The influx of Jews to Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century did not alarm just the Arabs, but also the very pious Jews already living in Israel who formed “the Old Yishuv.” To them these new arrivals seemed ultra-secular – even blasphemous.
The man who hoped to bridge the gap between the new arrivals and the veteran settlers was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, known universally as Rav Kook. Born in 1865, he moved to Palestine in 1904 and served as the rabbi of the Jaffa community. Rav Kook was ordained by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halevi Epstein, the Aruch HaShulchan, and married the daughter of the Aderet.
Rav Kook studied for about a year and a half in the Volozhin Yeshiva, headed by the Netziv, whom he considered his primary teacher. When he was appointed Rabbi of Zimmel, Lithuania in 1888, he learned with the great mekubal, Rav Shlomo Elyashiv, the Leshem.
Deeply religious and a widely venerated scholar, Rav Kook was not willing to sanction the lifestyle of the new immigrants, but he also was not willing to write them off. Like no one else of his time from the religious camp, Rav Kook did not view the new arrivals as apostates; it was the job of the rabbis, he believed, to return them to their Judaism.
Although Rav Kook dressed like the old guard, and maintained that the traditional way of life may not be abandoned, he nonetheless appealed to and was accepted by the new Israelis like no other rabbinic figure. While other rabbis repudiated Zionism, Rav Kook was sympathetic to the movement and its followers.
Rav Kook believed that the Jewish people were bringing about a new historical era in their determination to reclaim the land, and simultaneously entering into the phase of history foretold by the prophets as the “Atchalta d’Geulah” or the beginning of the redemption. Even the most irreligious were players in this process, fulfilling the word of G-d that would usher in this new era.
The sabbatical year of 1909 was marked by controversy as to whether the Jews should be allowed to work their land. To this end, Rav Kook published a treatise, Shabbat Ha’Aretz, in which he allowed, for technical reasons, the working of the land.
In 1914, Rabbi Kook was invited to the Agudas Yisrael convention in Europe and went with the hope of convincing the Agudah leaders to take a more positive stance regarding the Zionist movement. While he was there, World War I erupted, making it impossible for him to travel back to Israel. From 1915-18, he was invited to be the temporary head of the Machzikei HaDas congregation in London, and he accepted on condition that he would be able to return to Israel as soon as possible.
While at the helm of Machzikei HaDas, he had an impact upon all of Anglo Jewry. He tried to convince London Jews to take a more active role in Zionist ideology, and he set about influencing the English government not to deport Russian Jews who had fled to British shores.
As the lobbying that would result in the Balfour Declaration was gaining ground, there were Jewish parliamentarians who maintained that Judaism is a religion without nationalistic aspirations. Bereft of Jewish knowledge, these members of Parliament made a lot of assumptions, as assimilated Jews in roles of power often do for fear of being accused of dual loyalty.
Rav Kook wished to set the record straight, and published a statement that was distributed throughout Jewish London clarifying the central place Israel plays in Judaism, appealing as well to the conscience of gentiles to enable the Jews to return to their homeland from which they had been banished.
It was said that his essay and activism were instrumental in the mind of the public and in the chambers of Parliament, playing a role in the issuance of the Balfour Declaration. It was clear to Rav Kook that he had been exiled from Israel for this Providential purpose.
Immediately after the conclusion of WWI, Rav Kook returned to Israel and established the Chief Rabbinate, to which he was elected the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi from 1919 until his death in 1935. He viewed the Chief Rabbinate as a vehicle for worldwide spiritual leadership and not as a bureaucratic apparatus.
In 1924, Rav Kook founded the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in his home in Jerusalem, with the innovations that the classes were taught in Hebrew and included Jewish thought (Machshava) as part of the curriculum. That same year, he traveled to the United States at the head of a rabbinical delegation that included Rabbi Avraham Dov Kahana Shapiro of Kovno and Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein, the rosh yeshiva of the Slobodka Yeshiva, in order to obtain funding for their Torah institutions. While there, he received an honorary citizenship in New York City.
Rav Kook was vehement in his opposition to the British Mandatory government in Israel and incensed over the Zionist Movement’s agreement to relinquish ownership of the Western Wall in lieu of only prayer rights. “No one,” he declared “possesses that power of attorney.”
When Rav Kook passed away on the third of Elul 1935, the very date that he had arrived in Israel 31 years earlier, a quarter of all Jewish residents in Israel attended his funeral. His impact was immediately acknowledged with the establishment of Moshav Kfar Horeh (the initials of his name in Hebrew) and a publishing house, Mosad HaRav Kook, in his memory. And ever since, the legacy of this visionary has only increased.