The Hasidism of Rav Kook

We usually associate the term “Neo-Hasidism” with thinkers such as Martin Buber, Hillel Zeitlin and Abraham Joshua Heschel. It may come to many of us as a surprise that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook also proposed a new Hasidism, but it should not.[1] During Rav Kook’s lifetime, there were those who perceived him as the founder […]

Rav Kook’s Hakafot

Rabbi Yitzchok Sternhell of Baltimore, the Rav of Shearis Hapleita in Baltimore (author Kokhvei Yitzchok), was a talmid muvhak of the Rebbe of Munkatch, Rabbi Chaim El‘azar Spira (author responsa Minhat El‘azar). The Munkatcher was famous for his anti-Zionism in general and especially his extreme opposition to Rav Kook. Recently, there appeared a biography of […]

Essays About Rav Kook – Illuminating Faith by Dr. Yehuda Gellman

An Analysis of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook’s
Orot ha-Emunah (Lights of Faith)

Ours is an age of externals-glitter and tinsel. How do you look? How do you talk? How do you dress? What do you profess to believe? What do you eat? If that’s o.k., then you’re o.k. The world is much too complicated for us to look deeper, to see beneath the surface; not enough time, and not enough patience.

Also, there are too many dangers. We must stay strong to keep the outside out. We must be able to easily identify the enemy, and our friends. We need constant encouragement that we are in the right place. We want to be able to check often and quickly, to make sure we are not being insidiously infiltrated by the outside. How do you look? How you talk? What do you eat? That’s enough for me. I am secure.

…And in my security, I succumb to a terrible danger, the danger of superficiality, of inaction, and of weakness of the will.

…And the world grows cold for me, and loses its excitement and its freshness, as I move along the surface of life in increasingly intricate patterns, but always moving, alas, only on the surface. No adventure for me, no discoveries, no surprises.

Ours is an age of lack of self-esteem. we don’t trust ourselves. We want to be protected, for we feel small, afraid, far from the center of spirituality. In being humble, we think we are modest, but really we are weak. In being excessively cautious, we think we are being exceptionally frum, but really we just don’t trust ourselves. We see ourselves as vulnerable enclosures whose boundaries must be clearly demarcated, whose territory must be secured, whose way in the world must be defensive.

“Excessive fear of sin destroys the goodness in a person, and makes of him a lowly creature, who does nothing but lie there, shaking.” So writes Abraham Isaac Kook, in the opening paragraph of Orot Ha-emuna. “A person must believe in his life, in both his physical and moral powers.” The lack of emunah in oneself is the greatest of all the curses in the Torah, “Your life will be in the balance…and you will not believe in your life.” You will be plagued by self-doubt (Your life will be “in the balance”) and lack inner confidence. Because of this inner anxiety, “In the morning you will say, ‘Who will give evening?’ and in the evening ‘Who will give morning?’ “katnut ha-emunah,” “insufficient emunah,” is a lack of confidence in oneself, and “comes from the inability to raise one’s own self-worth to the point of understanding how he is deserving of the Divine Greatness.”

When we believe in ourselves we are not afraid-cautious, yes, but not afraid. And when we are not afraid we can look at the world again, and see in it the kaleidescopic possibilities of existence. We can look outside, and see beneath the surface. And beneath that surface, we may even find something of ourselves.

Orot Ha-emunah was written by Rav Kook more than 50 years ago, but only now has been published for the first time. Who can guess why it has been withheld from the public all these years? Not a book in the usual sense, but a loose collection of separately written paragraphs constituting a kind of spiritual diary, Orot Ha-emunah is one great call not to be afraid, to look below the surface, and to ascend thereby to great spiritual heights. “When a person believes in himself he discovers great contentment in his spiritual endeavors, and ascends upward.’’ In this work Rav Kook explores emunah by comparing and contrasting it with kefirah (atheism, denial), avodah zarah (idol worship), and “minut,” which is the term favored by him to refer to Christianity, and by examining its relationship to the doing of mitzvot, and to general culture.

From these writings there emerges a profound teaching that belief in oneself is conceptually and existentially inseparable from emunah in God. For first and foremost, for Rav Kook, emunah is a state of being. As he writes elsewhere, “Emunah is the most basic self-revealing of the essence of the soul.” And this self-revealing is really the Divine within us made manifest: “Too much fear spoils emunah, because one doesn’t trust himself and his understanding, thereby diminishing his awareness of the Divine spark in his soul.” The essence of emunah is an awareness of the perfection of the Infinite and that “whatever experience of the infinite] enters the heart is but a minute spark of what can be imagined.” Emunah, then, is a self-affirmation in which one experiences one’s own self-revealment as the revealing of the Divine within. Emunah is a state of being.

It follows that emunah is not constituted by an act of “belief” or by a linguistic, cognitive affirmation. The latter are important both as external expressions of emunah, and as a means of bringing to emunah.

But even in their absence, emunah can be alive. And more, emunah can live even where there is no conscious awareness of one’s self divinity and even when one denies the Divine: “Sometimes you will find a kofer with an inner, shining strong emunah, flowing from the source of transcendent holiness, stronger than a thousand believers, who are “small of emunah.” How is this possible? Because “the inner spiritual basis of the holiness of emunah transcends all language.” A kofer can manifest the Divine power of his being even while denying faith with his mouth, and a believer can be lying, shaking with fright, all the while proclaiming his faith through chattering teeth.

