By Israel Drazin
Pinchas Polonsky describes the open-minded concept of Rabbi Abraham-Yitzhak Kook (1865-1935). His “teachings reflect a deep modernization of the Jewish faith and of its approach to an array of contemporary problems.” Polonsky calls Kook’s approach “Modern Orthodoxy.” But his ideas could, and indeed should, radically change the way Judaism and other religions are practiced.
People need to understand that there is “continuing revelation.” The original divine revelation at Sinai was important, but it did not stop. God is not revealed today through prophets and miracles. Modern divine revelation is in daily events, science, history, and the development of culture. Men and women need to observe, examine, and ponder these items and events to understand what God is revealing.
This, writes Dr. Polonsky, is also the way Rabbi Kook understood how ancient prophets saw and interpreted what they saw. “A prophet is one who brings the word of God to the people, in particular through the understanding of the historical process. In a sense, a prophet is a religious history teacher or, more accurately, one who exhorts the people to see religious meaning in historic events.” A prophet is not a soothsayer who miraculously predicts the future; a prophet teaches people how to see God’s message revealed in history and daily events.
Focusing of Orthodox Judaism as an example, Dr. Polonsky writes that Orthodox Jews must preserve the practices of their religion – this is Orthodoxy. However, they must also incorporate the new information that the world reveals through this revelation – this is Modernism. The two together yield Modern Orthodoxy. Orthodox Jews as well as all people must stop thinking of religion as something “given,” and realize that they must “continue…religion and develop it.”
The rabbi sitting in his parlor studying Talmud must no longer be the paradigm of the true Jew. Modern Jews and all people must exit study halls, see and understand the world and the developments of history and science, and act.
Dr. Polonsky compares Rabbi Kook’s teaching to the paradoxical notion of Vilna Gaon (1720-1797). The Gaon contended that when the Romans destroyed Israel in 70 CE, Judaism gasped its last breath and died, and over the centuries the Jewish corpse decayed in its forlorn grave. It was only in the Gaon’s time, in the eighteenth century, when the sparks of world enlightenment were ignited, that the Jewish people resurrected. Counter to the thinking of many, the Gaon contended that even during the time of the Talmuds, the highly respected Talmud commentators, and the writers of Jewish Codes of Law, Judaism was dead and buried. This, though hyperbolic, says Dr. Polonsky, is similar to Rabbi Kook’s view that now, with the rebirth of the State of Israel, Jews can revive, breathe the air of modern culture as free people, and tap into the continued revelation.
Dr. Polonsky laments that the classical method of talmudic analysis of problems that focused primarily on the past, rather than the present and future, and offered answers based on ancient considerations, proper for ancient times, but not now.
Kook taught that it is necessary to face and solve current problems. We should learn from everybody, including atheists and non-Jews. Isn’t the ability of atheist to doubt, think critically, be skeptical, deny superstitions, refuse to accept every tradition on faith and “merely believe,” the mind-set and skills that all people, religious and non-religious, should acquire? Religion shouldn’t lag behind developing cultures like mangy dogs chewing on cast-away bones; religions should rid themselves of the notion that revelation ended, join hands with others, move forward together, and work for human development.
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Rabbi Ephraim of Sudylkow, the grandson of Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (c. 1740-1800), expressed the same view in his Degel Mahaneh Efraim. He wrote “The wholeness of the Written Torah is…dependent upon the (development of) Oral Torah…. This is true of each generation and its interpreters. They (the new interpreters) make the Torah complete. Torah is interpreted in each generation according to what that generation needs. God enlightens the eyes of each generation’s sages (to interpret) his holy Torah in accord with the soul root of that generation. One who denies this is like one who denies Torah, God forbid.”
Ephraim saw this teaching in the Torah. “Tradition notes that these words, “diligently sought” (darosh darash) are the midpoint in a letter count of the Torah.” Their placement highlights this teaching and gives people interpretive license to continue the Torah goal, timely oral interpretations.
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Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) expressed this result-oriented idea of continual revelation in his Guide of the Perplexed. He wrote that people are obligated to go beyond Torah by studying the world , by learning science, and to improve one’s self and society.
Maimonides, like Rabbi Kook, felt that a prophet is a person with superior intellect who shares his understandings with people. In his Guide 2:34, he states that prophecy comes through an angel. In 2:6, he defines angel as any force of nature that carries out God’s plan, such as wind, rain, and the like. The philosopher Gersonides (1288-1344) and others understood Maimonides saying here and elsewhere that prophecy is a natural phenomenon, the use of a higher level of intelligence; prophecy has not ceased.
Maimonides also insisted that people should examine the “highly respected traditions” but not accept them if they are not reasonable. People, Maimonides wrote, should look forward not backward, that is why we have eyes in front of our faces and not behind our ears.
Improving one’s self and others, Maimonides taught, is not dependent solely upon the teachings of one’s religion. He stressed the lesson of the fourth century BCE Greek philosopher Aristotle that people are social beings with intelligence who have a duty to improve themselves and society. He said “the truth is the truth no matter what its source. Although Maimonides was a Jew, he stressed that all people need to work with and respect one another: Jews were not the only humans created in God’s image; Adam was not a Jew.
 In his 2009 book Religious Zionism of Rav Kook. Rabbi Kook was appointed by the British, who were then in control of Palestine, as the country’s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in 1921.
 Bereishit, pages 5b-6a.
 In Leviticus 10:16.
 Ephraim gives as examples of changes made in Torah law the reduction of the biblical mandated forty lashes in Deuteronomy 25:3 to thirty-nine and the abolition of many death penalties.
 Guide 1:1, 3:27, and elsewhere.
 Guide 2:32-48.
 In his book on the physician Hypocrites.
 Introduction to the Guide.
 Introduction to his Guide.
 Guide 1:1.