Introduction to Rav Kook’s Responsa

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gidon Rothstein

19 Av: Introduction to R. Kook’s Mishpat Kohen

One of the pleasures of this series has been “meeting” great rabbis. I have long known R. Kook a bit through his more philosophical writings, but his responsa are a revelation—written in a very different style (one I personally find more straightforward, clear, and accessible), displaying a completely other aspect of his greatness.

The first published volume of responsa was Mishpat Kohen, on halachic issues related to the Land of Israel. On 19 Av 5697 (1937), R. Meir Berlin (later known as Bar-Ilan) signed his introduction to the volume, after which R. Zvi Yehuda Kook (R. Kook’s son) added some words, and then there’s an introduction by R. Kook himself.

It’s an opportunity to hear from R. Kook at an early stage of his life, so I expanded our definition of responsa from a certain date to let us learn from this.

R. Berlin’s Introduction

R. Berlin says this is the first volume (of thirty), published by a group set up for that purpose after his passing (about two years earlier). The choice was not coincidental, because for all that R. Kook always incorporated halachah in his approach to issues, he was particularly connected to the halachot of the Land of Israel, especially the agricultural ones that had been relatively neglected when Jews were in exile.

Laws that Jews had until then assumed would remain neglected until the Arrival of Mashiach had instead been restored to active involvement, and R. Kook was a significant factor in figuring out how those halachot should be applied. (Since I want to get to R. Kook’s own introduction, I am leaving out his quite beautiful and flowery expressions of enthusiasm over the growth of Jewish settlement in Israel, the new realities that presents to rabbinic decisors, and his praise of R. Kook—the kohen hagadol, the great priest—for finding a positive way forward).

It’s a book, he says, that should become part of every halachic authority’s library.

R. Zvi Yehuda’s Opening

R. Kook’s son, R. Zvi Yehuda (who would go on to be an important figure in his own right), had done much of the editing of the volume, and his preface is dated five months later, the 18th of Av. He notes that his father had published only those essays, articles, or ideas that were needed at the time. In his later years, he agreed to publish his responsa and novella, so R. Zvi Yehuda went about editing a volume of his letters and Orot HaTeshuvah. The current volume would be important and valuable for the farmers of the new settlement of Israel.

He (R. Zvi Yehuda) called the book Mishpat Kohen because the Torah tells us to go to a kohen for guidance on halachic issues, and because Ramban says the essence of Torah is in Israel (which is why Tanach refers to it as mishpat Elokei Ha-Aretz, the law of the God of the land).

He makes some comments about the structure and footnoting of the book we can leave for another time. For R. Kook’s own introduction, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook took parts of Responsa 55 and 56 in the book, written in 5653 (1893), the fourth year of a shemittah cycle. Since the ideas he expressed are relevant to the book as a whole, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook placed it here.

Healing Zion, Internally and Externally

R. Kook starts by citing Rosh Hashanah 30a, where the Gemara points to Yirmiyahu 30;17, which bemoans Zion as “ein doresh lah, she has none who ask after her,” and infers that we are supposed to ask after her.

Earlier in that verse, Hashem had referred to bringing aruchah and refuah to Israel, both of which seem to refer to healing. R. Kook differentiates between internal and external wounds. The former (including illnesses) are generally healed by ingesting something, like food, sort of within the ordinary workings of the body, the medicine fortifying the body in its better workings (this was probably a clearer claim in his time, when medicine consisted of naturally occurring substances; while those might not usually have been food, they were solids or liquids one ate or swallowed. With the advent of pills and poisons as medicine, it’s not quite as clinching a claim, but read on). External wounds call for external treatments, either by cutting something off or bandaging it up (once we see that, the dichotomy is still applicable—internal ills are solved by ingesting, external ones by addressing the external issue).

There are, however, external problems whose source is internal, and those should be treated internally. When the verse refers to aruchah, that would be a word for those internal approaches to healing, with refuah for bandaging up wounds and the like.

The destruction of the Beit HaMikdash caused open wounds, that it was burned to the ground, leaving us unable to perform many mitzvot, and exile, which took us away from all mitzvot that can only be fulfilled in and on the Land of Israel.

The internal, less obvious, wound, is the loss of Torah. First, the Torah of these mitzvot, since we’re not practicing them anymore, and then Torah broadly, since the Sanhedrin would sit right next to the Temple and rule on all Torah issues that came before it.

Besides, Yirmiyahu 9;12 quotes Hashem as saying that the essential cause of destruction was our abandonment of Torah, so a return to Torah will hasten that return.

Studying the Torah of Israel as a Way Back

That’s true of all Torah, but it’s especially true of study of mitzvot that depend on the Land and/ or are connected to the Temple (remember that he’s writing in 1893, as the rabbi of Zeimelis (in his time, it was known as Zaumel), in northern Lithuania, on the border with Latvia, eleven years before he made aliyah!).

Then he goes metaphysical, with an innovative reading of Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2;5. The phrase “great is study for it brings to practice,” in context, was answering the question of whether it was better to study or to be actively involved in mitzvot. The answer (at the simplest level) seems to be that study will bring both.

R. Kook agrees that that’s true at our level. But there’s a second level, chelek gavo’ah, the portion of Hashem’s, that Hashem’s job is to help us turn our study into practice. It’s part of the berit, the covenant, made with those who study Torah.

If we learn these sections of Torah diligently, then, Hashem will help us put them into practice.

On the other hand, neglect of these questions cannot but delay the redemption, since how can we return to Israel without having prepared by studying the law of the Land. Unfortunately, those laws are among the most neglected (when even the rest of Torah isn’t so studied, he adds).

Chazal anticipated that people would question the utility of studying such laws when they were not ready to be practical, which is why Rosh HaShanah 30a reminded us to be doresh Tziyyon, to inquire after Zion. Nor did the prophet mean to limit the inquiry to Zion in general, but to include all its aspects, the Temple and all that had to do with the full settlement of the Land.

The Torah of Israel’s the Medicine

That shows R. Kook that what ails the Jewish people is a kind of external ill with internal causes (as he had started out discussing). That needs not an external bandage but the kind of ingested food or medicine that will heal the internal ill. By carving out time to study the areas of halachah regarding the Temple and the Land of Israel, we will be healing our abandonment of Torah, especially that most neglected part of Torah, and can expect/hope for a speedier redemption.

I like introductions, is the truth, because they give us broader perspective than each chapter of a book. But I especially liked this one, because it seems to show a man making what we might think of as a wild guess (that the study of the Torah of Israel is a segulah, a merit, that will lead to a quicker return to Israel), that then came true eleven years later.

Sure, a cynic could say he already intended to make aliyah, although I don’t know that there’s evidence for that. Even so, R. Kook as a young man in Lithuania set about studying areas of halachah few others were delving into, and consciously saw it as a metaphysical approach to healing exile, only to then find himself, eleven years later, in Israel itself.

That’s the kind of segulah I like seeing in action.

Listen to Rabbi Rothstein discuss this on OU Torah.

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply