This Day in Jewish History

1935: Open-minded Founder of Religious Zionism Dies

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, exhibited surprising openness toward Jews of different denominations.

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On September 1, 1935, Abraham Isaac Kook, a seminal religious figure of the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, and its first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, died, at the age of 69. Rav Kook, as he is universally referred to, was a pioneer in combining Orthodoxy with Zionism, for his embrace of the non-religious together with the pious, and for the messianic and mystical threads of his theology, which remains influential to this day.

Abraham Isaac Kook was born on September 7, 1865, in Griva, outside of Dvinsk, in what is today Latvia. His father, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Hacohen Kook, had studied at the strictly “mitnagdic” (scholastic, anti-Hasidic) Volozhin Yeshiva, whereas his mother was descended from the Kapuster Hasidic dynasty. He himself was recognized early on as a Torah prodigy, and at age 18, was sent to study at Volozhin. Although Kook was at the yeshiva for less than two years, the academy’s head, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, supposedly said of him that if Abraham Isaac had been the yeshiva’s only student, Volozhin would have served its purpose.

In 1886, Kook married Batsheva, the daughter of Rabbi Eliyahu Rabinowitz-Teomim of Ponevezh, who later became chief rabbi of Jerusalem. When Batsheva died, two years later – not before bearing a daughter - her father convinced Kook to marry Raize-Rivka, the daughter of his twin brother.

In 1887, Kook became rabbi of the town of Zaumel, in Lithuania, and in 1895, he took up the same position in Bauskas, Latvia. In 1904, he accepted an offer to come to Palestine to become the chief rabbi of Jaffa and environs. There he exhibited an unusual openness toward people of different backgrounds and walks of life. On the one hand, he identified with the Zionist movement, an unusual position for a member of the rabbinical establishment, which viewed Zionism as heretical; on the other, he was critical of the secularism of the Zionist pioneers of the Second Aliyah (a wave of Jewish immigration from 1904 to 1914). But Kook took an instrumental view of these “impudent transgressors of roads and fences,” as he referred to them, as he saw them as performing an important role in hastening the arrival of the messiah. The practical consequence of Rav Kook’s openness was his outreach work, in which he visited and felt responsible for secular settlements as well as communities of observant Jews.

When World War I broke out, Rav Kook was in Berlin, where he was attending a conference of the Haredi organization Agudath Israel, and he was prevented from returning to Palestine. After two years in Switzerland, he went to London, where he became the rabbi of the Machzikei Hadath Synagogue, also called the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, on Brick Lane in London’s East End.

On his return to Eretz Israel, in 1919, Kook was appointed chief rabbi of Jerusalem; two years later, he helped establish the pre-state community’s Chief Rabbinate, becoming its first Ashkenazi chief rabbi. (He saw the Chief Rabbinate as a predecessor to the reconstituting of the Sanhedrin, the ancient ruling rabbinical assembly.) Perhaps more significant was his founding, in 1924, of Jerusalem's Mercaz Harav Yeshiva. In Hebrew, “rav” means both “multitude” as well as “rabbi,” and while Kook's idea in naming it Mercaz Rav was his aspiration to see the yeshiva draw Jews from around the world, after his death, in 1935, the school was renamed Mercaz Harav Kook, in his memory.

Rav Kook’s openness and outreach were not synonymous with pluralism; his willingness to talk with Jews of all backgrounds did not signify an acceptance of their beliefs or practices. But his mystical interpretation of the course of history saw the current era as a key stage in the movement toward Redemption. An important element of that process was the return of the Jews to their homeland, and he saw it as his job to encourage those who were doing the heavy lifting of rebuilding that homeland. In a review by Tomer Persico of a book by scholar Smadar Cherlow about the mystical writings of Rav Kook, which ran earlier this year in Haaretz, he noted that there are indications that Kook had something of a messianic perception of himself.

In Persico’s words, Cherlow’s book “presumes to expose a hidden and secret dimension” in Rav Kook’s life and work: “his mission as a tzadik yesod olam, literally, a righteous man who serves as a foundation of the world. This mission led him to view himself as one who had been endowed with prophecy - and ultimately also as a tzadik in the role of a messiah waiting for revelation.”

Thirty-two years after his death, the Six-Day War took place, which led to the reunification of Jerusalem and to Israel gaining control over Judea and Samaria. By then, Rav Kook’s son Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982) had become the head of Mercaz Rav, and was himself a highly influential voice in religious Zionism. For him and his followers, the reunification of the entire Land of Israel under the Jews was the next critical stage in the journey toward Redemption, and needed to be fulfilled by settlement of the land. In this sense, Zvi Yehuda Kook was the spiritual godfather of the Gush Emunim settlement movement.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook died in Jerusalem on this day in 1935. He left behind a large volume of written works on many different aspects of Jewish thought, most of which remain untranslated into English.