Kefrah can itself even emanate from holiness. This can happen for example, when linguistic affirmations are rejected precisely because they are sensed to be inadequate, as but a weak shadow of the power of being. Thus, “there is denial (kefrah) that is like consent, and consent that is like denial.” Inadequate articulations of Judaism may force their own rejection, out of the depths of holiness. If we are to return the kofer to the practice of Torah, our elucidations of Torah contents must be adequate to the power of his being.

Rav Kook’s concept of emunah provides hope for our seemingly faithless world. For, “There are many apikorsim who are deniers, in accordance with the standards of Halacha. However, when we examine their soul we will discover in them a connection to the Divine content, in a hidden form. And that is why in our generation there is a tendency toward merit and kindness even toward absolute deniers.”

That does not at all mean that it does not matter for Rav Kook if you are atheist or believer, as long as the inner emunah manifests its power in you. Far from it. Linguistic affirmations of faith lead in the direction of transcendent truth, whereas protestations of atheism lead in the direction of falsehood and inauthenticity. He who is faithful to conceptual assertions of emunah has a covenant with God that he will merit that emunah which is beyond conceptualization and language From that high vantage point he will apprehend the correspondence between the elements of the conceptualized emunah and its transcendent counterpart.

Yet sometimes, when we look outside, and beneath the surface, we do see something of ourselves.

Idol worship, too, in its deepest essence knows the power of being of emunah, but covers it over with corruption and evil: “In the filth of avodah zarah great is the spirit of emunah, in its wildness and coarseness, its frenzy and horselike power. Avodah zarah knows the visceral, immediate engagement with the Divine in the world, and total, passionate, self-actualization and self-affirmation.

This “core of holiness’ in avodah zarah is passed into the Jewish people via Abraham, who began as a worshiper of idols. It is written “From the womb of the morning, yours is the dew of your youth.” Bereishit Rabba interprets this as being addressed to Abraham. He too was afraid and self-doubting, because of those years he had spent in the worship of idols. He is told, “Just as dew is the blessing for the world, so too are you a blessing for the world.” We might think the Midrash means to encourage Abraham in spite of his worshiping of idols. But Rav Kook quotes the Midrash differently: “Just as dew is a “good omen” for the world, just so, those years you worshiped idols are a good omen for the world.” The source of dew is in the heavens. Then the dew transcends to the ground, to a lowly place, to be raised heavenward by the rays of the morning sun. Just so, the core of avodah zarah is in the holiness of emunah, but avodah zarah plummets to the lowest forms of human existence from there to be raised back to its source, heaven ward. The passion and engagement that avodah zarah encompasses in self-affirmation is taken up by Abraham into the true religion. Avodah zarah is returned to its source.

Our history begins in disgrace, and issues in praise.” For in the beginning “Worshipers of idols were our forefathers.” The process of history brings the praise out of the disgrace. Thereby, and “God had brought us close to His service.”

Abraham first came to knowledge of God via contemplation of the world. Had it not been for the passion and engagement in the world which he inherited from avodah zarah, his religion might have been nothing more than an arid exercise in abstract philosophical reasoning. The power of Halacha with its life engagement traces its ancestry back to Abraham, the father of emunah.

Christianity, on the other hand, knows nothing of the power of life of ancient avodah zarah. Since it arose after the desire for avodah zarah was nullified, it is empty of life at its core. At its center, instead, stands an abstract, philosophical system of cold reasoning. As a result, “the general religion of the nations receives a form of shaking and weakness, which does not mix well with the breadth of life, but instead assumes the form of dark monasticism, which is less able to go with life than any sort of avodah zarah.”

Kohelet says, “And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands; whoever pleases God shall escape from her, but the sinner is trapped by her.” Our Rabbis identify this woman with “minut,” that is, Christianity. Thus, Rav Kook writes: “The Epicurean kefirah is death, whereas the distortion of emunah is worse than death.” What is the “Epicurean kefirah?”

Epicurus taught an austere physicalist ontology, including only physical entities and physical interactions between them. He was an arch anti-metaphysical philosopher. On the other hand, Christianity the “distortion of emunah, ” knows the intricate structures of the ‘science of God,” systematic theology. Yet Epicureanism is death, while Christianity is worse than death! To be anti-life is worse, far worse, than being anti-metaphysical! The power of life can exist hidden, deep within the dead body of the anti-metaphysician, to be aroused and awakened in a resurrection of the dead. But there is no life at all in the forces of anti-life. For this reason, Divine Providence has allowed the spread of materialist philosophies of kefirah, as a defense against something far worse.

Because so divorced from life, Christianity makes impossible demands that have no chance of being implemented. She has no concern for the realities of life. “Therefore, she says to offer the other cheek in return for a slap. Obviously, people can only believe that this is a sublime trait, but cannot attain it.” The result is inevitable failure and perpetual guilt. In a subtle inversion, chesed metamorphising into din! The aim of Christianity then becomes the alleviating of guilt, by the granting of forgiveness. But the forgiveness is not a prelude to a holier life. “Forgiveness becomes the whole goal.” The believer/sinner (for they are one) needs the Church to receive forgiveness. “By the sinner is trapped by her.”

To believe that which can be practiced is the special genius of Jewish spirituality. This is the “balance of the Torah” which knows how to weigh the ideals against possibility of implementation.

Emunah is an ineffable state of being. How does it relate to the details of Torah practice? “Emunah is the highest poetry (shira) of the world, with its source in the Divine nature in the depths of the
soul. High poetry is unstructured, without meter and rhyme. It has total freedom of imagination without restrictions. It is a spontaneous outpouring of individual creativity. The Torah is the translation of the higher poetry into measure and beat, into conventions and rules. Torah is the poetry of emunah in its practical rhythm. “There are those filled with the glory of the poetry, who are pained by the restrictions of the practical life, but they accept the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.

