Perhaps the most difficult of personalities to portray is that of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who had an immeasurable influence on Jewish life. He was born in Greiva, Latvia and was one of the select few to be recognized as a true genius from early childhood. His memory was astounding, yet the ability to assimilate and understand information was definitely his greatest asset. While attending yeshiva he applied himself not only to the Talmud, but studied Bible, Jewish Philosophy and the Hebrew language as well.
By the time Rabbi Kook arrived at the famed Volozhin Yeshiva at the age of nineteen, he spoke Hebrew perfectly and did so at any and every opportunity that presented itself. The Rosh Yeshiva at the time was the “Netziv”, who was one of the few leaders of the Torah world who supported the beginning of the return to Zion. Under this influence, Rabbi Kook grew in knowledge and became engrossed in kabbalah, Jewish thought and devoted prayer. In 1888 he went to serve as the Rabbi of Zimel for seven years, until he moved to Boisk, Lithuania, where he was the rabbi of this community until 1904. It was in Boisk that he published his first essay on Zionism in which he accepted the movement in all its aspects as being a legitimate factor in the quest to revive Jewish nationalism.
In 1904, Rabbi Kook moved to Eretz Israeland became Rabbi of Jaffa and its surrounding agricultural communities. Here he began to espouse his particular brand of religious philosophy. It was a blend of the mystical, unworldly kabbalah, and the practical realities of the day. At its cornerstone rested the belief that the Jewish people were not only bringing about a new historical era in their determination to reclaim the land, but were entering into the phase of history foretold by the prophets as the “Atchalta De’Geula” or the Beginning of Redemption. Thus he viewed even the most irreligious as fulfilling the word of God, and the Zionist movement as the instrument that God had chosen to usher in this new era.
Rabbi Kook reiterated over and over again that each and every Jew retains a holy spark within the soul and that the Jewish people as a whole, in beginning to revive their national aspirations and rebuilding the Land, were igniting this spark – which most assuredly would bring about the full and complete redemption.
At all times Rabbi Kook desired to keep peace between the religious and irreligious segments of the community, while trying to preserve and teach that the traditional way of life cannot be abandoned without abandoning the very soul of the Jewish people. The sabbatical year of 1909 was marked by the controversy (as in 1888) as to whether the Jews should be allowed to work their land. To this end he published a treatise “Shabbat Ha’Aretz” in which he allowed, for technical reasons, the working of the land.
In 1914 Rabbi Kook was invited to the Agudat Yisrael convention in Europe and went with the hope of convincing the leaders to take a more positive stance in regard to the Zionist movement. While their World War I began and he could not get passage back to Israel. For more than a year he resided at the house of Abraham Kimche in Switzerland and spent most of his time writing. From 1915-18 he was appointed as temporary head of the “Machzeike Ha’Dat” congregation in London and tried to convince the Jews of London to take a more active role in Zionist ideology. He was present at the announcement of the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917, which was the first document recognizing the need for a Jewish homeland.
Immediately after the war, Rabbi Kook returned to Eretz Israel and became Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. When the institution of the Chief Rabbinate was set up in 1929, he was elected to be the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, a post which he held until his death in 1935. One of the most important contributions that Rabbi Kook made to the world of Torah, aside from his writings, was the setting up of a yeshiva in Jerusalem devoted to higher studies, which has become known as ‘Mercaz Ha’Rav’ (Ha’Rav is a shortened phrase used to this day to refer to Rabbi Kook.) He wished to produce spiritual leaders and teachers for the community.
The end of Rabbi Kook’s life was marked by controversy, as the yishuv (settlement in Eretz Israel) divided between Revisionist and Labor Zionist philosophy. He defended Stavsky, one of the accused in the Arlosorof murder, and by doing so angered the Labor Zionists who were convinced of Stavsky’s guilt. (It should be noted that the Arlosorof murder until this day has not been solved, and is a constant source of friction between the various political factions in Israeli society.) Rabbi Kook, in addition, had to face the constant vilification and degradation of the ‘Neturei Karta’ who were violently opposed to him and his philosophy, viewing it as heretical and Rabbi Kook as an apostate.
After Rabbi Kook’s death in 1935, his only son, Zvi Yehuda (1891-1982) took over as Rosh-Yeshiva of Mercaz Ha’Rav. It is due to Rabbi Zvi Yehuda’s credit that so many of his father’s works have been published. He devoted time to compiling, editing and footnoting the compositions and letters of his father. Some of the most famous of these books are: Orot Hakodesh, Iggorot Ha’Rayeh, and Orot Ha’Teshuva.
The teachings of Rabbi Kook (and his son) changed the face of Orthodox Judaism in the pre-state years and afterwards. He synthesized Torah study and adherence to its Mitzvot with the revival of Jewish nationalism as no other person was able to do. He explained to the religious and non-religious that the ‘galut’ is not permanent, and that the time had indeed come for the foretold beginning of redemption. The influence of Rabbi Kook is boundless. He was a visionary and realist; a man who stood alone and was the spiritual leader of thousands. At a time of travail and sorrow he was able to see beyond the present moment to an era of unity and peace of the people of Israel in Eretz Yisrael.
