Rabbi Abraham-Yitzhak ha-Cohen Kook (1865-1935) is, without doubt, one of the most celebrated rabbis of the twentieth century. He is known to most people, however, only as the founder of Religious Zionism. We frequently overlook the fact that the foundations of his teachings reflect a deep modernization of the Jewish faith itself and of its approach to an array of contemporary problems.
Rav Kook was born in Griva, Latvia, the oldest of eight children. At the time, Latvia consisted of the provinces of Livonia (Livland) and Courland. The Latvian Jews were a special group within Russian Jewry. They were influenced from three sides: by the culture of the neighboring Lithuanian Jewry, by the Chassidism of Chabad disseminated in Byelorussia (now Belarus), and by German culture, which mostly prevailed in this region. Courland Jews identified with German Jewish culture and the majority spoke German, not Yiddish. Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, penetrated the Livonia and Courland communities early, but assimilation did not make the same headway there as in Western Europe.
Both Rav Kook’s parents descended from generations of Torah scholars, of both the Lithuanian and Chassidic schools. His father, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Ha-Cohen Kook, was from the Litvaks, and studied in the famous Volozhin Yeshiva; his mother, Pearl Zlata, was from a Chabad Chassidic family. Some of their relatives were also devotees of the Haskala. Rav Kook synthesized these three approaches in his life and teachings.
Rav Kook studied at the Volozhin Yeshiva (1884-1887), and in 1904, after working as a rabbi in several places in Lithuania and Latvia, moved to Eretz Yisrael to assume the rabbinical post in Yaffa and agricultural settlements nearby. In 1921 he was appointed the Rabbi of Jerusalem, and soon after that he became the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine. In 1924 Rav Kook founded the Zionist “world-wide Yeshiva” that became known as Merkaz haRav in honor of its founder. After his death his students, and especially his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, brought up a new generation of rabbis and religious activists. Today, the yeshiva has about 500 students, including 200 students in the kollel (post-graduate division).
A kabbalist who united in his teachings the ideas of the Vilna Gaon and the legacy of Chassidism, Rav Kook created the philosophy of Religious Zionism, a movement virtually unheard of in the Diaspora, yet which plays an enormous role in Israeli life today. It now claims as its adherents more than half of Israel’s Orthodox Jews, and is symbolized by the knitted kippa. Rav Kook’s teachings have attracted great attention from the entire Jewish intellectual world, and his approach is widely seen as a turning point in the development of Judaism. But not everybody, even among Rav Kook’s supporters and followers, understands the true essence and philosophical underpinnings of his religious revolution.
In discussing the religious approach to assessing the role of the Jewish people and the State of Israel in today’s world, we must turn to the ideas of Rav Kook, who was able to see Zionism in a religious light. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, Zionism was not seen as an aspect of Judaism. In fact, it contradicted Judaism in many ways, occasionally even coming into sharp conflict with it. Despite this, Rav Kook not only “supported” Zionism, as did many rabbis, he also formulated a religious conception of it. Furthermore, he demonstrated Zionism’s importance for the development and deepening of Judaism. This is the aspect that we will examine first and foremost.
The central idea of monotheism is that God created humankind in His likeness. The individual is the image of God, and all of our life is a dialogue with Him. All that we do is the words we speak to God, and everything that happens to us is His answer to us. Rav Kook’s main philosophical concept is that the Jewish understanding of life as a dialogue with God has not one but two central themes. The first one is the dialogue at the individual level. The second is at the national level: a dialogue between God and the Nation. The main religious significance of the State of Israel is that its very creation compels the Jewish people to act as a whole. Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel bring the Jewish people back into a full dialogue with God.
Rav Kook’s uniqueness lay in his ability to deal with different groups of Jews, including the nonreligious, and to build bridges between them. This ability was symbolized by two portraits that hung in his study: one of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe), founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch trend within the Chassidic Movement, and one of the Vilna Gaon, who strongly opposed Chassidism. This is what made him such a controversial person and at the same time such a great man.
Rav Kook was a poet by nature. This makes a systematic study of his philosophy difficult. We will attempt to outline Rav Kook’s philosophy in more simple and concrete terms.
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This book is an abridged version of the book Rabbi Kook, the Man and his Teaching by Pinchas Polonsky, published by Machanaim in 2006. It was the first publication in Russian on the fundamental tenets of Religious Zionism, and about Rav Kook.