But there are also impatient souls “who cannot bear the measure, and they are full of rebellion. But even in this rebellion the Divine pleasantness lives, albeit in an unclear way.”

Rav Kook once wrote ‘ Just as there are laws in poetry, there is poetry in laws.” When one loves a poem, he does not experience the restrictions of its form. The possibility exists to live a life of mitzvot as a form of poetry.

The poetry of emunah is not to be found exclusively in Torah. It informs every aspect of human endeavor that is “Divine creativity”: “The pure understanding sees the appearance of the Divine in every improvement of life … It is all included in Divine creativity.” The realization of our humanity is included in the power of emunah— “Everything is included in her, and everything exists in her.”

The bifurcation of reality into that which is the Lord’s, and that which is Caesar’s, originates in the anti-life of Christianity which severs the material world from its foundation of holiness. This poison has also infected the body of the Jewish people. For there are those amongst us who in their zealousness to fight evil believe we must suppress science, arts, and political activity because they are not part of the Divine aspect of the world. Hence, “They hate culture, the sciences, and statecraft, in Israel and in the world.” This is a lack of emunah.

The Jewish people excels at integrating opposing forces into a balanced whole, the power of Torah, the power of Tiferet. Therefore we must not stifle any talent, any human propensity, from developing to its fullest. It must first be allowed to exhaust the individuality buried within it. Once its full nature has been revealed and drawn out, then, and only then may the Jewish genius for integration and synthesis, including the rolling back of excessive development, be brought into play. If we impede the power of human creativity in the name of “faith” we sin against emunah.

“The enslavement of human reason and its silencing destroys the world. The holier the source of enslavement, the greater the damage.”

What are we to do? It is not enough for intellect and emunah to dwell side by side within our soul. For we must not allow emunah to settle in a corner of ourselves where our intellectual powers have not reached. Our emunah would then be weak, and not worthy of us. We must unite intellect with emunah, so that in proportion to our intellectual achievement, emunah will be raised up.

“This is true not only of the individual, but also of the nation in general, and of the whole world, in the generality of humankind.”

These are the teachings of Rav Kook in Orot Ha-emunah.

. . . and the world grows warm for me, as the increasingly intricate pat terns of reality reveal themselves in the rays of the morning sun, in an on going adventure of discovery. Orot Ha-emunah—the lights of emunah.

 

Essays about Rav Kook – The Prophet of Spiritual Renewal by Matis Greenblatt

Mattis Greenblatt

Thoughts in honor of the 50th Yahrzeit of
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook zt”l

“There are souls which serve as receptacles for the ‘light.’
But there are more sublime souls which are themselves the ‘light.’”
(Sfas Emes)

AS THE YEARS SLIP BY SINCE RAV KOOK’S PASSING, HIS figure grows larger and more impressive. The problems he grappled with and the solutions he proposed can be even better appreciated today than they were in his own day; the intensity and reality of his faith inspire us and strengthen our own faith; and his vision, breadth and courage can help to guide us through the seemingly overwhelming problems of our own tumultuous and difficult era.

 

Faith and Divine Mission

From the vantage point of our basically cynical, secular world, perhaps the most striking factor about Rav Kook was the certainty and reality of his faith. For Rav Kook, the Divine Presence was a daily, tangible experience, and Providence, he felt, had selected him to bridge the great and growing gap between the religious establishment and the religious builders of the new Yishuv.

Shabbetai Don-Yahia, the late editor of Hatzofe and a former disciple Of the Rav, once said: “Rav Kook was different than normal human beings. He . . . at times could detach himself completely from his terrestrial surroundings and communicate with higher spheres. If you should ask me, what is Ruach Hakodesh, I would not be able to answer you. But in the presence of Rav Kook I felt what Ruach Hakodesh must be like.”

Isaac Halevy, the brilliant historian and founder of Agudas Yisroel, wrote to Rav Kook, “I well know and make known publicly that God has sent you to Eretz Yisroel to be a sustainer of life.’

The profound inner harmony of the Rav s soul was reflected in his face. Dr. Pinchas Cohn, political secretary to Chaim Weizmann during the London period, relates: “In the midst of the dark, anxiety-ridden days of World War 1,1 was undergoing a personal crisis and decided to visit the Rav and relate to him what troubled me and surely he would be able to provide me with words of encouragement and strength. To visit the Rav one needed no entrance pass, not even prior notification. His home was open to all and the Rav helped each needy person as best he could. Between visitors, he went back to his study and writing.

“When I entered the hall where the Rav sat, no one else was present and the Rav sat at the head of the table completely immersed in learning a sefer. I looked at his face and it was exceptionally serene. A quiet sublimity surrounded him, a peacefulness out of place in the stormy world about. I remained as if glued to my spot and so I stood and continued to peer at him. Gradually, my anxiety dissolved, my heart was quieted and my soul was restored. I had no need to speak. I quietly backed away and left. From the peacefulness of the Rav, I had derived all that I needed.”

Rav Kook’s two leading disciples, the Gaon and Zaddik Rabbi Y.M. Charlop and Rabbi David Hakohen, were both first drawn to the Rav by hearing him pray. That experience changed the course of their lives.

Emphasis on the Thought, Spirit and Ethics of Judaism

Rav Kook never ceased to stress that religious Jewry’s inability to influence contemporary Jewry was in large measure due to our failure to emphasize and communicate the inner spiritual force of Judaism as expressed in the whole range of our ethical, philosophic, Kabbalistic and Aggadic literature.

