Today, the 3rd day of Elul, marks the 85th yahrtzeit of HaRav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Torah genius, poet, philosopher and iconic leader of Religious Zionism.
To learn more about this truly pivotal figure of Modern Zionism, we spoke with novelist Tzvi Fishman, who has also published, with Rabbi David Samson, four commentaries on Rabbi Kook’s teachings.
In your “Tevye in the Promised Land” trilogy of historic fiction, you placed Rabbi Kook in the center of Modern Zionist history, surrounded by heroic leaders such as Yosef Trumpeldor, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Avraham Stern, Uri Zvi Greenberg, and many more. Why a Rabbi?
Tzvi Fishman: While the Herzls, Jabotinskys, Ben Gurions, and Begins are the lead actors of Modern Zionist history, Rabbi Kook embodied the Divine Spirit which empowered their deeds. He taught his generation, and generations to come, to see the Hand of Hashem behind all of the sweeping, historical events bringing the Israelite Nation back to Zion after a hibernation of nearly two-thousand years.
If you ask a primitive jungle tribesman who has never learned about electricity, how a light bulb lights up, he will tell you that the bulb has light in it. He doesn’t understand that the power originates somewhere else. The same thing is true concerning Israel’s national revival. People may think that Herzl and Ben Gurion brought the Jewish State into being, but Rabbi Kook saw it as the Spirit of Redemption awakening in the Jewish People as a whole which empowered the Zionist Movement and the return to Zion.
And this National Awakening of the scattered Jewish exiles around the globe, the “dry lifeless bones” which Ezekiel saw in his famous prophecy, was, in turn, empowered and directed by the Master of All History, Blessed be He, whether or not Herzl and Ben Gurion were aware that it was His Guiding Hand, behind the curtain of world events, maneuvering the strings of Redemption.
Can you cite an example?
Tzvi Fishman: It is a little known fact of history that the Balfour Declaration would not have won a majority in the British Parliament if not for the profound influence of Rav Kook, who was in England at the time, having traveled to German to attend a large Rabbinical congress of Agudat Yisrael, hoping to persuade them to drop their opposition to Zionism.
Immediately upon his arrival, World War One broke out, the Agudah conference was cancelled, and all routes back to Israel were closed. When the Machzekei HaDat Congregation of London invited him to lead their congregation while he was stranded in Europe, he reluctantly agreed.
Among the assimilated Jews of England, fierce opposition arose against Lord Balfour’s proposed plan to establish a National Jewish Homeland in Palestine. They claimed that Nationhood had nothing to do with Judaism, and that the Jews of Britain were loyal Englishmen, with no interest whatsoever in Zionism or their own Jewish State. In response, Rabbi Kook wrote a public letter to Claude Montefiore, leader of the Jewish assimilationists who opposed Lord Balfour’s proposed proclamation, stating: “The pettiness of those who want to split the completeness of our glorious life into pieces, tearing off a part here and there, hoping to negate our eternal connection to our Homeland, is not only treachery to Jews but also to all of mankind.”
A great debate over the Zionist question was held in the British Parliament and Rabbi Kook’s letter was read. “Who is the greater expert on Judaism and the Jewish People?” Lord Balfour asked the assembly. “The Jewish members of Parliament who have assimilated from their faith, or Rabbi Kook?” Stirred by Rabbi Kook’s impassioned words, the British Parliament voted in favor of the Balfour Declaration.
If my memory serves me correctly, in the early years of the British Mandate, the British and the Muslims did everything they could to restrict the rights of Jews to pray at the Kotel. As Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, was Rabbi Kook involved in the battle?
Tzvi Fishman He was the star. An International Western Wall Commission was appointed to decide who had sovereignty over the Kotel. A hearing was held in Jerusalem, headed by three Gentile judges. By the end of Rabbi Kook’s speech, everyone in the large hearing room was speechless. Here are a few excerpts:
“The entire civilized world knows that over the ages the Jews never stopped praying at the Western Wall. Everyone knows that it is called the Wailing Wall because of the Jewish tears which have been shed there in heartfelt prayer, generation after generation, ever since the Temple was destroyed, and since the Jewish People were forcefully exiled from their Holy Land, a thousand years before the Muslim religion began.
