The political legacy of Rav Kook

First chief rabbi of Palestine's political legacy remains stronger than ever before.

Hundreds of people visited the gravesite of Rabbi Avraham HaCohen Kook at the Mount of Olives cemetery last Friday morning to commemorate the 75th anniversary of his passing. The first chief rabbi of Palestine, appointed to the position by the British Mandate Authorities, his political legacy remains as stronger than ever before. For generations of religious Zionists, Kook is the ultimate father figure of an ideology which combines religious practices and behavior with active support of, and involvement in, the State. Unlike the haredi world which negates the very essence of a non-religious, non-theocratic, Jewish state, the world of religious Zionism sees the state as being intrinsically religious, as part of a process of divinely inspired liberation and as part of a process of redemption which will ultimately lead to the coming of the Messiah.
But Kook died in 1935, five years before the onset of the Holocaust and thirteen years before the establishment of the State of Israel. His mantle was taken over by his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who only really came to prominence following the Six Day War – some thirty years later – and his championing of the causes of a Greater Israel and the spawning of the religious nationalist settler movement, Gush Emunim. The teachings of Kook the elder were largely transformed into a political ideology through the statements and actions of Kook the junior, and from him through a whole generation of religious Zionist Rabbis who provided the religious and political leadership for the system of settlements, Hesder yeshivot, religious high schools and the Bnei Akiva youth movement.
While Kook the elder is venerated throughout the religious Zionist world and his, largely philosophical and abstract, writings have become a groundstone for teachers and students alike, the political framework which has emanated from his name is that dictated by Kook the junior and his followers.
AVRAHAM KOOK was a haredi rabbi. He was also an ardent political Zionist. He was not alone in combining these two modes of activity but it his name which became more associated with the birth of Religious Zionism, if only because he was appointed, and accepted upon himself, the role of chief rabbi – then as now a political appointment – through which he became a key representative of the Jewish Yishuv to the Mandate government of the time. In this role, he was to be seen attending numerous political and secular events, not least the laying of the groundstone for the opening of the Hebrew University in 1925, and was also known for his support of the early kibbutzim and agricultural settlements which, despite their totally secular and, in some cases, even anti-religious ideologies, he viewed as being an essential part of the Zionist enterprise and the return of the Jewish people to their homeland.
He was viewed ambivalently by the haredi world of the time.
While the ultra-Orthodox leaders of the Yishuv totally rejected the combination of religion and political Zionism and everything it represented, Kook was not shunned by the rabbis of the time to the same extent that many of them have done so in recent decades. There are many pictures attesting to the honor he was afforded when visiting other religious leaders, not least the head of the Orthodox communities in Jerusalem, Rabbi Chaim Zonnenfeld, as a scholar and a teacher. Ironically, however, they would only ever address him as the “Yaffa Rov” (the rabbi of Jaffa) and never as the chief rabbi. They recognized his former position as a religious leader and teacher but refused to recognize his political status which was associated with secularism and Zionism. The same was true for other ultra-Orthodox luminaries of the pre-War and immediate post-war eras, such as the famed Chafetz Chaim in Radin, the Chazon Ish and Isser Zalman Meltzer in Palestine, all of whom held Kook in high respect, refusing to let others criticize him, while strongly disagreeing with his Zionist ideology.
To this day, there are those within the haredi world for whom the name Rav Kook is associated with heresy – even to the extent of removing his teachings from books which have been republished. But there are others – not least the contemporary spiritual leader of the Ashkenazi Orthodox world Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv – who hold his legacy in high respect, even if they reject the religious link between state and theology.
Elyashiv, like the Chazon Ish before him, stand at the mention of his name as an act of ultimate respect for his scholarship and piety.
IN RECENT years, there have been attempts among many of the rabbis in the religious Zionist world to make his halachic – as contrasted to his philosophical – writings more prominent, and thus to afford him greater legitimacy within the haredi world.
This is part of a process in which many of the religious Zionist rabbis and yeshiva students have become less state-oriented and have adopted a more fundamentalist approach to their daily lives while, at the same time, there are groups within the haredi world who have began to accept the legitimacy of the yeshivot and the religious behavior of their Zionist counterparts.
With the exception of the rabidly anti-Zionist sects such as Satmar and Neturei Karta, there appears to be a closing of the gap in recent years. One only has to attend religious events – be they a tish of a Hassidic rabbi in Mea Shearim , or a religious Zionist wedding in a settlement, to see the intermingling of the two groups of believers. Nothing could have expressed this more strongly than the reactions of two of the most prominent Hassidic leaders, the Rabbis of Belz and Gur following the 2008 massacre of eight yeshiva students at the Merkaz Harav yeshiva, the academy created by Kook and named after him which has become the religious center for his teachings.
While this does not mean that there is an ideological rapprochment between the two, they have come to a mutual appreciation of the fact that, despite their obvious differences in dress codes, they have more in common in terms of daily life practices (prayer, food, study) than they do with any other group. They have also identified common enemies, not least the Conservative and Reform communities, which are perceived as constituting a threat to “authentic” (sic) Jewish values.
The legacy of Rav Kook is therefore much more complex than a superficial reading of his teachings and political activities would have us believe. He remains the ultimate spiritual father figure for the world of religious Zionism, regardless of whether or not his teachings were selectively adopted by his son and followers to justify the right-wing causes of Greater Israel and settlement expansion.
But in the partial rapprochement which is taking place between the different worlds of Orthodoxy, it is his personality and writings which constitute one of the main bridges. No doubt about it, his views towards Zionism and the role of the non-Orthodox (he would probably never have used the term hiloni – secular) were revolutionary for an ultra-Orthodox Rabbi from Eastern Europe. His contribution to bringing the worlds of political Zionism and religion together were of immense importance to the future development of the state which he never experienced.
But at the end of the day he was a haredi rabbi dressed in black, long before the advent of the knitted kippa, whose view of society was vastly different to most of his colleagues and contemporaries in the world of ultra-Orthodoxy.
The writer is professor of Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.