Beit Midrash

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  • Harav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook
To dedicate this lesson
Translated by Hillel Fendel

Weren't Rav Kook's Positions Unique Among Rabbis?

I learned that if a rabbi takes a position that opposes that of all the other rabbis in his generation, he is not to be listened to. Would this not apply to Rav Kook who was a lone voice in his generation?


Rabbi Yaakov Cohen

Cheshvan 22 5782
Q. [Ed. note: The questioner posits several inaccurate premises] I learned that if a rabbi takes a position that opposes that of all the other rabbis in his generation, he is not to be listened to. Would this not apply to Rav Kook (1865-1935), who, though clearly a Torah giant, was a lone voice in his generation regarding the attitude towards secular Jews and the sanctity of the process of the national Jewish return to the Holy Land? Is his innovative thought not a problem, given that he did not rely clearly and stably on the previous generations?

A. You have raised an interesting and important issue – however, in the specific case of Rav Kook, it simply is not relevant. You are mistaken in your description of the situation, as if Rav Kook's "innovative thought" rendered him a lone voice, without rabbinic support from previous generations. This simply is not true.

Allow me to relate in brief to two specific issues that you alluded to: Zionism, and the relationship between the sacred and the profane. Very many great contemporary rabbis of Rav Kook, and others of later decades, viewed the Zionist movement in a positive light. These included Rabbis Reiness, Kalischer, Moshe Kalfon HaCohen, Soloveitchik, and many more. (Rabbi Yitzchak Dadon, prolific author of Torah works and a former soldier who fatally shot the Palestinian terrorist who murdered eight students in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav in 2008, wrote a series of books in which he listed hundreds of rabbis who supported the establishment of the State of Israel.)

Most rabbis actually did not even deal with the subject, and especially before 1948. For instance, Rabbi Yisachar Teichtal spent many years as a rabbi in a very anti-Zionist Hungarian community without dealing with the topic – until he wrote his famous work, Eim HaBanim Smeichah. In this work, he brought hundreds of Jewish sources in support of the modern movement to settle the Land of Israel. He also wrote there: "I will acknowledge the truth and mention my sins, that I too was very much against the enterprise of building the Land, because I blindly followed many hareidi leaders, and it was rooted thusly in my heart, and I took no interest in it at all… And only after [the Holocaust began] and we were so sorely stricken in this Exile, I looked into this Halakhic matter and G-d enlightened my eyes, showing me that I and all those who objected to it had been mistaken…"

Furthermore, when the State was established, a declaration was published on which were signed nearly all the Torah greats in the country, saying they viewed what was happening as "the beginning of Redemption" (at'chalta d'geula).

Your question should therefore be the opposite: Upon which sources did those who did not cooperate with the Zionist movement rely, given the fact that the mitzvah of settling the Land is one of the Torah's most central commandments?

Let me now relate to the issue of whether secular studies and culture have a place in Torah life. The position that the secular and the holy must be kept separate – a position that has gained some standing over the past 200 years – is a relatively marginal approach. Those who promoted it apparently did so because they felt this was the way to deal with the crisis of increasing secularism. But in fact, the prevailing attitude throughout the generations was that which sees the secular world as an intrinsic part of G-d's world. Maimonides, for example, wrote that engaging in the study of science and the like is a Torah mitzvah. This is also the message given throughout the Bible.

How much more true is this when dealing with the Torah mitzvah of settling and living in the Land, which is intrinsically involved with material matters. Many hareidi rabbis, too, do not agree with the '"separation" approach.

It is true that during the period of Exile, when there was more tension between the secular and religious worlds, there was a tendency to stay away from the former. But now, the more the Redemption advances and the nation returns to its land, the more the two worlds are able to "make peace" with each other. This differentiation is found in the writings of the Maharal of Prague (Netzach Yisrael, chapter 16).

In conclusion, I would note that I actually do agree with the statement that Rav Kook was "unique" among other rabbis – in the sense that many of his contemporaries recognized his unique greatness in Torah scholarship, character, and more. For instance, one of the great rabbis of Jerusalem, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, said at Rav Kook's funeral that he was "one in his generation in genius, in righteousness, in piety." The Chazon Ish wrote to Rav Kook and termed him, "His glorious honor, our master" – terms that he used only for the generation's greatest rabbinic leaders. At a public event in which many rabbis took part, the Chazon Ish stood up only for Rav Kook, explaining that "the Torah is standing before me."
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