Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Cohen Kook (b. 1865–d. 1935) is considered one of the most important modern Jewish thinkers and shaper of some of the most significant trends in Religious Zionism. He was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine and the founder of the institutional state rabbinate, as well as an influential yeshiva known as Mercaz Ha-Rav. Rabbi Kook was known for the breadth and depth of his scholarship across all the branches of traditional Jewish scholarship, including law, philosophy, and Kabbalah as well as his appreciation for contemporary science and non-Jewish philosophy. Witnessing the disaffection or rebellion of Jewish youth from tradition, particularly among the Zionist pioneers in the Land of Israel, he devoted himself with special fervor to the attempted reconciliation of modernity with Orthodox Judaism. To this end, he developed a series of dialectical responses that often seemed to accord spiritual dignity to the characteristic features of modern consciousness—such as burgeoning nationalism and evolutionary historicism—while simultaneously subordinating them to his understanding of Jewish theological imperatives. Though he aroused suspicion and controversy among both secularists and traditionalists, Rabbi Kook was often able to gain their respect and serve as a rare bridge between their communities. Ultimately, his thought contributed to the rise of a distinctively Zionist Religious community dedicated to traditional learning and observance as well as commitment to the Zionist state building project. Though Rabbi Kook himself died in 1935, before either the Holocaust or the establishment of the State of Israel, his thinking remains a vibrant source of inspiration and controversy to this day, and is the subject of voluminous secondary literature. Rabbi Kook’s primary writings included many letters and essays published during his lifetime, but some of his most famous and influential works are the result of significant editing by various disciples, some of which took place posthumously. For a variety of reasons, R. Kook’s original notebooks were not available to scholars until the last few decades, and are now gradually leading to revisions in our understanding of his creative legacy. Despite the intellectual and political vicissitudes of classical “religious Zionism” associated with his name, popular and scholarly interest in R. Kook has only burgeoned in recent years through a spate of academic research, publication of new, more accessible Hebrew versions, and translations primarily into English. His views on prophecy, Jewish law, state building, ethics, and metaphysics remain both provocative and generative today.
Rabbi Kook was born in Griva, Latvia, in 1865 and died in Jerusalem in 1935. He was one of eight children. His father, R. Zalman Shlomo Ha-Cohen Kook, was a scholar of the Lithuanian Mitnagged (anti-Hasidic) school and a student of the influential Volozhin Yeshivah (where Rabbi Kook later studied), but his mother, Zlata Perl, was the daughter of a follower of Kapust Hasidism, a branch of Chabad. Well aware of the theological differences that distinguished Hasidism from its opponents in the school of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Kook consistently sought ways to understand and bridge the chasms among different social and intellectual trends in traditional Judaism. He was well-known from a young age for prodigious knowledge and piety. Rabbi Kook ascended to his first rabbinic position in the town of Zaumel in Lithuania when he was only twenty-three and then became the rabbi of Boisk (Bauska) in 1895. In 1886 he married Bathsheva, the daughter of his teacher Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim David Rabinowitz, known as “Aderet” (1845–1905), who later went on to become Deputy Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. Together they had a daughter, Frayda Chana. Unfortunately, Rabbi Kook’s first wife died in 1888, and he soon married her first cousin Raize-Rivka, who gave birth in 1891 to their only son, Tzvi Yehudah. They also had two daughters together, Esther Yael and Batya-Miriam. During his mourning for his first wife’s death, he was granted a sabbatical from his rabbinical position to study with the important Lithuanian Kabbalist Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv, known as “Leshem” (1841–1926). In 1904, Rabbi Kook accepted a position as “rabbi of Jaffa and its surrounding settlements” (including nascent Tel-Aviv), in which capacity he composed a famous and controversial eulogy for Theodore Herzl, who died in that year. He also composed a number of other important essays on the Jewish national rebirth he believed was underway and on the importance of cooperation between secular and Orthodox Jews, each of whom had a role to play in the coming redemption. Rabbi Kook was stranded in Europe when World War I broke out and was eventually appointed rabbi of the Machzikei Tzedek Congregation in London for the duration of the war. In 1919, he returned to the Land of Israel where, in 1921, he was appointed the first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine. Several of his most significant scholarly works were edited by his son or other disciples, though a great deal of material also remained unpublished during his lifetime. Rabbi Kook’s thought has received far more attention than his biography, although his role as an important founder of the Religious Zionist movement and builder of national religious institutions has guaranteed some significant interest among writers in Hebrew, such as the authors of Avneri 1985, Avneri 1989, and Frankel 1983. Some of this literature includes uncritical or even hagiographical elements alongside important oral testimony about Rabbi Kook’s life as explored in Maimon 1967; Neriyah 2015; and Raz 2003. The biography Mirsky 2014 was the most significant composed by an academic scholar in the English language.
