The settlement movement in Israel did not start on the windswept hills of Samaria, but in an apartment in Jerusalem – more specifically, in the modest residence of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, head of the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva and son of Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, Israel’s first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi.
Students would visit Rav Zvi Yehuda’s home for classes in emunah and the prolific writings of his father, who urged everyone to see the Divine Hand in the return of Am Yisrael to Eretz Yisrael and to recognize the Divine Providence in the rebuilding of the Jewish nation in Zion.
“Often, out of awe for his father’s writings, Rav Zvi Yehuda would simply read the text, without offering any commentary on his own,” recalls Rabbi David Samson, a longtime student of Rav Kook and author of Torat Eretz Yisrael, which is based on his teachings.
Rav Zvi Yehuda inspired students such as Rabbis Hanan Porat, Moshe Levinger, Haim Druckman, Dov Lior, Zalman Melamed, Shlomo Aviner, Tzvi Tau, and Eliezer Waldman to leave the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva and become pioneer settlers, founding settlements like Bet El, Elon Moreh, Ofra, Kfar Etzion, Kiriat Arba, and the moshavim of the Golan.
In advance of the 37th yahrzeit of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook – who passed away on Purim 1982 – and the coming unveiling of the Trump administration peace plan, which will likely call on Israel to surrender vast segments of its biblical homeland, The Jewish Press spoke with Rabbi Samson about Rav Kook’s teachings.
The Jewish Press: Isn’t it unusual for a rosh yeshiva to tell his students to close their Gemarot and grab shovels and hammers to establish new communities all over the country?
Rabbi Samson: Rav Zvi Yehuda didn’t tell students specifically to leave the yeshiva. But everyone understood from his teachings that this was the commandment of the hour. Students would come to his home and tell him they wanted to start a new yishuv in Samaria or along the Gaza border, and he would give them his blessing as a kohen.
For him, building settlements in the Land of Israel was the natural extension of Torah learning, just as Yehoshua’s conquest of Eretz Yisrael was a natural continuation of the Torah the Jewish People received at Sinai. He often noted that the words “yeshiva” and “yishuv” have the same root, and emphasized that building new settlements was not bitul Torah, but Torah itself – fulfilling Hashem’s repeated command to settle the land and keep it under Jewish sovereignty.
For him, each new settlement was the fulfillment of Divine prophecies that envisioned the day when the blighted and desolate homeland would blossom. Often, he himself accompanied his students to the hilltops of Judea and Samaria to plant the first sapling as his children erected tents and dragged generators and building materials to the site.
His students. Rav Zvi Yehuda didn’t have children of his own. His students were his children – hundreds of budding Torah scholars who revered him as a father.
Interestingly, when students speak about him – whether they turned out to be roshei yeshivot, army commanders, teachers, physicians, or Knesset members – each one will tell you he had a special relationship with Rav Kook. He made each of us feel like a beloved child. And he taught us to love every Jew with an unlimited love, whether he or she was secular or charedi.
Can you give an example of how he related to his students?
In Elul, at the very beginning of each year, Rav Zvi Yehuda would lecture about emunah and the vital importance of approaching Torah learning from the perspective of the klal, as the Torah of the nation in all of its facets. But on the very first day of my learning at Mercaz HaRav, I fell ill and missed the lecture.
A few days later, when I recovered, I took a place in the line of students who always waited to ask the rosh yeshiva questions at the conclusion of Shachrit. When my turn came, I told Rav Zvi Yehuda that I had been sick and missed the opening lecture. To my surprise, he sat me down, asked how I was feeling, and inquired about the details of my illness. Then, for nearly an hour, while other students were waiting, he explained the class I had missed.
Did his love for students and the Jewish people extend to the non-Jews in Israel, too?
Like his father’s renowned love for all mankind, his love extended to everyone. On several occasions, he sent a letter to a newspaper to voice his displeasure after hearing that an Arab had been treated unfairly.
But he would always stress that respecting our non-Jewish neighbors does not extend to granting them any sovereignty whatsoever over Eretz Yisrael. He repeatedly stated that Arabs were welcome to live peacefully alongside the Jewish people in the country, but that they could not have any national rule here.
While the details of the Trump administration peace deal are still unknown, no doubt Israel will be called upon to make territorial concessions. How would Rabbi Kook have responded?
Rav Zvi Yehuda made it clear that in any discussions with non-Jews, the starting point must be that the other side acknowledge – without any room for negotiation or compromise – that the entire Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people for all eternity.
Needless to say, the Arabs have a different way of viewing the situation.
Claim what they will, the rosh yeshiva stressed that our rule over the Land of Israel is founded upon the divine promise of the land to the Jewish people and our biblical history.
He compared [our situation] to a man who was forcefully expelled from his home, which others seized and trespassed upon. That is exactly what happened to us. Rav Kook stressed that the Arabs had, and have, absolutely no national right to the land. If they deny the justice of our cause, and choose to go to war against us, we must persuade them – he said – with our tanks.
Rav Kook argued that the final redemption is unfolding in our time. How does this belief jive with Israel’s government relinquishing biblical territory as it has in the past and seems willing to do in the future?
First of all, Rav Zvi Yehuda emphasized that all expressions of surrendering territory are as strictly forbidden as eating pork. In times of war, he said, expressions of weakness are anathema to the strengthening of the nation. He said we must guard against language that leads to discouragement and a weakness of heart in line with the Torah’s commandment to soldiers not to melt the hearts of their brothers because of their fears.
We should not be afraid of the gentile nations nor give in to their demands. All proposals of withdrawal, autonomy, and foreign sovereignty over the smallest part of the Land of Israel are treif, he said, and must be adamantly avoided.
He vehemently maintained that just as no letter of the Torah is allowed to be erased and no Jew is allowed to be abandoned, no handful of Israeli soil – however small – is allowed to be transferred to foreign control. He taught that we must strengthen our rule over Israel, and that all interference on the part of the gentiles is null and void.