Maran, the late Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner zt”l, was greatly influenced by Rav Kook’s emphasis and even utilized the Rav’s precise terminology “Hilchos Dayos V’chovos Halevovos” in describing his own profound mamorim (lectures).

Creating a Devout, Learned, but Self-Confident Generation

The Rav’s faith enabled him to confront the whole range of modern day problems with confidence and courage. He strove to help create a thoroughly learned and devout generation, who at the same time could contribute to and influence the shape and character of the exploding renaissance going on around them. He sought to replace the image of the Golut Jew as a bent, fearful, somewhat pathetic figure, with a deeply spiritual but joyous, self-confident new generation.

One Nation

Rav Kook sharply decried and was deeply pained by all forms of irreligiosity, but never gave up on all Jews who continued to identify themselves as part of Klal Yisroel. He was strongly opposed to dividing religious and irreligious Jews into separate camps as if the irreligious were no longer part of Klal Yisroel. In this regard he pointed to the symbolism of the arava on Succos and the foul-smelling chelbana used in the ketores (incense). He wrote with great feeling:

“The pure Zaddikim do not complain about evil, but increase justice; do not complain about lack of faith, but increase faith; do not complain about ignorance, but increase wisdom.”

Once a group of workers who were unable to finish constructing a building before Rosh Hashanah continued their work on the Holy Day itself. The neighbors immediately notified the Rav, and shortly there after, the Rav’s messenger arrived at the building site, Shofar in hand.

He approached the startled workers, blessed them with a good year, and informed them that the Rav had asked him to blow Shofar on their behalf, so that they could fulfill their obligation. He therefore asked if they would interrupt their labor to listen, whereupon he said the bracha and began to blow.

The Rav’s words and the Shofar’s blast fulfilled their purpose. With each blast the Jewish core was touched and aroused. The workers left their tools and work, gathered round the blower and some began to cry. They recalled the images of their parents, the shtetl and the synagogue and asked themselves, “What happened to us?” After the blasts were completed, they said little but all agreed to discontinue their work. They changed their clothing and joined the prayers at the synagogue of the Rav.

Material and Spiritual Renewal

Rav Kook’s perspective was panoramic and all encompassing. Though renowned for his love of every Jew, he was also an extremely penetrating, perceptive and sophisticated critic. While discerning sparks of Yiddishkeit in the intense devotion of the irreligious settlers to the physical rebuilding of the land, he was sickened by their disregard of Torah observance. However, he saw their generation as transitional, to be ultimately supplanted by descendants loyal to Torah.

With prophetic insight he predicted 80 years ago that the irreligious pioneers’ ideological zeal would wane and wither, and that believing Jews would launch the true, spiritual renewal.

Unity

Besides his interpretation of the return to and renewal of Eretz Yisroel, Rav Kook provided a world view unmatched by any other modern Jewish thinker in its scope, originality and loyalty to the mainstream of Jewish thought. He enabled intelligent, observant Jews to view the world as a place which must be improved rather than neglected. He sought for the spiritual unity of life and demonstrated that Torah was not removed and distant from the flow and flux of everyday life.

But perhaps his greatest contribution was to provide meaning, by his inspired thought and extraordinary deeds, to the profound historical changes that Klal Yisroel was and is experiencing in the modern era. He clarified the special role that our generation has to play in the dramatic unfolding of Jewish history.

Herman Wouk has written that to present Judaism to our age requires two qualities: prophecy and monumental scholarship. In the person of Rav Kook, both qualities were present in abundance. Yet unfortunately, the true nature of his life and works have been clouded by misunderstanding. The time is right to clarify and communicate his message for our confused generation.


Rav Kook on Education

On the individual level, Rav Kook emphasized the necessity of providing each child with the opportunity to develop in the specific fields for which he had a unique gift or inclination, rather than forcing him into a prescribed learning mold. He warned that such compulsion could and did lead to defections from the ranks of Judaism which could easily have been avoided. (Orot HaTorah pps. 43-44)

On a broader level, he recognized the importance of knowing secular subjects as well as gaining familiarity with the spirit of the times as a prerequisite to making an impact on the contemporary world (Ikvay Hatson p. 129). He also recognized the need for and supported vocational education.

On the other hand, he warned against under-estimating the continuing value of the old style cheder. In a letter to Rabbi Fishman (Maimon), who had spoken disparagingly of an old style yeshiva, Rav Kook sharply rebuked him for his remarks and pointed out that the pure, unadulterated method of Torah education was still the main source for sanctity and outstanding scholarship. (Letters v. 2, pps. 206-7)

And in his frequently referred to (but seldom read) address at the dedication of Hebrew University, Rav Kook underscored the profound apprehensions which must accompany education partaking of outside knowledge.

His perspective did not reflect an empty tolerance of diverse approaches, but rather a profound grasp of the legitimacy of different approaches, each in its own way, contributing to Kavod Shamayim.

In the end, the primary goal of education, was seen by Rav Kook as a means to develop the best in man by attaching himself to the divine through the medium of Torah. All other considerations are secondary. (Letters v. 1, pps. 218-9; Orot HaTorah p. 14)

 

The Mysterious “Meir”: Rav Kook’s Missing Student

Bezalel Naor

The Mysterious “Meir”: Rav Kook’s Missing Student

Missing Mayer 

Rav Kook’s Missing Student[1]

Click here to read the article as a PDF file

Recent years have seen a breakthrough regarding the elusive identity of “Monsieur Chouchani,” the mysterious vagabond who in the capacity of mentor, exerted such an incredibly profound effect upon the Nobel-laureate novelist Elie Wiesel as well as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in the post-war, post-Holocaust years in France. I am referring to the identification of Chouchani as none other than Hillel Pearlman, an early student of Rav Kook in his short-lived Jaffa Yeshivah.[2]

Pivotal to the identification (which we shall not enter into here) is a letter that Rav Kook penned from exile in St. Gallen, Switzerland to two students of the Yeshivah. We offer the letter in English translation:

With the help of God

6 Tishri 5676 [i.e., 1915]

A good conclusion[3] to my beloved soul-friends, each man according to his blessing,[4] the dear “groom,” the Rabbi, sharp and encyclopedic, crowned with rare qualities and character traits, our teacher Rabbi Hillel, may his light shine; and the dear “groom,” exceptional in Torah and awe of heaven, modest and crowned with rare character traits, Mr. Meir, may his light shine.

