Kook, Avraham Yitsḥaq

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KOOK, AVRAHAM YITSAQ . Rabbi Avraham Yitsaq Kook (18651935) was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the Land of Israel in the modern era, a religious thinker and halakhic authority, and one of the prominent leaders of the New (Jewish) Settlement at the beginning of the twentieth century. Rabbi Kook was born in Grieva, Latvia. His father was of Lithuanian Jewish descent, and his mother came from a Lubavitcher Hasidic family. Kook was the spiritual and halakhic authority who laid the foundations for a religious Zionism that did not settle for the political pragmatism of the Mizrai (the religious Zionist movement) or that of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement. Kook sought to view Zionism as a process of redemption, of repentance, and of an overall Jewish renaissance. He was a man of complexity whose persona unified opposing spiritual worlds: the Lithuanian Torah scholarship with the Hasidic spiritual experience, a commitment to halakha and Jewish tradition with a modern worldview and Western culture and philosophy, a tendency toward spirituality and mysticism with full involvement in the practical matters of rabbinic and public leadership.

At a very early age, Kook was appointed rabbi of Zaumel and later of Boisk. In 1904 he made a pilgrimage to the Land of Israel and was appointed chief rabbi of Jaffa and the surrounding towns. World War I broke out while he was attending a conference of the Agudath Israel movement in Germany, and he was forced to spend the war years (19141918) in Switzerland and England. When he was finally able to return, he moved to Jerusalem to serve as chief rabbi and was elected the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the Land of Israel when the chief rabbinate was established in 1921. Rabbi Kook became an outstanding rabbinic leader, one who played an active role in many controversies but won the respect of diverse groups, from the devoutly observant members of the Old Settlement to the atheist pioneers of the New Settlement and the leaders of the second emigration.

Rabbi Kook's extensive writings traverse a wide range of literary styles and forms. He wrote contemplative compositions, halakhic books, ideological articles and essays, commentary to the Talmud, poetry, and many letters. His language and style reflect the complex nature of his spiritual world. The unique synthesis found in his writings between mystical concepts and qabbalistic ideas, on the one hand, and philosophical thought and his bold and novel interpretation of the meaning of Judaism, on the other, as well as the personal and original nature of his thought required the creation of a new mystical language.

Rabbi Kook's thought is based on a mystical intuition and on a radically monistic perception. He viewed reality as an absolute unity whose source is the divine infinity and is expressed in all dimensions of existence: in the cosmic, natural, and physical dimension, in the historical-political, and in the cultural dimension. Kook viewed all reality as a revelation or manifestation of the divine, leading to his tolerant and pluralistic outlook, which sees all cultures, each worldview, and every ideology as partial expressions of the divine truth. Despite Kook's basic assumption that no single philosophical or qabbalistic theory can contain the multiple dimensions of existence and that therefore each theory is partial and relative, he nonetheless usually formulated his ideas within a Neoplatonist mystical framework, using concepts borrowed sometimes from the Qabbalah and sometimes from idealistic European philosophy of the nineteenth century. He saw the Qabbalah not simply as an ancient tradition but also as a discipline of free thought and creativity, which springs from the depths of a person's spirit and deciphers the secrets of the Torah.

Kook's contemplative writings were, for the most part, not written in a systematic fashion; his writing was automatic and spontaneous, and in general he did not later edit and arrange these writings in book form. His student and friend, Rabbi David Cohen (HaNazir), who edited a large portion of his works, arranged them in the book Lights of Holiness, according to the major topics of philosophical inquiry: epistemology, ontology, and anthropology (including ethics and morality). His nationalistic thought is mostly found in several essays collected in the book Lights, which was edited by his son, Rabbi Tsvi Yehudah Kook.


Several of Rabbi Kook's main and most fundamental ideas were formed in an original fashion. In Kook's thought, repentance is not merely a psychological process that takes place in the consciousness of the individual but instead a cosmic process taking place in all dimensions of existence, which has sought to return to its source from the moment of creation. This cosmic process is apparent in the movement found in nature, history, and culture toward higher, superior levels of existence. Thus all progress made in the history of the Jewish people and the entire world, in the natural sciences, medicine, and technology, are understood as manifestations of the process of redemption. In this context, sin is also understood as a metaphysical concept that signifies the failure to reach the original goal of creation and a deviation from creation's proper state of wholeness. The redemption of the world is therefore a metaphysical necessity.


The idea of freedom and the striving for freedom were characteristic of the spirit of the nineteenth century in Europe. However, the idea of freedom in Rabbi Kook's writings is not limited to the realm of political thought; it exists also as a metaphysical principle, as a trait and a basic drive of humans, and as a lofty religious ideal. The concept of freedom is understood foremost as a cosmic dialectical process of self-realization.


