House of HaRav Avraham Yitzchak Kook
By Jay Levinson
HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook was probably one of the most enigmatic personalities of modern Jewish history. Born in Griva, Latvia in 1865, he received a traditional Jewish education. In 1884 he entered the Volozhin Yeshiva, and in his less than two years there became close to the rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (commonly known as the Netziv). In1895 he became the Rav of Bausk.
HaRav Kook soon, however, bolted from the stereotype and established himself as a very unique personality. He was a staunch supporter of exactness in halacha (Jewish Law), but his concerns went well beyond those of a traditional rabbi. He was a mystic. He was a Zionist. He was a pragmatist. And he cherished his fellow-man. He shunned wealth. Perhaps best summed up, he was a spiritualist. In 1904 HaRav Kook made his way to Ottoman Palestine, where he became the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, a post that included responsibility for agricultural lands in the area. To common amazement, he gave a speech in fluent Hebrew upon assuming his new position.
Not everything can be planned. In 1914 HaRav Kook traveled to attend the Agudah convention in Berlin, but with the outbreak of war he was unable to return to Palestine. After staying two years in Switzerland, HaRav Kook made his way to London, where he served as rabbi of Machzikei HaDas until his return to Palestine in 1919. During his time in England, he played a significant role in lobbying for the adoption of the Balfour Declaration.
In Palestine a new position awaited HaRav Kook. He was appointed Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. Then, two years later HaRav Kook became the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. Two years later an apartment at today's 9 HaRav Kook Street was ready for its new resident. That apartment is now open to the public as a museum.
The building, constructed in the 1870s, bridged the geographic gap between Nachalat Shiva and Mea Shearim. The neighborhood of ten apartments surrounded by a wall was called Beis David, after its philanthropic founder, David Reis. Although it is now less than a block from the traffic of Jaffa Road, then times were different. The area was desolate and rampant with marauders and bandits, so the gate of the surrounding wall was kept locked at night. In 1922 a second storey wing was added to part of the residential complex. That became the apartment of HaRav Kook. As befits a chief rabbi, the apartment had one very unique feature --- it contained a private mikvah.
HaRav Kook was a frugal man who balked at materialism. His simple apartment exemplified that approach to life. His office was a modest room big enough to seat only three or four people. In 1924 he transformed the largest room into a yeshivah, the precursor of today's Mercaz HaRav. The curriculum of learning reflected his own ideas of education. Studying just gemara (talmud) is insufficient. Emphasis must also be put on other subjects such as Tanach (the Prophets and Holy Writings). HaRav Kook took an active role in the ceremony opening Hebrew University in 1925, but in later years he became dismayed at the university's straying from Jewish learning.
Much misunderstanding surrounds the legacy of HaRav Kook. He believed in maintaining warmth and friendship towards secularists, but he explicitly rejected their views. His belief in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) was unswerving, and he is often touted as a leader of religious Zionism. He looked forward to the end of the Diaspora, and to the reestablishment of Jews in their land. Yet, he had severe doubts about the religious Zionist movement. He feared that adherence to the popular tenets of religious Zionism would in the long run strengthen secular Zionism.
HaRav Kook is mistakenly renowned for heter mechirah (sale of the land) during shmitah (Sabbatical Year). His overall point of view was very different from common perception. He fervently advocated tithing and observance of shmitah, but the economic situation of 1910 posed enormous difficulties for the Yishuv. The Ottoman Empire was crumbling. Common governmental services were lacking, and hunger was rampant. Jewish agricultural production could not keep pace with the human need to eat. Faced with a real threat of starvation¸ HaRav Kook declared permission for heter mechirah. No, Jews should not simply eat from the year's produce as a measure of pikuach nefesh (saving lives), but they should use heter mechirah, so as not to forget shmitah. Very clearly, his p'sak (rabbinic decision) was valid only for that one year and not a general policy.
The rabbi passed away in 1935 and was succeeded as rosh yeshivah by his son, Zvi Yehudah, who solidified the link between Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva and the Mizrachi religious Zionist movement. It is through that action that HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook posthumously became a champion of Mizrachi Jews.
The House of HaRav Kook gives good insight into the rabbi. The former beis midrash is now used to screen a film about his life (English sound track available on request). Another room houses his archives, including some 50,000 items, which can be used by serious researchers upon prior arrangement. Unfortunately, guided tours of the apartment are available only to groups.
Next to the House of HaRav Kook is a very different art gallery, curiously called the Museum of Psalms. There Moshe Tzvi Berger has on display 150 paintings, each inspired by a chapter in Sefer Tehilim (Book of Psalms). The gallery was established in 1995 with the encouragement of the late Rav Mayer Yehuda Getz, at the time Rabbi of the Kotel (Western Wall). A short tour of the collection with Berger is recommended. Also of note is the spacious apartment in which the paintings are housed. (Entrance gratis. Open 1000-1600, Sunday-Thursday.)
from the March 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine