Saturday, March 8, 2008

A Little History

I am the kind of person who knows a little about a lot of things. That is to say I have a vague notion of things, but the finer details are missing. Sometimes I come off sounding really smart (if the person I am talking to knows even less than me), but more often than not I sound like a blathering idiot.

Friday was the first day of the month of Adar, a day that we are supposed to increase the joy in our hearts. Of course, this was extremely difficult to do in the aftermath of the brutal murder of eight yeshiva students cut down while learning Torah at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav.

I started to think about this Yeshiva and about the man who founded it in 1924. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, Z"L is a well-known name in Israel. I knew a little about him. I knew that he was the first Chief Rabbi of what was then called Palestine, and that he stood for "Am Yisrael B'eretz Yisrael Al Pi Torat Yisrael"--The nation of Israel in the Land of Israel, living according to the Torah of Israel. But that's all I knew.

So I resolved to learn a little more about this man, and about why this Yeshiva is such a special place. Some of you who are brilliant and very studied in Torah know all about this great man, and have studied in-depth his Sefarim (books) and his writings. But if any of you are like me, you probably only have a vague sense of the man. I decided to share with you some of what I've read and learned.

Rav Kook was born in Latvia in 1865. From the time he was very young he was known as an ilui--a giant in Torah. At age 18, he studied for a year and a half at the famed Volozhin yeshiva. In 1886 he married Batsheva, the daughter of Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim (known as the Aderet), then rabbi of Ponevezh (later appointed chief rabbi of Jerusalem). Two years later he was appointed rabbi of Zoimel (Zaumel) in Lithuania. During his stay in Zoimel, Rav Kook's first wife died. (Their daughter Fradel was a year and a half at the time.) His father-in-law the Aderet convinced him to marry Raize-Rivka, daughter of the Aderet's twin brother. (Raize-Rivka was the mother of R. Tzvi Yehuda Kook and Batya-Miriam Ra'anan.)

In 1904 Rav Kook arrived in Eretz Yisrael and served as rabbi of Jaffa and the surrounding settlements for the next ten years. During these ten years he became a prolific writer, publishing the first chapters of Orot Hateshuvah, as well as Eder HaYakar and Ikvei Hatzon. He also published the Halachic work, Shabbat Ha'Aretz, in defense of the Heter Mechira.

In 1914, the Rav traveled to Europe for the Agudat Yisrael convention in Berlin. He was unable to return to Israel due to the sudden outbreak of WWI, and spent two years in St. Gallen, Switzerland. He then served as rabbi of the Machzikei HaDat congregation in London for three years during the war, and published the mystical treatise Rosh Milin. In 1919 he returned to Israel, and soon thereafter accepted the position of Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.

His son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, edited some of his writings in 1920, publishing them in the book Orot - Rav Kook's most famous work. In 1921, Rav Kook established the Chief Rabbinate in pre-state Israel, becoming Chief Rabbi together with Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yaakov Meir. Rav Kook passed away in 1935, 11 years after establishing Mercaz HaRav.

Rav Kook was known for his ability to reach out across all sectors of Jewish life including secular Jews, Religious Zionists, and more traditional non-Zionist Jews. He felt that Yishuv Ha'aretz, the settlement of Israel was the beginning of the redemption and that all Jews taking part in this were part of a collective "Teshuva" (repentance). He appreciated the sacrifice of the physical labor required to work the land by the chalutzim as the beginning of the spiritual redemption of the Jews from their exile. He said, "The State of Israel--the foundation in which rests the throne of G-d", thus being the first to whom the phrase "Medinat Yisrael" (State of Israel) is attributed to. But he did not hesitate to scold secular Jews for not observing Shabbat or laws of Kashrut. Rav Kook was interested in outreach and cooperation between different groups and types of Jews, and saw both the good and bad in each of them. His willingness to engage in joint-projects (for instance, his participation in the Chief Rabbinate) with the secular Zionist leadership must be seen as differentiating him from many of his traditionalist peers. In terms of practical results, it would not be incorrect to characterize Rav Kook as being a Zionist, believing in the re-establishment of the Jewish people as a nation in their ancestral homeland. Unlike other Zionist leaders, however, Kook's motivations were purely based on Jewish law and Biblical prophecy. His sympathy towards the Zionist movement can be seen as a major stepping-stone to the Religious Zionist movement gaining momentum and legitimacy after his death.

As I mentioned earlier, Rav Kook was a prolific writer. There is even some discussion of his being a vegetarian, as he wrote an essay on the difficult and complicated laws of Shechitah, noting that man was originally intended to be vegetarian, because eating meat is a base instinct of humans. Others claim that although he did write this paper, it was theoretical only and that the Rav himself was not a a practicing vegetarian.

Rav Kook had an unflagging love for the people and the land of Israel. When he established the Mercaz HaRav in 1924 it was unique among the Yeshivot at that time in its religious philosophy, and positive attitude towards Zionism. It was also the first Yeshiva in Israel in which all studies were conducted in Hebrew.

Today the Mercaz is world famous. It's students have served in elite units in the Israel Defense Forces and have gone on to be prominent Rabbi's in their own right throughout Israel, continuing to expound the word of Yishuv Ha'aretz. It is a Yeshiva that accepts some of the best and brightest, but opens its doors to all who wish to study Torah in its corridors.

And on Thursday night, eight of its students were savagely taken from us because they were Jews, learning Torah, who believed with all their hearts in our divine right to live in this land.

Somewhere, the great Rav welcomes his talmidim even as he weeps for his people and his land.



Fern Chasida said...

What a great post Baila! I too knew little about Rav Kook. Thanks for the history lesson.

Alisha said...

Thank you!

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Chaval we don't have gedolim like that today...

Excellent post.

Baila said...

Thank you all. And Jameel, you're right, be'emet chaval....

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post!
The link for Rav Kook's timeline is now