In honor of the 80th anniversary of the yahrzeit of Israel’s holy and illuminating Light, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook ztz’l, it is fitting to clarify his approach to the rabbinate and p’seekat halakha (determining Jewish law).
On the one hand, we find in his halakhic responses an inclination towards chumra (a prohibition or obligation in Jewish practice that exceeds the bare requirements of halakha), and personally, he was even more machmir (strict). On the other hand, in certain issues he was considered to be maykel (lenient).
On the one hand, his followers view him as the highest standard of a rabbi, and in fact, he took pains to establish the Chief Rabbinate. On the other hand, we find that he himself deeply regretted having been forced to serve in the rabbinate.
The Complete Torah
There have been scores of Torah giants in recent generations, but the stature of none compares to that of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, ztz"l (1865 -1935). His genius was astounding – there was no field of Torah study that he had not mastered: Talmud and Halakha, the Bible and Midrash, Kabbalah and Hassidut, rationality and faith.
Experts in the wealth of rabbinic literature are not usually the innovative thinkers, and the innovative thinkers are usually not experts; those who focus on details do not have a broad and comprehensive perspective, and those with a broad perspective do not penetrate deeply into the details. Rabbi Kook, however, was an expert and sharp, a deep-thinker and had a comprehensive outlook. The words of Torah were alive and radiated within him in such a wondrous way that his entire being was resplendent with Torah, and his complete focus from early childhood until the last day of his life was devoted to clarifying the Torah in its completeness.
His teachings enlighten, guide, and revitalize the entire world: the sacred and secular, humanities and the sciences, the individual, society, nations and humankind, the diverse natural talents, and how all of this progresses towards rectification and redemption by means of the Jewish nation. His mind was full of ideas and innovations from all facets of the Torah which stood before his very eyes.
The foundation for all this was his unparalleled righteousness and piety; his entire life was devoted to serving God. The giants of Torah and Hassidism testified themselves that his regular weekday prayers were on the same level as their prayers on Yom Kippur.
His Tendency towards Hasidism and Enhancing Mitzvoth
Rabbi Kook saw the aspect of truth and light in every opinion, and therefore he tended to enhance and beautify mitzvot, and thus, to act stringently according to all the various halakhic opinions. This was not difficult for him at all, for he was happy with each hiddur (enhancement) that had a basis in halacha, provided that the stringency was not at the expense of others.
Sometimes he even tended to be strict in what seemed to be contradictory stringencies, because, in his breadth of knowledge, he saw how the two conflicting opinions actually complemented each other, and therefore, did not consider them to contradict. This can be seen, for example, in regards to his opinion on conversion (Daat Kohen 153-154).
Although, in times of duress (sha’at dachak), he decided in accordance with the rules of halakha to be lenient, similar to the rulings of all poskim (Jewish law arbiters) for generations – to rely on the lenient opinion of individual poskim. However, even situations of sha’at dachak differ, so at times he would be more lenient, and other times less – according to the extent of necessity, and no more. For example, regarding shmitta (the Sabbatical year): on the one hand, he instituted the ‘heter mechira’ (a halakhic mechanism whereby agricultural lands in Israel are sold to non-Jews, allowing the lands to be cultivated and vegetables grown during the Sabbatical year), but on the other hand, whenever possible, he tended to follow the stringent opinion, trying as best as he could to maintain the mitzvot of shmitta, and guide Jewish residents of the country on the ideals of the Torah. Therefore, even after the mechira, he forbade Jews to perform the types of agricultural work specifically written in the Torah, even though according to the strict letter of the law, there is no difference between the various types of work, for today, shmitta is a rabbinic ordinance. Not only that, he even agreed to try and integrate ‘otzer Beit Din’ with the ‘heter mechira’, despite the seeming paradox between them (Igrot Ha’Ra’ayah 313-314, Mishpat Kohen 76).
