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Rav Kook's Letters - Introduction (Part 1)

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By Rav Tamir Granot



This week of Torah learning at the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
 is being sponsored by Ronni & Nachum Katlowitz
in honor of Ronni's father's birthday.
Mr. Yanik Pasternak, Happy Birthday!




Lecture 01a – Introduction (Part 1) 


I. Purpose of the Course:

On “Letters” and Rav Kook’s other Works



Over the course of this year, we will study, iy”H, some of the important letters of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook.


Rav Kook authored many and diverse works. His oeuvre is unparalleled in its multi-faceted, all-encompassing, and profound character. A student seeking to attain in-depth knowledge of his teachings cannot limit himself to just one part of Rav Kook’s compositions; he must get to know all of their various types. While all of Rav Kook’s works are important, there are distinctions between them in various aspects, including both form and content. As students of his teachings, we should take these distinctions into account in selecting which works to study.


Each book and each genre represents a distinct gateway to the great and wide world of the teachings of Rav Kook. Ultimately, all of these gateways lead to the same magnificent hall, but along the way the student will visit different rooms, become familiar with diverse faces, and glimpse vistas of different landscapes depending on the route he chooses. Thus, the impression of Rav Kook that the student gains will depend, inter alia, on his choice of a gateway into the world of Rav Kook’s thought. A person whose first choice is Sefer Ha-Orot will certainly come to view Rav Kook’s teachings in their entirety through a national, historical prism. One who starts with parts I and II of Orot Ha-Kodesh will find that even when he studies Orot, he will have in mind the philosophical, mystical quest of exploration into the mystery of existence. A person who sets out on his discovery of Rav Kook by studying part III of Orot Ha-Kodesh, or Mussar Avikha, will certainly absorb the powerful existential-ethical atmosphere that rises up between the lines. Obviously, one’s impression may alter along the way and the spectacles may be exchanged for others, but the original introduction to Rav Kook nevertheless molds the manner in which one views his teachings.


Among those who are reading this, there must be some who have already been exposed to the teachings of Rav Kook elsewhere, while for others this series itself will be the gateway. For both groups, it is important to present the special nature of the compositions that we will be examining this year, as well as the different genres adopted by Rav Kook, so that they will have a clearer grasp of the gateway into which they are entering and of the magnificent hall to which it leads. What is the nature of the work? What is to be found there, and what is the relationship between it and the other sources?


The works of Rav Kook may be divided schematically as follows:


a.    Halakha

1.     Responsa – e.g., “Mishpat Kohen”


2.     Systematic compositions on defined topics, such as “Shabbat Ha-Aretz,” which deals with the laws of shemitta.


3.     Halakha Berura” and “Bi’ur Halakha” – (clarification of normative Halakha) – a major work which Rav Kook commenced with the purpose of bringing the normative halakhic practice in juxtaposition with its sources in the Babylonian Talmud.


b.    Philosophy

1.     Short, systematic compositions on specific topics. For example, “Li-Mahalakh Ha-Ide’ot Be-Yisrael,” “Telalei Orot,” “Mussar Avikha.”


2.     Articles published in various forums (journals, etc.), such as many of the articles in “Ma’amrei Ha-RAYH,” “Zer’onim,” etc.


3.     Letters – answers to questions posed to Rav Kook by his disciples, ideological opponents, other rabbis, and many others, in which he develops philosophical ideas.


4.     Personal journal entries and collections – these are writings that Rav Kook originally wrote for himself as summaries of matters that he had dealt with during the day or in which he had experienced some inner inspiration, a momentary illumination, etc. These were gathered later on into collections: “Orot,” “Orot ha-Kodesh,” “Orot Ha-Emuna,” “Shemona Kevatzim,” etc.


c.    Poetry - Rav Kook wrote poems that were later gathered into “Orot ha-RAYH” and other collections.


d. Exegesis - Here we refer mainly to the works “Ein AYH,” a commentary on the legends of the Talmud, and “Olat RAYH,” a commentary on the siddur.