Peace! Peace! Blessing with abundant love.

My dear friends, for too, too long I delayed the response to your dear letter. In your goodness you will give me the benefit of the doubt. Only as a result of the preoccupation brought on by the pain of exile and the heart’s longing produced by the general situation (God have mercy), were things put off.

Many thanks to you, our dear Mr. Meir, for your detailed letter, whereby you deigned in your goodness to write to us in detail the state of our family members in the Holy Land, especially the state of the girls, may they live.[5] May the Lord repay your kindness and gladden your soul with every manner of happiness and success, and may we together rejoice in the joy of the Land of Delight upon the holy soil, when the Lord will grant salvation to His world, His land and His inheritance, speedily, speedily, soon.

And you, my beloved Mr. Hillel, all power to you for your dear words, upright words pronounced with proper feeling and the longing of a pure heart. We are standing opposite a great and powerful vision previously unknown in human history. There is no doubt that changes of great value are hidden in the depths of this world vision. There is also no doubt that the hand of Israel through the spirit, the voice of Jacob,[6] must be revealed here. Far be it from us to treat as false all the deeds and events, the longing for general life, that we experienced the past years. As much as they are mixed with impurities; as much as they failed to assume their proper form, their living description, their true life—we see in them in the final analysis, correspondence to the holy vision, unmistakable signs that things are happening according to a higher plan. The hand of the Lord holds them, to pave a way for His people, weary from its multitudinous troubles, and also for His world, crouching under the weight of confused life.

It is certainly difficulty at this time to trace which is the way of the process, but in this respect we may be certain: The terrible wandering of such great and essential portions of our nation residing in Eastern Europe, where the spiritual life of Israel is concentrated, and the necessity of rebuilding physically and spiritually new communities, educational institutions and Torah academies—will bring numerous new results, certainly for good. From those new winds that have been blowing in our world for the past half-century and more, something is to be derived, if we can purify them, erecting them upon foundations of purity and holiness. The opinions and longing for spiritual and physical building of Israel; the mighty desire of building the Land and the Nation, despite external and internal obstacles; the visions tucked away in the hearts of numerous thinkers to uplift the horn of Israel and its spirit, to bind together the strength of life with the sanctity of the soul, the talent of understanding with the depth of faith, immediate implementation with longing for salvation—all these are things that will bear fruit, and the Master of Wars, blessed be He, will grow from all of them His salvation.[7]

One thing we know for certain, that we are invited to great projects: philosophic projects; literary and publicistic projects; practical and social projects; projects at the interior of eternal life and projects of temporal and secular life; projects that remain within the border of Israel; and projects that overflow and touch the streams of life of the world at large and their many relations with the world of Israel, which was, is, and will be a blessing to all the families of earth,[8] as the word of the Lord to our ancestor [Abraham] in antiquity.

My beloved, I request that you write to us whatever is [happening] to you, your situation in detail, whether in spiritual or material matters; whatever you imagine might interest us, whether of private or public affairs. For all I will be exceedingly grateful to you, with God’s help.

I am your fast friend, looking for your happiness and success, and your return together with all our scattered people to the holy soil in happiness and success. May the Lord bless you with all good and extend to you peace and blessing and a good conclusion, as is your wish and the wish of one who seeks your peace and good all the days, longing for the salvation of the Lord,

Abraham Isaac Ha[Kohen] K[ook][9]

In order to understand the contents of the letter, the better to grasp the identities of its two recipients, we must first acquaint ourselves with the circumstances in which it was written.

For one decade, from 1904 to 1914, Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook served as Rabbi of the port city of Jaffa (precursor to Tel-Aviv). During those years in Jaffa he taught a select group of students in a yeshivah of his own making. (This yeshivah is not to be confused with the famous Yeshivah Merkaz Harav founded by Rav Kook in Jerusalem in the early 1920s.) In summer of 1914, Rav Kook set sail for Europe to attend the Knessiyah Gedolah or World Congress of the recently organized Agudath Israel movement. Due to the outbreak of World War One (on Tish’ah be-Av of that year), the conference was cancelled. Unable to return to Jaffa, Rav Kook remained stranded in Europe for the duration of the War, first in St. Gallen, Switzerland, where his needs were provided for by a sympathetic Mr. Abraham Kimhi, and later in London, where Rav Kook served as Rabbi of the Mahzikei Hadat synagogue in London’s East End.[10]

Much concerning the Jaffa yeshivah remains shrouded in mystery. No archive remains of this short-lived institution.[11] Thus we are pretty much left in the dark as to the curriculum,[12] enrollment, and even location. Fortunately, significant headway has been made in this direction in the recent article by Moshe Nahmani of the Yeshivat Hesder of Ramat Gan, “She’areha Ne’ulim—Yeshivat Harav Kuk be-Yaffo” (“Closed Gates—The Yeshivah of Rabbi Kook in Jaffa”).[13] Through painstaking research, the author was able to put together a list of students. Researchers had no difficulty identifying the “Hillel” of the letter as Hillel Pearlman. It was merely a case of “connecting the dots.”[14] But Nahmani was baffled by the “Meir” who is one of two co-addressees in our letter.[15]