The Ridbaz’s Testimony of Rabbi Kook’s Crying
As well-known, the Ridbaz (Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Wilovsky) conducted an ardent struggle against the ‘heter mechira’. Concerning the conflict over the shmitta year of 5670 (1909),Ridbaz hurled serious allegations against Rav Kook, and slandered him numerous times. In contrast, Rabbi Kook replied to him with respect and love.
In the introduction to his book "Beit Ridbaz", he wrote several things that were not accurate, seeing as he was negligent in checking rumors he had heard. For example, as he wrote about Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan from Kovno, that he had allegedly retracted his support for the ‘heter mechira’. He also wrote inaccurate things about Rav Kook that he heard from Rabbi Yehuda Leib Zeltzer, who later had to write a letter of apology to Rabbi Kook, denying what had been said in his name (see the article by Rabbi Eitam Henkin in ‘Alonei Mamre" 121).
Nevertheless, we can apparently trust his own personal testimony, as he wrote: "I bear witness to the heavens and earth that the rabbi of Jaffa (Rabbi Kook) cried before me – he did not cry regular tears, but exceedingly hot ones". However, the reason for Rav Kook’s crying was not due to a change of heart regarding the ‘heter mechira’ as Ridbaz implied, but simply because of the heavy pressure he was under to maintain the ‘heter’; for indeed, Rabbi Kook fully understood just how strong the halakhic basis for the ‘heter mechira’ was – above and beyond all other ‘heter mechirot’ customary in Jewish law, as he clarified in his book and respones. Rather, he cried because of the machloket (dispute), and the stressful situation that forced the yishuv to forgo observing shmitta ideally. Rabbi Kook’s crying was akin to the altar shedding tears for a married couple that gets divorced (Gittin 90b), even though in certain circumstances it is a mitzvah to divorce.
It should be noted that, from the start, Rav Kook did not want to serve in the rabbinate. Until the end of his life, although aware of the considerable importance of the rabbinate in Israel, he suffered from it, for it shortened his days and embittered his life. The need to decide between different views, each containing a certain amount of truth, weighed on him, for he saw the truth and good in all opinions. He longed for an ideal world, and the need to instruct a ‘heter’ for Clal Yisrael because of the emergency situation hurt him. Therefore, even upon deciding in favor of the ‘heter’, to a certain extent he was pleased that others went out of their way to cite the stringent opinion.
As part of his responsibilities, a rabbi is also required to arouse and protest with regards to religious affairs, and Rabbi Kook fulfilled his duty in this aspect with great devotion. But in order to do so, he had to deal with the practical details of Kashrut, divorce, disputes and fights, while at the same time, his soul longed to study Torah in its entirety, to reveal the secrets of the Torah so as to bring redemption to the world. He most definitely appreciated the tremendous value of revealing the Torah in general with all its minute details, and the connection of the study of Talmud with the study of practical Jewish law. He explained how such study draws the redemption nearer, and on his own initiative, devoted a lot of time writing the work ‘Halakha Berura’ towards this purpose. However, the practical and instructional problems did not leave him enough spare time to deal with the lofty ideals his soul desired— ‘ma’aseh Breshit, veh’ma’aseh merkava’ (esoteric speculation about Creation and the Workings of the Chariot, based on Ezekiel I) [Sukkah 28a].
How He Assumed the Rabbinate
As noted, Rav Kook was reluctant to serve in the rabbinate. As was customary in those days, before marrying, his father-in-law, the ‘Aderet’ (Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim), who was one of the greatest Torah scholars of the generation and the Rabbi of Ponevezh, undertook to support him in his own house for several years so that he could study Torah. But the ‘Aderet’, a righteous and pious man, was required to collect money for the poor people of his congregation, and especially the hundreds of families whose homes were burned, and for that purpose, he even mortgaged his own property. This created a situation in which he had to give his daughter and son-in-law his own bed, while he himself slept on chairs in the study room. When the ‘Chofetz Chaim’, a good friend of his, heard about this, he asked Rabbi Kook to agree to accept the first rabbinate offered him. Thus, Rav Kook was forced to begin serving in the rabbinate at the age of twenty-three, contrary to his original plan.
