Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi in pre-state Israel, among other achievements. He is considered one of the fathers of religious Zionism.
Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel], Kook wrote, was the spatial center of holiness in the world, radiating holiness vertically to the Jews who lived upon the Land as well as horizontally to other portions and peoples of the earth. The spirit of the Land was entirely pure and clean, while spirit elsewhere was mired in kelipot, or “husks” of impurity. The air of the land really did “make one wise,” as the Rabbis had said.
In a typical elevation of sociology to theology, Kook argued that the Jewish imagination outside the Land had become stunted and even deformed. The cause was not merely assimilation to Gentile cultures possessed of far less light and holiness than Israel. In addition, the Jews had depleted over two millennia the store of creativity carried away with them into exile. During their absence, the flow of spirit had ceased; its gradual diminishing was responsible for the character of galut [Diaspora] life. Realizing these facts, the Jews had grasped the urgency of return. Moreover, since the entire world was poor in holiness and sunk in wickedness, it was utterly dependent upon the Jews for a renewal of light and spirit. Israel’s return to the Land would thus mark the end of a worldwide era of darkness and initiate the redemption of all humanity.
It is astounding to react such claims in a 20th-century work. Instead of engaging in apologetic, Kook merely notes that the unique qualities of the Holy Land cannot be comprehended by reason. Once his assumptions have been granted, however, they legitimate a powerful critique of galut life and galut Judaism, and sanctify political activities and conceptions that would otherwise have been unacceptable. The Jewish spirit meant to guide the rest of creation had sunk to imitation of “the uncircumcised” Gentiles, while the Jewish body, sorely neglected in exile, had suffered a comparable impoverishment The full and varied character of Jewish life could not achieve expression, given oppression and exposure to foreign winds.
For Kook, this low estate explained a phenomenon, which rightly understood, was a contradiction in terms: Jewish atheism. Many Jews of thoughtful and moral character had cast off their inherited faith, only because that Jewish faith had degenerated to the point where superstition passed for true belief, and Jewish practice had become frozen in old forms.
However, the people of Israel was inseparable in its very essence from God. Many Jewish souls had expressed their rebellion, therefore, precisely by returning to the Land of Israel, where God’s spirit most reposed–thereby releasing the light trapped in exilic husks, and facilitating the renewal of Jewish religion. Both thought and practice would return to their original purity once the nation had returned to full life upon its holy soil. Atheism and rejection of the “yoke of the commandments” would gradually disappear.
Kook could therefore embrace the Zionist project even though he, no less than other rabbis, knew it to be essentially secular. Qualms about the legitimacy of a movement led by professed atheists and characterized by public disregard of the commandments were silenced by the confidence that in God’s good time, soon to be upon us, such deviance would be seen as the “arrogance” that tradition had said would accompany the first footsteps of the Messiah. Kook criticized departures from halakhah [Jewish law], but at the same time asserted that “every labor and activity, spiritual or material, that contributes directly or indirectly to the ingathering of our exile and the return of our people to our Land is embraced by me with an affection of soul that knows no bounds.”
Even more important, Kook could explain away the clear inapplicability of halakhah as it had taken shape over two millennia of exile to the actual conditions of the Land and society, which he wished that halakhah to govern. The law’s insufficiencies were the result of exilic darkness, and needed correction. The profane indecencies of the Yishuv [the modern Jewish settlement in the Land] were a necessary stage to be endured and transcended. Thesis and antithesis would give way to synthesis; so worked the God of Spirit.