The Secret of Rabbi Kook’s Greatness

Many people in Rabbi Kook’s generation, including Torah scholars, wondered how he managed to have command of so many different issues in Halacha and Aggadah – alongside his unceasing involvement in public affairs * The explanation is that for Rabbi Kook everything was Torah, and every field he encountered, he  addressed in a comprehensive fashion * More about Rabbi Kook’s greatness: Why the light in his house was on until late at night, what Agnon said about Rav Kook after studying with him for nine straight hours, and what would have happened if his seminal book “Orot HaTeshuva” had been translated into English

In honor of the 3rd of Elul which occurred this week, the yahrzeit of Rabbi Kook ztz”l, I will mention a bit of the greatness of the Gadol Ha’Dor of past generations.

His Diligence in Torah Study

Rabbi Kaniel ztz”l, the Rabbi of Haifa, wrote: “No less than his gift of genius, he had a genius of work, diligence, and perseverance to the point of mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice) for Torah. When he studied at the Volozhin Yeshiva, his diligence was above and beyond human power (he would study be’iyun (in-depth) sixty pages of Gemara with meforshim (commentators) every day … I merited learning privately with Rabbeinu, and saw the aish ha’kodesh (the sacred fire) in his heart for love of Torah, as an endlessly rising flame, and only with great effort was it possible to drag him away from his studies to eat a little something to keep him going. Once, while walking with one of Jerusalem’s wise Torah scholars, I passed by Rabbi Kook’s house well after midnight, and we saw a light in the house. We wished to find out who was interrupting the rabbi’s rest so late at night, after he had dealt with so many difficult concerns the entire day. How astonished we were when we saw Rabbi Kook himself holding a large book, pacing back and forth across the hall, devouring page after page with unparalleled enthusiasm …”

The administrator of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Shabtai Shmueli, told: “Once, I had to enter his room during his studies to have him write a few lines of gratitude and blessings to a generous donator. I went in quietly not to disturb him, and waited until he realized I was there, but he was immersed in learning Tractate Sukkah, and it took a considerable amount of time until he “discovered” me. The amount of pages of Gemara he went through is etched in my memory. His concentration and the speed of his study amazed me greatly, and until today, I remember that experience” (Likutei Ha’Raya, Vol.1, pgs. 45-47).

The Greatness of his Personality

Rabbi Yisrael Porat ztz”l wrote: “Usually, people who have won a name for themselves also attain a sense of awe from distant people who have heard about them … but when they come to know them closely, their degree of admiration diminishes … after all, everyone has weaknesses and shortcomings that help diminish themselves. This is not the case with our great Rabbeinu – the more you stood before him, the more you had a chance to observe his leadership, and the more you heard him speak – the more you saw him transcend and rise above your reach; you became a fan and an admirer, wishing to sit at the dust of his feet, because you saw before you a spectacular phenomenon of true genius, a man with a comprehensive and penetrating mind, a good Jew in the fullest sense of the word, and a man of prominence.” “He was a spring which steadily increases its flow. He used to speak for several hours straight, spawning gems embedded with ornaments on the topics of Halakha, Aggadah, Kabbalah, and religious philosophy. His words were pure and refined, to the letter of the Talmud and Midrashim, Zohar and Moreh Nevuchim, and in all books of Judaism in all fields. When he sat down at the table to write he wrote endlessly, page after page, as long as he wasn’t interrupted…”

Rabbi Reuven Margaliot ztz”l asked Rabbi Aryeh Levin ztz”l: “What made Rabbi Kook so great?” Rabbi Aryeh replied, “I am not the one who knows how to estimate his greatness, but I can only say this: I have never seen any katnut (smallness) in him” (Likutei HaRaya Vol. 1, pages 17-24).

His Genius

Rabbi Karroll, Rabbi of Kfar Hasidim, said that when he came to Maran Rabbi Kook ztz”l, he intended to talk to him about some well-prepared issues, and to his great amazement, Rabbi Kook was well-versed in all of them, as if he had just studied them (Likutei Ha’Raya, p. 53).

Rabbi Dov Eliezerov said: “On one of the times I visited Rabbi Kook, the Rabbi of Teplyk was there, and we saw something that aroused in us great admiration. Rav Kook was asked a question in hilchot nashim (the laws of women), and behold, he began to recite from memory the words of the Gemara and Rambam, and the methods of the Rishonim and the Shulchan Aruch – everything was clear to him. Another time, I saw a Torah scholar who had written a book on the Tractate of Midot came to visit Rav Kook with drawings in his hand, and I was amazed to see Rav Kook make various clarifications and corrections on a subject that few people dealt with (ibid., P. 56).

Rabbi Bezalel Zolti ztz”l told that at the levaya (lit. ‘accompanying’; the funeral procession) of Rav Kook, he walked alongside the mashgiach, Rabbi Leib Hasman and the street next to Rav Kook’s house was filled with rabbis and heads of yeshiva’s and Talmedei Chachamim (Torah scholars) from Jerusalem and all over the country. Rabbi Hasman said to him in Yiddish: “You see here so many ‘heads’; well let me tell you, we are accompanying the greatest ‘head’ of all of the ‘heads’ put together” (ibid., P. 52).