Agus, Jacob B. Banner of Jerusalem: The Life, Times and Thought of Abraham Isaac Kuk, the Late Chief Rabbi of Palestine. New York: Bloch, 1946.
The first English language biography published only a decade after Rabbi Kook’s passing. In addition to useful information about Rabbi Kook, this biography testifies to an earlier time when leading thinkers outside of academia and Jewish Orthodoxy (Agus was a liberal Conservative rabbi) still identified with Rabbi Kook’s thought.
Avneri, Josef. “Rabbi A. I. Kook, Rabbi of Jaffa (1904–1914).” Cathedra: For the History of Erez Yisrael and Its Yishuv 37 (1985): 49–82.
Focuses on the first decade of his life in the Land of Israel during which some of R. Kook’s most provocative essays were written.
Avneri, Josef. “Rabbi A. I. Kook as Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, 1921–1935: The Man and His Deeds.” PhD diss., Bar- Ilan University, 1989.
Comprehensive research on the period of Rabbi Kook’s incumbency as the Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, from 1921 until his death in 1935.
Frankel, Aryeh. “R. Avraham Yitzhak Ha-Cohen Kook.” In Ha-Encyclopedia shel Ha-Zionut Ha-Datit. Vol. 5, cols. 89–422. Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 1983.
Several hundred-page-long encyclopedia entry on R. Kook’s life, thought, and influence on the Religious Zionist movement.
Kook, R. Zvi Yehudah. Nefesh Ha-Ra’ayah le-Shloshah ba-Elul. Jerusalem: Zvi Yehudah Kook Foundation, 1983.
This volume contains a two-part essay about R. Kook composed by his son in honor of his father’s memory as well some correspondence and a collection of observations by R. Zvi Yehudah of his father’s spiritual path. Published in honor of the third of the Hebrew month of Elul, the date of the elder Rabbi Kook’s passing.
Maimon, R. Yehudah Leib. Ha-Ra’ayah: Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Ha-Cohen Kook. Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 1967.
Lucidly written biography by a leading thinker of Religious Zionism in Israel. A full chapter is devoted to the controversy over the sale of land during the sabbatical year, which R. Kook supported. Especially useful for its significant attention to the lesser known earlier years of Rabbi Kook’s life. In Hebrew.
Mirsky, Yehuda. Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.
A thoughtful and evocative intellectual biography of R. Kook written for Yale’s “Jewish Lives” series. By far the best biographical work in English, possibly in any language. Written from a position of personal admiration as well as painful disappointment with aspects of the political and religious legacy of R. Kook in contemporary Israel. Beautifully written, the lack of explicit scholarly apparatus required by the series’ format may frustrate experts.
Mirsky, Yehudah. “An Intellectual and Spiritual Biography of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhaq Ha-Cohen Kook from 1865–1904.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 2007.
An exhaustively researched intellectual biography focusing on the formative years from his birth until the time of his appointment as “Chief Rabbi of Jaffa and the Surrounding Settlements” in 1904.
Neriyah, R. Moshe Tzvi. Hayyei Ha-Ra’ayah. Israel: Machon Ha-Torah Ve-ha-Aretz, 2015.
Material about R. Kook’s life and teachings assembled by a loyal disciple, with excerpts from his letters and publications. This is one volume of a multivolume set by R. Neriyah devoted to R. Kook’s teachings on a variety of subjects.
Raz, Simcha. Angel Among Men: Impressions from the Life of R. Avraham Yitzhak Ha-Cohen Kook Zt’l. Translated by David Shulman. Jerusalem: Urim, 2003.
Translation of an Israeli classic, focused on R. Kook’s spiritual aspiration and teaching with many anecdotes about his exemplary life. It contains rich and useful testimony that may sometimes feel hagiographic in tone to academic scholars. Written with an eye toward the moral and religious edification of readers.
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