaLevi’s Kuzari as “Moreh Nevukhim HaHadash” - “The New Guide for the Perplexed.” As one can imagine, it contains extended essays on major points in Rav Kook’s worldview that attempt to resolve some of the most vexing problems in Judaism of the time. Soon after the leak, the Mekhon Rav Tzvi Yehudah published the “official” version of this book, in Pinkesei ha-Re’iyah, vol. 2. Since both the censored and uncensored versions are available, one can clearly see that, again, the censorship is heavy-handed.

Sometimes, one can understand the caution, but sometimes it is quite difficult. As Rav Pesach Wolicki of Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah pointed out to me, it is true that Rav Kook did not necessarily write many of his notebooks for straight publication, and their haphazard style and random content indicate that they were surely not meant to be published without some editorial process; thus, the censorship could be justified. Naor himself points out that the controversy surrounding Rav Kook’s writings had such an effect on him that in 1924, prior to the publishing of Rav Kook’s Orot HaTeshuvah, Rav Kook sent a letter to his son R. Tzvi Yehudah Kook begging him to be more careful in publishing Rav Kook’s writings. “For God’s sake,” he writes, “be exacting that nothing is issued which is not thoroughly explained.”[vii] But some edits are unclear in their intent, occasionally taking out from one notebook something that already appeared without fanfare elsewhere. As Professor Shapiro notes, there have been many of these “edits” with regard to Rav Kook’s view of the ceasing of animal sacrifices, even though we know his views from elsewhere.[viii] Indeed, sometimes the censorship is not just protecting Rav Kook, but even changing the thrust of his thought, or even his view entirely, which is surely a larger offense.

We can understand why, for example, a chapter of this new notebook (Chapter 13 according to the uncensored version)[ix] was removed in the censored version that refers to the future Sanhedrin’s ability to reform and reinterpret Scripture according to the needs of the generation. This is something that could be misunderstood as pushing for Reform understanding of Jewish law. But sometimes, the purpose of some censorship seems to be more personal.

For example, Chapter 14 (again, according to the uncensored version)[x] refers to the changing reasons for mitsvot in each generation. His argument in that chapter is that it is important to provide modern reasons for the commandments, in addition to the way it would have been viewed in the time of the Torah. For example, he writes, the reason the Torah commands men not to (Lev. 19:27) “destroy the corners of your beard,” was originally because the post-Exodus Jewish man had the freedom to grow a beard, which was considered a symbol of prestige. The Torah wanted to encourage that feeling of prestige. Even though, Rav Kook argues, modern man does not view the beard as prestigious, and it is actually a cleanly-shaven face that is considered nicer, one may not change one iota of detail from the Torah. Further, it is good to have a culture where beards connect us to a time where this was considered holy and prestigious. This seems to be a weak attempt to justify the Torah prohibition in the face of changing times, a time which he admits no longer grants beards this significance. If his point is to show why Jewish men should grow beards today, the best he could come up with seems to remain as solely a connection to the past.

This is only strange in the Mekhon R. Tzvi Yehudah version, because that is where his discussion of beards ends.[xi] But in the uncensored version, there is another small paragraph about this. Rav Kook speculates interestingly that the rabbis of the Talmud knew that there would be times when beards would fall out of fashion, and that is the reason they found leniencies to use scissors and other ways to remove the beard. Loopholes, he writes, are sometimes important to maintain both the spirit and letter of the law, and keep us connected with a law that would otherwise not make sense today. Indeed, he makes similar arguments in his massively innovative work about hetter mekhira, Shabbat HaArets. So why is this censored? It seems that this is less a guarding of Rav Kook, and more a guarding of the bearded lifestyles of the followers of Rav Tzvi Yehudah.

