It was Friday afternoon in Zoimel, Lithuania, where Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook served as rabbi in the late 19th century.
A cobbler gathered his coins and realized he could not purchase proper food for Shabbat. Despondent, and ashamed to face his family, the man stood at the entrance to his shop rather than go home. He watched his neighbours prepare for Shabbat, and then, as the sun set, walk to the synagogue.
The people of the town were incensed at the cobbler’s apparent violation of Shabbat, remaining in his open store while they closed their businesses to mark the day. They muttered to each other about this man who would defy local norms. Finally, emboldened by their numbers, they requested that Rav Kook do something about the man’s insolence.
Rav Kook, for his part, simply wished the cobbler a “Shabbat Shalom” while returning home from the synagogue. The man instantly realized how his presence at the store must have appeared to the rabbi, and he explained his situation – his poverty, his shame, and his desire to observe Shabbat. The rabbi responded by pledging financial aid for Shabbat as long as the man would need it. As the story goes, Rav Kook contributed his family’s own silver candlesticks (Stories from the Life of Rav Kook, 1988).
This tale, one of many with similar elements, underscores some of the hallmark traits of Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, whose 75th yahrzeit will be marked on the third day of Elul, Aug. 13 of this year, and whose message still resonates in Israel and around the world today. Rav Kook was committed to the honour of the Torah as well as the human being, and he sacrificed of himself to preserve both.
Rav Kook charted a unique course, embracing the holders of many “isms” but endorsing none entirely. He defended what he saw as the pure kernel in secular Zionism, but argued against the religious Mizrachi Zionists’ decision to join political coalitions with secular platforms. He wore a long coat, beard and fur hat, but was at home with farmers in the fields. He promulgated leniency in Jewish law to enable Jews to settle the land of Israel, but his multiple volumes of responsa testify to his ability to prohibit, and his stance against women’s suffrage exemplifies his adherence to tradition and resistance to the new. Rav Kook was a member of the Agudah and a poetic proponent of religious practice, but he practised and preached respect for all.
Such a precedent-shattering path can only belong to a knee-jerk contrarian or an inspired visionary. Rav Kook’s canon of published work makes clear that he was the latter. What vision inspired this iconoclast, and is it still relevant 75 years after his passing?
An unconventional vision
Rav Kook’s early years fit what may be termed the typical arc of the talmid chacham, the outstanding Jewish scholar. A scholastic genius as a pre-adolescent in eastern Europe, the youthful future chief rabbi of the Jews of Palestine studied with the leading Torah sages of his day. At the age of 19, he left home for the Volozhin yeshiva, where he learned under the great rosh yeshiva Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin. He began to publish, married into a great rabbinic family, was widowed and then re-married. He took a position as the rabbi of one small Lithuanian town (Zoimel), and then later as the rabbi of another (Boisk). From there, though, the narrative changes.
While a rabbi and teacher in Lithuania, Rav Kook wove exceptionally wide-ranging biblical, talmudic, liturgical, kabbalistic and philosophical studies into an unconventional tapestry, developing a weltanschauung that saw the holiness of the individual as the key to redeeming the universe.
In particular, Rav Kook explored three central themes: the Divine spark animating every human being; the power of Jewish nationalism to better the lot of individual, nation and world, and the redemptive potential of personal and national repentance. Combining these three concepts convinced Rav Kook that the efforts of religiously observant and secular Jews to restore Jewish life in the Land of Israel – an act of national repentance and return – would usher in a messianic age for Jew and non-Jew alike, to universal benefit.
As Rav Kook explained, God grants every individual the ability and obligation to improve the lives of every other individual. He rhapsodized (in Olat Ra’ayah 2:361), “If you marvel at your ability to speak, listen, smell, sense, see, comprehend and feel, then take this to heart: All who live now and all who preceded you, in their great numbers, influenced your entire existence. Not a single, small entity is superfluous; all are needed, all serve a purpose. You do the same for all who are beneath you, and you are bound to all who ascend above you.” The main task of the individual Jew is to bring this influence to bear for the sake of others, “driven by a bold internal spirit, not a legal obligation” (Orot haKodesh 3:318). These ideas, which were rooted in the teachings of the founding rosh yeshiva of Volozhin, Rav Chaim, had already motivated Rav Kook to donate his Shabbat candlesticks to the cobbler of Zoimel.
