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Rav Kook’s Pre-Zionist Spiritual Diary

An important new publication, from manuscript, of first chief rabbi and leading thinker of religious Zionism Abraham Isaac Kook’s hitherto nearly unknown 1890’s spiritual diary reveals a man working out the tensions in his nascent theology

Yehudah Mirsky
August 14, 2018
Photo: Library of Congress
Rabbi Dr. Abraham I. Kook in 1924.Photo: Library of Congress
Photo: Library of Congress
Rabbi Dr. Abraham I. Kook in 1924.Photo: Library of Congress

One of the features distinguishing Rav Kook’s corpus from that of most every other major Jewish thinker is his recourse to the genre of the spiritual diary. Rav Kook wrote, of course, in a variety of traditional genres: textual commentary, sermonics, responsa, poetry, essays, moralizing tracts, in some ways never entirely finding himself in any of them. In some of his early works, the sermon collection titled Midbar Shur and his commentary to Talmudic Aggadah, ’Eyn Ayah, his prolixity and the mounting rush of his ideas overwhelm the respective genres of sermon and commentary, making them rough going for the average student (not to mention the intended listeners of Midbar Shur). The publication of his journals in their original form, from manuscript, starting with the monumental 1999 publication of Shemonah Qevatzim, continuing to the present, has dramatically deepened our understanding of his ideas, in particular the salience of the Kabbalah to his thought-world, and the centrality of his own efforts to make sense of his times and the tradition in light of one another.

Early 2018 saw the first publication, from manuscript, of Rav Kook’s first, hitherto nearly unknown, spiritual diary, written during the early 1890s, his years as rabbi of the Lithuanian shtetl of Zeimel, Metziot Qatan (literally, “A Minor’s Findings,” loosely based on BT Bava Metzia 12b). This lengthy work runs to 459 separate entries, and more than 500 printed pages. The meticulously done edition, edited by Rabbi Harel Kohen, contains detailed source notes for Rav Kook’s many allusions, cross references to his later works, and very helpful indices of where in his later, published oeuvre, passages from this work appeared. Much of the work has appeared elsewhere, including in various collection of responsa, in the sermons appended to later editions of his 1891 tract on phylacteries, Hevesh Pe’er, and elsewhere. But roughly half of this notebook has never been published before.

Taken as a whole, this journal strengthens our sense that a guiding preoccupation of his from the beginning was the dissolution of the very distinction between body and soul. This is in some ways perhaps the deepest infrastructural principle and telos of his thought. It is striking that Rav Kook developed this preoccupation in his notebook without any reference to the Land of Israel. But that it should later on have come to figure prominently in his thought-world, with profound theological and political consequences down to the present day, in light of this journal, makes all the sense in the world. Where he would have gone with these ideas had he not gone on aliyah in 1904, remains a tantalizing, unanswerable question.


It has long been noted that the vast body of Jewish literature contains few if any mystical autobiographies; Moshe Idel has attributed this to the tradition’s overwhelming emphasis on the collective personality of Israel, with a concomitantly “objectivistic type of discourse,” reflecting a cultural decision that the community is to be shaped by “common denominators that are religiously oriented, synchronized performances.” Only in 16th-century Safedian Kabbalah, Idel writes, do we first find full-fledged autobiography—from the hands of Yoseph Karo, Hayim Vital and Elazar Azikri—“their emergence is part of a larger phenomenon that may be described as the turn from an objective form of Kabbalah to a much more subjective one …” and is of a piece with the Messianic self-perception of the writers.

Jeffrey (Yossi) Chajes has helpfully discussed the problematiques of early modern Jewish spiritual diaries and their evasion of the neat genre divisions of autobiography and diary-keeping. He notes that the term “pinqas” first appears as designating some sort of spiritual diary—the sense in which Rav Kook used the term—in reference to a dream journal kept by the Sabbatean prophet Mordechai Ashkenazi (1650-1729). During the Middle Ages it meant “ledger book” and thus later lent itself to the notion of keeping a ledger for the soul. Chajes observes that this development seems of a piece with the practice of Puritan diary-keeping, with spiritual ledger-keeping reflecting a broader cultural process of disciplining the religious life. There is great truth in that, but even so, I believe, attending to the differences between Puritan diaries and the one we will examine here is instructive.

