The essay “Ma’amar Ha’dor” (“The Generation”) in Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s book “Ikvei HaTzone” is undoubtedly one of his most essential and famous essays. In this essay, Rabbi Kook analyzes the special character of the generation, and outlines a path for its repentance and perfection.
Rabbi Kook explains that Jews who abandoned the Torah in the recent generations are different and unique. In all previous generations, those who left the Torah were usually light-minded and immoral, whereas nowadays, those leaving the Torah are high quality people with beliefs and moral ambitions. They are searching for a great truth, carrying a message of ‘tikkun’ (perfection) for Israeland the entire world. From what they have heard and studied, it seems to them that the Torah deals with keeping old customs and petty laws, but cannot offer a way to address the significant questions of the individual, the nation, and humanity. “Our generation is wonderful… it is extremely difficult to find an example [similar to it] in all our chronicles. It is composed of various upheavals, darkness and light serving in disorder. It is low and dejected, but also lofty and exalted. It is completely guilty and [at the same time] completely innocent” (pg. 108).
How to Address the Generation
“The troubles and the awesome hardships made [the generation] rigid and intense.” The threat of punishment, in this world, or the World to Come, does not affect them. “It cannot, even if it desires, be subordinated and bowed down… it cannot repent out of fear, however, it is very capable of repenting from love” (pg. 111).
The generation must be spoken to with grand ideas. “The less significant and simpler ideas, although filled with truth and integrity, will not suffice [the generation]” (pg. 112). At this point in the essay, Rabbi Kook explains at length the grand ideas, and how they should to be taught.
“We will not rob them [the generation] from all the light and good, all the radiance and intensity it has obtained, but rather increase and shed light upon them, from the light of Life, the light of Truth, illuminating from the Source of the Israel’s soul. Our sons will behold Him, and glow” (pg.109).
“To them, we must teach the living Torah, from the Source of Life, ethical ways filled with light and rejoicing, words of pleasantness and good wisdom, refined and purified… from the treasure of Life, of the living Torah.” “We do not desire to suppress them under our feet; we do not wish to place the young and fresh forces which rush forward and uplift, in shackles. Rather, we will illuminate the path before them; we will walk before them in a pillar of fire of Torah and Holy knowledge, and enormous power of the heart” (pg.115).
Is the Essay “Ma’amar Ha’dor” Relevant to our Times?
Many people who learn the essay “Ma’amar Ha’dor” believe it deals with the pioneers who immigrated to Israel with utter devotion, drained its swamp-lands, made its desert bloom, dared to speak about the establishment of a Jewish State, stood bravely against Arabs in battle, and reared a young generation of pioneers and fighters.
The question arises: Is today’s generation, nearly one hundred years after the essay “Ma’amar Ha’dor” was written, still the same? Are the analyses and conclusions of our teacher, Rabbi Kook, applicable today?
There are differing approaches to this question, and I will attempt to summarize them briefly.
The Pioneering Spirit Still Exists – It is simply Hidden
Some people believe that the words of Rabbi Kook, ztz”l, are valid and binding, in the sense of “this Torah shall not be replaced.” Even today, there are many people who love the Land of Israel and are willing to sacrifice their lives for her by settling the country and serving in the army. And even if outwardly it seems that the majority of the population today is not concerned about the land and its development, deep-down, everyone is connected to the nation and the land by means of their ‘mesirut nefesh’ (utter devotion) for her. Those who most notably represent the spirit of the generation that Rabbi Kook spoke of, are the I.D.F. officers and soldiers, who toil day and night, risking their lives for the security of the State.
Our Generation is Petty and Materialistic and Requires Reproof
Others say that today, the majority of the population does not associate with any ideals. They are not interested in the land or the nation of Israel. They are secular because they are ignorant. They are content in their ways. They think that in this manner, they can satisfy their desires. In order to bring them closer to Torah, all the nakedness of the world they live in must be exposed. They must be shown how the pursuit after money and luxuries does not lead to true happiness. Permissiveness, infidelity, and moral corruption which shatters families, must be harshly criticized. They must be told about the punishment of the wicked in hell, in this world, and in the World to Come. In contrast, they should be shown the beauty of Judaism: the tranquil Shabbat table, the well-behaved children honoring their parents, and the study of Torah.
To support these beliefs, they offer as proof the numerous ‘ba’aleh teshuva’ (repentant), who love hearing simple lectures on ‘mussar’ (morals), and studying halacha.
Our Generation Forgot the Grand Ideals in Search of the Meaning of Life (New Age).
Some people say that, indeed, in the times of Rabbi Kook, there were idealists who dedicated their lives for the sake of ‘tikkun olam’ (perfecting the world). However, our generation has lost its faith in grand ideals. People do not want to contend with national, social, or economic questions. They want the politicians to take care of matters sensibly, and to be left alone. Life alone is so complicated, complex and burdensome, that people seek meaning for their own personal lives. They are looking for the meaning of life; a way to deal with all the confusing and burdening prosperity. The teachings of Chassidut, which delve deep into the individual soul, speak to them. And, needless to say, they can relate to the ideas on individualism in the writings of Rabbi Kook, but not to the overall concepts.
There are those who say that today, people do not believe in absolute principles. There are no longer any idealists who are willing to give their lives for principles. The generation has matured and adopted a complex world-outlook, whereby truth does not belong to any one group, or to one Torah perspective. Even if presented with the vision of ‘tikkun olam’ in the Torah, they will not be impressed or drawn closer. Perhaps the exact opposite might occur – the exaggerated self-confidence of the believers will provoke hatred within them. They are wary of overly idealistic movements. The students of Rabbi Kook, with all their “Messianism”, frighten them as well. Maybe such passion was appropriate for the times of the first immigration to Israel and the draining of the swamps, but today, it has no relevance. Nowadays, people are searching for a good, comfortable, and decent life.
