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Life and times of Rav Kook

A new biography does justice to the leading religious Zionist thinker

Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, Yehudah Mirsky, Yale University Press, £17.99

    Yehudah Mirsky’s superb new biography of the great 20th-century Jewish philosopher and mystic is a huge achievement. He gives a gripping, panoramic narrative of the arc of Rav Kook’s life, from childhood in a small White Russian village to becoming the first Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, against a vividly rendered backdrop of the tumultuous history of Kook’s times.

    Into this story he weaves a synthesis of Rav Kook’s profound and complex body of thought, showing its development and tracing its influences in Kabbalah, contemporary European thought and the events of Rav Kook’s life, particular his encounter with the secular Zionist pioneers.

    His assessment of Rav Kook’s achievement and legacy combines scholarly balance with wonder at the man’s greatness (“Souls of Rav Kook’s magnitude do not come our way often”). Mirsky is frank about his hero’s shortcomings. The discussion of Kook’s incompetence as an administrator and how this sowed seeds of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s future failings is original and eye-opening.  

    Mirsky does all this in clear, elegant and at times beautiful English. As Mirsky rightly says, “Rav Kook... still towers in contemporary Israeli politics and Jewish spirituality; neither can properly be understood without him.” He has given English-speakers a window through which to enter the world of this endlessly fascinating and vastly important thinker.

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