Paving His Own Path
3 Days in Boisk with Rav Kook
A leading rabbinic figure of the early Religious Zionist movement in Eastern Europe, Rav Yitzchak Nissenbaum authored an extraordinary autobiography, Alei Cheldi (1930), in which he vividly portrays many of the greatest rabbis and Zionist leaders of his time. In this passage, translated for the first time, Rav Nissenbaum recalls his visit with Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook in 1903, just before Rav Kook made Aliyah to become the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa.
In the winter of 5664 I traveled around Courland in Western Latvia, and while in the city of Mitau, I decided to make my way to Boisk, even though it was extremely cold and the distance was very long – more than ten hours by wagon. The purpose of my visit to that city was to meet the local rabbi, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook.
I had heard of Rav Kook many years earlier. While still young, I read his article about the Netziv of Volozhin in Sha’ul Pinchas Rabinowitz’s Knesset Yisrael, and as a former student of the Volozhin Yeshiva who loved his old rabbi [the Netziv], I greatly enjoyed what he wrote. Subsequently I read what he wrote in his Ittur Soferim [a short-lived Torah journal edited by Rav Kook in 1889 – Ed.]. While he was a rabbi in the city of Žeimelis, I heard that he had immersed himself in the study of the kabbalah and that he conducted himself with piety and austerity. When a guest came from a different city, he would give him food and drink, and on parting from him, he would thrust into a pocket of the guest’s clothing a slice of bread and accompany him four cubits outside his home, in fulfillment of the rabbinic statement that “we did not let him go without food and escort”. However, I did not take a special interest in this rabbi. He had not played any formal role in the Chibbat Tzion movement or thereafter in the Zionist movement, nor had he authored any books of importance. What, then, had he to do with me?
However, at the beginning of this year (5664), I learned that he was to be installed as rabbi of Jaffa.
I spent three days in the city of Boisk, and each day I sat for several hours in Rav Kook’s home and we discussed various matters of halachah and aggadah and the questions of life. I saw before me not an ordinary rabbi who takes the well-trodden path, but an intellectual who paves his own. He had not yet found this path, but he was searching for it along the entire length, breadth, and depth of Judaism, diving into the sea of both Talmuds, midrash, philosophy, kabbalah, Chassidut, and even modern Hebrew literature, and surfacing with precious stones with which to pave his way.
On one occasion I asked him: “My master the rabbi, it is your intention to ascend the throne of the rabbinate of Jaffa and the Jewish moshavot. There you will face new questions that are absent in the exile: the questions of the Jewish agricultural community. Have you made a point of engaging with and delving into the laws that are contingent on the land?”
“Yes,” he answered, “and not only the laws that are contingent on the land, but also the laws that are contingent on the Beit HaMikdash, for I am a kohen!”
When we once spoke of the second day of yom tov that is observed in the exile but which we do not observe in the Land of Israel, the rabbi spoke at length about the value of work and the harmony of Torah and daily life. Through this lengthy discussion I discovered that the rabbi grasped the manner in which Judaism develops over time and understood precisely those places where Torah diverges from the new philosophies that have taken form in the wider world. His aspiration was to weave the severed strand that binds Israel to the world and to restore to Judaism its former, all-embracing wings.
I parted from him in peace and friendship. A short time later, the rabbi made his way to the Land of Israel.