Letter from Avraham Yitsḥak Kook to Rabbi Ḥayim Ozer Grodzenski, n.d. From Avraham Yitsḥak Kook in Jerusalem to Rabbi Ḥayim Ozer Grodzenski in Vilna, n.d., asking him to help spread awareness of the plight of Rabbi Ya‘akov Tuviah Rappoport of Minsk, a scholar and shoḥet (ritual slaughterer) who has been sentenced to eight years in prison by Soviet authorities. Hebrew. Copy of a letter, typed with handwritten corrections. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

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Kook, Avraham Yitsḥak

(1865–1935), rabbinic leader, halakhist, theologian, and mystic. Best known as the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of modern Palestine and the major theologian of religious Zionism, Kook lived in Latvia and Lithuania before moving to the Land of Israel in 1904 at the age of 38.

Born in Griva (Greve) on the banks of the Daugava (Dvina) River to a family of mixed misnagdic and Ḥabad heritage, he was educated until the age of 15 by his father, Shelomoh Zalman, and by Re’uven Levin, the misnagdic rabbi of Dvinsk (Daugavpils; Dünaburg) and a highly regarded Talmudist. Kook subsequently studied in Liutsin (Ludza) and Smorgon (Smorgonie), where in addition to his Talmudic studies he was also exposed to Haskalah literature. After becoming engaged to a daughter of Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Te’omim, rabbi of Ponevezh (Panevėžys) and Mir, he studied in the Volozhin yeshiva, where he was a protégé of Naftali Tsevi Yehudah Berlin. Among his contemporaries there were future Zionists, socialists, and leaders of Orthodoxy.

After his marriage, Kook lived with his father-in-law in Ponevezh, where he began kabbalistic studies and published a short-lived journal of studies in rabbinic literature, ‘Itur sofrim. He served from 1888 to 1895 as rabbi in Zhoimel (Zeimelis), Lithuania. After his wife’s death in 1889, he married one of her cousins. A prolific writer, in 1891 he published an anonymous volume on the importance of tefillin, Ḥevesh pe’er, and began systematically preaching on this subject. In 1896, he became rabbi of the comparatively cosmopolitan town of Bauska (Boisk), Latvia, succeeding Mordekhai Eliasberg (1817–1889). In 1904, he left to become rabbi of Jaffa and the surrounding agricultural colonies.

During these years, Kook wrote a number of works, all published posthumously: Musar avikhah, a treatise on moral and spiritual self-improvement, reflecting the influence of the Musar movement; Midbar Shur, a collection of sermons concerned chiefly with the relationship between Jewish morality and universal ethics; and ‘En ayah, a commentary on aggadic portions of the Talmud, three-quarters of which he had written before immigrating to Palestine. He also wrote many responsa and Talmudic novellae and commentaries, along with as yet unpublished spiritual diaries.

Though not personally active in Ḥibat Tsiyon or the Zionist movement, Kook emerged, in a series of essays published in the Orthodox journal Ha-Peles from 1901 to 1903, as a qualified supporter of Jewish nationalism, urging his rabbinic peers to recognize Zionism’s positive emphasis on Jewish peoplehood and urging Zionists to recognize the ineluctably spiritual sources of their own enterprise and calling on both to see Zionism as an ethical mission to all humanity. In these pre-aliyah writings, Kook sought to synthesize medieval philosophical traditions, aspects of Lithuanian Kabbalah, elements of Haskalah, and the introspection and quest for self-improvement of the Musar movement; throughout, he placed great emphasis on moral and spiritual self-cultivation. Taken as a whole, these works exhibit a discernible development from a rationalist conception of the religious life, in which the cultivation of the intellect is the focus of spiritual striving, to a more expressive ethos, in which the cultivation of feeling and the recognition of God’s presence in both society and the inner life complement the life of the mind. Kook was clearly moving toward, though was still somewhat removed from, the romantic nationalism and mystical ecstasy he would come to express after his immigration to the Land of Israel.

Suggested Reading

Jacob Bernard Agus, Banner of Jerusalem: The Life, Times, and Thought of Abraham Isaac Kuk (New York, 1946); Aryeh Frankel, “Avraham Yitsḥak ha-Kohen Kuk,” in Entsiklopedyah shel ha-tsiyonut ha-datit, ed. Yizhak Raphael and Geulah Bath Yehudah, vol. 5, pp. 89–422 (Jerusalem, 1983); Yehudah Mirsky, “An Intellectual and Spiritual Biography of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhaq Ha-Cohen Kook from 1865 to 1904” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2007); Moshe Zevi Neriah, Tal ha-Re‘iyah: Lamed-tet shenotav ha-rishonot shel Maran ha-Rav Avraham Yitsḥak ha-Kohen Kuk (Bene Berak, Isr., 1993).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 348, Lucien Wolf and David Mowshowitch, Papers, 1865-1957; RG 417, Jacob Schachewicz, Papers, 1920-1932.