Rav Kook passed away on 3 Ellul 5695 (1 September 1935), after serving as Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem for sixteen years, and for many years as the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Eretz Israel.
From His Writings
The uniqueness of the nation of Israel
“The people of Israel are not a nation in the normal sense of the term, but rather the essence of the human ideal. They exist as a ‘society’ on all its meaning and are called a ‘nation’ by way of description because all societies of man are called by such a name.”
Iggrot Ha’Rayah Part II: Responsa 409
The Jewish Religion and the Zionist Movement
“Holiness will return to its rightful place in our national Zionist movement for only with it can we gain the source of life, and then it will revive through its power the mundane values that exist and that will exist for our support. And this will be our way of return which will heal all our ills and will bring near the complete redemption, speedily in our days, Amen.”
“Zionism must return to the life source of our nation ‘from the top of the rocks’ and it is impossible for this (to occur) without religion.”
The Nation and the Land
“The holy association between Israel and its Holy Land is not comparable to a natural affiliation through which all other nations and peoples are tied to their lands. The natural affiliation develops over a long period of time and through the occurrence of many incidents and through a great many people who come to live permanently in a specific land and thus begins the development of the historical affiliation by way of habit, causing for the generations to come, a spiritual association between the nation and the land. Such an idea does not exist within the Divine realm emanating from the Holy source which ties the people of Israel to the holiness of the beautiful land whose sanctified seal became apparent when we were but ‘a few men.’ ”
“The unique treasure of the land and the unique treasure of the nation suit one another. Just as the nation is unique in its Divine ascent within the depth of life, so does the land – the land of God – prepare the nation which rests upon it as an inheritance for eternity, who come as a result of covenant and promise and assuredness. The eternity of Israelis based upon Divine nature which inherently exists in the form of this wondrous and beautiful land and serves as partner to the nation which was chosen by God for a treasure. Together the souls of the nation and the land influence the very nature of existence and fulfill their duties through the active expression of their holy longings during the sabbatical year. The nation works with all the powers of its soul upon the land and the seed of God is revealed by its spiritual influence and the land works for the nation to reveal its abilities according to the Divine desire for life in its totality.”
“And the second act of loving kindness which the Holy One Blessed Be He accomplished was to endow the Holy Land as a chosen treasure, for from the aspect of its holiness it is not suitable for any of the nations among the nations of the world but just for Israel – ‘an inheritance of Israel His people.’”
Olat Ha’Rayah Part II
“Eretz Israel is not an external object superimposed upon the consciousness of the nation. Nor can it simply be defined as an intermediary whose purpose is to unify the people and thus provide for the strengthening of their physical and spiritual requirements. Eretz Israel is an independent entity, intrinsically connected to and part of those unique qualities which preserve and guarantee the very existence of our nation. This intimate bond denies any attempt at rational or intellectual explanation of the holiness invested in the land. It can only be understood by attempting to comprehend the very ‘spirit of God’ which rests upon the entire nation…”
Our relationship towards Eretz Israel is not accidental, but rather a natural and divine one for us, as our very existence and essence is tied to the beautiful land, and all the time we are removed from our land because of our sins this did not cause a change within our fundamental values. We are always connected with the Holy Land with all our hearts and souls to the land of Israel.”
Olat Ha’Rayah Part II
“An independent creation in regard to the people of Israel, in thought and active life is impossible for the people of Israelexcept in the Land of Israel…
It is impossible for an individual Jew to be dedicated and truthful to his thoughts and logic, ideas and dreams in the Diaspora as he would be in Eretz Israel. The revelations of holiness, no matter on what level, are pure in Eretz Israel, according to their intrinsic value, whereas in the Diaspora they are intertwined and mixed with other factors. However, according to the degree one desires and is connected to Eretz Israel, ideas will be influenced by the very air of Eretz Israel.”
Love for the Nation
“The great love that we feel for our nation will not blind us from seeing its faults – but even after the most wide-ranging critical review, [we know that] it is free from all faults.”
Looking at the Good
“When one looks truly at the good side of everyone, others come to love him very naturally, and he does not need even a speck of flattery.”
We are Great
“We [Israel] are great, and our foibles are great, and therefore our troubles are great – but our consolations will also be great.”
Proclaim the Beauty of the Land
We experience exile and mediocrity because we do not proclaim the value and wisdom of the land of Israel.
We have not rectified the sin of the biblical spies who slandered the land. And so we must do the opposite of what they did: we must tell and proclaim to the entire world the land’s glory and its beauty, its holiness and its honor.
Then, after all these praises, let us hope that we have expressed at least one ten-thousandth of the loveliness of that lovely land: the beauty of the light of its Torah, the exalted nature of the light of its wisdom, and the holy spirit that seethes within it.
Awakening the Love for Zion
We have a great obligation to awaken the ancient love of Zion: a love that is eternal and burns in a flame of holy fire within the hearts of the Jewish people wherever they may be.
We must fight with all our strength against any hatred of our holy land—which has begun to affect some of us. With a mighty arm of the spirit and with the eternal holiness of the beloved land, we must destroy the contamination of the spies, a contamination which began to spread at the very point of the possible redemption.
