Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia

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Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

1865 – 1935

by Chana Kehat

The basic approach of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook to women corresponds with his hierarchical approach to existence and to humankind (Yaron 1974; Bin Nun 1988): “I cannot make absolute divisions between entities, but only divisions according to rank” (Sarid 1998, 144).

Kook shows special sympathy for the naturalism (i.e unselfconsciousness) that appears in the lowest creatures in the world and in humanity—a sympathy nourished by the attitudes of philosophers such as Rousseau (Yaron 1974, 145) and Bergson (Iggerot ha-Re’ayah (IR) vol. 2, 300). This natural quality, which also expresses itself in non-rationality, is to be found in animals, in ignorant human beings more often than in learned, and in the nations of the world more than in the Jewish people. Rabbi Kook admired this quality in children and also saw it as a major characteristic of women (Compilation 1, 463).

THE CHARACTER AND STATUS OF WOMEN

Kook sees the difference between men and women as a metaphysical-essential one. In his commentary on the morning blessing “Who has not made me a woman” he writes that the nefesh (vital, animating force) of a woman is different from the neshamah (higher soul) of men. Women are passive, led and impressionable, leaving no imprint on life or on the world. Thus men’s essence is more elevated, since men are form and women are matter. Hence men are more fortunate and recite the blessing “Who has not made me a woman” (Olat Re’ayah (OR), 71). The limited number of women’s religious obligations stems from their essential difference from men, not from their subjugation to their husbands. Since their spiritual essence is inferior, they are obligated in fewer commandments and prohibitions than men, who have a higher spiritual potential, with a correspondingly higher level of risk (OR 72). Kook asserts that men are represented by the neshamah and women only by the nefesh; “The neshamah of a man acts and creates,” in contrast to “the nefesh of a woman.”

Despite Kook’s belief that women are spiritually and intellectually inferior, he gave high praise to women’s material and intuitive qualities, since his world view contained a profound appreciation for naturalism. Women were closer to nature as it occurs in animals, a natural state expressed in more profound intuition and rather than in rationality. Thus there is created a dialectic view that puts an added value on women’s intellectual inferiority, which is her natural advantage (Ein Ayah (EA) Berakhot 59), even though, according to Kook’s belief, this stems from women’s excessive closeness to animals and primitive peoples. In his opinion, the sages said that women have an “extra measure of understanding” because the nefesh of a woman is close to natural intuition.

Another trait that characterized women, in Kook’s opinion, was emotion (EA Shabbat 215), while intellect was a masculine trait. “Pure intellect is the major factor and prevails in males” (EA Shabbat 88). In dozens of places, Kook asserts that women’s essence consists in emotion while men are ruled by the intellect, and this difference informs the relationship between them (EA Berakhot 322–335).

Because of this, women have another trait—dependence. A woman is required to be dependent on a man and secondary to him, because emotion, her main trait, is not a sufficiently stable foundation (EA Berakhot 322–335). This is also the basis of Kook’s discussion of the ideal family structure. The proper blend between man and woman, characterized respectively by emotion and intellect, is that when she is activated she is the crown on his head, while he controls and acts (EA Shabbat 176).

Within the hierarchical-gender context which establishes woman’s purpose as her husband’s “helper,” Kook attributes another unique and important essential characteristic to women: love of aesthetics. On the one hand, this trait has a major role in domestic management, while on the other it stimulates women to be attractive to their husbands. This position, too, accords well with Kook’s profound appreciation for aesthetics and art, which were renewed among the Jewish people in modern times (OR 3–4; IR 158). “God in His great understanding bestowed more pleasantness and beauty on women than on men” (EA Shabbat 88). In this aspect woman is the major factor in the home, and a beautiful woman is also a true asset to a man (EA Berakhot 38). Because of her special character, which requires aesthetics and beautiful things, she also wears jewelry. Kook therefore stipulated that every man supply his wife with her “jewelry requirement,” even if he does not understand the need for it (EA Shabbat 89).

We can therefore conclude that Kook’s view of the family unit is hierarchical but organic. Even if rational man has a distinct and substantial advantage over material, emotional woman, their interdependence is nevertheless total and there is no possibility of separation or making do with one sex only, just as there is no way to separate the body’s vital organs from the less vital ones (EA Berakhot Chapter 9).