Let us return, then, to the issue of Rav Kook’s supposed Christophobia. The subject of Christianity and other religions in general is much-discussed in Li-Nevukhei ha-Dor, and was heavily censored as well. This should not come as such a surprise - with the background we saw above and Rav Tzvi Yehudah’s reaction to controversies over his father. In this notebook, Rav Kook argues extensively for a Hegelian-like view of knowledge and truth. That is, all of history is guided by some divine Spirit that causes all historical movements to move toward a unified truth.[xii] With this, Rav Kook allows for truth within Christianity and Islam, a truth that Jews should not seek to tamper with. Indeed, there is tremendous value in encouraging Christians and Muslims to stay true to their beliefs, because they will be lost without this guiding movement they have become used to. The censorship of these passages robs modern Judaism of a beautiful framework in which to view other religions.

Indeed, finding purpose to other religions started before Rav Kook. Maimonides himself had a controversial view of Christianity and Islam in his Laws of Kings (11:4), which was also censored. Maimonides famously writes that there is a divine purpose for Christianity and Islam. Though “there is no greater stumbling block than Christianity,” and the relentless Christian persecution of Jews has scattered us and nearly destroyed us, still, the world is now a step closer to a messianic movement that allows for a messianic age to occur. God’s plans are inscrutable, he writes, but it seems that through the widespread adoption of Christianity and Islam, the end-of-days state predicted by the prophets such as Zephaniah is that much easier to achieve.

This concept, that God’s providence can use human religious activity and turn it into a tool for perfection of the world, for Rav Kook, allows for even greater acceptance and possibility of truth in other religions. In the censored Chapter 8 of Li-Nevukhei ha-Dor, Rav Kook argues that all religions that allow for the development of higher moral values are hitting on a divine truth that is important and valuable. With this belief in divine providence, he grants the possibility that the leaders who founded those religions could have truly had a low form of prophecy (“divine ideas”), and even actually performed miracles (“perceptible wonders”). Since this may be surprising, I have provided my own translation of this section below.[xiii]

It is possible that the founders [of those religions] had a divine idea for them to strive to improve the impressionable part of humanity however much they could. For this purpose, it is possible that some perceptible wonders were prepared for them, if they needed to strengthen [their messages], since this is relevant to humanity’s improvement, for the hand of God stretches from the beginning of existence to the end. However, the mistaken aspects that got mixed into [those religions] is only that which [makes] it impossible for their formula to be the true formula for guidance to perfection’s end, for it is fitting that there be [just] one spiritual center in the world.

For Rav Kook, Judaism is certainly a correct system since it believes in monotheism along with the belief that there can only be one spiritual authoritative center to guide the world, which for him will create ultimate unity of humanity. As he states in Chapter 7,[xiv]

Just as it is impossible for the system of an individual state to develop except through a central body that is situated in one place, a king, or a legislature, so too the world cannot reach the perfection of this system unless there was some set center in one place…

It makes sense that in apportioning to every nation the field of endeavor that is unique to it,[xv] the field of perfected spirituality of life would fall into the domain of Israel, for they are suited to this through the Torah of God that they have, and because of the fitness of their elevated spirit for things that are very lofty, and from the standpoint of their share in general history, which is their longstanding mission to enlighten the world with knowledge of God even in the darkest and most hateful times, and how much more so in times of light and love.

Absent this belief that all nations must work together in their unique talents, with Judaism in Israel focusing on spiritual growth, other religions have made a mistake. Besides for this error, humanity nevertheless improves through religion; the divine progression of religious communities goes so far as to allow even the possibility that their founders performed miracles.

Rav Kook admits that granting truth to other religions is not a common one in Judaism. He states in the censored Chapter 14a[xvi]:

There are other people who think that a person can only properly have perfect faith in the Moses’ true Torah so long as one also believes that other faiths are all “false and foolish”, and that there is nothing positive in holding fast to them. But it’s not true. However, there are ideas that the Jewish nation are accustomed to which cause much of the masses to think this. This view is indeed useful in that it sometimes strengthens Jewish faith in the hearts of fools, for they cannot understand the lofty value and the holiness of our holy Torah without also thinking of other faiths as mistaken and completely useless. But, there is also much evil that comes from this view if it is not corrected. For, the contempt that is imprinted deep in the heart of the masses for other faiths, also causes people to be secular, wicked people who also consider pure Jewish faith the same in this regard, and they say, “Both ways are equal, this is a faith and that is a faith.”