The special character of the Land of Israel added a dimension, though: that the Jew is best capable of this generosity in his ancient land, the place of a Jew’s greatest sensitivity to the Divine message. As Rav Kook wrote, “A Jew cannot be devoted and faithful to his thoughts and ideas and imaginings outside Israel, as he can in Israel. Manifestations of sanctity, on every level, are purest in Israel” (Orot mei’Ofel 4). In this one place, the Jew could best stimulate the return, repentance and growth of the nation of Israel, and so bring about universal redemption.
Of course, Rav Kook’s generous views came with certain inherent limitations. The Divine character of every soul led him to respect and embrace every individual for their spiritual potential and their finer actions, but as part of a recognition of the Divine, not as carte blanche acceptance of their every desire and decision. The potency of Jewish nationalism moved Rav Kook to value the Zionists’ agricultural endeavours, but for the sake of a national spiritual revival rather than a simple presence in the land of our ancestors. The promise of redemption inspired Rav Kook to recognize messianic potential in the Jewish renaissance, but in the theological/eschatological framework of his own Ha’Emunah anthem rather than the more secular/historical sentiments of Naftali Imber’s Hatikvah. Rav Kook stands out in the pantheon of Jewish leaders for his willingness to test those limitations rather than retreat from the challenge.
And so Rav Kook, with honest and uncondescending appreciation, supported the Jews who returned to what was then Palestine to create farming colonies, even as he lobbied for greater Jewish observance in that land.
In 1904, Rav Kook accepted a position as chief rabbi of Jaffa, and then, after World War I, as chief rabbi of Jerusalem. Internecine turmoil followed Rav Kook’s acceptance of the Jerusalem position, but in large part, Rav Kook dwelled comfortably in two worlds, the yeshiva community and the Zionist community. Religious sages, including the Chafetz Chaim and the Chazon Ish, addressed Rav Kook with the highest honorifics, even as he praised the intentions and exertions of Israel’s secular chalutzim.
All along, even as he led a nation, established the Degel Yerushalayim international movement, founded Zionism’s flagship Mercaz HaRav yeshiva and inaugurated Israel’s modern Chief Rabbinate, Rav Kook never forgot the Divine spark of each individual. The same Rav Kook who gave away his family’s silver candlesticks to a despondent cobbler in Zoimel would refuse, decades later, to press charges against hooligans who had assaulted him for his Zionist views. He declared, “I have no interest in court cases. Despite what they did to me, I love them. I am ready to kiss them, so great is my love!” (Malachim k’Vnei Adam pg. 483-485).
Seventy-five years later, Rav Kook’s message remains as relevant in Israel and around the world as it was in pre-state Palestine. We are blessed with a global community of Jews who seek, in their own ways, the repentance, return and redemption that Rav Kook held aloft as the goal, with varying degrees and types of religious commitment. Whether it be through a Birthright trip or a yeshiva year or a Nefesh b’Nefesh-sponsored aliyah, multifarious agencies seek to restore Jewish life to the land in which, per Rav Kook, the greatest manifestations of sanctity may be found. It would seem that each group should deserve the respect and appreciation of the others.
Rav Kook’s voice reminds us that respect and appreciation are not the same as homogenization. One person can value another without abandoning his own principles. Moreover, Rav Kook’s voice reminds us that respect and appreciation are not to be given grudgingly, or even at one’s choosing. Respect and appreciation are automatic and axiomatic, a tithe to the greatness inherent in each of us. Perhaps on the day that we recognize and internalize these truths, we will move a great step closer to the redemption that Rav Kook foresaw.
Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner is rosh beit midrash for the Yeshiva University Torah MiTzion Beit Midrash Zichron Dov in Toronto and has lectured extensively on Rav Kook’s writings. He can be reached at [email protected]