There have been scores of Torah giants in recent generations, but the stature of none compares to that of Rabbi Avraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, zt”l (1865 -1935).
His genius was astounding - there was no field of Torah study that he had not mastered. His recall was astonishing – great scholars related that no matter what Torah subject they discussed with him it would appear as if he had just recently learned the issue in depth. Not only was he versed, sharp, and innovative in the arenas of Talmud and Halakha, he was at home in all areas of Jewish thought: Bible, Midrash, philosophy, and mysticism.
On top of all this, he was unmatched in piety and righteousness, and his entire existence was dedicated to the service of the Creator. Rabbi Kook was a mighty figure who fought for truth and was willing to put himself on the line for the sake of Torah justice.
It is not uncommon for extreme brilliance to result in strange character traits, but Rabbi Kook was friendly and pleasant, so much so that all who knew him were captivated by his warm character. He was intellectual and emotional, sharp and poetic. He possessed a rich inner life, while at the same time was very active spiritually and publicly on behalf of the Torah, the nation, and the land. That all of these talents could reside together harmoniously in one soul is itself remarkable.
The Respect of His Contemporaries
The aforementioned descriptions were expressed not only by Rabbi Kook’s disciples. The great Torah leaders of his time also attested to these facts.
Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer once said to the famed Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky from Vilna, “The two of us are considered Torah giants until we reach the door of Rabbi Kook’s office.” When he participated in rabbinic envoys within Israel and abroad, other great rabbis joined him: Rabbi Epstein, Dean of the Slobodka Yeshiva and the Rabbi from Kovna, author of “Dvar Avraham”, yet it was clear that Rabbi Kook was the most prominent among them.
The Gerer Rebbe admitted that Rabbi Kook remembered the writings of his father, the “Sefat Emet” even better than he himself. The renowned and learned Kabbalist, author of “Leshem Shvo VeAchlama,” said of Rabbi Kook that there was no Torah secret that he was not aware of.
It is told of a certain rabbi who was immersed in the study of Kabbalah and was having trouble finding the source of certain writings in his possession. He turned to the leading mystics in Jerusalem but they could not help him. When they suggested that he speak with Rabbi Kook, he was surprised, for he could not believe that Rabbi Kook, who as Chief Rabbi was so busy with public issues and halakhic inquiries from morning until night would be able to identify the material at hand; but the rabbi did.
Once, a youngster who was studying at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva High School was having doubts about his future direction of study and he turned to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach for advice. The student said that perhaps because the majority of Torah leaders do not agree with the path taken by Rabbi Kook, it would be more appropriate for him to follow the path of the majority. Rabbi Auerbach responded, saying, “What are you talking about? In the time of Rabbi Kook, the majority of Torah giants were 'all as if nothing' compared to him.”
Rabbi Kook conducted the marriages of both Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, and Rabbi Elyashiv,zt”l. He was their rabbi. Rabbi A.I. Kerlitz, the “Chazon Ish,” addressed Rabbi Kook as “our royal and respected Rabbi.”
His Unique Path - Torah and Redemption
Going far beyond matters connected to the Rabbinate, Rabbi Kook addressed the difficulties of the day. He was very familiar with the philosophical and cultural bent of his generation and examined them from the perspective of the Torah. With astounding depth and comprehension, he knew how to size up the various philosophies collectively, find the positive points in each one of them, and uncover their holy roots.
Rabbi Kook possessed a unified, all-inclusive vision of things: he found harmony among the many sides of the Torah, the many factions within the Jewish people, and the many periods in history. Only a genius and righteous individual of his stature, bound to the One God could truly see the unity in all, and, as a result, pave wonderful paths and clarifications toward ‘tikun olam’.
Many were aware of Rabbi Kook’s greatness and righteousness, but few understood that his teachings contained a comprehensive solution for contemporary crises. He understood the very sources of those forces which were bursting forth and exploding in the modern age – the Jewish Haskala (“Enlightenment”), nationalism, freedom, and creativity, and he was able to discern the good and bad in them, forging a path for correcting them.
