Rabbi Kook's Followers Are Still Debating His Legacy

Thirty years on from the death of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, religious figures are still grappling with how to balance belief and patriotism.

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All seven Knesset members from Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union party, political clusters which have fragmented frequently in the past, joined forces last week to send out a special invitation. The right-wing MKs called on rabbis and educators from all parts of the religious camp to come with their pupils to the "Mount of Olives, across from our Temple, to honor our Rabbi," meaning Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook.

"We are beginning a tradition," declared MKs Yaakov Katz, Uri Ariel, Aryeh Eldad, Michael Ben Ari, Daniel Hershkowitz, Zevulun Orlev and Uri Orbach. They implored rabbis to expose their students to "the magnificent figure, whose path all of us follow," on the day marking the anniversary of his death. The MKs added that it is "especially important, given current conditions, to deliver a special message to our public, to give expression to what unites all of us despite the variations in our path."

The grave of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook on the Mount of Olives.Credit: Emil Salman

Thirty years after the death of Rabbi Kook, none of his followers can claim to speak for one united camp. All questions pertaining to his legacy are controversial. There are debates about Rabbi Kook's attitudes toward Jewish law, academic education, women, Gentiles, secular and leftist Israelis. And debates continue to rage about his approach to educational and political matters, and even to arranged marriages.

The most divisive issue pertains to the national religious community's attitude toward the State of Israel, and the concept of mamlachtiyut, which refers to nonpartisan patriotism and selfless commitment to the state. Pupils of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook are locked in a debate about when it is permissible to reject the bonds of mamlachtiyut, and adopt a different, rebellious attitude toward the State of Israel.

Rabbi Kook viewed the Land of Israel as a supremely sacred entity, as a kind of wedding of the Jewish soul to its land. He thought that the State of Israel was infused with divine sacredness. Below a portrait of his father, the revered Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook - the chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine who forged alliances with secular, prestate Zionist pioneers - he kept a picture of Herzl.

In a famous sermon delivered on Israel's Independence Day in 1967, which is viewed by his followers as a prophetic vision of the conquests which came three weeks later as a result of the Six-Day War, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook spoke about the agony he felt when he heard about the 1947 decision to partition Palestine. "When the entire people went off to celebrate in public, I couldn't go out and share in the joy. I sat alone. I couldn't come to terms with what happened, with this awful news. I succumbed to this feeling of shock; my body torn to shreds, I had nothing to celebrate."

The IDF's victories and conquests in 1967 solidified the prophetic reputation of the then 67-year-old rabbi. As soon as the war ended, he urged his students to go off and settle on every inch of the newly-occupied territories. He termed any possible return of occupied territory a "sin," and "a stupidly illicit thought harbored by haters of the people of Israel." Kook called U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who deployed shuttle diplomacy in efforts to persuade Israel to accept territorial compromise, "the Goy woman's husband." He dismissed as "trite nonsense" proposals to stage a referendum about the fate of the territories.

Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when conflicts started to erupt between the Gush Emunim settler bloc and the government, Rabbi Kook adopted a harshly critical attitude toward the government. In a speech delivered at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, the rabbi promised war: "I have said and written that there is to be war about the fate of Judea and Samaria, Jericho and the Golan Heights; no concession about these lands is permissible. Dealing with such a threat [of land concession], we must, in our education and public statements, reiterate a thousand times that this rotten, depraved idea will never be tolerated. These lands do not belong to goyim [non-Jews]; they have not been stolen from goyim; we must repeat our position a thousand times to ward off this threat, and we must speak forcefully and boldly. We must remind the government and people of the State of Israel that no concession of our land will be permitted."

Reinforcing this message, Rabbi Kook wrote to Shimon Peres, who had recently become Defense Minister, and declared: "Just as I warned [outgoing Defense Minister] Moshe Dayan, I am writing to tell you that any territorial compromise would be inane folly, and that there will be no such folly. There will be an internal war regarding Judea and Samaria, and everyone will rise up against this government" if it accedes to territorial concession. Rabbi Kook sent a similar letter to then IDF Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur.