Rabbi Zevin ztz”l, who was one of the great geon’im (Torah geniuses) himself, wrote: “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Maran, the Gaon Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook ztz”l, was the only one of the Gedolei Torah in our generation who had a command of both halakha and aggadah. Rabbi Kook was without equal in niglei (the revealed side of Torah) and nistar (the hidden side of Torah)… in fact, in a sense, he personified halakha and aggadah… “(Ishim ve’Shitot, p. 210).

The Secret of His Greatness in Torah despite his Tasks

Many were amazed that Rabbi Kook was preoccupied with answering questions of numerous people in issues of halakha and public and personal leadership, and yet it seemed that he was constantly reviewing his learnings – in bekiut (broad familiarity with large swaths of data), and iyun (in-depth analysis). Usually, rabbis required to answer questions or heads of yeshiva’s engaged in giving in-depth classes specialize in the certain field they are dealing with, and in other areas, their greatness diminishes. But with Maran Rabbi Kook ztz”l, everything was Torah – in all issues asked, and in everything he heard or saw – he immediately thought of verses from the Torah, words of Chazal, Rishonim and Achronim, directly and indirectly related to that certain subject, and in this way, in his mind he would go over entire issues, and come up with chiddushim (new insights). Thus, along with providing answers on various topics, in his thoughts he would go over his learnings, and deepen them limitlessly. This was evident to the talmedei chachamim who met with him, that when they raised a topic and Rabbi Kook felt they could understand his thoughts, the lightening bolt of his chiddushim shined fiercely and proficiently in all areas related to the subject in question. Even great Torah scholars found it difficult to keep track of his ideas, because in order to so it required great proficiency and quick comprehension of deep ideas.

Our family tells of my grandfather’s uncle from my father’s side, the Rabbi and Gaon Shalom Melamed ztz”l, the Rabbi of Uman who at the end of his life made aliyah to Jerusalem and was a member of the Hasidic Beit Din in Jerusalem, that before he went to visit Maran Rabbi Kook – he made sure to prepare the issue he intended to talk about very well. He explained that to speak to Rabbi Kook, one had to be proficient in all sides of the issue, otherwise, it was difficult to understand him.

In a similar manner, the author Shai Agnon wrote: “I was fortunate that from the day I met him, in the beginning of the winter of 1907, he befriended me, and I merited hearing Torah classes from him in Rambam’s Hilchot Yisodei Torah (the laws of the foundations of Torah) and Hilchot De’ot (the laws of personality development), and there is no end to the things I got to hear from him – they all deserve to be written for future generations. One day I sat before him for nine straight hours – nine continuous hours without a break – he, ztz”l, would talk, and I would listen. I’m sorry I did not get what he said, but I knew they were extremely deep. I have seen many gaonim, chachamim and tzadikim, but a gaon, tzadik, or chacham who combined all these virtues like Rabbeinu HaGadol (our great Rabbi) ztz”l, I have not found” (‘Mi’Atzmi Al Atzmi’, pg.445). In the past when I read this, I thought that Agnon was joking as he often did, but after hearing how great rabbis prepared before meeting him, I realized he had written honestly.

An Abundance of Ideas

Rabbi Naftali Stern wrote: “His Torah teachings by memory, his speeches, his lectures, his conversations, and his words… this is a unique case of the greatness of a spring which steadily increases its flow orally, a torrent of Torah and wisdom that would continuously increase and gush forth from the breathe of his holy mouth. And without a doubt, anything spoken by Rav Kook was infinitely greater, broader, and more comprehensive than the writings of Rav Kook. Without exaggeration, one could say: if a typist, registrar, or a recorder had been by his side at all times… then Judaism would have been enriched in the wealth of dozens of volumes of supreme works, and words of thought and vision, in all areas of Jewish and universal spirit and thought. Anyone meriting to be in the presence of Rabbeinu ztz”l… felt and saw a celestial breathe flowing out of his mouth without any flaw or delay, with brilliancies and sparks of holy thoughts running back and forth, and his entire being brimmed with light, illuminating and warming the hearts of his listeners… “(Likutei Ha’Raya 1, page 29).

Orot HaTeshuva’ (The Lights of Repentance)

A memorable testimony from Prof. David Tamar in the name of my maternal grandmother’s uncle, Prof. Ber: “I was a student of Prof. Yitzhak Ber z”l. He was not only an in-depth historian, but also a comprehensive thinking man. Once, our conversation turned to Rabbi Kook ztz”l and his books. Professor Ber then said to me that if “Orot HaTeshuva’ had been translated into one of Europe’s languages, Rabbi Kook would have been regarded in the world of non-Jewish culture as one of the greatest thinkers of the last generations” (ibid., P. 30).

Regarding ‘Orot HaTeshuva’, Rabbi Neria recounted that the Gaon, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik said to him that he studies Rabbi Kook’s books, and in his opinion “His most theoretical and coherent book is ‘Orot HaTeshuva’, and its main chiddush is that teshuva is not necessarily related to sin, but rather that a person returns to himself, to his source.” Rabbi Soloveitchik also told him that he “also studies ‘Orot HaKodesh’ and draws ideas from it, however, I give them a different form” (ibid., Pp. 250-251).

In view of this, it would be appropriate for us to awaken before the upcoming High Holidays, they should be for good, and engage in this holy and wonderful book, ‘Orot HaTeshuva’.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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