Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Techiyat Orot- A review of the new translation of Rav Kook's Orot by Rav Bezalel Naor

[This review is based on the review that appeared in the Book supplement in this past week's Jewish Press. Subsequent to writing this review, I had the pleasure of meeting Rav Naor, and now attend his weekly chabura.]

Although Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook was one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the last few centuries, there are many Jews who are unfamiliar with his worldview and writings. There are a number of reasons why this is so. Some think of him only as an early leader of the religious Zionist movement, evidently unaware of the spiritual and philosophical breadth and depth that his writings cover. Those who are aware of the scope of his writing, have oftentimes been prevented from exploring those writings, due to the fact that he wrote in  a poetic and flowery Hebrew, challenging even to the native Israeli. This unfamiliarity is particularly unfortunate, as Rav Kook offers ideas and insights of great importance to the modern Jew, in areas as varied as humanism, biblical criticism, and the religious-secular divide.

In the early 90s Rabbi Bezalel Naor, himself a serious and prolific thinker and writer, as well as one of the preeminent scholars of Rav Kook’s thought, wrote and published an English translation of Rav Kook’s Orot. Orot, which was originally published in 1920, offered a new, almost prophetic vision of where the Jewish people were headed and how they would get there. Rav Kook provided a religious framework for how to understand the “secular” Zionist movement, an emphasis on the value of a religious and physical revival, the import of “secular” studies, as well as a sense of great hope to those who feared the growing religious-secular divide. For many who wished to understand Rav Kook, Naor’s translation opened the door to this profound and prolific thinker.

Naor’s translation became an instant classic, not only due to the skill with which he translated Rav Kook’s words, but also for the fascinating introduction in which Naor traced the history of the publishing of Orot and the subsequent controversy which arose in pre-war Palestine. To top it all off, Naor included more than 80 pages of endnotes tracing the origins of Rav Kook’s thoughts, which included quotes and allusions from Tanach, Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, midrashim, the Zohar, as well as from thinkers as varied as the Rambam and Rebbe Yehuda HaLevi, the Maharal, the Baal HaTanya, Rav Nachman, and Hegel and Nietzsche to boot. For many years, the original translation has been out of print. After more than 20 years, it has been re-published, this time by Maggid Books, a subsidiary of Koren Publishers.

In addition to all of the above mentioned bonuses, the new edition has various additions that will make it even more valuable to those who wish to undertake the challenging, but rewarding path of exploring Rav Kook’s thought. Most prominent among these additions is the inclusion of the Hebrew text alongside Naor’s translation (this is only available in the hardcover edition). This has the added benefit of making it possible to try and read Orot in its original language, while at the same time, offering a translation for the more challenging words and phrases. Naor has written a new introduction for this publication which includes even more fascinating stories and information about the publication of Orot, things Naor has discovered over the past 20 years. The new edition has even more endnotes than the original,  as Shemonah Kevatzim, eight of Rav Kook’s original journals, have been published in the last two decades. These journals offer readers a glimpse into the original form in which Rav Kook thought of the ideas, that ultimately became Orot. Naor has gone through these journals and carefully notes the differences between the journals and the book that was ultimately published. While some of these differences are merely semantic, others show how carefully Rav Kook, and his son Rav Tzvi Yehuda, who was his publisher, weighed his words, as they attempted to get across a subtle point, or soften the opposition of his adversaries. Finally, Naor made the decision to provide the chapters of Orot with English titles and to begin each chapter with a brief summary of its contents. He chose to do so, following in the footsteps of some of Rav Kook’s editors, due to the fact that Rav Kook wrote in a poetic, free-flowing manner, with little, if any, thought given to how it might be understood by his readers.

There’s very little to quibble with in this incredible new edition. I would suggest that future editions have the numbers for the footnotes on the Hebrew side as well as the English. Additionally, it would be helpful to have the Hebrew and English page breaks  align more closely, to make it easier for those who are making use of both sides of the page.

I am quite certain that, just as the original translation became a must read for those who wished to understand Rav Kook, the same will be said for the new edition. Naor has done the incredible, offering a translation that is, at once, comprehensible and useful for the novice, while at the same time offering even those who already are most familiar with Rav Kook’s thought and writings, many new avenues of thought to consider.

Click here to order the hardcover edition, here to order the softcover edition, and here for the Kindle edition.

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