Lecture 20b: Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (Part 2)

  • Rav Tamir Granot


C.  The Holocaust as part of God's guidance of history


Rav Zvi Yehuda believes that once we have neutralized the problematic dimension of the discussion, which approaches the question from the point of view of the individual and within the framework of the principle of reward and punishment, we are free to contemplate it from the proper, higher perspective.  The true perspective, according to Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, is always the one that views events within a broad historical and national context.  This proper context does not judge any historical event in isolation, but rather evaluates it as one of the stages, or one of the elements, comprising a more comprehensive process.  Even the Holocaust makes sense within this perspective:


The Master of the universe arranged history in such a way that for a certain time we would be in exile, and then He brought matters about in such a way that in a process lasting several generations, the nation of Israel began to awaken. "Shake yourself from the dust and arise" (Yishayahu 52:2); Israel gradually approaches a full awakening.


This is not such a simple process. There are instances where it is difficult to become severed from the exile. But the time has come for the revival of the nation and the redemption of the land; the manifest end [i.e., the beginning of the messianic era] has come, with [the fulfillment of the prophecy,] "You, O mountains of Israel – you shall give forth branches and yield fruit for My people, Israel, for they are starting to return" (Yechezkel 36:8). The soul of the nation and the soul of the land belong to one another, and when the nation is reunited with its land, [the land] is resurrected. "For they are starting to return" – Jews are starting to move to the land of Israel, and this causes the revival of the land.


But when the time comes for our emergence from the darkness of exile, there arise some situations like that of the slave, who says, "I love my master [and wish to remain in servitude]" (Shemot 21:5). Jews become enamored with the exile and refuse to ascend to the land of Israel. But the exile cannot continue forever; exile is the greatest desecration of God's Name, as is made explicit in [the book of] Yechezkel: "When they came among the nations to where they had come, they defiled My holy Name, when people said of them, 'These are God's people, and they have departed from His land'" (Yechezkel 36:20). When the time comes for redemption, it may happen that there are complications, and a large portion of the nation of Israel is tarnished with the "pitch of exile." This is a fact: many Jews have become accustomed to the defilement of the exile, and refuse to leave it. Even greatly righteous people are sometimes attached to the exile and its defilement. Then there begins a deep and hidden internal Divine treatment of purification from this defilement, a surgery and a healing. All the millions of Jews together form a single body, a single organism, and when it is delayed in its healing because of cleaving to the land of the other nations, there is a need for a cruel Divine operation. The time has come for Israel to return to their land, but since some of them refuse to do so, there is no other way but "He took me by the hair of my head" (Yechezkel 8:3), in order to bring them up to Eretz Yisrael, against their will. When the end comes, and not all Jews recognize this, there is a cruel Divine surgery of amputation from the exile. This is not an accounting with some or other individual, since that is God's secret, the secret of souls. Rather, it is an operation in the general sense, because of the reality of "they have despised the pleasant land" (Tehillim 106:24). It is a surgical operation that causes the nation to be severed from exile and to return to Eretz Yisrael, the place of our life.


Rabbi Zvi Yehuda explains that the Holocaust plays a defined historical role: it serves to tear Am Yisrael out of its exilic reality.  The need for this painful "surgery" arises from the fact that many among Am Yisrael, including religious leaders (and the reference here is unquestionably to those leading rabbis who opposed Zionism), had internalized the state of exile, reconciled themselves to it, and even become enamored of it.  Here, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda emphasizes that the "surgery" is performed on the national body, not on individuals.  This is not a punishment for the sin of feeling at home in exile, but rather a deliberate Divine act, representing a vital stage in the process of Israel's redemption: the severance of Am Yisrael from exile, and restoring them to their land.  The proof of the necessity of this painful operation is the appearance of Zionism, which preceded it, and its failure to draw the Jewish masses to its vision.  Only the Holocaust could succeed by turning Eretz Yisrael into the "default option" for Jewish existence – first, by destroying the largest and most important center of Jewish life (Europe), and second, by instilling in the Jewish nation the recognition that its existence in the Diaspora was not a secure possibility in the long term, even in places regarded as centers of culture and progress.


