83 years after his death, it can be clearly seen that Rav Kook was not disconnected from reality, rather the exact opposite – he warned against dangers and crises * The Rav saw that distance from the holy source could damage Zionism, and that progress could lead to a deterioration in humanity – but he believed in our ability to save the situation, and paved the way for Tikkun in the light of the Torah * Rav Kook was very strict towards himself, and tended to be strict in his leadership of the public, but was against baseless ‘chumrot’ which could alienate the public from the Torah * His vision of the redemption of the Torah included initiatives to study the general rules of the Torah, in order to understand its methods and order
Realism and Faith
Some argue that Rabbi Kook was an incorrigible optimist who did not pay attention to reality. But the truth is the exact opposite: His letters show that he was very realistic, and recognized the dangers facing the Jewish people. He also wrote about the danger to humanity in the development of science and society while distancing itself from faith, as it resulted from the catastrophes inflicted on humanity by the communist and Nazi movements. Similarly, with his support for those involved in settling the Land and the Ingathering of the Exiles, he estimated that without connecting to the holy source, secular Zionism would not be able to cope with the difficulties and obstacles that would stand in its way. He was right: without the First World War, and even more so without the Second World War and the terrible Holocaust that had taken place in it, the Zionist movement would not have come to the establishment of the state. Rabbi Kook did not rely on the Holocaust – he spoke about the responsibility of the generation to advance the Jewish people to the establishment of the state without a terrible disaster. Therefore, he warned everyone who listened that the national movement had to be connected to the holy Jewish sources and to work energetically for the survival of Israel. The statement was both for secular Zionism and for the ultra-Orthodox public, which stood by and did not enlist in aliyah and settlement of the Land.
But Rav Kook was also very optimistic. He believed with complete faith in God who had chosen His people and promised to redeem them. Moreover, he also had a vision of how to advance the people of Israel in the process of its redemption, how to deepen the Torah and illuminate its light until all of Israel repented. In other words, the source of his optimism lay in the path in which he paved the way for progress, with the sharp knowledge that if we did not merit it, we could expect, heaven forbid, severe suffering, both spiritual and physical.
In this he was different from most of his fellow rabbis, who on the one hand were less concerned about the spiritual and national dangers facing the Jewish people, and on the other hand were less optimistic about the ability to act to change reality for the better.
It is not a coincidence that his books are called “Orot”, or ‘lights’, because they express the faith and the way of seeing the whole picture of the world in all its parts, and it is the light that illuminates the advantages and disadvantages in practice, and the way to enhance the advantages, and overcome the shortcomings and rectify them.
The Difficulty in Understanding Rabbi Kook’s Teachings
So great, wide and deep was the teachings of Rav Kook that even his greatest students found it difficult to understand it as one whole system. As Rav, the Nazir, Rabbi David Cohen, stated in the introduction to the “Orot HaKodesh” (p. 18). About seven years after he met Maran HaRav, when he was about thirty-five years old, knowledgeable in Torah, thought, Kabbalah, and general philosophy, he addressed the rabbi with a question: “Rabbi, there is holiness present here, within your spirit, and special influence. Rabbi, do you have an overall discipline? A specific teaching content? A philosophy? And the answer is: Yes, of course … Since then I have decided to clarify the Rav’s teachings as a complete Divine system, its foundations, and the fundamentals of the elements, and according to them, to choose his writings and arrange them in articles. He went on to say: “Rav Kook has handed over to me his holy writings, and encouraged me in his words, because he trusts me in my arrangements.”
His Halakhic Doctrine – For Himself, and For the Public
In the Talmudic and Halachic spheres it is difficult to understand his teachings, to the point where it seems there are three Rav Kook’s: one – a holy and strict Hasid, the other a conservative who tended to chumra (strict) and, when necessary, was maykel (lenient), and the third, one who innovated ideas about the redemption of the Torah and its teaching. However, when one understands his full personality, one realizes that we are talking about one extraordinarily eminent person, who encompassed complete and different worlds, which united into one world in his personality.
In his inner world, Rav Kook was a Hasid, a Parush (separated) and Kedosh (holy) who, having seen the point of truth and light in every opinion and custom, tended to go out of his way and be stringent according to all the different opinions. And he had no difficulty in that, because he was happy in any hidur that had a basis in halakha, provided that the chumra was not at the expense of others. For example, he would immerse himself in a mikveh every morning; he did not look at the figure of a woman, although he used to receive questions from women, and treated them with respect and politeness; even on vacations, which was customary among the rabbis, he was diligent in his studies, to the point where older rabbis told him that if he did so, he would not be able to rest properly on his vacation; and when he got out of the ocean, he was careful to abandon ownership of the towel that he used to dry himself off with, so that he would not enter into a distant halachic doubt, lest the towel required tzitzit. This was a chumra none of the great rabbis who were with him ever thought of. Similarly, he was meticulous about the details of minhagim (customs): before Tisha B’Av, he first removed his left shoe, because it is a halitzah of mourning, and before Yom Kippur, he first removed his right shoe, for it is the halitzah of a joyous mitzvah of Yom Kippur. Thus, in all his ways he was particular and meticulous.
