April 13, 2024
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Savoring a New Translation of ‘Orot’ By Rav Kook

“Orot,” by Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, translated with footnotes and introductions by Rabbi Bezalel Naor (Maggid Books, 2015)

Thirty-five years ago, as a young 17-year-old I traveled to Israel to study at Yeshivat Har Etzion at the feet of two giants of Torah and Yirat Shamayim, Rabbi Yehuda Amital and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, both of blessed memory. What I didn’t realize was that I would also be exposed to a new world of thought that was for all intents and purposes entirely unknown to the Modern Orthodox world of the United States at the time: the thought of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook zt”l.

In those years, the overwhelming figure of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l and his teachings so dominated the lifeblood of the community that, except for a few notable exceptions such as Dr. Norman Lamm and R. Shalom Carmy, no one in the Unites States really knew much nor often spoke or wrote much about Rav Kook’s actual thought. Instead, most people had some type of mythic view of this giant and his role in modern-Jewish history without truly understanding his dense writings or complex world view.

In the intervening decades the situation has radically changed for the better. More and more young people have gone on to study in Israel and been exposed to serious engagement with the thought of the “Kohen ha-Gadol Mei-Echav”—(lit.—the high priest exalted above his brothers). In addition, through the work of scholars and educators such as R. Shalom Carmy, Dr. David Shatz, R. Moshe Weinberger, R. Yitzchak Blau and Dr. Yehudah Mirsky, as well as the translation of works by Israeli scholars such as Dr. Benjamin Ish Shalom, R. Yoel Bin Nun and Dr. Tamar Ross, the thick and rich thought of Rav Kook has become more accessible and known in English-speaking circles. One of the most significant and thoughtful scholars who has made a major and lasting contribution to the revolution in the learning of Rav Kook’s works is the independent scholar Rabbi Betzalel Naor of Monsey, NY. For more than 25 years, R. Naor has been translating numerous works of Rav Kook into English as well as publishing popular essays and scholarly articles on the teachings of Rav Kook.

One of his first projects more than 20 years ago was translating Rav Kook’s seminal work, Orot. This small volume edited by Rav Kook’s son, Rav Tzvi Yehuda zt”l, was published in Hebrew in 1920 and contained collected essays on the return of the Jewish people to its ancient homeland, the Zionist movement, Jewish history, the impact of WWI and the nature of the momentous events that the collective was undergoing. It was one of the most sustained analysis of the Jewish condition at the time by a writer of elite rabbinic status and utilized Rav Kook’s deep mystical and rabbinic knowledge as well as the power of his poetry and imaginative faculties. This powder-keg of a book created a firestorm in many circles as Rav Kook’s views were alternately embraced by many idealistic youth while rejected in strong terms by the leadership of the Yishuv Hayashan, the precursors of today’s anti-Zionist wing of Hareidi society, and were met with suspicion by the more moderate elements of the Yishuv Hayashan that would go on to become the precursors to mainstream Haredi leadership.

Maggid Publishing last year reissued a wonderful dual-language edition of this classic of hashkafa with R. Naor’s elegant translation that is accompanied by excellent and enlightening footnotes. R. Naor has a deep mastery of Rav Kook scholarship and deploys it ably in his translation and footnotes, which help unravel some of the more esoteric portions of Rav Kook’s writing.

Moreover, the volume actually contains two books in one. Besides the Hebrew and English texts of Orot with footnotes, the book contains the original lengthy introduction to the first edition as well as a new shorter introduction as well. This essay is a tour de force that outlines for the reader the historical and conceptual background behind the publishing of Orot as well as the ins and outs of its reception in various circles in Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora at the time. R. Naor navigates us through the various reactions to the book and the crucial meetings that Rav Kook had with various rabbinic leaders such as the Gerrer Rebbe. We are transported back in time to the streets of Yerushalayim of the 1920s and gain a deeper, more nuanced understanding of some of the controversies that laid the groundwork for the present-day disputes and suspicions between the Religious-Zionist and Haredi communities in Israel.

Rereading this work with the introductions and footnotes of R. Naor gives one a deep and rich understanding of the background to the book, its reception and its true and complete meaning and value in its original context. R. Naor is to be applauded for continuing to bring the writings of Rav Kook, a unique thinker, leader and Torah giant who bestrode our world like a colossus at such a critical juncture in the history of our people. Rav Kook embraced the Jewish people in its totality and his message continues to resonate with so many today. As R. Naor wrote in another essay a number of years back:

When the Rebbe of Gur, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter (“Imrei Emet”), duly impressed by Rav Kook’s many talents, remarked that Rav Kook could have 100,000 hasidim (perhaps the number of Gerrer Hasidim in pre-Holocaust Poland), Rav Kook was quick to reply: “I think only about klal Yisrael, the Jewish people as a whole!”

If we had to sum up Rav Kook’s teaching in a single word (which became the bon mot of his son Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda), it would be:“Klaliyut” (universality). It was that unitive vision that enabled Rav Kook to open the conversation between the disciples of the Vilna Gaon and the disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov; between secularists and pietists; between Russian Jews and Yemenite Jews; and between Jews and Arabs.

By Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is chair of the Dept. of Torah She’Baal Peh at the SAR High School in New York City, and rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ.

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