“The word of our God will stand forever.”
The holiness of the land and its loveliness has never changed and will never change. All the bitter circumstances, physical and spiritual, which have affected the Holy Land will not overcome it.
Just as no physical destruction can destroy our love for the beloved land, so can no spiritual desolation reduce our holy and profound love of that land of life.
The deep connection between the soul of the Jew and Zion, with all that takes place there, stands firm forever. And the light of that love will increase seven-fold.
It will enflame every heart and exalt every spirit, sanctifying and encouraging everyone.
Moadei Harayah, pp. 419-20
Gold of the Land is Good
“‘And the gold of that land was good’—this teaches that there is no Torah like the Torah of the land of Israel” (Bereishis Rabbah 16:7).
In every generation, it is fitting to have great love for the Torah of the land of Israel. This is particularly true now. We must give our generation the life-giving medicine of the Torah of the land of Israel. We must show this generation the greatness of truth and clarity found within our Godly treasure, in the ideas and insights of the true Torah, in the beauty and exalted nature of its mitzvos, and in its overall view of life. This can be achieved only via the light of the Torah of the land of Israel, via its depth and breadth. Only that connects all one’s awareness and ideas so that one can completely experience it and, more, transfer that experience to others. All of this is possible only via the light of the Torah of the land of Israel.
Our generation is ready. It must be influenced by ideas that have a fresh life and greatness. Shriveled, small matters can no longer capture its heart. Its communal nature has grown exceedingly. We must give everything to this generation in an inclusive fashion: a stream of the flow of life of the entire nation.
This brings us to the essential difference between the Torah of the land of Israel and the Torah of chutz la’aretz (outside the land of Israel). Whatever is small and individual (whether in the general context of spiritual ideas or, more particularly, of those ideas that deal with the great breadth of Torah and faith) when viewed from the perspective of the Torah of chutz la’aretz becomes great and inclusive as soon as it draws to itself the atmosphere of the land of Israel.
The Torah of chutz la’aretz is only aware of how to care for the individual, for his spiritual and physical completion, his temporal as well as eternal condition. But the Torah of the land of Israel is concerned with the totality, with the nation: with its soul and energy, its body and spirit, its total present, its total future, and the living imprint of its past—simultaneously. All details enter it and are subsumed in its exalted state. This is the inner renewal, deep and broad, of the Torah of the land of Israel. It declares that all individual thoughts and ideas proceeding in an impoverished and scattered state—the atmosphere of the land of other nations—must form one bundle, must clothe themselves in one general intent related to the life of the entire nation, under the influence of the land of Israel. (Chevyon Oz, quoted in Moadei Harayah, pp. 157-8)
Religion in the Eyes of Rav Kook
The story is told of how Rav Kook, upon one of his visits to an anti-religious kibbutz, was approached by one of the leaders who greeted him as follows: “With all due respect Rabbi, you shouldn’t waste your time trying to convince us to be religious. It’s not that we don’t know what Torah is, most of us were raised in observant homes. We know Torah, rabbis, mitzvot and we don’t like them!” Rav Kook questioned,”Why?” The kibbutznik replied: “We simply can’t stand your old-fashioned, meaningless, outdated rituals!” Exclaimed Rav Kook, “I agree”. “What?”, asked the surprised rebel. Explained the Rav, “I also hate the “religion” that you describe. But the dynamic, idealistic and deep Torah is so beautiful that anyone who is exposed to it cannot but love it!”.
The Living Land
Rav Kook founded Merkaz Harav Kook Yeshiva in 1924. Rav Kook saw in the establishment of the Yeshiva – a culmination of his spiritual vision of the holy renaissance of the People of Israel in their Land. The Yeshiva was founded to be a Center for Torah, whose purpose would be to raise up and educated scholars and leaders in Israel, filled with a deep love for their fellow Jew, and imbued with the love of Torah and love of the Landof Israel.
Today Merkaz Harav is one of the largest Yeshiva’s in Israel, with approximately 500 students in the Yeshiva, and 200 students in Kollel. Harav Avraham Shapira, former Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, is the Rosh Yeshiva. It is located in the Givat Shaul neighborhood (near the central bus station) in Jerusalem.Over the years Merkaz Harav has come to denote not only a Yeshiva, but also a Torah concept that is the heart of an ideological movement. This movement encompasses thousands of students in yeshiva high schools, Yeshivot Hesder, Ulpanot (girls high schools) , Michlalot (post-high school women learning institutions) and members from all walks of the Settlement movement.
Mossad Harav Kook
Mossad Harav Kook, named for Rav Kook, is the flagship-publishing house of the national-religious movement. Founded by Harav Yehudah Leib Maimon in 1937, it set out to achieve the following goals:
To publish Halachic and Aggadic literature, Science and Halacha, commentaries and history
To publish unpublished manuscripts
To print scholarly editions of Rishonim
To print periodicals and contemporary research
Mossad Harav Kook also contains the religious Zionist movement archives. Mossad Harav Kook is located close to Merkaz Harav.