In order to draw the generation closer, we must find the way to integrate the foundations of the Torah and halacha with modern-day life. The tension between Judaism and democracy, and between the demand of absolute truth in the Torah and pluralism, should be reduced as much as possible.
The Essay “Ma’amar Ha’dor” Relates to the Entire Nation
Although there is a certain amount of truth in each one of the approaches mentioned, the full scope of the essay “Ma’amar Ha’dor” was not understood properly. Rabbi Kook is not only relating to the pioneers who immigrated to Israel, but with the entire generation. The essay was published in the Jewish year 5666 (1906), two years after Rabbi Kook immigrated to the Land of Israel. In those times, less than 100,000 Jews lived in Israel, whereas in the Diaspora, there were approximately 14 million Jews. Over 10 million Jews lived in Europe. In the city of Warsaw alone, there were almost 500,000 Jews, and in Berlin, Vienna and other important cities there were nearly 200,000 Jews living in each city. When Rabbi Kook wrote his essay “Ma’amar Ha’dor”, he had this enormous population in mind.
At that time, tremendous unrest took place amongst this large Jewish population. Many of them invested their talents and skills in the development of the various sciences and promoting social ideas, in the belief that the more knowledge was increased, the better off the world would be. In regards to them, Rabbi Kook writes that ‘darkness and light are serving them in disorder’. They have great aspirations for ‘tikkun olam,’ however, without Torah they will not truly fix anything.
The “Generation” is the Modern Era
The essay “Ma’amar Ha’dor,” is compatible to virtually all of modern time, which began approximately 250 years ago in Western Europe, spread afterwards to Eastern Europe and the capital cities of the Middle East and Northern Africa, and exists till this day. Rabbi Kook addresses the youthful forces, even though some of them, such as those in Western Europe, were already older. Nevertheless, from a historical perspective, they expressed the new and youthful trend.
The perception that man, through the power of his mind, could take responsibility for his future and that of mankind and initiate changes for the better, is the foundation of the modern approach, which grew with the development of science, technology and society. This new, modern era was lead by Jews.
In his essay “Ma’amar Ha’dor,” Rabbi Kook spoke about all the talented Jews who, in a variety of ways, were active for the sake of humanity. Some of them were involved in the Socialist Revolution; many others were active in the Liberal movement, in its various facets. Several engaged in the development of the fields of science and the arts. And unfortunately, only some of them – and not necessarily the most talented – joined the Zionist movement.
The Famous Jews
Countless scientists and prominent personalities emerged from that same generation. Amongst the more well-known were: Albert Einstein, Erlich, Matchnikov, Meyerhoff, Landsteiner, Haber and Willstatter. In the fields of sociology and psychology: Karl Marx, Freud, Eric Fromm, and Adler. In the field of philosophy: Herman Cohen and Bergson. In literature: Stefen Zweig, LeonFeuchtwanger and Franz Kafka.
Out of an ideal for social reform, over one million young Jews participated in the Socialist-Communist revolutionary movements. Talented Jews were also prominent amongst the senior leadership of these movements, people who led the masses, and brought about historical changes. The most famous were Trotsky, Radek, Sverdlov, Zinoviev, and Gershuni, and in Western Europe, Ferdinand Lassalle.
Jews also developed and led the global economy. They were the important bankers and entrepreneurs. Amongst the most famous were members of the Rothschild family in all its various branches, Baron von Hirsh, Baron Horace Ginzburg, and Montefiore.
In Western Europe, Jews were involved in extensive public activities which brought about social and liberal revolutions. The less famous participated in the study of sociology, and served in advisory roles for politicians. The more famous among them were important government ministers, and even served as heads-of-state, such as Leon Blum, the Prime Minister of France, Walter Rathenau, who served as the Foreign Minister, and briefly as Prime Minister, of Germany. Preceding them was Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister of Britain, who prided himself of his Jewish origin, and turned Britain into an empire.
The Relevance of “Ma’amar Ha’dor” for Our Generation
It is true that today, there is disappointment with ideological movements that failed. Many dreams were dashed against the rocks of a grim reality. Modernity, which many had hoped would bring salvation to the world, also caused terrible disasters, such as the Holocaust and the Communist Revolution. Nevertheless, there still remains the fundamental belief that through the power of the mind and planning, it is possible to perfect the world. This is the “total intellectual movement” (see, pg. 110). In the face of this movement, which still leads till this day, and currently finds its main base in the universities, a vision must be presented.
True, many people are not concerned with general ideas, however, they are not society’s leaders; they are engaged in survival, both in an economic and spiritual sense. This was the situation in the times of Rabbi Kook, and this is the way things are today. Of course, every single Jew is dear and holy, and if it is possible to draw them closer to Torah and mitzvoth, it is important. Rabbi Kook himself also made great efforts in this matter.
However, those who determine the spirit of the generation are the highly qualified people who are engaged in science and philosophy, society and economics, psychology, literature and the arts, and present a vision. Ultimately, the multitudes follow in their path. Today, like a century ago, Jews also lead in all of these fields. The good within our generation must be appreciated, and out of a deeper understanding of the Torah of Life – guide and elevate them. All of this we learn from the essay “Ma’amar Ha’dor”.