Secular Zionism = The Dung of the Donkey of the Messiah (Abraham Isaac Kook) (Eulogy for Herzl)

Kook’s eulogy for Herzl, which you can read here, is an index of the hostility in religious Zionism as a form of orthodox Judaism to secular value systems. In his introductory remarks to “Lamentation in Jerusalem,” translator Bezalel Na’or reminds us that the Shulkhan Arukh requires one to wear festive garments at the death of a Jew who violates the commandments. In that spirit, Kook’s eulogy for Herzl does not even mention him by name even as he seeks to bring or force Herzl and the secular Zionism into a religious value schema.

Herzl was the Messiah son of Joseph, who in, Jewish lore, precedes the coming of the Messiah son of David. In this schema, Joseph-Ephraim stands for the universal and material, while David stands for the Torah and spiritual values.

It is a mistake to say that Kook held these in tension, or that he sought to “merge” the secular and the spiritual. It’s simpler than that. For the religious Zionism represented by Kook, one prepares the way for the other. There is no real unity of body and spirit. In this dangerous fantasy, they are not at odds, only because one is being yoked into service of the other. Complementarity gives way to the superiority of the spiritual over the material. Religion will suck out the vitality and discard the rest as waste. The vision of unity is one of supremacy, surrender, and subjugation. That is why, in the end, the Messiah son of Joseph is destined to be killed. In the meantime, Kook will look forward to sitting with Rav Yosef in the Babylonian Talmud in the shadow of the dung of the donkey of the Messiah.

Below are my subject annotated excerpts from the eulogy. They follow the order in the eulogy. These are followed by remarks from Yehudah Mirsky in his study on Kook:


The Psalmist gave expression to this vision of unity: “He will subdue peoples under us, and nations under our feet. He will choose for us our inheritance, the excellence of Jacob which He loves. Selah.” By gathering together these two powers, both would benefit: The material would be rarefied and sanctified by its exposure to the unique sanctity of Israel, and the spiritual would be invigorated to enhance Israel. Eventually, the rays would light up the entire world….. There would be room within the overall structure for the universalist dimension (represented by Jeroboam’s kingdom). But to the question—“Who is at the helm?”—the answer must be, “The son of Jesse is at the helm.” Without the recognition of the supremacy of the spiritual side—“For the portion of the Lord is His people; Jacob is the lot of His inheritance” —heaven forfend, Israel’s destiny would be lost.


Now since the major achievement of Messiah son of Joseph, which is the general advancement of mankind, is accomplished by de-emphasis of the unique Jewish form, Messiah son of Joseph cannot endure, so he is destined to be killed



Rav Yosef, who said that he penetrated the meaning of the verse in Zechariah only through its Aramaic translation, willingly accepted upon himself to witness the “birthpangs of Messiah.” When other sages said, “Let him (Messiah) come, and may I not see him,” it was Rav Yosef who said, “Let him come, and may I merit to sit in the shadow of the dung of his donkey!”

Even so, if this movement would not be so audacious as to spread in a way unbecoming Israel, it would be easy to accept. Were it not for its extremism, the movement would not find oppressive the spirit of the Torah, and it would not attack the foundation of Torah, which is tantamount to “blinding the eye of the world.” But the “dung,” the gross tendencies that are loathsome to all peoples, produce a shadow that dims the pure intellectual lights deriving from Torah. Nonetheless, Rav Yosef was confident that eventually all these negative manifestations would surrender to the light of Torah and the knowledge of God.”


“The evil will be transformed into good, the curse into blessing. This is the import of the cryptic passage in the Zohar: The head of the academy in the palace of Messiah said, “Whoever does not transform darkness to light and bitterness to sweetness, may not enter here.” The prerequisite for the generation of Messiah is the ability to utilize all forces, even the most coarse, for the sake of good and the singular sanctity with which Israel were crowned.”

(Ma’amarei RAYaH I [Jerusalem 5740/1980] pp. 94-99) [transl Bezalel Naor;;   

Yehudah Mirsky distinguished and considered judgment reads as follow:

[Kook’s] understanding of Jewish peoplehood became, for lack of a better word, increasingly essentialist, as did his understanding of the Land of Israel, taking on fixed, ontological characteristics, as their this-worldly manifestations are entirely collapsed into very abstract metaphysical categories” (p.329).

Rav Kook married the ontological necessity of the nation to the ontological necessities of God and the world—and to the ontological necessity of the universally minded ethical teachings of God’s Torah. That exhilarating and electrifying mix is hard to sustain outside a Messianic framework, and even harder when it fails to make room, as Rav Kook ultimately failed to do, for the truly darkest human impulses towards violence and the will to power (p.330).

Mirsky maintains further that Kook “did not foresee the disturbingly chauvinistic and violent uses to which these notions of his would be put” (p.331). Here I would demur. Those impulses and uses were baked into the form of religious-spiritual supremacy already there at the root of the project’s most systemic articulation. Regarding Mirsky’s analysis, I fully understand that my own conclusions are not exactly his. But from an excellent scholar one will often learn things unintended by the scholar, so I beg Mirsky’s forgiveness on this point. But by the time we get to the end of this very careful study, all kinds of doubts have been raised about mystical politics and political theology as an expression of heresy or the demonic, starting with the comparison of other human beings to excrement.

[Yehudah Mirsky, Towards the Mystical Experience of Modernity: The Making of Rav Kook 1865-1904]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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