Does the Essay “HaDor” Apply to Today’s Generation as Well?
by HaRav Eliezer Melamed
The essay “HaDor” (“The Generation”) in the book “Ikvei HaTzon” is undoubtedly one of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook’s most fundamental essays, in which he 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 previous generations were usually light-minded and immoral, whereas nowadays, high-quality people with beliefs and moral ambitions are leaving the Torah. They are searching for an absolute and lofty truth that carries a message of tikun (perfection) for Israel and the entire world. From what they have heard and studied about Judaism, it seems to them that the Torah deals with personal questions about kashrut and the like, but is unable to offer a way to address the significant questions of man, 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 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).
“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 “HaDor” Relevant to our Times?
Many people who learn the essay “HaDor” believe it refers to the pioneers who immigrated to Israel with utter devotion, drained its swamp-lands, made its desert bloom by establishing communities, fought for the establishment of a Jewish State, and reared a young generation of pioneers and fighters. A question then arises: nearly 120 years after the essay “HaDor” was written, are the analyses and conclusions of our teacher, Rabbi Kook, still 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 Veiled
Some people believe that the words of Rabbi Kook ztz”l are valid and binding. 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. There are still kibbutzim and settlements, and even if their status has weakened, in practice, they are settling the Land, and have successors in the form of the settlers. 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 through mesirut nefesh (utter devotion) for the Nation and the Land. Likewise, soldiers who work night and day and risk their lives for the security of the State, represent the spirit of the generation that Rabbi Kook spoke of to a great degree.
Our Generation is Petty, Materialistic, and Needs Reproof
In contrast, some say: Nowadays, the public at large does not care about any ideals. The Land and the Nation don’t matter to them. They are secular because they are ignorant. They are content in their ways, and also think that in this way they will be able to satisfy their desires. In order to bring them closer, all the nakedness of the world they live in must be exposed. They must be shown how the pursuit of money and luxuries does not lead to true happiness. Sexual permissiveness, broken families, and public and personal corruption must be sharply criticized. The punishment of the wicked in this world and the next should be explicitly described. At the same time, they should be shown the beauty of Judaism: the tranquil Shabbat table, the well-behaved children honoring their parents, the beautiful candles lit by the faithful wife, and the husband who sets times for Torah study. To support their beliefs, they offer as proof the numerous baalei teshuva (repentant sinners) who love hearing simple mussar and have no connection whatsoever to Clal Yisrael ideas.
Our Generation Seeks the Meaning of Life (New Age)
Others say that today, people no longer believe in general ideals. Settlement of the Land does not interest them. Economic and social questions do not concern them either. Life is so complicated, complex and burdensome that people are content to seek meaning in their own personal lives. They are searching for meaning in life – a way to deal with all the confusing and burdening prosperity. The teachings of Hasidism, which delves deep into the individual soul and evokes emotion, speaks to them. The individualistic ideas in Rabbi Kook’s words also touch their hearts, but not the general ideas.
Others say: today, people do not believe in absolute principles. There are no longer any idealists willing to give their lives for principles. The generation has matured and adopted a complex world-outlook, according to which truth does not belong to any one group, nor to any particular Torah perspective. If presented with the vision of tikun olam in the Torah, they will not be impressed or drawn closer, rather quite the opposite – they will loathe the over-confidence of the believers. They are wary of overly-idealistic movements. The students of Rabbi Kook, with all their “messianism,” also frighten them. This passion might have been siutable during the times of the First Aliyah to Israel and the draining of the swamps, but today, it is irrelevant. People nowadays are looking for a reasonable, decent and comfortable life.
In order to draw the generation closer, the foundations of the Torah and halakha must be integrated with modern-day life. The tension between Judaism and liberal democracy, between the claim to the absolute truth in the Torah and pluralism, should be reduced as much as possible.
The Essay “HaDor” 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 “HaDor” was misconstrued. Rabbi Kook refers not only to the pioneers who immigrated to Israel, but rather to the entire generation. The essay was published in the year 5666 (1906), two years after Rabbi Kook immigrated to Eretz Yisrael. In those times, less than 100,000 Jews lived in Israel, whereas in the Diaspora, there were approximately 12 million Jews – over 10 million of them living in Europe and America. When Rabbi Kook wrote his essay “HaDor” 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 arts and promoting social ideas – and all this, with the belief that by doing so, they could repair the world. In regards to them, Rabbi Kook writes that “darkness and light serve them in disorder.” They have great aspirations, however, without Torah they will not achieve a real tikun.
“HaDor” is the Modern Era
The essay “HaDor” speaks of modern times in which man began to believe that in the power of thought, creation, research, planning and initiative, he would be able to solve all problems and change the world for the better. Modernity began around two hundred and fifty years ago in Western Europe, then spread to Eastern Europe and the capital cities of Arab countries, and continues to this day. Rabbi Kook addresses the ‘young’ forces, even though in practice, some of them were already adults, but in a historical perspective, they expressed the new, youthful trend.
Although many of the early thinkers and scholars believed in God, the growing notion that man could take responsibility for his own destiny and future caused many to turn away from religion, which emphasized man’s minuteness and dependance. Many even argued that religion harms and inhibits the development of humanity, and instead of obeying the laws of religion, an effort should be made in social change, scientific research and technological development, thus redeeming man from poverty and deprivation, and allowing him to express his full potential.
In his essay “HaDor,” Rabbi Kook spoke about all the talented Jews who were active in the various movements for the sake of humanity. Some led social revolutions for liberalism and socialism, and many others led the development of science and art. One of the movements belonging to the modern era was the Zionist movement. Unfortunately, in terms of quantity, fewer Jews participated in it, and in terms of quality as well, its activists were generally less talented. The genius minds in science, economics and society gave their strengths to foreigners.
The Relevance of “HaDor” for Our Generation
Indeed it is true that today there is disappointment in ideological movements. Many dreams were dashed against the rocks of a grim reality. Scientific and cultural development in Germany did not prevent the Holocaust. The Communist revolution did not benefit humanity. Even the democratic and liberal values that have benefited humanity, are far from fulfilling the great expectations that were placed in them.
Despite all this, the vast majority of the public still believes that with the power of thought and planning, the world can be improved and corrected. This is the “totally intellectual movement” (pg. 110). In face of such a movement, which is the leading one to this day, a vision must be presented.
True, many people are unconcerned with general ideas about tikun olam and the world’s realistic redemption, rather, deal with personal questions concerning their lives and that of their community alone. Even if they have ingenious talents, they are not the ones leading the social processes in the world. They are trailing behind. And when involved in Torah, they are content to establish a religious ghetto on the fringes of society, and claim that the generation is petty and lustful, or looking for religious feelings, or comfortable compromises, to which they try to give answers.
However, those who determine the spirit of the generation are people who think of tikun olam for the entire world. To this end, they deal in philosophy, law, morality, science, society, economics, psychology, literature and art. Ultimately, the masses follow them, and even those in the ghetto are inevitably affected by them.
The great novelty in the words of Rabbi Kook is that despite the darkening shadows, he saw the point of truth and goodness in them, and determined it to be the main point. He taught us to appreciate all these movements, and called us to delve into the Torah in greatness, to draw from it enlightenment to all the forces revealed in the generation, in order to guide and elevate them for the tikun of the world and its redemption.