It should be noted that the various genres of Rav Kook’s work are not necessarily organized in a systematic manner, and sometimes there is a difference between the medium and the essence. In “Orot,” for instance, there are systematic articles as well as diary writings. The “Letters,” which we shall be studying, include greetings, discussion of practical matters, halakhic subjects – since some of Rav Kook’s responsa were written as letters – matters pertaining to communal leadership, as well as discussion of fundamental ideological and philosophical questions. At the same time, some of the responsa that are printed in his collections are actually parts of letters, which the editors (usually Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, Rav Kook’s son, who will henceforth be referred to as RZYH) separated from the body of the letter in order set them in an appropriate thematic framework.


For the purposes of this series, I have chosen the “Letters” as the gateway to Rav Kook’s works. This is for a number of reasons:


1. From my experience as a student and as a teacher of Rav Kook’s writings, I am quite familiar with the frustration that often characterizes the encounter with Rav Kook’s philosophical works. The difficulties are manifold. The language is poetic, metaphorical, and sometimes very elevated in style; Rav Kook makes extensive use of kabbalistic and philosophical concepts that are not familiar to the layman; his writing is disorganized and torrential; and his ideas are lofty and abstract, appearing out of reach to the regular reader.


I believe that studying the “Letters” makes these issues easier to deal with. By their nature, the letters are written for a specific reader with a view to explaining and clarifying some matter. The style is generally didactic, the explanation is simple (although here, too, there are degrees, in keeping with the level of the addressee), and the contexts of the letters make it easier to understand what he is saying, as these are mostly answers to questions. I hope that study of the “Letters,” along with some tools that will be presented in these lectures, will provide the student with the confidence to approach Rav Kook’s other writings as well.


To avoid any misunderstanding, I add the following clarification: the topics that we will be covering are not necessarily simple, elementary ones. Some are among the most profound and complex subjects in Rav Kook’s philosophy. Nevertheless, the nature of his “Letters” and the form in which they are presented make these issues easier to approach within this framework.


2. The “Letters” introduce us not only to Rav Kook’s thought, but also to himself: his relations with his surroundings and with his close disciples, his communal leadership in his encounter with the Torah giants of that generation and with the Zionist leadership, and his human sensitivity. Moreover, they allow us to perceive his philosophical oeuvre and its sources as it is created in the encounter with current problems. In order for us to derive full benefit from the “Letters,” each will be presented with its historical and/or human background, in its broader philosophical context, and with a biographical appendix about the people related to it.


3. Since the “Letters” were written, by nature, at the time of and from within the encounter with concrete historical and human situations, they never leave questions on the abstract level or in purely kabbalistic terms. In his letters, Rav Kook’s thought comes into being from within its ideological, educational, public, and sometimes halakhic context. In the “Letters,” we find far-reaching implications of ideas raised in their pure, abstract form in other writings with no reference to their possible results. Ideas are tested and brought into sharper focus only when they are forced to face a certain reality and to give it meaning or to sketch ways of dealing with it. In the “Letters,” we find Rav Kook’s ideas alive and active – and this is their great advantage.


These were my reasons for selecting the “Letters” as our study matter, and the specific objectives of the lectures are derived accordingly.


As in the study of any other work, our main purpose is to study in depth Rav Kook’s thought regarding the issues that we will be discussing, to understand their philosophical foundations, and to become familiar with the systematic concepts of his thought and the kabbalistic concepts that support it, with an attempt to understand its meaning for us today.


II. Structure of the Lectures and the Plan for the Year


The lectures are built around a reading of a letter followed by in-depth study of it. The lecture cannot be understood properly without reading and studying the relevant letter.


For every subject that arises in the “Letters,” we find additional references in other letters and in other works. There are indexes (albeit not complete) of Rav Kook’s works, and our lecture is not meant to replace them. I will cite other sources or refer to them only as a means to develop the main theme of the letter or of other related subjects. If, for example, we deal with teachings about Eretz Yisrael, we will not examine all the relevant sources, but rather only those that help us to understand the particular letter in question or that complement our understanding of certain fundamental philosophical foundations. At the same time, I will attempt to point out relevant sources in other letters in order to present a fuller picture of the collections of letters.