The severance from exile should not be understood as a geographical or physical separation alone.  In order to return the exiles to Eretz Yisrael, "eagles' wings" or a magic carpet would have sufficed.  The "pitch of exile" implies not just the physical fact of living among foreign nations, but also its influence on the essence of Jewish existence.  In exile, Am Yisrael maintained its existence only on the individual level – or, at most, on the communal level, with Jewish identity a function of the choice to live in accordance with the Torah and its commandments.  However, such existence had no real historical or social basis.  The return to Eretz Yisrael is the living spirit of national life, of national existence.  Since Am Yisrael had not experienced its national existence for some two thousand years, they opposed it.  They could not recall that they were, in fact, a single, whole organism.  For this reason, some sectors of the nation rejected some other sectors, and hence the decision to stand by and not to cooperate in a common initiative.  This position may arise when the nation is not perceived as a single entity.  If the nation is indeed a single organism, then mutual responsibility and cooperation is a natural necessity; it is not a matter of choice:


All of Am Yisrael is a single, whole body that manifests itself in a healthy manner only in Eretz Yisrael. In the exile, we are in an abnormal and unhealthy situation, and the return to Eretz Yisrael is a return to normalcy. In exile we are not at our full health, since our reality as the “Community of Israel” (Kelal Yisrael) is destroyed and we remain as individuals, "she'erit yisrael" (the remnant of Israel). The exile causes a postponement of the revelation of the Israelite illumination of life; our communal and national reality is destroyed, and we remain isolated. But our bones shall not remain dry forever; we await the revelation anew of the illumination of life. And now, behold, the time has come for our return to a state of health; the end has begun to reveal itself.


Furthermore, redemption is also a transition for Am Yisrael from an unnatural situation, alienated from itself and its essence, to a natural and authentic existence.  Only in Eretz Yisrael, in the authentic surroundings suited to its essence, can the nation return to itself, to its sources, to peel away the influences of foreign cultures – both material and spiritual – that adhere to it, and live a full national life.  From this perspective concerning the significance of the redemptive process, the abandonment of exile is an existential necessity from the national point of view.  As stated, God's governance of history should not be judged on the basis of the fate of individuals.  National existence – and, in a broader sense, the progression of history in general, which is dependent on the self-redemption of Am Yisrael – is the real issue at stake.  And if we think about the national body as a whole, when we think about the necessity of its existence, it may be that there is no choice but to undergo a very traumatic operation.


In the writings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak ha-Kohen Kook (Rav Zvi Yehuda's father), attention is paid to these implications of the redemption of Israel.  In his article, "Le-Mahalakh Ha-Idei'ot Be-Yisrael" (Orot, pp. 102-118), Rav Kook describes how the Divine concept – the idea of God's presence within all of reality, in history, in the State, in society, and the Divine nature of life in general – which is the fundamental idea of Am Yisrael and of the Torah, crumbles and shrinks in exile into a religious idea, concerned only with the redemption of the individual soul and its World to Come, while negating the positive value of historical and material existence.


The manner in which Rabbi Zvi Yehuda perceives the liberation from exile therefore represents a continuation of the teachings of his illustrious father.  However, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook anticipated a gradual process of development, with the optimistic hope that the liberation from an exilic consciousness, on the one hand, and the growth of a new religious consciousness born in and of Eretz Yisrael, on the other, would take place simultaneously, with willingness and grace and without any rupture.  Rabbi Zvi Yehuda teaches us that in order for this process to happen, there was need for drastic treatment – an operation that literally amputated parts of the body and of the personality.  So long as the diseased elements of exile adhere to the national body, it would not be capable of being liberated and rejuvenated. 


Every process of healing includes both an element of war against elements that are corrupted, with the intent of removing or eliminating them, and an element of positive recovery.  The Holocaust represented the first part – and this was, truly, an intensely painful and difficult experience.  This is the new perspective that Rabbi Zvi Yehuda opens onto the process of redemption as set forth by his father.


Since the Holocaust assumes this meaning only if we think of Am Yisrael as a single organism and about the Holocaust as an operation, the question of how one particular part of the body bears more guilt than another part is fundamentally misguided; it arises from the divisive exilic perspective.  When we amputate a limb from a body, we do so because it is full of pus or necrosis, and by amputating it we seek to heal the body as a whole.  Clearly, it makes no sense to blame that limb for the necrosis that has developed in it, for it is the result of processes that are taking place in the body as a whole, and not specifically in that limb.  From the point of view of the treatment, however, the location of disease in a certain area (in our case, the European exile – the center of exile and the center of the exilic illness)[1] required that it be removed.


D.  Modern anti-semitism – the other side of the redemption coin


Rabbi Moshe Bleicher,[2] one of the most prominent disciples of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, published a booklet in which he addresses the Holocaust in light of his rabbi's teachings.  He offers a profound analysis of modern anti-Semitism in light of the insights presented by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda.


Classical anti-Semitism, he argues, persecuted the Jewish religion, not Jewish nationalism.  The latter was, in its view, an anachronism; it was altogether devoid of significance.  This anti-Semitism did not target Jews because they belonged to the Jewish nation, but rather because they represented the Jewish religion.  A Jew who was prepared to convert would be accepted with open arms.


