This Friday, Elul 3, we mark the 82nd yahrzeit of one of the 20th century’s most important rabbis: HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook. Deep in the archives of The Jewish Press we found a five-part series describing the life, times, and thought of Rav Kook, written by a well-known rabbi and Jewish Press contributor who knew him personally.
Published back in the summer of 1961, the articles were originally delivered in lecture form in a Los Angeles synagogue by Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Feldman. A long-time rabbi in L.A., Rabbi Feldman grew up in London, and participated there in Rav Kook’s weekly shiur – for the Rav’s trip to Europe from the Holy Land had been unexpectedly lengthened when World War One broke out by nearly five years.
Rabbi Feldman’s profound erudition, ingenious manipulation of the English language, and well-informed opinions – as well as his excited admiration for Rav Kook – are present in every line.
Rav Kook was born in 1865 in Eastern Europe, and Rabbi Feldman begins his story with a blatant reference to the Jewish education issues faced by his audience: “Since the question of going to public school did not exist in those days,” he said, the future Rav Kook “hurried at the age of 4 to cheder, the type of Jewish school house that despised all the puerilities of the modern kindergarten.”
After receiving rabbinic ordination at the legendary Volozhin yeshiva, 23-year-old Rav Kook was named rabbi of the town of Zoimel. This, Rabbi Feldman tells us, was at the recommendation of the saintly Chofetz Chaim, with whom Rav Kook had a warm relationship; the Chofetz Chaim once demonstratively walked out of a rabbinical conference in protest of remarks publicly sounded there against Rav Kook.
In Zoimel, Rabbi Feldman dramatically tells us, Rav Kook showed that “he was not to lead a treadmill existence nor let the Jewish world pass him by. Could he remain aloof from the new currents and cross-currents driving onwards with gathering force and impact among the resurgent ranks of an oppressed but intellectually vigorous Jewry? He had absorbed too much, reflected too keenly, and reacted too intensely, and even daringly, to keep silent or to settle down to a stereotyped career.”
In fact, the young Rav Kook’s love and practical concern for Klal Yisrael was first manifest in the following then trail-blazing idea: the editing of a Torah journal (Ittur Sofrim) to serve as a unifying platform for rabbis around the world to express their thoughts not only on specific halachic issues, but also on matters of national concern for the Jewish People as a whole.
As Rabbi Feldman writes, Rav Kook’s 12-page declaration of policy “reflects his mighty urge to forge steadily ahead towards the national-religious arena of universal Israel, in order to promote its potentialities as the People of the Divine Book [who have] been the principal moral lever of humanity… [Rav Kook] resolved to play a decisive part in redeeming the seal of holiness Israel engraved upon its homeland…”
Before age 30, Rav Kook was writing articles that “must have stirred the hearts and minds… stimulating the thinking of many who were confused on the relation of Jewish nationalism to Judaism proper… [stating that] Judaism and Jewish nationalism are inseparable…”
This brings Rabbi Feldman to an update of practical Zionism at the time. He sharply criticizes both the Reform movement and the public led by certain “highly-placed Orthodox rabbis” for their objections to a renewed Jewish national presence in Eretz Yisrael: “When extremes find themselves on common ground, it is a sad day for those in between.”
Rabbi Feldman recalls his personal experiences as a 20-year-old participant in Rav Kook’s “weekly Shiur at the Yeshiva [Etz Chaim in London], followed by a discussion of Jewish philosophy. We were once rather startled when he told us that he had read Shakespeare in the German.”
This “startling” fact is corroborated by Rabbi Dr. S. M. Lehrman, translator of the Midrash Rabbah, who wrote to the London Jewish Chronicle on Sept. 13, 1935: “It was my never-to-be-forgotten privilege to be [Rav Kook’s] first English tutor. A more brilliant pupil could not be imagined. Together we read also the classics of other European languages, of which he possessed such an excellent knowledge.”
Nor was Rav Kook’s presence ignored in British government circles, Rabbi Feldman tells us. For example, “When Home Secretary Herbert Samuel, a very gentlemanly tyrant, proposed that Russian-born Jews living in England be returned for military service to the Czar…, Rav Kook protested most forcefully” and the decree was ultimately withdrawn.
Describing the course of World War One, Feldman writes that the British finally “acceded to the demand of Vladimir Jabotinsky for a Jewish legion under British command. Its purpose was [inter alia] to help liberate Palestine for the Jews [emphasis added]…”
Rabbi Feldman goes into various levels of detail regarding different aspects of Rav Kook’s life, including his appointment as chief rabbi in the Holy Land, his founding of the Central Universal Yeshiva [Mercaz HaRav], his integration of Talmud and Jewish Law in his “Halakhah Berurah” enterprise, and his impressive appearance at the “mock hearings of the two-faced Shaw Commission” investigating the Arab riots of 1929. These hearings concluding that the murderous riots were caused by Arab fears of Jewish immigration, and the infamous British restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine soon followed.
Rav Kook, however, “lambasted [the commission] members for their cold-blooded sadism in the face of wanton [Arab] bloodshed and rapine, along with the official [British] treachery that had made such anarchy possible. The appeal he addressed to the shocked and distressed Jewish Community, bidding it stand fast for the sake of Israel as a whole and the destiny that awaits it, is a classic… He never tired of dwelling on the certainty of Israel’s vindication and rehabilitation.”
Rabbi Feldman also touches on Rav Kook’s work with converts, Bible criticism, shemittah, and Holy Land etrogim, as well as his sublime conceptions of repentance, freedom, social justice, and more.
For instance, he cites the Rav’s “dictum” that repentance “does not estrange [one] from the world. Rather, it is [the penitent] who raises the world’s moral standard along with his own.” Feldman adds that “while this adumbrates an ideal desideratum, it is at variance with a familiar passage in Berachot 31b which raises the merit of the penitent on so high a pedestal that the normally righteous and conforming is considered unable to come near him.”
I leave it to the reader to resolve the “contradiction.”
Just as Rabbi Feldman could not have hoped to do justice to Rav Kook’s life and thought in a five-part lecture, I cannot hope to do the same even just to his lecture in this limited forum. May this short article serve as a testament to a scholarly rabbi who so deeply appreciated Rav Kook, and as a springboard for those who would delve further in Rav Kook’s works – studies of which continue to be published even now, more than 80 years after his death.
(Rabbi Feldman thanked his son Rabbi David Feldman for his help in preparing the series in 1961, and I similarly hereby thank the latter’s son Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman; and Menachem Butler, for discovering it in 2017; as well as Rabbi Chanan Morrison for his help.)