Talmudist, leader, visionary, mystic, rabbi, peacemaker
1. Abraham Isaac Kook was born in 1865 in Griva, Courland, then part of the Russian Empire, now Latvia. The son of a student of the Volozhin Yeshiva, and the grandson, on his mother’s side, of a Chasid, he quickly became known as an outstanding student, a child prodigy. He was odd, though, in that he loved speaking Hebrew – a habit that was frowned upon in that place and time, Hebrew being the holy tongue. Yet at the same time, he prayed with unusual fervor, sensing the immediacy of the divine presence.
2. In 1887, at the age of 23, he became rabbi of Zimel (or Zaumel) in Lithuania, and in 1894 of Boisk (or Bausk). He wrote prodigiously, earning renown as a thinker, Torah scholar, Halachist and Kabbalist. What set him apart was his openness to new ideas alongside his orthodox beliefs. In his first essay on Zionism, published while he was in Boisk, he accepted Jewish nationalism – even at its most secular – as an expression of the divine will.
3. He didn’t have to go to Eretz Yisrael: in fact, he turned down tempting offers in Lithuania, and instead, in the summer of 1904, took up the position of rabbi for Jaffa and its surrounding agricultural settlements. He served not only the religiously observant, but reached out to all Jews.
4. In the summer of 1914, while traveling in Europe, he was caught in the outbreak of World War I. He spent two years in Switzerland before relocating to London, England, where he stayed until 1919.
5. After the war, he was appointed rabbi of the Ashkenazim in Jerusalem, and under the British mandate, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. In his mind, the establishment of a chief rabbinate was the first step toward re-establishing the Sandhedrin. He was not political; his philosophy was inclusive – he believed that Jews, working together, serving God, would bring about redemption.
6. In other words, he was a religious Zionist who welcomed those who did not follow orthodox Judaism. He believed the end of days was near, and bringing together all Jews was part of the divine plan that would introduce the Messianic era. His role, as he saw it, was to embrace, rather than reject: to build and maintain channels of communication between the various Jewish sectors – Zionist and non-Zionist, religious and secular.
7. In 1924, he founded the yeshiva knows as Merkaz HaRav. The language of instruction was Hebrew, a fresh concept in that day, and the curriculum included not just the Law, but also classics of philosophy and devotion. He thought of the yeshiva as a place where Jews from all over the world could come and learn.
“Deep in the heart of every Jew, in its purest and holiest recesses, there blazes the fire of Israel.”
9. It is said that when he died in 1935, over 20,000 mourners attended his funeral.
10. Moshav Kfar Haroeh, in central Israel, had been established and named for him in 1935. In 1937, Mossad HaRav Kook, a research foundation and publishing house was established in his name in Jerusalem. It has produced more than 2000 books.
Rav Kook House, once Kook’s apartment, is a museum located on Rav Kook Street in Jerusalem, between Nahalat Shira and Mea Shearim.
In Tel Aviv, HaRav Kook Street is located near the sea, just south of Kerem HaTemanim, crossing HaKoveshim.