Yet at two critical junctures in the history of the settlement movement, Rabbi Kook backed down, and told his followers not to wage confrontations with the government. In the first instance, Rabbi Kook was involved with a group of settlers who were intent on creating roots in Samaria. Originally, Gush Emunim members went to him and asked for authorization to engage these settlement initiatives without the government's authorization. Rabbi Kook asked for time to consult about the issue, and scheduled a meeting with the opposition leader, MK Menachem Begin. Characteristically, Begin was worried about the prospect of civil war, so he advised Rabbi Kook to abandon the idea of illegal settlement.

Later, Gush Emunim activists returned to the rabbi's house. This time, Rabbi Kook conferred with Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who also advised against a conflict with the state. The third time the Gush Emunim settlers turned to Rabbi Kook, they basically informed him that they were heading to Samaria without government authorization. Veteran settler leader Benny Katzover, who was present at this meeting, recalled that he was initially disappointed with the rabbi, but then there was suddenly a divine occurrence. "His face lit up, and he gave each one of his blessing, shaking our hands and wishing us success."

During the first attempt at illegal settlement, Rabbi Kook joined his pupils. When soldiers came to evacuate the group, Rabbi Kook yelled at them, "take out your machine gun; we're not going anywhere." But he didn't give clear orders to his followers. Katzover says the rabbi was worried about losing control of the situation: "He saw that things were under control. That's what encouraged Begin to join us during the second attempt."

When the High Court ruled that this Elon Moreh group of settlers had to evacuate lands of the Rujeib village, which was under Palestinian ownership, Rabbi Kook told his followers to abide by the court's verdict, even though his ideological view was: "There is no such thing as Arab land in Eretz Israel." Katzover recalls: "The rabbi told us several times, 'We cannot damage land belonging to Ahmad and Mustafa,' that we couldn't touch lands that had belonged to Arabs for generations."

The second instance when Rabbi Kook's practical actions belied his Greater Israel pro-settler ideology arose when the government decided to evacuate the Yamit settlement in the Sinai Peninsula. After the Camp David accords were signed in 1978, requiring withdrawal from the Sinai, Rabbi Kook issued a number of public appeals calling on followers to sacrifice themselves for the Land of Israel. He encouraged his pupils to go to Yamit; he gave his blessing to anyone who made the journey.

Rabbi Kook died a month before the actual evacuation (his pupils say that his death reflected his inability to live through land concessions ). Yet, also in this case, when push came to shove, Rabbi Kook did not order his followers to redeem his warnings about internal war. Journalist Hagai Segal, who wrote about the evacuation in his 1999 Hebrew publication "Yamit: the End," notes that "apart from Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, most of the people supported the evacuation. The leaders noticed there was a resounding majority in the country, and that nobody was going to fight to keep Yamit. Rebellions erupt when you have the feeling that you're with the majority. True, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda issues specific pronouncements," but he didn't proactively oppose the process leading to withdrawal from Yamit, Segal concludes.

Pinchas Wallerstein, one of the early settler activists who was not one of Rabbi Kook's followers, claims that the value of Jewish solidarity took precedence over rebellious instincts. "People don't grasp the essence of the perception of 'return to the Land of Israel' in the rabbi's ideology, and that of his followers. This is comparable to the [current] controversy about the Migron [settlement outpost]. There is a dispute about important subjects, but the value of the return to Israel and Jewish solidarity has prerogative; it takes precedence over anything else. Thus there is a border which has not been crossed through the present, not at Sinai and not at Gush Katif [during the Gaza withdrawal]."

Disobeying orders

Since the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, debates about the question of compliance or rebellion have not relented. New orders given by the IDF General Staff, requiring soldiers to take part in official ceremonies - even ones which include women singing - has divided the rabbis: some oppose the orders but will call on their pupils to oblige them; others openly call for the orders to be disobeyed. The latter camp is led by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, head of the Har Bracha yeshiva, who publicly challenged IDF chief rabbi Rafi Peretz on this issue.