The Suffering of Rabbi Kook
Rabbi Kook was completely taken up by his responsibilities. He did not flee from the demands of the Rabbinate, demands which called for answering thousands of questions from all corners of the world, sitting in judgment of Torah-court cases, writing requests and recommendations for the needy, and caring for numerous other public needs. In addition, he would give many Torah classes, would participate in numerous assemblies and conferences, and would warmly receive his many friends who eagerly frequented the rabbi to hear his words of Torah. The more the years passed, the greater his burden became.
Despite the fact that he loved every single Jew, and was able to see the good in both the old and new settlements in Israel, Rabbi Kook suffered greatly from fierce disputes. Members of “Neturei Karta” hated the rabbi because of his friendliness towards the Jewish pioneers, while the pioneers caused the rabbi anguish through their insistence on profaning the Sabbath, and eating non-Kosher food.
In his later years, when he took a stand in defending Abraham Stavsky against an accusation (later shown to be falst that he was guilty of murdering Chaim Arlozorov, the workers were extremely critical of the rabbi. Rabbi Kook was very sensitive, and was deeply hurt by the words spoken against him.
Once, when he was shown an article attacking him that was written by one of the malicious members of Neturei Karta, the rabbi did not leave his room for almost three days. Yet, all the same, he forgave everybody and carried his burden quietly.
Once, when one of the slanderers who had caused the rabbi great pain was forced to turn to the rabbi for help, Rabbi Kook forgot everything and came to his aid.
In Israel, his enemies were powerless, but their slander spread to parts of the Jewish communities in Europe. There were some who were influenced by these evil reports, and, as a result, remained in Europe instead of coming to Israel. They were eventually murdered by the Nazis. On the other hand, there were many who, due to Rabbi Kook’s influence, immigrated to Israel.
If he had wished, he could have taken revenge upon his adversaries. He had the majority of the leading Torah scholars and the majority of the public on his side, not to mention the British authorities (because of his role as an important leader of the Jewish population in Israel). But he was pious, and though he heard himself being disgraced, he did not respond.
He could have changed his positions somewhat, not expressing his views on matters that might not be properly understood, but Rabbi Kook was a man of truth who stood up for justice with great self-sacrifice and without changing a single letter.
He could have wrapped himself in pride, displaying indifference and disgust toward his opponents, but he had a soft heart. He therefore bore his pain in all these matters until finally his body could no longer bear it and his health deteriorated. Once, his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah, said that the zealots of Agudat Yisrael and the laborers (the anti-religious socialists, ed.) shortened the life of his father.
Rabbi Kook, who was ready to help any destitute or needy person, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, respected by the masses of the Jewish people, rabbis, the secular "enlightened" leaders, and the wealthy who constantly visited him; who raised huge amounts of money for the good of Torah institutions in Israel and Eastern Europe, the poor, and the settlement of the land of Israel – lived in shameful poverty.
On numerous occasions, not even a cent was left in Rabbi Kook’s home to purchase food. An older Jew who immigrated to Israel from the United States took notice of the rabbi’s state and made a practice of giving the rabbi’s wife a "lira" coin which would suffice the family for the week. Only in his final days of sickness was a benefactor found who paid to have Rabbi Kook placed in a kosher nursing home. It was in this home that Rabbi Kook’s soul departed in sanctity and purity.
Once, Rabbi Kook expressed regret that he could not dedicate all of his time to recording his ideas; his lack of time caused him to jot down his ideas quickly and in an unorganized manner. He had hoped to bring the Hebrew writers of his age back to Torah, and was even somewhat successful with a number of them: Azar, Bialik, and Agnon. Yet, even they, much less their contemporaries, could not fully understand the depth of Rabbi Kook’s ideas.
In fact, there were very few Torah scholars who actually grasped the profundity of Rabbi Kook’s teachings. And though everybody was captivated by the rabbi’s personality, his lessons, and his unique ideas, only a handful actually understood the true depth of his wisdom. And they were the ones who were destined to carry on Rabbi Kook’s philosophy in the yeshiva named for him, the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. They understood that his teachings contained the solution to the difficulties of our times, and that by learning these teachings the Jewish people will be redeemed.