Women’s traits—emotion, love of beauty and intuition—constitute an obstacle for them. Not only are women less spiritual and more distant from levels of sanctity, but they are also more apt to fail in religious matters because of their emotional weakness (EA Shabbat 168–169). Because women’s ethical existence depends upon emotions and the absence of rational, logical judgment (EA Shabbat 168–169), their decline is so great that they are often in danger of warranting the punishment of death in childbirth meted out by Heaven. Concerning the sins for which “women die in childbirth” (BT Shabbat 32), Kook says: “Sometimes the pains necessary to drive out and break the power of evil may become so strong that one cannot survive them” (EA Shabbat 32).

Therefore, in Kook’s opinion, a woman’s essence is only a spark of the nefesh (and not the ruah, neshamah, hayyah or yehidah). This rendered her passive, natural, intuitive and emotional, substantially inferior to men and more liable to trangress spiritually. Therefore, she is dependent on men in all her actions and ethical behavior except for aesthetics, where her status is unique and superior. In Kook’s opinion, the sages were referring to the traits of intuition and aesthetics when they said “Women were given an extra measure of understanding” (BT Niddah 45b).

This essential definition determines women’s role: “Women comprise the traits of mother and helper” (EA Shabbat 32). “Woman’s purpose as a helper is to increase the value of behavior that stems from pure and simple emotion,” (Ibid.) since Kook believed that “Males are the main workers while women are loyal helpers” (EA Shabbat 30).

Kook believed that women could not be autonomous alongside their husbands. He required male rule within the family, community and nation, finding encouragement for women in their difficult role, which was implanted in their nature; by nature, they loved their families and their role (EA Berakhot 86).

Yet Kook does not require men to commit to giving women protection, fair treatment and the like. On the contrary, the demand is one-sided—of the woman for the benefit of the man. In fact, he claims that men have a responsibility to find good wives who are beautiful and supportive, and that they must divorce bad wives (EA Berakhot 38).

Women are among men’s most important possessions and are not perceived as persons in their own right; they are merely objects which derive their significance from being men’s good and beneficial assets (EA Shabbat 101). If such an important acquisition turns out to be defective, it can harm a man’s whole quality of life, since all the rest of his possessions depend upon it (EA Shabbat 21). In commenting on Rabbi Abba, who promises students of Torah “a well-made bed and an ornamented woman,” he says, “The woman whom God threw in his way as a gift, will furthermore expand his mind if she is ornamented and beautifully dressed” (EA Shabbat 99).

Kook believed that woman must not be allowed to fulfill any function beyond that of being a mother and a crown for her husband. She must certainly hold no position of power or public office except in charitable organizations, which are characteristic of women, and she must not teach Torah since “A woman is not obligated in learning Torah” (Sefer Orot 72).

Woman’s purpose as a helper to her husband underlay Kook’s firm opposition to women’s suffrage. In a letter to the Mizrachi movement in Palestine in 1920 he refers to two justifications for this opinion: first, preventing women’s public activity on ground of kol kevudah bat melekh penimah (Psalms 45:14) and second, the need to separate women and men from each other. In a second letter, he added that it was “essential to compel the politicians to accept [his] opinion on the matter and oppose this modern innovation … which we will be compelled greatly to regret.”

He cited two further major reasons. Firstly, allowing women to vote might disrupt domestic harmony, “since domestic peace would be destroyed by the storm of opinions and disagreements” (Mamarei ha-Re’ayah 189–191). Since women would be permitted to express their political views on a par with men, political arguments could break out between the couple, undermining domestic harmony (Ibid. 192–194). Therefore women should not be given the right to express their political opinions in elections. The second argument is that “This will teach her to flatter her husband and cast her vote according to his and not according to her own conscience, which will impact negatively on both her morality and her inner freedom.” Therefore the appropriate method is “to listen to women’s opinion in every household, even on general social and political subjects, but the agreed-upon opinion must go forth from the home.… and the one who has the duty to bring it out into the public domain is the man, the father of the family.” Kook adds, “Even if those people were correct who maintain that the idea of what is termed equal rights for women and their participation in the public sphere according to modern ideas is proper and acceptable, nevertheless it is in accordance with our spirit, for it is ugly and unacceptable.”

In a declaration on this matter by the conference of rabbis, on which Kook was the only signatory, he ruled decisively: “Resolved: that the item concerning the participation of women in the elections, as adopted by the provisional committee, is contrary to Mosaic law and Jewish law and contrary to the national spirit in general, and until this innovation is abolished, no eligible Jewish man shall participate in the constituent assembly” (Friedman 1982, 167; Cohen 1983, 83–95).