The idea of holiness, according to Rabbi Kook, expresses the immanence of the divine in the world and is described as a current flowing forth invisibly from the source of existence and spreading throughout all dimensions of existence: in space, in time, and in humanity. From this perspective, there is no essential difference between the sanctity of the Land of Israel and that of other places. The difference is only that in the Land of Israel the hidden holiness bursts forth and is revealed like a wellspring. The same is true in terms of time, since the holiness that flows forth in secret each day reveals itself on the Sabbath day, and so it is in the other dimensions of existence. One of the distinguishing characteristics of humanity is the ability to recognize holiness and to have religious aspirations. The capacity for religiosity is common to all people, and in the people of Israel this capacity is also realized in their collective spiritual creation.

Kook's approach to the Zionist movement was based both on his "historiosophical" religious and metaphysical worldview and on his personal experiences of direct contact with the pioneers of the second emigration. In his eyes, Zionism was an opportunity for an overall Jewish renaissance, and he yearned to witness a far-reaching renewal not only of the Hebrew language and the Jewish settlement in Israel but also of Jewish literature, Torah scholarship, and the creative arts as well as an expansion of the meaning of the Torah itself. All of these changes, he believed, would bring about the establishment of the state of Israel in the Land of Israel, an ideal state that would actualize in all dimensions of its existence the noble ideals of Judaism and thus reveal the kingship of God in the world. He valued the Zionist movement as a practical-political instrument whose function was to realize this vision. He also admired and loved the pioneers, in whom he saw unadulterated idealism and innate moral values. However, he also voiced harsh criticism of both wings of the Zionist movement, the religious and the secular, for their narrow understanding of their role. Rabbi Kook was actively involved in the Zionist public life, and the British Mandate related to him as one of the representatives of the Zionist leadership.

Rabbi Kook's impact on the development of ideological-political and spiritual-religious trends was greater after his death than during his lifetime. He was very highly respected and revered by most sectors of Jewish society, despite the fact that his opinions were controversial. At the same time, he did not have many students and did not succeed in creating a mass movement. The yeshiva he established in Jerusalem and led for many years, Merkaz HaRav, did not, after his death, make an impact on wider circles. However, Rabbi Kook's ideas permeated religious Zionist society, and after the Six Day War in 1967, during which territories under Arab rule were captured, all the dreams, the ideas, and the great prophecy of the redemption of the people of Israel returning to their biblical homeland surfaced and came to life in the real world. Youth movements, many religious educational institutions, yeshivas, and high schools educated their students in light of his teachings. Students of the yeshivas and movements influenced by his thought established new settlements in Judea and Samaria; those groups even established a political-ideological movement, Gush Emunim, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Of course these movements and trends express only one particular dimension of Rabbi Kook's thought and his multifaceted writings.

Thus Gush Emunim's claim to be the true continuation of Rabbi Kook's legacy put it at the center of a controversy that was both political and ideological in nature. Supporters of this claim emphasize the movement's devotion to the idea of settling in the entire Land of Israel as an integral part of the complete redemption of the people of Israel. Opponents emphasize the fact that this settlement comes against the will of the Arab residents, sometimes takes away their lands, and prevents a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians. Seemingly Rabbi Kook's thought is the source of both perspectives.

Unquestionably the love of the Land of Israel, settlement as part of the process of redemption, and the establishment of the state of Israel were essential elements in Rabbi Kook's vision. At the same time, sensitivity toward the dignity and will of the Arabs was also part of his approach (as evidenced by his testimony before the British governor of Jerusalem after Arab rioters attacked Jews at prayer at the Western Wall).

Any attempt to estimate what Rabbi Kook's political position about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of the late-twentieth century and early-twenty-first century would have been is nothing more than speculation. His perspective and worldview were wide and complex to such an extent that many can find support in them for their contradictory positions; this does not mean that their views should be seen as necessary conclusions or realizations of his thought.

Kook's successors established communities and residential neighborhoods with the characteristics of closed, separate societies. At the same time, in particular over the last two decades of the twentieth century, some of these groups have displayed a trend of openness toward and involvement in all the realms of activity and production of the general society: in academia, in the economy, in the army, in culture, and in the arts. Furthermore the spiritual-mystical trends developing in the climate of the New Age and postmodernism in Israel also have roots in the mystical thought of Rabbi Kook, and its magnetism grows, especially among the religious youth.


Goldman, Eliezer. "Rav Kook's Relation to European Thought." In The World of Rav Kook's Thought, edited by Benjamin Ish Shalom and Shalom Rosenberg, translated from the Hebrew by Yovel Orot, pp. 115122. New York, 1991.

Ish-Shalom, Benjamin. Rav Avraham Itzhak HaCohen Kook: Between Rationalism and Mysticism. New York, 1993.

Ish-Shalom, Benjamin. "Tolerance and Its Theoretical Basis in the Teaching of Rav Kook." In Abraham Isaac Kook and Jewish Spirituality, edited by L. Kaplan and D. Shatz, pp. 178204. New York, 1995.

Ross, Tamar. "Rav Kook's Concept of the Divine" (in Hebrew; two-part series). Daat No. 8 (Winter 1982): 109128, No. 9 (Summer 1982): 3970.

Schwartz, Dov. Challenge and Crisis in Rav Kook's Circle (in Hebrew). Tel Aviv, 2001.

Benjamin Ish-Shalom (2005)

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Kook, Avraham Yitsḥaq

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