“Still fresh are the graves of the innocent Jews who were savagely slaughtered in the pogroms which recently bloodied this Land. In his desire to remove the blame from himself, and from other Arab leaders who incited the Arabs to riot against the Jews, the Mufti of Jerusalem accuses the Jewish victims. He claims that the Jews were planning to take over the Temple Mount. In his written testimony, he maintains that the news spread throughout the country that Jews were attacking Arabs, and that Islam’s holy places were in danger.
"This is not true. No such plan existed. No Jew raised a hand against an Arab. The incitement was solely on the part of the Arabs themselves. They initiated the massacres. They slaughtered children, Rabbis and their students, raped women, burned many synagogues and desecrated Holy Torah scrolls in a wild fury designed to further their political ambition of driving the Jews from the Promised Land, which the Jewish People inhabited long before Muhammed was born, and which the British Parliament recognizes as the Homeland of the Jews.
“Not only do we protest any change or interruption of our prayers at the Kotel, we protest the mistreatment of the Jews who pray at the Wall by the British and by the Arabs alike. British soldiers and Arabs desecrate the prayer books that are placed by the Wall. May all the people of the world remember that when your ancestors still climbed trees in the forest, we were already in possession of the sublime Psalms of King David, exalted prayers and praises to G-d, which all civilized people respect, and which you desecrate in such a callous manner.
“Take heed all cultured nations, the League of Nations, and specifically the British Empire which has a Mandate in this Land. Cease from your disgraceful actions and do not touch our holiest inheritance again! Take heed and recognize Who is the One who stands behind our Wall!”
Those are the words of a fighter. Yet very often, people from non-Orthodox streams of Judaism point to Rabbi Kook as an example of tolerance, pluralism, and all-embracing love, as if he were a reform rabbi of sorts.
Tzvi Fishman Nothing could be further from the truth. Rav Kook indeed had a profound love for all Jews, and for all peoples, and while he sought to find the kernels of value in all beliefs, that didn’t prevent him from staunchly condemning all evil and all efforts to severe Am Yisrael from the Torah.
He writes: “The great love that we feel for our Nation does not shut our eyes to its blemishes. Even though loving mankind encompasses everyone, and sometimes an evil person also falls into this general love, this doesn’t in any way interfere with hating evil,” (Orot, Orot Yisrael, 4:3). Rav Kook taught that hatred should only be directed toward the evil and filth in the world. “It is proper to hate a corrupt person only for his defects, but insofar as he is endowed with a Divine Image, it is necessary to love him. We must realize that this precious dimension of his worth is a more authentic expression of his nature than the lower characteristics that developed in him through the circumstances of his life,” (Midot HaRayah, Ahavah, 9).
In protest to the widespread desecration of Torah in the country’s towns, cities, and kibbutzim, Rav Kook penned a passionate public appeal: “Turn back, turn back my children! Return to the spirit of our people, to the Torah of G-d, the Rock of Israel. Keep the Sabbath free of desecration and turn your hands from all evil. Can it be that we have no other occupation and calling in life, in the Land of Israel, than to pursue the worst customs of other nations, so that we will be a derision to our enemies? Is being carried away by all kind of dances, constantly wasting money and time on motion pictures, and the like, what we lack these days? Must our women follow the most immodest fashions, just to imitate the ways of a dying Europe, and bring them brazenly into this ancient Holy Land, thus shaming the glory of its rebirth and majestic life? And our tables are becoming disgusting, carrion and forbidden foods are eaten in public without any feeling of shame. How can we be as one person, in a bond of brotherhood, if you destroy the most basic foundations which unite us, if you continue to ferment the stench of separatism, which festers fraternal hatred and despair?” (See the public declaration, “Wounds of a Lover,” in the book, “Maamarim - Articles of Rav Kook”).
When Eliezer Ben Yehuda, restorer of the modern Hebrew language, wrote an article claiming that the Jewish People “have turned their backs on their past, and that is our praise and our glory,” Rav Kook wrote a long, scathing response: “Let him dream to his heart’s content, but when he attests publicly that all of us are dangling limbs like him, and that we have all turned our backs on the past which is the source of our lives, we are obliged to protest and make known that not our hearts, but his, issued these words that shame the dignity of Israel,” (Letters, 18).
How did Rabbi Kook react to the 1929 pogrom in Hevron?
Tzvi Fishman Hearing the news, he fainted. Even though it was Shabbat, he rushed on foot to the Administrative Headquarters of the British Mandatory Government and demanded to see the acting High Commissioner, Harry Charles Luke, a Jew who had adopted Christianity. When the Englishman held out his hand in greeting, Rav Kook refused to take it.
