A living memorial

Beit Harav Kook marks the religious giant’s 80th yahrzeit.

A historic photo hanging in the ‘beit midrash’ (study hall) depicts Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook giving a talk (photo credit: Courtesy)
A historic photo hanging in the ‘beit midrash’ (study hall) depicts Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook giving a talk
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The first Torah reading in decades at the historic Beit Harav Kook on Rabbi Kook Street off Zion Square took place last Shabbat. In 1964, the Universal Central Seminary, popularly known as Mercaz Harav Kook – founded in 1924 by the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine – moved to its current premises in Kiryat Moshe. Over the decades, the historic yeshiva and residential site fell into disrepair.
“The resumption of Torah reading at site is being undertaken to mark the 80th yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (1865-1935), who died on Elul 3,” explains Rabbi Yitzhak Marmorstein. A disciple of Kook, Marmorstein introduced Friday evening services in the historic study hall last year, and is now expanding his congregation’s assembly times to include Saturday mornings.
The former yeshiva study hall includes a chair presented by King George V to Rabbi Kook, and photos of him lecturing there. In 2014, the anteroom to the study hall was made into a museum documenting Rabbi Kook’s life.
“The resumption of Shabbat shaharit and musaf services in this historic space is especially meaningful since we will be reading from a Torah scroll saved from the Hebron massacre of 1929,” adds Marmorstein.
Rabbi Kook encouraged 150 students and teachers from the famed Yeshivat Knesset Yisrael in Slabodka near Kovno (today’s Kaunas, Lithuania) to relocate to Hebron in 1924 to avoid being drafted into the Lithuanian army. Hearing the news of the 1929 Hebron massacre, Kook fainted, and until his death six years later never stopped grieving over the 67 Hebron Jews massacred there, 24 of whom were students at the relocated Slabodka Yeshiva, known as the “mother of yeshivot.”
The survivors of the pogrom resettled in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood, and in 1975 transferred their yeshiva to the capital’s Givat Mordechai neighborhood.
Marmorstein, who was born in Haifa but emigrated to Canada before returning to Israel nine years ago, first encountered the works of Rabbi Kook while teaching at a Jewish day school in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
He became mesmerized by the unique figure who was a poet, mystic, talmudic scholar and halachic authority.
Though Kook wore a spodek (fur hat) and black gown of the ultra-Orthodox Old Yishuv, he bridged between Palestine’s traditional society of Torah scholarship, the new Zionist Yishuv of secular pioneers, and the country’s British colonial masters.
As early as 1908, Kook was promoting coexistence between Jews and Arabs. He explained that the Torah records Jacob saying upon his emotional reunion with his twin brother Esau, “I have seen you; it is like seeing the face of God.” (Genesis 33:10). Kook continued: “The words of Jacob shall not go down as a vain utterance. The brotherly love of Esau and Jacob, of Isaac and Ishmael, will rise above all the ‘mehumot’ [disturbances]...and transform them to ‘or vehessed olam’ – universal light and compassion.”
“Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook was a transcendent thinker. He is considered to be one of the most important religious leaders of modern times. As the father of religious Zionism, his impact on modern-day Israel is profound. His writings, many of them only recently revealed, present a unique integration of the universal, national and personal.
Interestingly, his closest students formed their bond to him upon praying with him,” explains Marmorstein.
Apart from Shabbat services, Rabbis Marmorstein and Yitzhak Zagha of the Zot Laraayah Association that promotes Kook’s legacy are trying to revive Beit Harav Kook by teaching classes of the writings and religious poetry of the Zionist spiritual giant in English every Tuesday evening and in Hebrew on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“We’re delving into the writings he wrote here,” says Zagha, a graduate of Yeshivat Harav Kook and Yeshivat Shaalvim.
“It’s the most contemporary Torah. People don’t know we’re sitting on this extraordinary treasure.”
Four years ago, Marmorstein, together with New York-based Rabbi Greg Wall and his band, “The Later Prophets,” released their CD Ha’Orot: The Lights of Rav Kook. Over the past years, they have played several times at Beit Harav Kook.
Born in Griva, Russia (today’s Daugavpils, Latvia), Kook was an ilui (talmudic genius) who immigrated to Ottoman Palestine in 1904. Following in the path of the proto-Zionist Vilna Gaon, he encouraged Jews to immigrate to the Land of Israel and engage there in agriculture and industry.
Exiled by Ottoman authorities during World War I along with other Zionist leaders, Kook spent the war years in Switzerland and then Britain, where he played a critical role in obtaining the 1917 Balfour Declaration pledging Britain’s assistance in building a Jewish national home in Israel.
On his return to Palestine after the war, Britain’s first high commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel appointed him to the newly created position of Ashkenazi chief rabbi.
Moving to Jerusalem, Kook found accommodation in the Bukharan Quarter.