Tom Webster, in a very enlightening study of Puritan diaries, has described them under the Foucauldian rubric of “technology of the self.” The Puritan diary was, he writes, “a means by which the godly self was maintained, indeed constructed, through the action of writing.” Further, “(t)he act of writing, then, seems to have power in itself, writing becomes a way of validating experience.” Puritan diaries offer an ordering of experience, both internal and external, discerning patterns of the divine in one’s daily life, hopefully patterns that reveal salvation; and the patterns, as the diarists read their own lives, range from the “closed,” secure in their salvation, to the “open,” in which salvation is not yet assured. He points out the relationship between Puritan diary-keeping and the ledgering practices of early modern capitalism, which reflected what the philosopher Charles Taylor, in his monumental study of modern identity, Sources of the Self, has called “the punctual self.” This best-known Jewish adoption of this practice was the 19th-century Mussar movement founded by Rav Yisrael Salanter, and for that we have to thank none other than Benjamin Franklin, via the Haskalah educator, Menahem Mendel Lefin, and his 1809 book Heshbon Ha-Nefesh (“Moral Recokoning), which was its own translation of the “punctual self” into the idiom of traditional Judaism.

Just as the “punctual self” eventually transformed in Romanticism into the “expressive self,” finding meaning in its own recesses, so too the journal-keeping of Mussar and the rationally ordered sense of self it bespoke, gives way in Rav Kook’s journaling to a more expressive self. And yet unlike the Kabbalistic diaries of Vital and others, Rav Kook is not recording specific experiences in narrative form; rather his writing is the experience, the focal point of his own consciousness is created by the focusing act of his writing, and the comparatively disjointed nature of his journal entries is itself reflective of the divergent, indeed fragmented range of ideas and experiences he is trying to understand, both within himself and without, in the fragmented Jewish society of early 20th-century Russia.

Rav Kook’s journaling enabled him to register contradictory views and experiences, to try and square the circles of his commitment to tradition and his openness to the mutually antagonistic dimensions of his personality, and his times. (Indeed, it was in these years that Berdyczewski urged Hebrew writers to take up autobiography as the genre that makes for the greatest authenticity, precisely by registering the individual author in all his contradictions.) Rav Kook’s journal was thus an alternative forum to both Puritan journal-keeping and also to the highly structured genres of rabbinic literature that were his daily fare, a space for what Lewis White Beck has called “philosophical exhibition,” an embodiment of ideas as they register on the thinker; to which I might add that what the reader experiences as “exhibition,” Rav Kook seems, and especially once he moved to the Land of Israel, to have experienced as revelation. All this being said, there is a strong common denominator between Rav Kook’s journaling, that of the Kabbalists and of the Puritans—all seek to discern patterns of redemption; in Rav Kook’s distinctively modern idiom, that pattern is to be found precisely in the midst of seeming chaos.


The notebook he called Metziot Qatan freely mixes Halakhic, philosophical, sermonic and Kabbalistic discussion and affords an indispensable window into Rav Kook’s development in those crucial years of his first rabbinate. We can, for now, present an overview of this work, and in particular of the first appearances here of philosophical and theological themes which set the terms of many of Rav Kook’s future engagements. This in turn helps us better understand the roots of his thought and its trajectory over time.

Two questions predominate in this collection. The first is the relationship between the body, mind, and soul, and its corollary of the status of nature in God’s creation. The second is the relationship between Jewish and gentile morality, especially as regards ethics.

The very first paragraphs, bearing the title “Rosh Amanah” (from Song of Songs, 4:8) seem to be the beginning of a treatise on faith in a Maimonidean vein. “And this is the telos of the tiqun of the world in His kingdom, blessed be He, that there be nothing intruding between the commonwealth of matter and the commonwealth of mind.” Of course, worship through the corporeal was central to Hasidic teaching; he notes, echoing Hasidic terminology, that Temple sacrifices were “worship through bodily essences,” and then adds, weaving Lithuanian scholastic priorities with Hasidic ideas, that “Torah study, too, on lowly matters of civil law” is a form of worship through the corporeal “for thus the material is held by its heavenly root.”

This relation of body, mind, matter, and soul preoccupies him throughout the journal. While matter is related to nature, it is not identical to it. Thus, he writes, there are three levels of divine service—one who worships God only through his materiality, one who entirely subjugates matter to mind, and the greater of the two “who worship with the very nature of their matter.” Nature, in other words, connotes the very selfhood of something, its being what it most truly is. The idea of nature, in turn, becomes a conceptual lens for the differences between Jewish and Gentile worship. Those latter are, like Jews, created in God’s image, but “their character doesn’t have the power to rise above the limits of nature, and all that God asks of them is simply to keep the paths of beneficence, and not despoil their natures, not to follow the lusts of their heart, and violate the just laws of nature that God has created.” This, he says, is why fear of God is not included in the seven Noahide commandments. Israel, by contrast, is both within nature, and above it, at the same time.