Modern anti-Semitism – and especially the Nazi variety – is racially motivated.  It reviles the very fact of Jewish existence, of national affiliation, without regard for the question of religious persuasion or belief.  In its view, it is not Jewish religion that is the problem, but rather Jewish national existence.  And this is precisely the innovative essence of the process of redemption: exilic existence was religious existence, devoid of nationalism, and it was against this situation that the old form of anti-Semitism was directed.  The existence of Am Yisrael in the era of redemption is founded on the necessity and the inherently positive concept of Israelite nationalism, even where it is not religiously-orientated, and it is against this that modern anti-Semitism is directed. 


Hitler was correct in his assessment that his battle was not against the Jewish religion or its adherents, but rather against the more primal and fundamental concept of Jewish existence itself.  From his point of view, this logically led to the conclusion that every Jew had to be eliminated, regardless of his actual religious beliefs.  From our point of view, the Holocaust reflects – as a negative, from the "sitra achra" – the profound truth of our full, redeemed existence, which is the power of our survival despite the Holocaust, as well as the reason and purpose that guide the process of our redemption:


The revival of Am Yisrael in our generation is not a temporary revival. It is not a passing matter, but rather something that is absolute – nationalism that is entirely holy. The very building of the life of the nation is a holy edifice; this entire national awakening is in its entirety an absolute Divine manifestation, of a nation that has arisen and now lives, of the soul of Israel that is gradually reappearing in the world. And when this soul begins to appear in the world, at the same time there arises the instinct of that wicked nation, who recognizes its nature: [that] Jewish life – the very building of the nation – is a Divine edifice. Not in the religious sense, not because Am Yisrael goes about declaring that it is God's nation, but rather it is with God, even without declarations. This is its truth and its absolute level; this is what it embodies by virtue of its very existence.


Hence, it is necessary to wage war against Am Yisrael – [but] not because the nation declares that it is religious; there is no need to tell it, "Worship idols." It is necessary to wage war against it – against the very fact of its existence, because its very existence is holy. It is an absolutely Divine level; its very national existence is holy. This being the case, that nation understands instinctively that it is necessary to annihilate our very existence; not to leave any trace of us, because to leave any trace of us in the world is to leave that Divine manifestation in the world. That wicked nation admittedly would not have known how to express it; he could not even understand the true motivations for his actions and for his wickedness, but the fact is that the living Jewish nation is the antithesis to gentile culture, the antithesis of German culture which stands at the pinnacle of European and human culture, and which expresses the gentile ideal. It is beauty, it is poetry, it is philosophy, it is everything, and it is what wages war against that tiny nation that is beginning to grow in the world. It understands that this tiny nation is altogether holy, and by its very existence it is contrary to gentile culture. "Behold, the nation of Bnei Yisrael is numerous and mighty" (Shemot 1:9). It understands that in proportion to the absolute specialness, there must be absolute annihilation. It understands that the battle here is "to the bitter end;" it is not fighting for half or for a third, it is not seeking to "convert" us and to make of us good Germans. It understands that it is waging war against the Jewish race (and that is what that adversary said: that the superior race was waging war against the Jewish race).


This is a war between two races. He understood the truth perfectly well, and he revealed it to the world. He revealed quite effectively to the Jews that they are Jews; he sought to harm Jews qua Jews and not as something else, since he understood that this was a war between one race and another; this was the war that this wicked one waged against us. And the truth is that he was right – in the sense that there is here an absolute Divine manifestation that appears in the world, and by virtue of his very wickedness he discerned this and sought to annihilate it. But ultimately, Am Yisrael remains, since the truth is that Am Yisrael is an absolute nation which cannot be annihilated. Thus, although the suffering that we have undergone is very great suffering, it was specifically this gentile instinct of hatred and the will to destroy us that clarified for us to what extent our redemption is absolute, what dimension of truth and perfection it possesses. It is a redemption that will have no end, forever. (Mi-Galut Li-Tekuma, pp. 11-12)


Next lecture:


Having presented Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook's view of the Holocaust, we shall attempt in the next shiur to situate it within the broader context of his teachings and those of his father, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak ha-Kohen Kook.  We will examine its theological and existential significance and explore the relations between it and other views in Religious Zionist thought.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] Proof of this is that Oriental Jews moved en masse to Eretz Yisrael when they were given the opportunity to do so, while western Jewry did not.

[2] Rosh Yeshiva of Shavei Chevron and a student of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda and of Rabbi Tau.  The booklet is entitled, "Mi-Galut Li-Tekuma: Chamisha Ma'amarim," Kiryat Arba, 5755.