“I will not shake a hand which is stained with Jewish blood,” Rabbi Kook bluntly declared. “I hold you responsible for this rampage of murder. The honor that the British nation had in helping the Jews is now sanguine with treachery and disgrace. I demand that you shoot the murderers!”
“I have not received any orders to do so,” Luke replied.
“I order you!” Rabbi Kook told him. Later, at a memorial service for the Hevron’s slaughtered victims, Rav Kook said: “Anyone who discourages those who seek to restore our dwelling places in Hevron, and who mocks them, saying, ‘What are these wretched Jews doing in this forlorn city?’ and anyone who does not help the holy work of restoration, is one who undermines the deepest roots of our Nation and will be held responsible for his deeds. If wicked villains repay our kindness with evil, we have but one decisive answer – Jewish Hevron will be rebuilt, G-d willing, with even greater honor and glory!”
In Rabbi Kook’s time, similar to today, the pervasive and pernicious influence of secular culture drew many young people away from the Torah. How did Rabbi Kook react to the phenomenon?
Tzvi Fishman To a distressed father whose son had drifted away from the Torah and became enamored with heretical ideas, Rav Kook wrote: “The sinful behavior is only external. Within the souls of our young people, all is holy and good. That is why they rally around many banners of justice and equality, even though they are mistaken in their ways. Yet many of them are devoted to the Nation as a whole, and are proud of the name of Israel, although they themselves do not know for what or why. The heresy of modern times uses all of her wiles to lure our children into its web of harlotry."
"They are coerced in every sense of the word. Heaven forbid that we judged those who are compelled against their will as we do those who willingly race after evil. Though they are mistaken in their ways, they cannot be compared to the wicked. Therefore, my friend, my advice to you is that you not abandon your son. Rather, bring him as close as possible. Help him in every way that you can, and in the end, he will return. We will draw the hearts of our children back to us only through gentleness and love.”
How can I not ask you about Rabbi Kook’s view regarding Aliyah? Did he see it as a commandment of the Torah which applied even when a foreign power like Britain ruled over Eretz Yisrael?
Tzvi Fishman Every time someone from chutz l’aretz visited him, Rav Kook would ask why he wasn’t planning to stay and live in Israel. On several occasions, he issued public proclamations. For example:
“To the Land of Israel, Gentlemen, To the Land of Israel! Let us utter this appeal in one voice, in a great and never-ending cry! Come to the Land of Israel, dear brothers, come to the Land of Israel. Save your souls, the soul of your generation, the soul of the entire nation; save her from desolation and destruction, save her from decay and degradation, save her from defilement and all evil — from all of the suffering and oppression that threatens to come upon her in all the lands of the world without exception or distinction....
"Escape with your lives and come to Israel. G-d’s voice beckons us. His hand is outstretched to us. Brothers! Children of Israel, come to the Land of Israel. Do not tarry with practical arrangements and money matters; rescue yourselves, gather, come to the Land of Israel... to settle it with enterprises and buildings, to purchase property, to plant and sow, to do everything necessary for the foundation of life of a stable and organized country....
“There can be no doubt that the Divine Providence is now revealing itself in Am Yisrael amidst the great world events. We must make known to the whole world, the true meaning of the present wondrous happenings, whose purpose is so clearly the hastening of our redemption and salvation, from which will also spring forth the redemption and salvation of all mankind.
“For if we don’t hear the call of redemption beckoning to us, the enemies of Israel will come and blow an impure shofar in our ears. They force us to hear the shofar of redemption and give us no rest in the exile. Thus, the shofar of an impure beast is transformed into the shofar of Mashiach. Amalek, Hitler, and the like, awaken the redemption, and those whose ears were too deaf to hear the great and holy shofar of redemption, manifest in the events of our times, they will hear the impure shofar of our enemies – against their will they will be forced to listen. Brothers, come to the Land of Israel!”
Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Jewish Culture and Creativity. Before making Aliyah to Israel in 1984, he was a successful Hollywood screenwriter. He has co-authored 4 books with Rabbi David Samson, based on the teachings of Rabbis A. Y. Kook and T. Y. Kook. His other books include: "The Kuzari For Young Readers" and "Tuvia in the Promised Land". His books are available on Amazon. Recently, he directed the movie, "Stories of Rebbe Nachman."