In 1923 he relocated to Beit David, which had been built in 1873 as an almshouse for needy Jews. The courtyard neighborhood, the fourth outside the ramparts of the Old City, was named for the philanthropist David Reis. Since Beit David was relatively far from the Old City, it contained a synagogue and 10 apartments to ensure the existence of a minyan.
With a donation from Harry Fischel, an American developer and philanthropist, a second floor was added to Beit David to house Kook and his family, and to serve as his office and yeshiva.
Following the death of Kook in 1935, his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982), took over as administrative director of Merkaz Harav Kook, and ultimately as the head of the yeshiva. He was instrumental in building its new campus in Kiryat Moshe.
That move, coupled with the long decline of downtown Jerusalem’s triangle of King George Avenue, Ben Yehuda Street and Jaffa Road) following the end of the British Mandate in 1948, led to the deterioration of Beit David.
Underutilized and with the ownership of the building in dispute, part of the lower level of Beit David was taken over by Jerusalem painter Moshe Tzvi Halevi Berger, a Romanian-born artist who spent 15 years creating a series of paintings giving a kabbalistic interpretation of each of the Bible’s 150 psalms.
But Berger fell out of favor with the ultra-Orthodox Va’ad organization that controls Beit David today. “They threw him out,” explains Avraham Teich, the director of Beit Harav Kook. Berger today lives in the Old City, and his oversized kabbalistic canvases are in storage waiting for a suitable space to be founded to exhibit them.
The Kinyan Da’at Yeshiva today occupies Berger’s former home and gallery.
WHILE MARMORSTEIN and Zagha view the former home and study hall of the country’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi as both a national and spiritual treasure, other Jews take a narrower view of Rabbi Kook’s legacy.
In the latest incarnation of the ongoing battle between tradition and modernity, the Old Yishuv and its spiritual heirs in today’s haredi community argue Kook had a flawed understanding of Jewish nationalism.
They claim the talmudic genius as one of their own, whose true legacy is being distorted by the Zot Laraayah Association.
The kulturkampf is partially about the potential redevelopment rights of a prime piece of real estate now ringed by luxury housing projects. Ultimately at issue is which version of Judaism will prevail in the State of Israel – that of religious nationalists or that of anti-Zionists.
Rabbi Marmorstein counters that the Rav Kook House is a national landmark protected by the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites. Birth - right recently added Beit Harav Kook to its list of accredited Zionist heritage sites to be visited by the 40,000 young adult Diaspora Jews it brings to Israel every year, he adds.
Relocating to Beit David in 1923 from his modest studio home in the Bukharan Quarter, Kook’s new center became a focus of Torah scholarship in Palestine. But in 1935 the rabbi died of stomach cancer. The battle for the property, which began shortly thereafter, revolves around the agreement between Fischel and the Va’ad haredi organization; the con - tract stipulates the building must never be sold and will be the home of the Ashkenazi chief rabbi forever.
However, instead of Kook’s successor, Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog of Dublin, moving in when he arrived in 1936, the building continued to serve as the home of Kook’s widow and family. In time it evolved into a shrine, albeit a neglected one.
The Va’ad, which has other properties scattered across Jerusalem in which it offers subsidized housing for impoverished haredim, has tried for decades to regain the premises, claiming it is not fulfilling its original purpose, which it says is to help the poor rather than serve as a memorial to Rabbi Kook.
After repeated hearings by rabbinic courts, seven years ago the rabbinic high court deter - mined the Va’ad is the rightful owner of the property, and ruled that the religious-Zionist association promoting Rabbi Kook’s heritage may remain in the building but must pay rent and arrears for 77 months.
“We’re in a delicate situation,” acknowledges Rabbi Yohanan Fried, chairman of the Zot Laraayah Association.
Revenue in 2012 amounted to a mere NIS 70,000 grant from the Education Ministry and the admissions of 25,000 museum visitors, he says. Expenses are currently three times higher than revenue, he states.
Noting that the last 20 yeshi - va students left the building in 1973, and nine years later the Institute for Clear Halacha also moved out, leaving the space virtually abandoned, Fried asks why the Va’ad allowed the empty building to fall into dis - repair for so long until he began to restore it in 1985.
Raphael Stub, the attorney representing the Va’ad, dis - misses the religious Zionists’ claim that the Va’ad wants to take over the Kook property for real estate redevelopment.
In Marmorstein’s view, the ultra-Orthodox are attempting a hostile takeover of the cradle of Israel’s national-religious ideology. He ambitiously hopes to resurrect Beit Harav Kook as a living memorial to his master and a yeshiva where students will immerse themselves in the texts of Rabbi Kook.
“I want people from all parts of the Jewish world to come here to learn Torat Harav. His extraordinary insights into the universal and redemption should be part of the public conversation in Israel. Rabbi Kook intended his teachings to be the last word before the
messianic age,” he says