I believe that I have solved the mystery of the missing Meir. In 1977, I was a visitor to the home of Rabbi Mayer Goldberg of Oakland, California. Rabbi Goldberg was a successful businessman (at that time in real estate) and a Jewish philanthropist, especially supportive of yeshivot or rabbinical academies. Rabbi Goldberg revealed to me that he had studied under Rabbi Kook in Jaffa.[16] He then went on to share with me a teaching of Rav Kook that I have since repeated on many an occasion. He said that before being exposed to Rav Kook’s teaching, the term “yir’at shamayim” (“fear of heaven”) had only a restrictive, narrowing connotation. Rav Kook explained the term in a totally different light. By the term “yir’at shamayim,” Rav Kook conveyed to his young listeners the vastness, the enormity, the infinitude of the universe.

Reading Moshe Nachmani’s article concerning Rav Kook’s yeshivah in Jaffa, and his bafflement as to the full identity of the student named simply “Meir,” I recalled my meeting with Rabbi Mayer Goldberg. I resolved that during my forthcoming visit to the East Bay area (as it has come to be known) I would meet with the late Rabbi’s children to learn from them more details of their father’s involvement with Rav Kook. What emerged from our discussion (conducted on February 14, 2013) is the following reconstruction of events.

Mayer Vevrick was born circa 1890 “near Kiev.”[17] At some time before World War One, Mayer boarded a ship from Odessa to Jaffa. In the words of his daughter Rachel Landes:

Once he arrived in Jaffa, he sought out the yeshiva of Rabbi Kook. Rabbi Avraham Kook was a world renowned scholar and it was there my father headed to study further. He became a “hasid,” a follower of the Rabbi, and thoroughly enjoyed his studies there. He lived in Rabbi Kook’s home.[18] He studied Talmud…with Rashi and the commentaries, for many hours a day with the other young men. These were the happiest days of his life, with uninterrupted Torah study, and the joy of learning with Rabbi Kook. Mayer adopted [Rabbi] Kook’s philosophy and was guided by it for the rest of his life.[19]

In World War One, Mayer left Jaffa for Egypt. There he was held by the British in an internment camp. Eventually, with some ingenuity, he was able to book passage on a boat to the United States.[20] Initially he resided on the East Coast. In Boston, he received a ketav semikha (writ of ordination) from Rabbi [Joseph M.] Jacobson. The semikha was written by Rabbi Jacobson on the spot in recognition of Mayer’s knowledge of Torah.[21] Later, Rabbi Mayer relocated to the West Coast, first to Washington State and finally to California.[22]

What becomes apparent from the letter of Rav Kook is that Meir remained in Jaffa after Rav Kook’s departure for Europe (followed almost immediately by the outbreak of World War One), and thus was in a position to give the Rav an update on the welfare of his daughters left behind in Jaffa. What also becomes apparent, is that in the Fall of 1915, Meir and his companion Hillel were no longer in the Land of Israel but somewhere else, for in his concluding remarks Rav Kook expresses the wish that they return to the Holy Land. This is consistent with Rabbi Goldberg’s biography, whereby he (along with countless other Jews of Erets Israel) was forced to flee the Holy Land at that time.[23] This also coincides with the reconstructed biography of Hillel (Pearlman). Both students of Rav Kook, Hillel (Pearlman) and Meir (Goldberg) ended up in the United States in World War One. Whereas we are being told that Hillel (Pearlman) later left the United States for Europe and North Africa, reinventing himself as the mysterious “Monsieur Chouchani,” Mayer Goldberg remained in the United States.

Rabbi Mayer Goldberg passed away on September 25, 1992, a centenarian.[24] Shortly before his passing, Rabbi Goldberg had published in Jerusalem a collection of kabbalistic insights (culled from his marginalia in the books of his library), entitled Margaliyot shel Torah (Pearls of Torah). Much of the material in the book is attributed to the kabbalistic work Yalkut Reubeni.[25] My attention was riveted to an unattributed piece, which would appear to originate with Rabbi Mayer Goldberg himself:

In Exodus 2:12 we read that Moses slew the Egyptian (who was beating a Hebrew) and buried him in the sand. The Hebrew words are: “Vayyakh et ha-mitsri vayitmenehu ba-hol.”

 

Rabbi Goldberg observes that the word “ha-mitsri” (“the Egyptian”) has the same numerical value (gematria) as the word “Moshe” (“Moses”). In other words, Moses slew himself! The Rabbi then goes on to explain that what is truly conveyed by the verse, is that Moses slew the opinions of Egypt. Moses, growing up in the house of Pharaoh, had imbibed secular knowledge stripped of Godliness. So in other words, on a deeper level, what Moses was actually slaying was himself, or a part of himself that was thoroughly Egyptian in outlook. He then buried that secular learning devoid of Godliness “in the sand.” Here the Rabbi plays on the word “hol,”which may have another meaning beside “sand”: the secular. This is to say, Moses buried that tainted learning in the secular realm.[26]



©2013 by Bezalel Naor

[1] The writer wishes to express his gratitude to Eve Gordon-Ramek and Robert H. Warwick, children of the late Rabbi Mayer Goldberg, for their invaluable contribution to the preparation of this article.

