The inventor of the institution of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel today was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was one of the great scholars and visionaries of the Jewish people, as well as a very spiritual man and holy man in every sense of the word. He had come to Palestine in the early 1900s as chief rabbi in the city of Jaffa. Together with other rabbis he traveled throughout the country to try to bring to the new settlers the spirit of the Jewish people and its Torah.
A mystic, he saw the return of the Jewish people to its ancient homeland as the beginning of the long-predicted Messianic Era and the redemption of the Jewish people. He saw in the Balfour Declaration and a religious revelation, not just a political statement. Rabbi Kook was also very active in Zionist circles and was famously tolerant of the secular and even irreligious elements.
When the First World War broke out he was traveling through Europe to attend a major rabbinic convention. The Turks tightened their grip on Palestine and did not let Jews return there, so Rabbi Kook stayed in Switzerland for the first two years of the war. He had a great influence on Jews there and then moved to London, where he put together an organization called, The Flag of Jerusalem. It was his attempt to support the Jewish community in the Land of Israel and give it the stamp of traditional Jewish values.
At the end of 1919, he returned to Palestine and was elected as the Rabbi of Jerusalem. Even though he enjoyed an overwhelming majority of the vote, his election was contested by various groups; they never stopped referring to him as the Rabbi of Jaffa rather than the Rabbi of Jerusalem. On a personal basis, Rabbi Kook was on friendly terms with all of his opponents. They recognized him as a person of remarkable stature and holiness. However, they considered his politics controversial.
Besides establishing a Torah academy in Jerusalem, he was also a poetic and prolific writer. The very broad range of topics included Jewish law, the intricacies of observing the Sabbatical year (shemitta); Jewish thought, philosophy and mysticism; he even penned a long article on the Theory of Evolution and its relationship to Jewish ideas.
One of the pursuits that he considered very important was the creation of the Chief Rabbinate. He intended it to be the moral voice of the Jewish people in Palestine, not a political rabbinic organization. However, the British already had the concept of a Chief Rabbi for the British Empire and got involved. They took Rabbi Kook’s idea and made it conform to theirs by turning the Chief Rabbinate into a legal entity subject to election by delegates. After a long period of politicking the delegates included not only Jews who were not religious, but even those who were avowed atheists. And this system of delegates remains in place today in the selection of the Chief Rabbi. It is a strange system.
Despite Rabbi Kook’s desire for the rabbinate to be a moral voice, already from the outset it was a highly politicized position influenced greatly by secular and irreligious Jews. They did not mind rabbis making decisions in purely religious spheres, to which many of them no longer subscribed. However, by politicizing the rabbinate they hoped to control the influence of rabbis on politics.
This in effect crippled the institution from the onset. However, the personality of Rabbi Kook was so great that as long as he was the leading rabbi he was able to hold all the diverse parties and their politics together. Even his successor, Rabbi Herzog whom we will discuss later, was able to do the same. Nevertheless, the institution of the Chief Rabbinate could not fulfill Rabbi Kook’s lofty goal, and he realized that in his lifetime. He did not want it to be a grand rabbinic organization, but a moral influence on the Jewish people developing in Palestine. Unfortunately, as great as he was it never really panned out his way.