Another aspect of his interest in this question becomes clear—his mourning for his wife, Bat Sheva (née Rabinowitz-Teomim), who died of pneumonia at age 22, in 1889. In a lengthy passage bearing the title, “Mussar Hokhmah “(“Reproof of Wisdom”) he writes that death vanquishes matter, but not life, “which is the root of will flowing onto motions and feeling.” Further on, he references the Talmudic sage Abaye’s statement that his prayer is gay rather than somber “because I lay tefillin” (BT Berakhot 30a). Abaye, Rav Kook writes, “saw and understood joy in his mind’s eye, and removed the memory of death from his eyes.”

Most interestingly, he relates this concern with the relation between the body and the mind to a more social and political question—the meaning and significance of disagreement, and of heresy, an interest of his echoing the vivid ideological disagreements of the time, and a question that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life. Of course, the natural body’s potential to corrupt the mind was for centuries a staple of Jewish ethics and moral philosophy. What is striking here, though, is his seeing that failing as the corruption of a fundamentally good, God-given nature, a nature that includes moral sentiments. This in turn makes possible, for him, a recasting of principled debate and disagreement, as the working out of the various elements of that God-given sense of the good. Thus, he says, peace is the fundamental character of the world, and the multiplicity of contending views of the good all point toward the final telos, the peace, which will emerge precisely from the cauldron of disagreement.

Speaking of those who rebel against the tradition, he singles out for reflection the most consequential of them all, Jesus.

And lo evil is clarified by human choice, which is to say that once evil has been separated from the good, and there remains in it a bit of good, this little bit of good, too, can raise itself … for in truth, the element of qelippah [in Kabbalistic terms,, the hard shell of failed divinity whose negative energy makes for the evil of this world] in the selfhood of the Messiah … descended, truly, into the body of that man [the classic rabbinic euphemism for Jesus] and thus inevitably he would have large vessels of his own … and he could have transformed himself to be good … then his own evil would have been clarified, and the good rise of itself, but he ruined it, flimsy he made it and rendered it false (after Ezek. 13:10-11) and preached disloyalty to God (after Isa. 32:6) and so ruined much for himself.

“And the good rise of itself.” This is no mere figure of speech, but relates to another, striking, idea: All of existence, not only human, but animal, vegetable and mineral too, in some way vibrates with divinity that strives to return to its source. “And so, when the light of God’s glorious presence will fill all the earth, just as the great flowing abundance will swell in each one, according to his worth, it can’t be that all this increase will not benefit all existents, each according to the worth of their selves.”

This journal not only reflects his growing preoccupations with theology and Aggadic literature, but also, as it proceeds, his reflections on that latter interest, a predilection out of step with the norms and expectations of Lithuanian yeshiva culture, in which Aggadah was deemed a subject unworthy of serious study: “And if one feels in himself at times that his thoughts are more polished in studying through the Aggadah for insight into the paths of the soul and ordering one’s thoughts, he should at that time, direct himself to that.” This bit of pedagogic insight draws on his burgeoning understanding as to the nature of the soul.

There is at times, another dimension, when there is roused in one a spirit of purity, to love God with a boundless love … and that certainly comes from a place supreme, and a moment like this certainly he should not forsake. And even if by this longing in love he refrains from studying Torah, at any rate, since he is being roused from Heaven, he should prepare himself in anticipation of God on high, our Father who Has loved us with an eternal love.

Alongside his theological and Aggadic explorations, the notebook brims with detailed Halakhic analyses, and his burgeoning self-consciousness extends as well to these seemingly disparate pursuits.

This is the distinction between the practical and the inner Torah. [i.e., the Torah as understood by Halakha, and by theology and Kabbalah.] For the practical, by its needing to define material particulars, cannot take in sweeping perspective by itself, but only by the repeated study of every particular … but the interiority of Torah all proceeds from the principle that God is perfect to the utmost and so one finds that this knowledge expands and proceeds according to the degree of the purity of the soul.

This in turn leads him to an insight in terms of human interpersonal relations: “And so it is utterly impossible for one to know the mental state of another even when he explains it to him …”

Here, Rav Kook is working to manage the seeming tensions between Talmudism and spiritual strivings by seeing them as complementary rather than antithetical, and speaking to different dimensions of one’s relationship to God, and thus of God Himself.

Excerpted from Towards the Mystical Experience of Modernity: The Making of Rav Kook, 1865-1904, by Yehudah Mirsky, forthcoming from Academic Studies Press.

Yehudah Mirsky is a former US State Department official. He teaches Judaic and Israel Studies at Brandeis University, and is the author of Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution. His twitter feed is @YehudahMirsky.