Rav Kook’s Love-Hate Relationship

Tisha B’Av comes early this year, which seems grimly appropriate given the deep sense of foreboding in Israel, and in Jerusalem, the hatreds from without and within pendant in the air.

It is commonplace around Tisha B’Av to recall the famous talmudic dictum that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless or freely given hatred, and gloss it with the statement of the great modern mystic, jurist and theologian Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) that as a result the Temple will be rebuilt only by ahavat chinam, baseless or freely given love. This last statement is often understood as almost a rabbinic version of the Beatles’ “all you need is love,” a great oceanic embrace that will wash away our furies.

But I’m afraid I’m not buying it this year; because I am by no means sure that what my very tortured city and society need is a great big hug, and because I am by no means sure that that is what Rav Kook himself had in mind.

The historical context for Kook’s thinking, shaped both by Kabbalah and modern philosophy, is the extraordinary and bewildering ideological struggles that accompanied the collapse of traditional Jewish society in the 19th century and the creation of a new Jewish society in Palestine. He sought to articulate a stance that would honor those differences he saw as grounded in genuine commitments to authentic Jewish values such as universalist ethics, nationalism, halachic observance and spiritual striving.

No relativist or conventional liberal, Rav Kook believed that there is such a thing as The Truth, but that it is multi-faceted and practically beyond human comprehension. All the various factions, parties and ideologies express the internal complexity of God’s manifestations in the world, and all must come to self-expression if the world is to be redeemed in the end. In other words, you must be true to yourself and your convictions, as must your opponents, since no human being has a monopoly on truth. That last recognition makes for the humility that brakes the inherent violence of ultimate conviction.

Exiled in London in the midst of World War I, Kook wrote that strife and contention emerge from the contradictions embedded in the very stuff of life. Hatred is the primal response of a living being that feels its own vitality is under attack, and that underlying, pulsating vitality can become the ground of love, and of freedom. Sinat chinam and ahavat chinam, in other words, are best understood not as “freely given” or “baseless,” but as hatred and love “given in freedom,” expressing the will and the truest self. And that is why, as Kook wrote, “the evil inclination towards freely given hatred embraces within it the secret of love, which, like it, is a love given in freedom, and the light of peace and fulfillment is secreted only in her.”

Watching the slaughter of the trenches, Kook was trying to think his way to a position that, while recognizing the inevitability of human conflict and the futility of wishing it away, would find, in the élan vital coursing through all the parties, a shared life-affirming humanity. He does, to be sure, come perilously close to affirming conflict as a kind of self-expression, and, here as elsewhere, he was playing with fire. Liberals like me are always, and justifiably, trying to tamp the flames, happily trading a measure of passion for peace in the public square. And yet, I find myself kindling to this empowering reading of ahavat chinam.

In Israel, those of us advocating liberalism and pluralism regularly find ourselves losing to the hard left and hard right. Our endless ability to see the complexity of things too often hamstrings our ability to act, and thus we, in our own way, let Jerusalem burn.

The dilemma was acutely stated by the great Abba Kovner: “[H]istory is not made by intellectuals, and Israel was not built by a cadre of intellectuals, but by believers. Intellectuals in our time present alternatives. Believers — build a way. And somehow shut their eyes to the irritating questions along the way. This is a kind of blindness that walks towards the light. And there is but a step between it and the fanaticism that walks in darkness. But a step — yet on this step the good is built.”

I grope for a way to that humane step that Kovner talked about, between hopeless intellection and fanatic blindness, the step on which we can build the good. I look for it, this Tisha B’Av, in Rav Kook’s understanding of the meaning of conflict, the obverse relations of love and hatred, their common grounding in selfhood and freedom, and that freedom’s essential affirmation of life, and thus its potential to turn hatred into love.

Strong belief is not the enemy of good, of humanity and pluralism, or of a rich appreciation of complexity. It is the sine qua non of positive moral action in the world. Tisha B’Av bids us not to repress our beliefs and our willingness to fight for them, but to weave them into another belief, in the God-given humanity we share with our opponents. When the belief in the justice of our particular side is wedded to a belief in our opponents’ own humanity and passion, we may, finally, begin truly to rebuild Jerusalem.

Yehudah Mirsky is a fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. He is currently writing a biography of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Yehudah Mirsky: Rav Kook’s Love-Hate Relationship

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