REVIEW: The Souls of the World of Chaos

Steven Gotlib Tradition Online | April 23, 2023

R. Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, The Souls of the World of Chaos, translation, introduction, and notes by Bezalel Naor (Kodesh Press & Orot, 2023), 220 pages

These fiery souls show their strength, that no fence or limit can restrain them, and the weak in the world that has been built, masters of manners and measures, are terrified by them…. But in truth, there is nothing to fear; only sinners, weak souls, and flatterers fear and tremble. But the “mighty in strength” know that this show of strength is one of the visions that comes for the need of perfecting the world, for the need of fortifying the powers of the nation, man and the world (31). 

Originally published in 1913, Rav Kook’s short essay HaNeshamot shel Olam HaTohu (“The Souls of the World of Chaos”) was a response to the Second Aliya’s wave of immigration by young Russian Jews in the decade preceding World War I. That group of ideological pioneers espoused socialism while rebelling against religious tradition, “a young generation who, in their wild idealism and relentless search for unbridled freedom, had thrown off what they perceived as the shackles of religion” (20). While their fiery passion and resistance to tradition worried many, Rav Kook characteristically saw this as part of the divine plan. But how, exactly, do they fit in and why should they listen to the word of God? 

R. Bezalel Naor’s edition of this important essay is his latest installment in his growing body of elucidated translations of Rav Kook’s writing. The brevity of the essay itself stands in indirect proportion to its power; while until now largely overlooked, it is worthy of our attention as it presents an encapsulated treatment of his mystical theology of Religious Zionism. 

Rav Kook saw embodied in these rebellious settlers the Lurianic idea of the world of Tohu (chaos) which is said to precede the world of Tikkun (order or establishment, as Naor translates it). The world of Tohu is one in which “each of the members is off on a tangent with total disregard for the overall state of affairs” (33). The world of Tikkun, on the other hand, is one in which each member actually contains every other member within it via cooperation and interaction—something which had been impossible beforehand. In a clearer analogy, the transition from Tohu to Tikkun could be understood as “the transition from infantile narcissism and ego gratification to an adult altruism and sense of communal responsibility” (34). Alternatively, Tohu might be seen as “an atomistic, ruggedly individualistic…[potentially] antisocial lifestyle,” while Tikkun might represent a “collectivist, relational, society-oriented lifestyle” (35). In the political arena, Naor suggests that this tension might translate into the rivalry between capitalism and communism/socialism. 

It is important to note, though, that this is not meant to be an eternal battle between the extremes of chaos and order. Rather, “a time is foreseen where there will be revealed a rapprochement, a third way beyond Tohu and Tikkun” (35). While it is impossible for finite human beings to understand what this third way might look like, Naor describes it as an eschatological encounter in which the bipolarity between the human and animalistic elements within each individual will be transcended and an entirely different breed of souls will be revealed. Until that point, however, we must deal with our own internal conflict between Tohu and Tikkun. 

In publishing this essay, Rav Kook hoped that it could show empathy and gently nudge those who embraced a path of chaos back toward the order of Torah. One of the leaders of that secular generation was Yosef Hayyim Brenner, a pioneer of modern Hebrew literature. In Brenner’s words: 

Even the exalted Weltanschauung (we stress the word exalted fully conscious of the gravitas) expressed in the “seeds” (zer’onim [an essay later incorporated in Orot]) of our teacher, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, that appear in this book—is unfounded for us, who descend to dwell and to see. “Our resting place” is not “only in God,” and, in general, we know no resting place, and have even ceased to seek it…. He who wrote the chapters “The Souls of the World of Chaos” and “Purifying Tribulations” bears witness that the soul-wrestling of disbelievers and the “destroyers” is not foreign to him, quite the contrary (21). 

Naor argues that, in reading Rav Kook’s essay, Brenner “sensed that there was an old school rabbi who shared in common with the rebels a certain restlessness of spirit; who, in his own way, was searching for authenticity and was intolerant of sham” (22). 

Rav Kook can then be said to have been able to reach Jews who grew distant from their Judaism not only with sympathy (by seeing them as acting within divine machinations) but also with some degree of empathy (by searching for authenticity and truth, going against the grain of his contemporaries in the process) as well. That empathy showed them that they had a rabbi who they could relate to and who was unafraid to confront the tension of their times in a rigorous and intellectually honest manner. While they may not have agreed with his theology, they joined his Shabbat table and listened to his Torah with open ears and he warmly welcomed them to do so. While many may not have been convinced to re-embrace religiosity, their assumptions were surely challenged and they were invited to take the first steps in moving from Tohu to Tikkun. What better essay could there be, then, for a time of such religious divisiveness—both then and now. 

While Rav Kook’s language is as elusive as ever, we are fortunate that Naor provides an elegant translation alongside several appendices unpacking the essay’s mystical complexities and placing the essay in conversation with other figures. The volume also includes two appended chapters—book reviews written by Naor on works relevant to Rav Kook’s thought. The first is of Yehuda Mrisky’s Towards the Mystical Experience of Modernity: The Making of Rav Kook (1865-1904), which traces Rav Kook’s intellectual development as a figure living at the intersection of the hasidic, mitnagdic, and Enlightenment milieus. Among other observations, Naor points out that no conversation about the importance of imagination in Rav Kook’s thought would be complete without acknowledging the influence of Volozhiner Kabbala as opposed to just hasidic influence. 

The second review is of Hagay Shtamler’s Eight Letters from Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook About Historiography, Philosophy, Theology and Zionism. While much of the review is fascinating, it includes an anecdote particularly relevant to this review. When Naor himself once mentioned to R. Tzvi Yehuda how much his father loved the Jewish people, the latter responded that “My father loved the whole world, even zome’ah (the vegetable kingdom), even domem (the mineral kingdom)!” (101). When Rav Kook looked at the world, he saw a unity in which each part worked together to more closely align the whole with the divine plan. Everything and everyone, no matter how minuscule or detached they appeared, has a role to play in the project of achieving Tikkun

Readers interested in Rav Kook, Jewish mysticism, or generally thinking about ways of connecting with the “rebellious children” in their lives (or in themselves) will benefit from this book and its translator/annotator’s ongoing work to keep Rav Kook’s teachings at the forefront of contemporary religious life and thought. 

Rabbi Steven Gotlib is Assistant Rabbi of the Village Shul and a community scholar at Beit Midrash Zichron Dov of Toronto. 

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