Rabbi Peretz displayed sympathy for the religious inductees who left an IDF ceremony because women were singing in it, but he ultimately endorsed the crackdown policy enacted by the General Staff. Last week, at a conference sponsored by the B'sheva newspaper, rabbis Peretz and Melamed sat on the same stage. Peretz accused rabbis in the national camp of fomenting conflict, and of turning the matter of women singing into a major showdown with the army. Rabbi Melamed reiterated his call for refusal to heed the General Staff's order. He criticized circumstances in which the army does not allow soldiers to uphold Jewish commandments, and the army intervenes in religious matters, "not understanding its role as an army for the defense of Israel."

Both Peretz and Melamed were raised and educated under the influence of Rabbi Kook, and they view themselves as his standard bearers through the present day. On the eve of the evacuation from Gaza, Peretz served as the head of a premilitary yeshiva on the Atzmoma settlement in Gush Katif. His students asked him whether they should refuse to comply with the withdrawal orders. "I want you to feel the pain in your hearts, but you must be there [to obey the orders]," he replied. In a nutshell, the answer expressed the mamlachtiyut philosophy of state loyalty: the state and all of institutions is divine; G-d advances revelation from on high, and does so in slow stages. The role of mortals, under this philosophy, is limited to observing the genuine significance of these slow processes.

Rabbis in this moderate camp, including Rabbi Shlomo Aviner - who ruled out disobedience at the time of the Gaza withdrawal in 2005 - uphold the law under virtually any circumstance. Not long ago, one rabbi in this camp, Eli Sadan - one of the founders of the Eli settlement - issued a statement called "Statement of religious Zionist ideology." He asked, "How did they steal the state of the Jews from us!?" His response: "This is our state, and we have no other state." As things stand today, young people in the religious community should be called on to be involved in all aspects of the state's life.

Rabbi Melamed and Rabbi Elyakim Levanon from Elon Moreh abandoned the outlook of mamlachtiyut state loyalty following the disengagement. They send most of their pupils to the army, but they also continually warn about army evasion as a result of women's service, the evacuation of settlements, government policy and many other things. They purport to represent the authentic outlook of Rabbi Kook - the rabbi, they say, never hesitated to clash with the government, even though he believed that it was divinely ordained. More than once, Melamed, Levanon and others have openly called for disobedience.

One trend that would certainly have troubled Rabbi Kook is the drift of grandchildren and great-grandchildren to Hasidic communities. Rabbi Kook, who built up the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva on the Lithuanian (anti-Hasidic ) model, opposed Hasidic Judaism. "In the Hasidic movement there was little Torah and little common sense; the rest was emotion," he believed. "The Torah belongs to the masses, to the People of Israel, whereas emotion belongs to the individual, and is private."

During the last decade, knitted skullcap wearers in the national-religious camp have formed some Hasidic yeshivas, in Ramat Gan, Efrat, Tekoa, and Kfar Etzion. The Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Nahman mesmerize many religious Zionist youths. They are charmed by personal religious experiences, and mystical concepts, offered by the Hasidic streams. For many, Hasidic Judaism poses an alternative to the perceived studious elitism of established, non-Hasidic yeshivas.

Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, head of the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva (formerly in Nablus, now in Yitzhar ), began on the margins of Chabad Hasidic life but now exerts strong influence on settler youth, advocating an ideology which mixes mysticism, Hasidic Judaism and revolutionary politics espousing the dismantling of the Zionist state. Paradoxically, this Hasidic wave has led to adulation for Rabbi Zvi Yehuda's father, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who died before the state's establishment, in 1935. The father was a renowned figure in the national-religious camp, but for the past 45 years his son has been more dominant.

Many in the religious Zionist community study Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook's unpublished writings, along with some published works, which feature philosophical ruminations and also meditation on Hasidic subjects. For decades, yeshiva students focused on the nationalist aspects of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook's thought; in recent years, however, emphasis has been given to universal and mystical features of this thought. Though the elder Rabbi Kook was more scrupulously ultra-Orthodox than his son, religious Zionist youth nowadays who seek inspiration, and a vision that unites various streams in the national-religious camp, turn to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook rather than his son.



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