WOMEN’S EDUCATION

According to Kook’s gendered opinions, women’s education should be directed by men. Because woman is by definition passive, more easily swayed by emotions than by the force of intellect, she requires rational guidance, which is by its very nature in the hands of men; by no means should there be a contrary situation, in which the man follows the woman, who is characterized by her inner emotional forces (EA Berakhot 38).

In his writings, Kook also came out against the developing trend of educating women. He opposed it vehemently despite the worldwide modern assertion that women, too, have been endowed with good sense and intellectual capacity. In this case he did not dispute their intellectual abilities, but based his opposition on the idea that educating women would weaken their bodies and negatively affect the next generation. He dwells on his position at length in Ein Ayah (his commentary on Talmudic aggadah), citing the legend of Yalta, who protested against the harm to women’s status. He wrote similarly in a personal letter to his children.

Kook sought to deny women religious study in any form, enthusiastically adopting Rabbi Eliezer’s statement, “Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah teaches her lewdness” (BT Sotah 20a), as “very great words,” saying: “My joy is boundless that we were saved by such excellent guidance.”

He issued the gravest warnings against those who wished to change the world order by establishing schools for girls. “Now that the custom of stuffing girls with Torah and enquiry has broken out, the girls mistakenly think that they must continually search for new elements that are not in accord with their character traits. This will cause terrible damage to both their ethical and material life.”

Kook reiterates his position that the education of girls should be appropriate to their purpose as women—homemakers who assist their husbands and are ruled by them. In this respect he agreed wholeheartedly with the opinion of Ulla, who told Rabbi Nahman that women had no blessing except in their husbands’ offspring, thus entirely negating the idea of women having autonomous status. Although Yalta represented the opposite view and disagreed with this stand, we should not learn from her or see her as an example for women in general (EA Berakhot 46–47).

Alongside his consistently conservative position, he also gives reasons why denying women education is a general educational value. He does this by connecting the topic with his unique educational approach, which took exception to institutionalized education. In his writings he creates a fascinating encounter between these two theories with reference to girls’ education. In this case, there appears a more moderate approach to women, because Kook adds to his opposition to girls’ education an extremely radical and progressive pedagogical dimension in the form of his major principles, which aimed at a natural and individual education—principles which strongly resemble those of Rousseau. There are those who surmise that Kook’s educational philosophy was influenced by Rousseau (Yaron 1982, 142).

He combines these assertions in his opposition to the education of women, to whom natural education is most suited. “A time will come when the world recognizes this perversion and will keep each sex in its own place. Then we shall have a humankind which will blend a healthy nature from the mother’s side with an active, enquiring spirit on the father’s side, both of which will constitute its beauty” (unpublished letter in possession of the family). He wrote in the same vein to his son and daughter in a letter dated January 17, 1907.

In the end, he learned that religious schools for girls were vital, since they would otherwise attend secular schools. In 1908 he wrote to the members of the Mizrachi bureau: “To our regret, there is no religiously observant institution of the old kind which has founded a school for girls. And the influence of girls’ schools is generally weakened by this new blemishment … and this needs to be amended without further delay” (IR 116).

SELECTED WORKS BY ABRAHAM ISAAC KOOK

Hebrew

Ein Ayah, Jerusalem: 1987; Eight Compilations. Jerusalem: 1999. Iggerot ha-Re’ayah, Jerusalem: 1962; Olat Re’ayah, Jerusalem: 1949; “Orot Hanukkah, the Four Portions and Purim,” in Sefer Orot, Jerusalem: 1985.

Bibliography

Ben Nun, Yoel. Nationalism, Humanism and the Jewish Community. ed. Benyamin Ish Shalom and Shalom Rosenberg. Jerusalem: 1998; Cohen, Y. “The Disagreement Between Rabbis Kook and Uziel on Women’s Suffrage.” In Women in Jewish Sources: An Anthology of Jewish Thought. Jerusalem: 1983; Friedman, Menachem. Society and Religion: Non-Zionist Orthodoxy in Erez Israel 1918–1936. Jerusalem: 1982; Ish Shalom, Benyamin. Between Rationalism and Mysticism. Tel Aviv: 1990; Sarid, Ron. Hadarav. Ramat Gan: 1998;Yaron, Zvi. Mishnato Shel Ha-Re’ayah. Jerusalem: 1982.

How to cite this page

Kehat, Chana. "Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 18, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/kook-rabbi-abraham-isaac>.