Clearly, within the framework of a weekly course of one year, we will be able to treat only some of the letters. Since we will cover only a very small portion of Rav Kook’s writings, there is little point in organizing the material according to some general philosophical system; the letters themselves are not structured in this way. Therefore, the lectures will address a variety of different subjects, such that there will not always be an immediate connection between one lecture and the next. I estimate that, at most, we will cover this year the important letters in part I of the collections of letters –those dating from Rav Kook’s first years in Eretz Yisrael (see below). We will hopefully address some of the most fundamental elements of Rav Kook’s thought, as they are introduced to us through the letters.


Longer letters that involve discrete topics will be treated over the course of more than one lecture.


Sample Lecture Structure


Each lecture will be divided into two units and split up over two weeks:


·        During the first week, you will receive a complete letter (or a paragraph from a letter), explained and clarified, plus background information on the circumstances of its composition, on Rav Kook’s correspondent, and a philosophical introduction as needed. The objective of the explanation is to facilitate reading when the concepts or language are difficult or unfamiliar and to cite necessary sources.


·        During the second week, you will receive a lecture on the letter in which we will deal with the central religio-philosophical topic that emerges from it and study additional texts from Rav Kook that relate to the issue at hand.


It is highly recommended to keep the first part of the lecture, which contains the letter, and to refresh you memory before reading the second lecture.


This is a new experiment for the Beit Midrash; the goal is to integrate lectures with the study of original and important material, such as Rav Kook’s letters.


III. The Biography of Rav Kook


Numerous biographies of Rav Kook have been written; one who wishes to study the story of his life will not have difficulty! Different biographies emphasize different aspects of his personality and oeuvre, which is not surprising given that his character was so extraordinarily multifaceted.


The greatest compiler of events, stories, anecdotes, documents, etc. pertaining to Rav Kook’s life was R. Neriya z”l. In his various books, Rav Neriya gathered a wealth of primary and secondary material on Rav Kook.


The work of R. Tzuriel, Otzarot Ha-RAYH, is also very important. Although its main contribution is in the literary plane and not the biographical one, it nevertheless contains numerous documents and records.


One who is interested in a concise summary of Rav Kook’s life can, of course, look at the Hebrew Encyclopedia or the Encyclopedia of Religious Zionism. There is also a nice, short biographical summary in Otzarot Ha-RAYH, Vol. I, p. 107 (in the new edition [Rishon Le-Zion 5762]; old edition – at the beginning of the book); this summary is apparently the work of R. Meir Bar-Ilan, a frequent guest and confidante of Rav Kook. It is also recommended to see the book by R. Neriya Gutel, Mekhutavei Ha-RAYH (“Rav Kook’s Correspondents”), pp. 23-27.


In order to make it easier to obtain an orderly picture of Rav Kook’s life, I will present a brief survey, which is also important so as to gain familiarity with the collections of letters.


Rav Kook was born on 16 Elul 5625 (1865) in Griva, Russia; he died almost seventy years later on 3 Elul 5695 (1935). His adult life can be divided into four main periods:


1. The Lithuania Period. Rav Kook served in the rabbinate in Zaumel (1888-1895) and later in Bausk until his immigration to Eretz Yisrael in 5664.


2. The Yaffo Period. In Iyar 5664 (1904), Rav Kook arrived, with the approbation of the rabbis of Yerushalayim, to serve as the Chief Rabbi of Yaffo and the neighboring communities, a role that he continued in until the summer of 5674 (1914), when he left Eretz Yisrael to participate in the conference of World Agudath Israel.


3. The War Period (Switzerland and England). Rav Kook was “stuck” in Europe and could not return to Eretz Yisrael. He first settled in Switzerland and later moved to London, where he served as a rabbi for three years beginning in 1916.


4. The Yerushalayim Period. Rav Kook was invited to serve as the Chief Rabbi of Yerushalayim in Elul 5679 (1919), and two years later he became the first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael. He lived in Yerushalayim in a house off of Ha-Nevi’im St, on a street that now bears his name, until his death in 5695 (1935).


From the perspective of Rav Kook’s life, these periods differed from one another because of the various developments that occurred in them and because of the change in his status in each of them.


IV. On the Various Books of Letters


Since the division of the collections of letters is chronological, it is easy to present them respective to the various periods of Rav Kook’s life:


·        “Letters,” Volume A  includes isolated letters from when Rav Kook was still in Bausk, Lithuania (he began preserving his letters only some time after he began to serve as a rabbi), but mainly consist of letters from 1905-1910, the first years that he lived in Eretz Yisrael. In his personal life, this period of Rav Kook’s life was filled with novelty, and for the first time he encountered new phenomena that he had to deal with spiritually as well. This period was also pregnant with fate. In the history of the Yishuv, this was the period known as the Second Aliyah, which shaped its ideological character and its humanistic, secular, idealistic image. In the Diaspora as well, significant social and spiritual flux began in this period. The letters in this volume include several of the most important of Rav Kook’s letters, dealing with ideological and philosophical aspects of timely practical and spiritual questions. The end of the volume contains many letters related to the great shemitta polemic of 5670 (1910), which was of both ideological and halakhic significance.


·        “Letters,” Volume B contains letters from the years 1911-1915, the latter part of the Yaffo period and the beginning of his stay in Switzerland. These letters are similar in character to those in the first volume, but they are not as full with respect to his philosophic thought.


·        “Letters,” Volume C includes letters from the years 1915-1919, the period of his forced exile to Switzerland and England during the war. During this period, Rav Kook was occupied by matters pertaining to the Zionist movement and in the attempt to found an independent movement called “Degel Yerushalayim.” During this period, Rav Kook also came into contact with European rabbis and Zionist leaders, and he met his greatest disciple, R. David Cohen (“the Nazir”).


·        “Letters,” Volume D includes letters written between 1919 and 1925, the first part of the Yerushalayim period and his functioning as Chief Rabbi – a period full of activity and initiative.


Unfortunately, the numerous and undoubtedly important letters from the last ten years of Rav Kook’s life have not yet been published.


The first three volumes were edited by R. Zvi Yehuda Kook, Rav Kook’s son; the final volume was edited under a similar format by R. Yaakov Ha-Levi Filber. The first collection of letters was published during Rav Kook’s lifetime.


The letters are presented chronologically. In general, each letter begins with a title that includes a date and an address to the correspondent - the letter is thus cited in its entirety. See below for the words of R. Zvi Yehuda in this regard.


Additional books in which letters of Rav Kook that contain his thought are published are:


·        R. Moshe Tzuriel, “Otzrot Ha-RAYH” (old edition, 4 volumes; new edition [Rishon Le-Zion, 5762], 5 volumes). The letters are scattered throughout the series, together with various types of other writings.


·        The works of R. Moshe Zvi Neriya: “Mishnat Ha-Rav,” “Be-Sedeh Ha-RAYH,” “Tal Ha-RAYH,” “Likutei Ha-RAYH,” and “Sichot Ha-RAYH.” However, the number of letters in these collections is relatively small in proportion to the other material in them.


·        Ben Zion Shapira, “Ginzei RAYH” (6 volumes), on the holidays and redemption.


·        There is a sizable number of collections of Rav Kook’s writings that do not contain letters but are similar in character, for example his approbations, proclamations, announcements, etc.


·        Of course, Rav Kook’s essays, published mainly in various periodicals or recorded as lectures, are of great philosophical value and bear mentioning.


·        Halakhic responsa: “Orach Mishpat,” “Da’at Kohen,” “Mishpat Kohen,” and “Ezrat Kohen.”


Next week we will examine R. Zvi Yehuda Kook’s introduction to his father’s letters.


(Translated by Kaeren Fish and Elli Fischer)

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