[2] Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, former Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who was present at the time of Chouchani’s death in Uruguay, was so convinced of the identification that he named his son “Hillel” after his revered master. See Moshe Nahmani, “Mi Kan Hillel,” Mussaf Shabbat, Makor Rishon, 3 Ellul, 5771 [2.9.2011]; Yair Sheleg, “Goodbye, Mr. Chouchani,” Haaretz, Sept. 26, 2003; Solomon Malka, Monsieur Chouchani: L’énigme d’un maitre du XXème siècle (Paris, 1994). Recently, a website has been devoted exclusively  to Chouchani. At www.chouchani.com we are told that a film is being produced of the life of Mr. Shushani!

I have two anecdotes to contribute to the growing literature on Chouchani, the first heard from Prof. Andre Neher (1914-1988), the second from Rabbi Uziel Milevsky (former Chief Rabbi of Mexico).

  • My dear friend Andre (Asher Dov) Neher z”l had been a distinguished professor of Jewish studies at the University of Strasburg. I knew him in his last years after his retirement to Jerusalem. Neher told me that in his youth, his father had hired Chouchani to teach him Talmud. At their initial meeting it was decided that they would study Tractate Beitsah. Chouchani said to the young Neher: “In the next hour I can either teach you the first folio of the Tractate, or sum up for you the entire Tractate!”
  • Similarly, in the final phase of Chouchani’s career (in Montevideo, Uruguay), Rabbi Aaron Milevsky (1904-1986), Chief Rabbi of Uruguay, hired Chouchani to tutor his young son Uzi in Talmud. Chouchani rewarded Uzi’s diligence by allowing him to quiz him on any entry in the dictionary. Uzi asked Chouchani for the Latin name of some obscure butterfly, which Chouchani was able to supply without hesitation! (Heard from Rabbi Nachum Lansky of Baltimore, shelit”a, quoting Rabbi Uziel Milevsky z”l.)

 

At the onset of this article I wish to clarify one point. Should the identification of Hillel Pearlman with “Monsieur Chouchani” one day prove incorrect, that would in no way affect the positive identification of Rav Kook’s addressee “Meir” as Rabbi Mayer Goldberg of Oakland, California. The identification of the mysterious “Meir” as Rabbi Meir Goldberg is in no way contingent upon the identification of Hillel Pearlman as “Chouchani,” but rather stands on its own merits.

[3] Traditional blessing for the New Year uttered between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

[4] Cf. Genesis 49:28.

[5] While Rav Kook and his Rebbetzin (as well as their only son Tsevi Yehudah) were together in Europe, their daughters were left behind in Jaffa, and Rav Kook was most anxious as to their welfare. The family would not be reunited until after World War One, when Rav Kook returned from European exile to the Holy Land.

[6] Genesis 27:22.

[7] Allusion to the conclusion of the Yotser prayer recited in the morning service: “ba’al milhamot, zore’a tsedakot, matsmi’ah yeshu’ot” (“Master of wars, Planter of righteousness, Grower of salvations”). A year into World War One, Rav Kook already envisioned that the outcome of the War would be a shifting of the center of Jewish life from Eastern Europe elsewhere, as well as the further advancement of the building of the Holy Land.

[8] Genesis 12:3.

[9] Igrot ha-Rayah, Vol. III (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1965), Letter 740 (pp. 2-3).

[10] Mr. Jacob Rosenheim, organizer of the Knessiyah Gedolah, subsequently penned a letter of apology to Rav Kook, for by extending the invitation to him to attend the conference, Rosenheim had indirectly brought about Rav Kook’s misfortune.

[11] Moshe Nahmani posits that it existed for 6-7 years from 1909/10-1915.

[12] We do know that one subject on the curriculum, namely Kuzari by Rabbi Judah Halevi, aroused the ire of the Jerusalem zealot Rabbi Isaiah Orenstein. See my translation of Orot (Spring Valley, NY: Orot, 2004), p. 236, n. 169.

[13] Available on the website www.shoresh.org.il, dated 4/17/2012 or 25 Nissan, 5772.

According to Moshe Nahmani, the true reason that so little is known of this earlier yeshivah of Rav Kook is that Rav Kook himself suppressed publicity concerning its inner life, for fear that should word of the curriculum leak out, the yeshivah would come under attack from the ever vigilant rabbis of Jerusalem. (In fact, Rav Kook’s teaching of Kuzari to the students was sharply criticized by the zealous Rabbi Isaiah Orenstein of Jerusalem.) Nahmani believes that Rav Kook was dispensing the arcane wisdom of Kabbalah to the students—sufficient grounds for keeping publicity away from the yeshivah. (But the Kabbalah may not have been the standard Kabbalah as taught in Jerusalem. We know that one of the instructors in the yeshivah was Shem Tov Geffen (1856-1927), an autodidactic genius who fused the study of Kabbalah together with mathematics and physics.) Of course, this is speculation on Nahmani’s part. What is factual, is that Rav Kook taught in Jaffa the Kuzari of Rabbi Judah Halevi and Maimonides’ Eight Chapters (Maimonides’ introduction to his commentary to Tractate Avot or Ethics of the Fathers)—which in themselves represented a departure from the standard curriculum of the contemporary yeshivot.

