By: Dov Frank  | 

Beyond the Ethereal: The Poetry of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook

In the late 19th and early 20th century, a revolution in religious creativity took place in the form of one man: Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook. In his life, he united many disparate strands, including in his very heritage: He was a Litvak from the Volozhin Yeshiva through his father, and a Chasid descended from an illustrious dynasty through his mother. One might say that Rav Kook was perfectly positioned to begin a new synthesis of Jewish thought. Born on Sept. 7, 1865, Rav Kook from an early age signaled his genius, and held his first rabbinical position at the age of 23, where he began to write in his unique poetic style and develop his innovative and deeply creative religious philosophy.

To summarize the character of his thought and personality: Rav Kook’s soul was wrapped up in eternity. In every physical word written, an eternal notion was signified. He experienced the rises and falls of existence, and his own emotional health was tied to it; he felt himself an extension, a manifestation of this vision of an all-inclusive unity of being. In his worldview, nothing was exterior, nothing removed from the whole, all could be integrated into a larger systematic unity, which could tolerate contradictions within the overarching completeness, having experienced these contradictions and having unified them in his own life. 

In honor of his recent Yahrzeit, I would like to analyze one of Rav Kook's poems, written sometime between the years 1910 and 1914, which elucidates a central religious emotion in his philosophy.

“Expanses, expanses

Expanses divine my soul craves

Confine me not in any cage, of substance nor of spirit. 

My soul soars the expanses of the heavens, 

Walls of heart and walls of deeds will not contain it; 

Nor [walls of] ethics, logic, and custom. 

My soul soars above all these,

Above all that bears a name, 

Above any pleasure,

Above every delight and beauty,

Above all that is exalted and ethereal.

I am lovesick.”

(Shemonah Kevatzim 3:279) )

Reading this poem, one is swept away by the intense rush of emotions Rav Kook expressed for freedom, for space. One follows how Rav Kook longs so deeply for that soul-feeling of infinite freedom, not to be confined in any cage, behind any one “wall” or idea. He surprises us; one would not think he would seek to be above even that which is ethereal and exalted, matters which seem to be his primary vocation, but he desires such freedom nonetheless. For a soul such as his, even the tendency to the all-expansive freedom beyond any restriction itself traps and restricts.

Any form of logic or custom cannot contain him, for they hold within their weak vessels only a glimpse of a higher, more integrated truth. As Rav Kook writes elsewhere, all ideas and entities in this world are but “single, small spark[s] continuously shining from the vigorous light of the sun. And all of life is sparks, sparks that shine from this light.” (Igrot Hara’aya, letter 741) Rav Kook cannot stomach access to only parts of the whole. He refuses to be satiated by claiming one idea or one moral practice is dominant above any other. For him, every aspect of existence must recognize its own limitations in being merely a part and thus become integrated into a larger structure where every aspect of existence becomes a part of a large whole. But it is precisely that whole which Rav Kook desires, the only thing he can bear to interact with. Anything limited in scope, anything that doesn't reach into the eternal falls away from him.

In Kabbalistic terminology, Rav Kook strives for the moment prior to thought: the pure and infinite impulse which we bind and give practical manifestation through thought and even action, called “Keser” (crown).

He pushes us to experience this emotion with his anaphoric repetition, elevating us slowly from one state of “above” to the next. For example, we might agree to push beyond the restrictiveness of pleasure, but we might yet have delights and things of beauty which still trap us through crudely constraining an infinite impulse toward beauty. For Rav Kook, any definition is inherently a limitation; all practical manifestation a heresy. But lest one think that we need only strive to reach beyond practical and worldly things, Rav Kook decries the limitations of even ethereal and exalted things—they still bear a name, and all names and definitions bind a thing into being only itself. Rav Kook is lovesick; he cannot bear to be separated from the absolute unity beyond all limited things. He wants the unnamed, unconfined infinite emotion of complete freedom; he wants to “soar the expanses of the heavens,” to live beyond any judgment or definition in the infinite free spaces of God. 

Rav Kook strived for this all-encompassing unity and freedom throughout his life, but rarely found it. Despite his longing for the peace of such expansive freedom, he spent much of his life deeply engrossed in the everyday practicalities of the nascent, growing community in Israel at the beginning of the 20th century, devoting all of his time and energy towards it. Despite his dedication, he was constantly attacked from all sides and lived a life of struggle, which, to me, makes this poem all the more poignant. They are the words of a man desperate for expansive freedom, who, despite being painted into boxes by all of his contemporaries—a radical Zionist, an old traditionalist and even a heretic to some—longed for a freedom beyond all labels and boxes. One can imagine him sitting in his study after working tirelessly for his beloved community, after being condemned and hurt by some of its members writing this poem, expressing his deepest wish: to “soar the expanses of the heavens,” to reach the expanses beyond walls of heart and deed, beyond any names and constrictions, to the places of God he craved so deeply.

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Photo Caption: Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons