Talk by Rabbi Raymond Apple at Beit HaRav Kook, Jerusalem, on 22 December, 2013, at an event hosted by the Jewish Historical Society of England Israel Branch.
Rav Kook is a legendary figure. There is renewed interest in his life, career and ideas, partly because some groups regard him as the inspiration for their brand of nationalism. In wider circles, he forms the subject of countless shi’urim and study courses, and there is a centre for source material on Rav Kook in this building in the centre of the city.
Our specific focus this evening is the three years he spent in London during World War I as rabbi of the Machzikei HaDath Synagogue, with a broad influence encompassing even those whose ideology followed a different style of orthodoxy or was outside the orthodox fold and even the world of belief altogether.
I am tempted – but will not succumb – to offer an ideological hakdamah to my talk. That would be quite unnecessary because of where we are meeting and the explanations we have already heard, and because there are analyses of Rav Kook’s thinking which are far better than a regel achat prolegomenon on my part.
All that is necessary is to say that this was a crucial man at a crucial time in a crucial place, and to underline and illustrate each aspect of this overall summation.
A crucial man – officially chief rabbi of Jaffa but great for reasons far beyond his office. He was an intellectual genius possessed of amazing erudition, even in so-called “secular” subjects, though for him there was no mechitzah between holy and unholy. When during the sh’mittah controversy the Ridbaz (Rabbi Ya’akov David of Tz’fat) said to him, “Your mind is wider than the halachah”, Rav Kook replied, “No such idea is conceivable”.
He was a spiritual giant. My teacher Rabbi Dr Isidore Epstein was a youth in the East End in Rav Kook’s time and a disciple of the Rav, and wrote:
I have seen and known many remarkable and saintly scholars and teachers in my life, but never one who was so richly endowed with all the gifts of mind and soul which it pleaseth the Holy One, Blessed be He, to bestow on his ‘loving ones’. A Gaon, mystic and philosopher, he was a veritable religious genius capable of ravishing even the poetic genius of a man like Bialik… His greatness was one which came not from books, but from the inner welling forth of a richly endowed soul. His own personality had something ethereal about it. His large tender eyes, inscrutable and dreamy, gazing as it were, into eternity, lent mystery to his aspect. He was also gifted with extraordinary eloquence, and under the spell of his talks and soothing voice, it was often felt that beauty was returning on earth and peace and quietness to the tortured human soul.
The mystic and visionary was also an activist and a humanist, as London found to its benefit. He was in London at a crucial time. World War I was a cataclysm, historic not merely because of the world forces arrayed against each other and the (then) unbelievable suffering it caused, but because the Jewish people and its Holy Land were caught up in the maelstrom. Rav Kook commented that though darkness covered the earth, a new light – or chadash – was arising in Zion.
Not only was this a crucial time, but London was a crucial place. He was there in circumstances of unique opportunity. For Jews, the Balfour Declaration was a stage in the messianic redemption. Britain’s concern for the Holy Land was only partly, possibly marginally, altruistic. There were issues and dimensions of self-interest, but Rav Kook regarded Britain as an agent of the Almighty.
He came to London almost by accident, when he was stranded in Europe after a visit to Europe for an Agudat Yisra’el convention. He himself would have said that being at the centre of the British Empire was part of the Divine design. As Joseph told his brothers, “It was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45:8).
For three years Rav Kook was spiritual leader of the Machzikei HaDath. The congregational historian, Dr Bernard Homa, speaks of the Rav bringing new glory and strength to the Synagogue, though he steered it towards closer collaboration with the communal establishment now headed by Chief Rabbi Hertz. Both rabbi and congregation knew that the rabbinic incumbency was not going to last, but in the meantime London derived immense benefit from its hospitality to the Rav.
Let me relate four incidents from this period.
1. The London air raids: Rav Kook was fearless and only reluctantly entered an air raid shelter. His secretary wrote about an occasion when the Rav went down to the Synagogue basement to alleviate the fears of his family. The crowds gathered around him as he recited Psalms: some sang in order to drown out the terrifying sounds from outside. Eventually most people fell asleep but the Rav remained alert, holding his small Tanach. He recited Psalm 43, “Judge me, O God, and fight on my behalf against a merciless nation.” The words were soft, but the Rav recited them with a melody that sounded like the whole Jewish people pleading for Divine compassion, saying, “Send Your light and Your truth: they will guide me. They will bring me to Your holy mountain and to Your dwelling place” (Psalm 43:3).
2. The National Portrait Gallery: The Rav told an artist called Melinkoff, “When I lived in London I frequently visited the National Galleries. My favourite pictures were by Rembrandt. I really think that Rembrandt was a tzaddik. Do you know, when I first saw Rembrandt’s works they reminded me of the aggadic story about the creation of light. We are told that when God created light, it was so strong that one could see from one end of the world to the other. Afraid lest the wicked abuse it, what did God do? He preserved the light for the righteous in the time when the Messiah would come. But now and then there are great men who are privileged to see it. I think Rembrandt was one of these, and the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created.”
3. The Balfour Declaration: In 1917 there was a divide in British Jewry between pro- and anti-Zionist forces. Rav Kook was actively involved in the pro-Zionist effort. He developed contacts with Nahum Sokolow and Chaim Weizmann and influenced the internal Jewish negotiations. In a bold manifesto, he condemned as treachery the anti-Zionist letter sent to The Times by some of the communal leaders and his remarks were quoted in the House of Commons. At a gathering at the Albert Hall to mark the Declaration, he said, “I did not come to thank the English people (but) to congratulate it, with the blessing of Mazal Tov on its great merit in being the one nation to grant us the Declaration.”
4. Rav Kook’s influence on people: The Rav believed that there were no really bad Jews. He had a broad attitude of tolerance though he urged that nonobservant Jews be won for Judaism by “bonds of love and kindness”. He said there were no real atheists: those who said they were non-believers were really seekers who were honest enough to reject ideas which they felt were not tenable. Many people who came under his spell in London testify to these Kookian attitudes. Witnesses had many stories about his humanity: for example, a memorial gathering at the Machzikei HaDath for Rabbi Chayyim Soloveitchik in 1919, when the Rav asked the congregation to join him in sitting on the floor as a token shivah.
A continuing problem in British Jewry is the status of the other orthodox rabbis vis-a-vis the Chief Rabbinate. Dr Homa relates in his history of the Machzikei HaDath that when a question arose during World War I about the halachah of Ashkenazi Jews eating rice on Pesach, Chief Rabbi Hertz consulted Rav Kook who suggested convening the other “foreign” rabbis and seeking their opinion. The eventual halachic ruling was negative, but Rav Kook’s advice led to the Chief Rabbinate’s recognition and enfranchisement of the non-establishment orthodox rabbanim and strengthened the importance of rabbinic consultation. The Chief Rabbinate had waged a long war against the congregation in regard to kashrut, with the congregation pitting itself against the establishment and accusing it of making too many compromises; much of the heat had gone out of the battle by Rav Kook’s time, but it was important for Rav Kook to issue a message on his departure from London urging the Machzikei HaDath to maintain good relations with the Chief Rabbinate.
Rav Kook left for the Holy Land in 1919 and became Chief Rabbi of Palestine, constantly involved in practical affairs and controversies but never abandoning for one moment his firm belief that God had sent him to London and that the messianic redemption was imminent.