[14] In one day, 26 Iyyar, 5675, Rav Kook sent two letters from St. Gallen to America (Igrot ha-Rayah, Vol. II, Letters 733-734). The first letter is addressed to Rabbi Meir Berlin asking that he lend assistance to Rav Kook’s student, newly arrived immigrant Hillel Pearlman. The second letter is addressed to Hillel Pearlman himself, expressing pain that he too was exiled from the Holy Land, and offering encouragement, as well as the practical suggestion that he establish contact with Rabbi Meir Berlin, and with Rav Kook’s staunch friend Dr. Moshe Seidel, who might be in a position to help. In a postscript Rav Kook, noting that Hillel Perlman had spent some time in the house after Rav Kook’s own absence, asks for details concerning the welfare of the two Kook daughters left behind in Jaffa, Batyah Miriam and Esther Yael. Logic dictates that our Hillel is Hillel Pearlman of the earlier letters. What eventually became of Hillel Perlman and whether he in fact “morphed“ into “Monsieur Chouchani” remains something of a mystery. See Moshe Nahmani, “Mi Kan Hillel?”

[15] “She’areha Ne’ulim—Yeshivat Harav Kuk be-Yaffo,” Part II, note 51. So too in Nahmani’s earlier article “Mi Kan Hillel?”

[16] He told this writer that before arriving in Jaffa from his native Russia, he had studied under the “Gadol of Minsk.”

 

According to the memoir of Rabbi Goldberg’s daughter, Rachel Landes, “My Father, Mayer Goldberg” (October 15, 2009), her father grew up in Krementchug, Ukraine. She also writes that at one point in his career, her father studied in a Yeshivah Gedolah under Rabbi Zimmerman. Though Landes does not specify that the Yeshivah was located in Krementchug (to the contrary she writes that the Yeshivah was in Kiev), one ventures a guess that this Yeshivah of Rabbi Zimmerman was actually that of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Halevi Zimmerman, Rabbi of Krementchug. The latter was the father-in-law of Rabbi Baruch Baer Leibowitz (famed student of Rabbi Hayyim Halevi Soloveitchik, known as “Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk,” and himself Rosh Yeshivah of Knesset Beit Yitzhak, first located in Slabodka, and between the two World Wars in Kamenetz) and grandfather of Rabbi Dr. Aharon Chaim Halevi Zimmerman (1915-1995), Rosh Yeshivah of Beit ha-Midrash le-Torah (Hebrew Theological College) in Skokie, Illinois. (Rabbi Dr. Zimmerman’s father, Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Halevi Zimmerman was the son of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Halevi Zimmerman of Krementchug.) But again, this is mere conjecture on my part.

[17] According to Rachel Landes’ memoir, her father was born in Krementchug. In his Application for a Certificate of Arrival and Preliminary Form for Petition for Naturalization (1940), Mayer writes that he was born in “[illegible] near Kiev.” Mayer adopted the surname “Goldberg” in the United States.

[18] The fact that Meir (or Mayer) resided in the Kook home would explain how he was able to supply Rav Kook with information concerning the Rav’s daughters. Nahmani noted that Rav Kook had earlier asked Hillel Perlman for details concerning the girls, the assumption being that Hillel Perlman had resided in the Rav’s home (though that is not explicitly stated in Rav Kook’s letter to Hillel Pearlman). See Moshe Nahmani, “Mi Kan Hillel?”

[19] Rachel Landes, “My Father, Mayer Goldberg” (2009), p. 2.

[20] According to Mayer Warwick Goldberg’s Application for a Certificate of Arrival and Preliminary Form for Petition for Naturalization (1940), he booked passage on a Greek steamship from Alexandria, Egypt to New York under the assumed name “Othniel Kaplan” in Spring of 1915 or 1916. Writing twenty-five years after the fact, Mayer could no longer recall the precise date, whether the arrival in New York had taken place in Spring of 1915 or Spring of 1916. We are in a position now to aid his memory. We know from Rav Kook’s letters to Rabbi Meir Berlin and to Hillel Pearlman, both datelined “St. Gallen, 26 Iyyar 5675,” that as of Spring 1915, Hillel Perlman was in America. In order for Rav Kook’s letter of 6 Tishri, 5676 to be addressed jointly to Hillel and Meir, Meir too would have had to reside in America by Fall of 1915. That could only be so if Meir (or Mayer) arrived in New York in Spring of 1915—not 1916!

[21] The fact that Rav Kook does not address Meir by the title “Harav” in the salutation (as he does Hillel) indicates that Meir was not yet an ordained rabbi in the Fall of 1915.

[22] According to information supplied in his 1940 Application for…Naturalization, Mayer resided in New York City and Brooklyn from 1916 to 1917; in New Haven and Colchester, Connecticut from 1917 to 1919; in Seattle and Tacoma, Washington from 1919 to 1922; in San Francisco from 1922 to 1930; and in Oakland from 1930 to 1940.

[23] To quote from Rachel Landes’ memoir (p. 2): “…World War I broke out. The Turks, who were in control of Palestine, sided with Germany, and Russia was on the side of the Allies. My father, being from Russia, found himself classified as an enemy alien. The Turks began to round up all foreign nationals. It became clear that my father could not stay there.”

[24] At the 24th Annual Banquet of the Hebrew Academy of San Francisco, held on Sunday, December 6, 1992, a moving tribute was paid to the recently departed Rabbi Mayer Goldberg.

[25] Yalkut Reubeni (Wilmersdorf, 1681), by Reuben Hoshke HaKohen (Sofer) of Prague (died 1673), is a kabbalistic collection on the Pentateuch.

[26] Rabbi Mayer Goldberg, Margaliyot shel Torah (Jerusalem, 5750), p. 112. The Hebrew original reads:

ויך – 36 כמנין ל”ו כריתות [משנה, כריתות א, א], משה כרת את המצרי, כרת את החיצונים, ויטמינם בחולין. המצרי שהרג משה – הדעות של מצרים שמשה למד, חיצוניות בלי אלוהות –הרג וטמן בחולין, כי מש”ה בגימטריא המצר”י.