Rabbi Kook’s financial situation never improved as he donated all his money to poor people seeking help, and thus, was constantly compelled to serve in the rabbinate. And since he was a genius, righteous and beloved, and led the rabbinate as one of the most eminent rabbis in the country, he was constantly requested to serve as a rabbi in different communities.
The Regular Rabbinical Leader
In retrospect, however, it is apparent that Rabbi Kook was not a regular rabbinical leader. A regular rabbinical leader normally formulates a position and strengthens it, without providing any significant room for dissenting opinions. The less important leaders among them even override opinions of all those who disagree with them. However, our teacher and guide, Rabbi Kook, understood the point of truth in all the various approaches, from the right and the left, Haredim and heretics, and even those who opposed him viciously.
A regular posek, after determining halakha, does not allow any room for those who disagree, rather, patterns a clear guideline and strengthens it. An example of this can be learned from the Rishon LeZion, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ztz" l, who, after clarifying and strengthening the ‘heter mechira’ as Rav Kook had done, no longer took into account the disagreeing opinion; he expressed no sorrow or pain over the need to rely on the ‘heter’, and came out in force against all the detractors of his halakhic decision. This, despite the fact that he did not include the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz (settling the Land of Israel) in his halakhic considerations, but agreed to the ‘heter’ based solely on the financial strain of the farmers and consumers (Yebiyah Omer, Sect.10, Y.D. 37-44).
A regular posek who would have also included the halakhic consideration of yishuv ha’aretz, a commandment which is equivalent to all 613 mitzvot, would have gone a step further and determined that in our present situation, it is a mitzvah and an absolute obligation to abide by the ‘heter mechira’, since thanks to it, the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz is strengthened.
Rabbi Kook’s Heavy Sigh About Granting the "Heter’
However, Maran HaRav Kook was pained over the need for a ‘heter’. And although at present the mitzvah of shmitta is a rabbinic ordinance, while some authorities are of the opinion that it should be observed only due to ‘midat chassidut’ (as a pious and meritorious act), and furthermore, there is profound controversy about when shmitta year actually occurs (currently, either 5772 (2011), 5774 (2013), or 5775 (2014)), and by selling the land, we can definitely rely on the lenient opinion, as he himself wrote in his letters (Igeret 311). Nevertheless, since he envisaged the great light hidden in the mitzvot of shmitta, even when today, in practice, its obligation is limited and uncertain – the need to expropriate the obligation of observing shmitta by means of the ‘heter mechira’ truly hurt him.
This is one of the reasons he did not stand upon his dignity and understood those who disagreed with him, even though from a halakhic perspective, their claims were tenuous (see, Orot HaTechiya 5).
Therefore, he wrote: "… I intentionally did not order everything concerning this matter (the ‘heter’) with complete comprehension, satisfactorily arranged and full of meaning, and several aspects and clear reasons I left out altogether, all in order that the matter of the ‘heter’ not be become too accustomed …" (Igeret 311). And at a later date, he added that even if those who oppose intensify their disagreement to the ‘heter’, forcing him to explain just how firmly the ‘heter’ is based in halakha, nevertheless, "even then, with the help of the Almighty, I will not stop always pointing out that it is a ‘heter’ for times of duress, and a matter of ‘hora’at sha’ah’ (a temporary order), however, l’chatchila (a priori) it is better for me not to have to do so (to further clarify the foundations of the ‘heter’), and leave the issue in the unforceful manner I gave it in the introduction (to‘Shabbat Ha’aretz’)."
Rabbi Kook’s Method of Study
Each section and sevara (deriving new results from logic) of the Torah were greatly cherished by Rav Kook, therefore, he loved to debate at length and discuss the less significant assertions as well, to the point where his listeners and students did not understand his teachings accurately. Thus, sometimes those who disputed him ignored his main claims, and questioned the ‘heter’ by attacking side issues which he wrote only as conjecture for discussion.