However, he was forced to serve in the rabbinate, because of his poverty and public necessity, and under his rabbinic leadership he tended somewhat to chumra and orthodoxy, even though his rabbis (Rabbi Don Yechia Melocin, Rabbi Reuven Medinburg and the Netziv of Volozhin) did not. It was only in times of duress that he decided according to halachic rules to be lenient, as did all halakhic authorities for generations. In this, too, he ruled leniently only to the extent necessary, and beyond that, was machmir. It seems that there were two reasons for his tendency to be machmir: one, because of his being a Hasid and devoted to the sanctity of the commandment, he sought to preserve it as much as possible; and the second reason, so as not to increase the distance between the circles of the ultra-Orthodox and the religious and the traditional, and thus maintain the unity of Israel which is so necessary (unfortunately, this attempt was not so successful).
For example, with respect to the heter ha’mechira (a halakhic means of allowing agriculture to continue during the Shmita year): On the one hand, Rabbi Kook established the heter mechirah, and on the other hand, when at all possible, he tended to follow the opinions of those who were machmir, and even after the mechira, he forbade Jews to perform the tasks written in the Torah, even though according to the letter of the halachic law, there is no difference between the melachot (types of agricultural work), for Shmita in our times is of rabbinical ordinance. He was even very upset in regards to what he was lenient about. But when rumors went out questioning the mechira, he wrote again and again that it was very well established, and indeed, it was possible to permit in times of distress – even without the mechira. Regarding those who slandered the mechira, he protested gently and lovingly in line with the custom of his Hasidut, while firmly protecting the farmers, so that their status would not be harmed, or the great mitzvah that they fulfilled, the mitzvah to settle the Land (see Igrot HaRaya 192, 241, 253, 310, 312).
I will not refrain from expressing my position here, that after the issue of Shemita has been in dispute for more than a century, it can be concluded that it is preferable to rely more on the heter mechirah, both because the mechira is highly based on halakha, and because the tendency to chumra and trying to organize an Otzer Beit Din has not prevented the dispute with the Haredi public, and did not bring the farmers of Israel closer to keeping Shmita, whose main purpose is to refrain from work. At the same time, progress must be made gradually towards fulfilling the Shmita, by encouraging farmers who are capable of refraining from work completely (as is the practice of the Ministry of Agriculture).
Rav Kook Was Opposed to Far-reaching Chumrot on the Public
Although when it came to customs that do not have a strong foundation, Rabbi Kook was meticulous not to weigh down with chumrot, and on that he had to argue with the rabbis as well, because due to the fear of secularization and reform, they tended to be overly stringent, as he wrote concerning sesame seed oil (Orach Mishpat 108-114), and went as far as to explain that one who adds on a gezeira (decree) to another gezeira transgresses a prohibition (Rashi, Beitzah 2b).
In his words there, against the stringent claim that if we do not become stringent the “fence will be breached”, his position appears for generations that the opposite is to be feared – if we become more stringent in what is not needed, the fence will be breached even more so: “I know clearly the characteristic of our generation, precisely by seeing that everything permitted we [the rabbis] do according to the depth of the law, they will understand that what we are not permitting is because of the truth of the law of Torah, and that many will be found who adhere to the Torah, who will listen to the voice of the teachers with the help of God. This is not true when it is revealed that there are such things, that according to the letter of halakha they deserve leniency, and rabbis did not feel the pain and sorrow of Israel, and left matters in their prohibitions, the result is, God forbid, a great desecration of God, until many people will be furious and say concerning certain major bodies of the Torah, that if the Rabbis want – they could be lenient, and this will result in perverted judgement” (ibid., page 126).
Teaches the General Rules of the Torah
Apart from his preoccupations and worries with the work of the rabbinate, Rabbi Kook was a great visionary who deeply understood the spiritual crisis in which the Jewish people were situated, and formulated ideas for the redemption of the Torah and its teachings, parallel to the redemption of the Jewish people upon its return to its Land. He spoke of the need to learn the halachic and intellectual rules of the Torah, so that the Torah can appear in its full and complete light, as one logical system, which draws blessing from heaven on the soul of Israel, and continues the blessing to the core of the Land – in the building of the nation in all orders of society and economy, and the life of every family and individual.
To this end he conceived the idea ‘Halakha Berura’ and ‘Biur Halakha’, to connect the Talmud and its commentaries with the learning of halachic works such as the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries. Thus, a straight and logical line would continue from the foundation of the explanations in the Talmud to the details of the halakhot. To this end he also formulated the idea of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, in order to place all the issues as one system, from which the sub-rules diverge from the general rules. He also had ideas for writing general introductions to all the important tractates and books (these ideas are explained in “Orot HaTorah” and in many other letters).
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.