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Rav Kook. Eulogy on Theodor Herzl

Author: Esther Ehrman, Sivan 5776/June 2016

This highly learned essay was written by Rav Kook, as a eulogy to mark the death of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, July 3rd 1904.

Rav Kook was asked to give a eulogy. He was faced with the problem of having, as an orthodox Rabbi, to give praise to a wholly secular Jew. A passionate Zionist, Rav Kook takes a Messianic view of Herzl’s work - without once mentioning him by name.

Rav Kook sets the tone of the essay with a somewhat mysterious quotation from Zecharia:

‘On that day the lamentation will be great on Jerusalem, like the lamentation of Hadadrimmon in the valley of Megiddon’.

Hadadrimmon is the name of a place where king Joshiahu was slain; it may also be the name of the person who slew king Ahab. The slaying of both Joshiahu and Ahab are given in the translation of Targum Yonathan and Rav Kook uses that meaning to indicate that the mourning he was speaking about here was of great, of national significance. I think the implication of this roundabout introduction is to make us realise that there is a subtext to the essay.

Joshiahu was seen as a potential Messiah and a potential Messiah is the theme Rav Kook pursues. It is the Messiah Yosef, who precedes the Messiah David and who has to die, that leads the discussion to the differences between the two Messiahs: Josef stands for the material redemption, as Yosef was the provider for Israel; Yosef also stands for the assimilated Jew, able to live and understand the non-Jewish world; so much so that Israel ran the risk of being ‘swallowed up’ by that world. David stands for the spiritual, Torah-inspired redemption, but this will not be effective if it is physically weak. The physical well being of Yosef is vital and must be recognised as such. Our long exile enabled us to keep the spiritual values of Judaism with learning and observance; there was no opportunity for our physical development as a nation.

There can be no final redemption, Rav Kook suggests, without the harmony of the body and soul of the Jewish people. And this is not easy to achieve. It cannot be forced. The time may not be right to try. If one side is unable to accept the other, it cannot work. While the Davidic, Torah inspired life is essential, it cannot be imposed. We have been remiss in dismissing the physical well being that led to assimilation and even to rejection of Torah by the secular world. We need to ‘repent’ and appreciate what it offers. We need also to look for common values in the two camps. David and Esau represent diametrically opposed values. Both had red hair. A common feature allows for a willingness to understand ‘the other’. An untimely unity can do damage. Both camps must be willing to unite. To prepare for the redemption, we need to work to show the secular world that its central values are those of the spiritual world; and if the spiritual world does not accept the significance of the material world as preparation, the people will leave Judaism and it will die. We need to recognise the precursor of Messiah ben Yosef (implied here is Herzl).

Rav Kook’s eulogy gives his view of Herzl as having the stature of a precursor to the Messianic redemption. Peppered with many learned quotations from the Bible, the Talmud and Midrash in support of his views, Rav Kook couches his eulogy of the highly of controversial, secular founder of Zionism, Herzl, in this presentation of the two Messiahs and the redemption that all Jews can hope for.