“A Great Religious Personality”
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Reflects on Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook
No Religious Zionist thinker has had a greater impact on the people and State of Israel than Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, the revolutionary Religious Zionist thinker whose influence only continues to grow with time.
The following is an edited transcription of a 1959 recording in which Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik recounts a telling anecdote about Rav Kook. Though many would argue with his view that Rav Kook “was not a philosopher,” his deep respect for Rav Kook is evident.
24 years ago, the only time I was in Israel, I visited a Stalinist kibbutz called Kvutzat Kinneret, one of the oldest kibbutzim in Israel. I came to the kibbutz during the Three Weeks, and I remember it was a very hot day. The workers were in the fields, the vineyards and the orange groves, working very hard. When I arrived they called me “rav, rav, rav” in a half cynical, half sarcastic way. They had a cynical approach to American Jews in general, and particularly towards an American rabbi.
I assumed the kibbutz kitchen was treif. They offered me some fresh grapes, but I refused to eat them. They asked me, “Why won’t you eat, what’s wrong with grapes?” I explained, “the grapes are treif in Eretz Yisrael if terumah and ma’aser are not taken; it’s forbidden, just like eating milk and meat together.” They said that the shaliach from the rabbanut comes and sets apart terumah and ma’aser. But then they said, “we can assure that our kitchen is kosher.” When I heard this I opened my eyes and said: “you have a kosher kitchen?! What made you introduce a kosher kitchen?” They then told me the following incident, which took place a few years before.
Many people think Rav Kook was a great philosopher. This is wrong. With all my reverence for Rav Kook, he was not a philosopher. He was a great religious personality. To him, Judaism was not an idea; it was a great experience, a passion, a love and lived reality. He not only comprehended Judaism with his mind, but also perceived it with all five senses. Judaism to him was a sense experience, not an intellectual experience. If you ask me what Rav Kook’s philosophy was, I don’t know how to answer; I don’t believe it’s possible to systematize his philosophy. But I don’t need to find complete philosophical coherence in his writings. When you read them, it is like a storm or powerful tide that is driving you into lands unknown, into mysterious paths. His impact is still felt in Eretz Yisrael. A few days ago, I spoke with the rabbis of Israel, and ít’s clear they still have great reverence for Rav Kook, many years after his death.
Rav Kook once came with his shamash to this kibbutz for Shabbat. They brought their own challot and wine because the dining room then was completely treif. On Friday night, they sat down together with everyone else. He made kiddush on his wine, hamotzi on the challah, and then benched – he didn’t eat anything else. All night long, the kibbutzniks turned lights on and off; they ignored Rav Kook’s presence and acted as if he wasn’t there. On Shabbat morning, they wouldn’t make a minyan for him, so he davened by himself as they worked the land. At lunch, he again quietly made kiddush and ate his challah, while the kibbutzniks were cooking and sewing.
After havdalah, the kibbutz gathered together and Rav Kook danced with them. He told them stories about his past, about his father and mother – but never indicated any disapproval regarding their behavior during Shabbat. On Sunday morning, as he was leaving, he said, “Shalom, lehitra’ot, v’le’echol beyachad seudah achat,” “goodbye, and may we soon eat together as one.” The next day, all the dishes were thrown out and the kitchen was kashered.
I can tell you that a cheirem (ban) of the Agudah’s rabbis wouldn’t have made a difference [in that kibbutz]. What was the power he exerted? It was the power of his religious personality. He was in love with Judaism. As Maimonides says, “as one who is in love with a woman, so should a Jew be in love with Judaism, with G-d.”
The audio recording of Rav Soloveitchik is available at Ohr Publishing – Videos of Rav Soloveitchik. Special thanks to Odelia Glausiusz for her help with transcribing this recording.