Thus, not only is it a false notion, but it damages the Jewish religion to believe that other religions have nothing redeeming about them, or are not on the path of truth. Rav Kook was evidently concerned with the implications that such a belief holds when one of our own leaves our path. When such a person is taught that all other religions are false, and then later comes to the belief that his own religion is false, Judaism lose him to atheism and pure secularism, instead of perhaps a lower level of religious Judaism, or some other religious outlook.[xvii]

Be that as it may, Rav Kook has to contend with the overwhelming textual precedent for the belief that the Torah view has exclusive access to the truth. For example, why is idolatry not also to be viewed as reaching toward the truth, and therefore held in such a positive light? Obviously, such an approach is rebutted by the many verses describing the forbiddenness of idolatry and idol-worship, the majority of the few things that are called a toevah - abomination - in the Torah, generally relate to idolatry.

However, Rav Kook makes a distinction:[xviii]

From the standpoint of it being an impediment, where idolatry impedes the collective good of God’s light from coming to the world, in that respect all types of idolatry are equally bad… However, there is another side as well, which is that the basis of idolatry comes from a crass aspect, for it is impossible for them to elevate themselves to a greater level, of the purity of mind required to recognize the glory of the one God, Master of all creation, blessed be He… within that, not all idolatries are the same. For sometimes there are nations whose ethics lift them up, to the extent that despite the fact that they are idolaters, they are standing on the proper level through morality, with [good] character traits, and respect, and the civil ones and their ways of idol worship are not so disgusting and filled with abomination as others are. Therefore, one cannot assume that all idolatrous nations are of one viewpoint and one way.

Behold, even within idolatry, there are sparks of morality. From the perspective of their fear [of their gods], they separate themselves from things that are very evil, every nation according to its ideas, and they bring themselves close to good deeds within human society nevertheless. And the accustoming to good deeds, and the distancing from evil, acts to purify man’s soul. And coming generations, even from these idolaters themselves, are already more prepared for the true light. For through the light of the good character traits and good deeds of the worthy religions that are found among the idolaters, guide the religious, bring them to recognize how distant they stand from the great light that is the knowledge of the glory of the one God, and they will cause themselves to convert the people to a clear language, all of them (Genesis 4:26) “to call in the name of God.”

The Torah’s approach describes the type of idolatry that is completely immoral. But Rav Kook argues that that doesn’t negate the possibility of an idolatrous nation that is quite moral, which is not something to denigrate. In this, he joins the camp of Meiri, who stated that the Talmudic stand on non-Jews was only insofar as those non-Jews described were crass and evil people.[xix] He finds support for the concept of individuals of other nations seeing the light in their limited way from the famous line of Tanna D’bei Eliyahu: “I call heaven and earth to witness that whether man or woman, whether servant or maidservant, whether gentile or Jew, the Holy Spirit rests upon a person according to his deed.”[xx]

Yet, what of Judaism’s many halakhic prohibitions that separate Jews from non-Jews? Jews are forbidden from drinking their wine, eating their food, and are generally asked to keep far away from them in many aspects. If their religion is valuable, shouldn’t there be interaction and an exchange of ideas? This, too, is discussed by Rav Kook in a fascinating way:[xxi]

…One should not decide that an entire religion is mistaken, to release those who hold fast to it, to humiliate them, except as much as is appropriate to arouse in ourselves of [knowledge of] the great Good and the holy inheritance that improves us, who “separated us from those who have strayed and gave us the Torah of truth, and implanted eternal life within us.”

The guarding [from], and the distancing, that is appropriate for every Jew especially, to distance himself from getting close to the ways of other religions, in their customs, and their religious ethics, should always be weighed in the same way as the chaste distancing from his fellow’s wife, which shouldn’t come from jealousy and meanness, rather from purity of the soul, and holiness in one’s traits and actions. Because, just like active closeness and signs of love are nice and beautiful to beautify and improve family life, so is the opposite by a foreign man who can sully family life and its purity. With our distancing ourselves from that foreign woman, we are lovers of humanity, who strive for its welfare.

