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Seeker Finds Master—and Transcendence

One century ago today, on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Elul, Rabbi David Cohen, an avowed Nazirite, kabbalist, and philosopher, met his Rebbe

Josh Rosenfeld
August 14, 2015
Shabbat Makor
David Cohen. Shabbat Makor
Shabbat Makor
David Cohen. Shabbat Makor

The act of teaching is practically a declaration of Jewish faith, formalized as a supreme religious duty in the shema prayer. Teachers and their students, from the Bible to the digital age, are the guarantors of Judaism’s historical longevity, the durability of tradition, and at times—usually through charismatic teachers—its radical renewal.

One of the most resonant examples of such a teacher-student relationship occurred exactly one century ago today, on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Elul, in St. Gallen, Switzerland. The ramifications and reverberations from this meeting still echo powerfully in contemporary Jewish and Zionist thought. The French scholar and philosopher André Neher sets the scene for this soul-encounter in his beautiful prose:

It was a burning night…The incident happened during the first World War, but the event had no connection with anything that was taking place outside. It was in the innermost depths of his soul that everything happened in one single night for David Cohen.

Young David Cohen, later to be known formally as ha-Rav ha-Nazir, or simply “The Nazir,” remains a sui generis figure in the annals of modern Jewish history. The title “Nazir” refers to the biblical vow undertaken by a man or woman seeking religious inspiration and depth, highlighted by abstention from wine and haircuts. David Cohen was one of only a handful of such people in the millennia since the destruction of the temples. Born to a rabbinic family in the town of Maisiagala, Lithuania, in 1887, David Cohen displayed a unique combination of traditional Talmudic prowess and an insatiable intellectual curiosity even in his early Yeshiva days. From a young age, the Nazir found himself drawn to texts that lay outside the purview of the Yeshiva curriculum, some of which were even forbidden outright.

While he sought even then to reconcile this inner tension, an entry in his remarkable diary exhibit his sincere resolution later in life, upon his first visit to the Western Wall, to stop apologizing for his turmoil and rather to transcend it entirely:

And here, I sealed a covenant between myself and the God of Israel; There are no words to express that which dwells in the innermost reaches of my heart and soul. All the deep philosophical questions have passed over me, and now I feel so, so close to God… a new spirit has descended upon me here, traces of prophecy at the center of the heart of the Jewish people, all connected and intertwined in this place.

The desire for transcendence, for the holy unification of opposites and ultimate synthesis of all things in the quest for God serves an accurate description of the essence of David Cohen’s oeuvre and life’s work. He is famous for his unusual combination of asceticism and aestheticism, marked by his Nazirite vow and the accompanying flowing locks, months-long “speech fasts” during the High Holiday months, and evenings of public Torah study in his home accompanied by music and poetry. He writes of what can only be described as “vision-quests” in the Judean desert and his lifelong goal of attaining the level of prophecy, of which he records brushes with toward the end of his life.

His magnum opus, Kol ha-Nevu’ah, subtitled “The Hebrew Auditory Logic” outlines the systematic way in which this might be conceived through a curated tour of the gamut of Jewish thought, replete with scholarly footnotes that are as quick to quote Leibniz as Leviticus. The publishing foundation led by his son, Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen (formerly Chief Rabbi of Haifa) continues to publish very fine editions of R. Cohen’s lectures on a surprisingly wide range of Jewish scholarly pursuits, from Kabbalah to expositions on Talmudic logic.

Despite his considerable personal output and teaching (he lectured for years in the Mercaz ha-Rav Yeshiva in Jerusalem), the Nazir is perhaps best known for his relationship with his teacher, Rabbi Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook (1865-1935), first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, a figure who himself was known for his profound search for spiritual transcendence and the synthesis of all things under the rubric of the holy. Rav Kook was a mystic, Halakhist, and deeply original thinker who is today seen as the primary rabbinic figure in Religious Zionism. It is difficult to overstate the reverent image of Rav Kook in the Religious Zionist community, as his openness, acceptance, and even sanctification of the non-Religious foundations of the Zionist project form a foundation for their contemporary worldview.

The story of their meeting is one in which two lives are fused together, with the distinct markings of divine orchestration. At the age of 28, David Cohen, at a crossroads in his life, had been shuttling from place to place, studying Torah at the Slabodka Yeshiva and the special kollel for advanced students endowed by of Baron David Ginsburg. From frustrating teaching positions to a sojourn amongst enlightened German Orthodoxy culminating in serious engagement with Western Philosophy in the University of Freiburg, David Cohen wrote of his near-constant feelings of restlessness and alienation.

After the breakout of the first World War, Cohen received word that Rav Kook was stuck in limbo in neutral Switzerland, hampered from returning to the Holy Land after a trip to Europe for the Agudat Yisrael Convention, held in Germany. Kook would spend more than a year there, before heading to London to serve as Rabbi of the Mahazikei ha-Dat synagogue.

Cohen traveled to meet Kook and reached St. Gallen on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Elul. Cohen describes that fateful morning and the preparations for it in his diaries. After a ritual dip in the Rhine, and armed with a book of Kabbalah in hand and expectations for “a new period in my life to begin,” he made his way to where R. Kook was staying. He found Kook studying Halakha with his son, and a rather disappointing discussion of Greek philosophy and literature ensued upon this first meeting. Cohen, again frustrated, decided to stay and recalls “a sleepless, restless night” where he felt “my entire life hung in the balance… of the outcome of this decisive encounter.”

One can only wonder what would have become of David Cohen if not for hearing early next morning with the breaking dawn: “…footsteps pacing here and there, the morning blessings, the akedah recital, in such a lofty song, from the primordial heavens, recalling the love of our ancestors. I listened, and I was transformed, I became a new, different person. After these prayers, I hurried to write down that I had found more than which I had prayed for—I had found a Rebbe.”

With a “new heart and a new spirit,” the Nazir embarked on the final phase in his life, as a student of Rav Kook. It would be another seven years before they would meet again, this time in Jerusalem, where Cohen testified to not leaving his teacher’s side for a moment, learning from him day and night. One day, he approached his beloved master and asked: “Rebbe, there is holiness and spirit here – is there also a system of your Torah that we might pass on?” Kook’s affirmative answer led to Cohen’s decision to dedicate much of the rest of his life to “clarifying, organizing, and expounding the master’s teachings.” His description of these fateful encounters later graced the introduction he penned to the first edition Orot ha-Kodesh, his monumental four-volume presentation and systematization of Rav Kook’s religious philosophy, which Rav Kook blessed as a work that was as much the Nazir’s as his own.

Josh Rosenfeld is the Assistant Rabbi at Lincoln Square Synagogue and on the Judaic Studies Faculty at SAR High School. Follow him on Twitter @shuaros.