For example, regarding the ‘heter’ itself, which according to the strict letter of the law contains no concern of "lo techanem" (‘do not give [non-Jews] a resting place in the land’) since it is for a limited time and for the benefit of Clal Yisrael, as explained in the Rishonim (see, "Peninei Halakha: Shevi’it v’Yovel 7:6). However, in order to add ‘dikduk’ (preciseness) and ‘hidur’ (enhancement), he continued to discuss the matter and wrote that it is preferable to sell the land to an Ishmaelite who already owned land, and based this on the rendering of the ‘Bach’ – which later turned out to be erroneous. On this, the disputers had a field day, when in fact, all of the discussion there is a complete side issue (see the introduction to ‘Shabbat Ha’aretz’, chap. 12; Mishpat Kohen 63).
When Did Rabbi Kook Come Out Publically Against Those Who Opposed Him
Only when they damaged the livelihood and dignity of the farmers, or the general matter of yishuv ha’aretz by means of immigration and settlement, did Rav Kook come out strongly against the wicked actions of those who pretended to be righteous, and in fact, violated the principles of the Torah.
Thus, upon hearing that the opponents of the ‘heter’ in Jerusalem not only boycotted the fruits of the ‘heter mechira’, but went further and gave permission to market the fruits of the Gentiles in their place, he wrote: "My pen shakes in my hand at the despicable deed presently carried out against our brothers, residents of the moshavot. Because, after being strongly held until now, not to grant a hechsher (kashrut approval) to the Gentiles so as not to oust the oppressed and poverty-stricken Jewish farmers, whose eyes and livelihood are dependent on the proceeds from the grapes, and now, after the conflict over the question of shmitta has been settled, whose main goal is to help our fellow brothers the residents of the moshavot, seditious elements have been revealed, who secretly advised to buy specifically from the Gentiles, and lift the horn of our enemies who are laughing at our not working the fields! How we ourselves chase our brothers, our fellow Jews. Heavens above! One cannot imagine the enormity of shame, Chilul Hashem (desecration of God), and wickedness this contains. The blood of my heart boils, and my pain reaches to the heavens from this terrible situation, from the fall of Torah and true fear of Heaven in this matter …"
And when the chumra was weak and contrary to the rules of halakha, especially when it hurt people, he was emphatic about instructing the ‘heter’, to avoid the uprooting of the Torah, God forbid. For the Torah commands to make a fence around the Torah, and from this our Sages learned that it is forbidden to make a fence around a fence, and he wrote about his ‘heter’ of sesame oil on Passover. Although in that case he also acted with great honor for the elderly rabbis who were machmir, although in his opinion, they were completely wrong in their interpretation of halakha (Orach Mishpat, 112).
Rabbi Kook’s Exalted Approach Gave Room to Various Methods
With his great righteousness, piety and incredible talents, Rav Kook ztz"l devoted himself to the entire Torah, from the heights of its superior knowledge stemming from God’s supreme unity, to the entire scope of its revelations, thus making him a channel for the light of Torah for all generations. Out of all this he was able to see and understand the Divine historical process, and the progression of the spirit of the Jewish nation and humanity towards tikun olam and redemption.
Notwithstanding, with all of his greatness and light, Rav Kook had a "shortcoming": he could not restrict himself to the midat ha’din (attribute of Strict Justice) required for the leadership of a single method in all public affairs. Thus, he gave room to those who disagreed with him to reinforce their mistakes.
But apparently there was no choice. This was the path of revealing the light of Torah in its completeness, and the Divine guidance for these miraculous generations, where darkness and light serve in confusion. And it is our responsibility to continue in the path of his exalted teachings, to build frameworks and pave the way for public and practical revelation of the entire Torah, by all Am Yisrael, in all areas of the Land of Israel.