Meaning, the purpose of Jews keeping a distance from other religions is a two-way street. Judaism believes it is the correct way for the Jewish people, but also believes that non-Jews should not take on Jewish ideals, which he believes could disturb the non-Jew’s national unity and moral development. He compares this relationship with non-Jews to a relationship with a friend’s wife. Jews should recognize that their “wife”, i.e. religion, is an important relationship that Jews should not wish to disturb. This is a significant move - Jews are not only concerned for their own relationship to God as part of Judaism; Jews should be reluctant to disturb others’ religious and moral growth as well. Jews keep a distance from non-Jews because Jews love them so, as “lovers of humanity.”

All of these ideas were removed from the Mekhon Rav Tzvi Yehudah version. But with these comments (and this author limited this discussion to just a few paragraphs from the book), one must conclude that Rav Kook is not “Christophilic,” nor “Christophobic,” but rather a lover of all humanity and the movements of the world. Rav Kook creates a significant and meaningful framework in which to look at other religions, which allows for basic respect and esteem of others. Without this relatively recent “leak” of Rav Kook’s unedited ideas, one would rightly conclude like Betzalel Naor’s position that Rav Kook should be considered through his published comments as Christophobic. The Jewish public deserves to be aware of these expansive and tolerant perspectives, especially today when intolerance is so rampant.

Aryeh Sklar is a Revel graduate student in Jewish philosophy, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] See Betzalel Naor, Orot (New Jersey: Aronson, 1993), 14-44, 50-51

[ii] Betzalel Naor, Orot (New Jersey: Aronson, 1993), 51

[iii] ibid.

[iv] ibid.

[v] See http://seforim.blogspot.com/2010/10/marc-b-shapiro-new-writings-from-r-kook.html, http://seforim.blogspot.com/2011/08/new-writings-from-r-kook-and-assorted.html, and http://seforim.blogspot.com/2010/04/marc-shapiro-r-kook-on-sacrifices-other.html

[vi] Available here https://kavvanah.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/kook-nevuchai.pdf. Also available in print form for around a year (2014) through Yediot Aharonot, based on the Bar Ilan doctorate of R. Shachar Rachmeni. References to pages will be from the online version.

[vii] Naor 60

[viii] See http://seforim.blogspot.com/2010/04/marc-shapiro-r-kook-on-sacrifices-other.html

[ix] Page 57.

[x] Page 69

[xi] See page 65 of the Mekhon Rav Tzvi Yehudah version

[xii] See page 4, for example, through which he uses this argument to allow for an Aristotelian eternal world as long as one includes this divine progression of the world’s development.

[xiii] Page 31

[xiv] Page 27

[xv] This concept of special areas of each nation to focus on, and the Jews having spirituality as theirs, may have been inspired by the Volkgeist of Johann Gottfried von Herder.

[xvi] Page 71. The “a” here is my translation for how it was written in the notebook as “14-one”. He repeated chapter numbers, perhaps as a statement that he was rearranging topics, or perhaps that he didn’t like the original chapter and was replacing it.

[xvii] See also Chapter 12, which focuses on the problem of viewing Judaism like other religions where belief is more important than action. By viewing them as the same, some Jews see actions as external expressions of internal beliefs, which inevitably create the incorrect sense (to Rav Kook) that thought is more important than action in Judaism, like it is in other religions. This allows context for people to stop performing the mitsvot, as they view them as less important.

[xviii] Page 74

[xix] He was well-aware of Meiri’s position on non-Jews, and indeed uses it in halakhic arguments for hetter mehira in Shabbat ha-Aretz. See also, for example, Iggerot ha-Raaya 1:89, where he states explicitly that the law “principally follows the Meiri, that all nations that are bound to proper conduct between people are considered foreign residents (gerim toshavim) with regards to all duties towards man.”

[xx] Tanna D’bei Eliyahu 9

[xxi] Page 75