January 18, 2022

Rav Kook poetry inspires jazz performance art at Beit ha-Rav

Rabbis battle it out over the first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi’s legacy and property

by Gil Zohar

JERUSALEM

The underutilized Rabbi Kook Museum at 9 Rabbi Kook Street in downtown Jerusalem is being revived by a group of self-described Hassidim of the country’s charismatic first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. And this Saturday night (January 19) at 8 p.m., the joint will be rockin’.

The musical melaveh malka, termed Orot ha-Shira (The Lights of Song), features Rabbi Shlomo Katz on acoustic guitar, Rabbi Greg Wall on saxophone, Steve Peskoff on jazz guitar, Ilan Katchke on drums, Yogev Glusman on bass, and Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein on vocals. While R. Katz is a nationally known star on Israel’s religious music scene, R. Wall has been called Judaism’s jazz virtuoso comparable to John Coltrane.

Two years ago R. Marmorstein and R. Wall’s band Later Prophets released the CD Ha’Orot: The Lights of Rav Kook.

Rabbi Yitzhak Marmorstein hopes to revive
the historic Rabbi Kook House

Together the musicians – who view themselves as the spiritual heirs of R. Abraham Isaac ha-Cohen Kook (1865-1935), the rabbinic luminary known by the Hebrew acronym HaRaAYaH - will be performing a jazz interpretation of the kabbalistic poetry of Israel’s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi.

The only child of Holocaust survivors, R. Marmorstein explains his entire life he been seeking a theological framework in which to understand the Nazi genocide.

“For some time, and in response, I had been seeking the greatest possible light,” he explains. “My search brought me to serious study of the Torah in 1973, though I remained disturbed by the manifestations of parochialism in the religious world. And then I read in one of Rabbi Kook’s notebooks: ‘All our endeavors must be directed toward disclosing the or ha-shalom ha-clali (the light of universal harmony) which derives not from suppressing any power, any thought, any tendency, but bringing each of them within the vast ocean of infinite light, where all things find their unity, where all is ennobled and exalted, all is hallowed.’

“As I read, I experienced an internal expansion, an inner recognition. Continuing to read, I felt my soul stirring, touched by an extraordinary consciousness whose grasp of the brokenness and wholeness of existence and the possibilities for perfection was breathtaking and clear.”

That epiphany led Marmorstein to seek rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach of New York and Rabbi Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg of Jerusalem – and to dedicate his life to studying and promoting Rav Kook's legacy.

Apart from this Saturday’s concert, Rabbis Marmorstein and Yitzhak Zagha of the Zot laRaAYaH Association are trying to revive the Rav Kook House by teaching classes of the writings and religious poetry of the Zionist spiritual giant in English every Tuesday evening and in Hebrew on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“We’re delving into the writings he [Rabbi Kook] wrote here,” says R. Zagha - a graduate of Yeshivat ha-Rav Kook and Yeshivat Shaalvim. “It’s the most contemporary Torah. People don’t know we’re sitting on this extraordinary treasure.”

Born Griva, Russia (today Daugavpils, Latvia), Rabbi Kook was an ilui (childhood Talmudic genius) who immigrated to Ottoman Palestine in 1904. He followed in the path of the proto-Zionist Vilna Gaon (Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer 1720–1797) in encouraging Jews to immigrate to the Land of Israel and engage there in agriculture and industry.

Landing in Jaffa on Iyar 28, R. Kook prayed for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and Israel. In the June 1967 Six-Day War, the IDF captured the Old City of Jerusalem on the same date, which is now celebrated as Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day). Similarly it was Rav Kook who coined the term Medinat Israel (the State of Israel) decades before independence.

One month after immigrating and newly appointed as the chief rabbi of Jaffa, R. Kook eulogized Theodor Herzl comparing the Zionist visionary to Judaism’s Messiah son of Joseph.

Expelled by Ottoman Turkey during World War I along with other Zionist leaders, R. Kook spent the war years in Britain where he played a critical role in the release of the 1917 Balfour Declaration. Returning to the Land of Israel after the war, Britain’s first High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel appointed him to the newly-created position of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi.

Though he wore a spodek (fur hat) and black gown of the ultra-Orthodox Old Yishuv, R. Kook was a unique figure who bridged Palestine’s traditional society of Torah scholarship, the new Zionist Yishuv of chalutzim (secular pioneers), and the country’s British colonial masters. Already in 1908 he was promoting co-existence between Jews and Arabs. He explained that the Torah records Jacob saying upon his emotional reunion with his twin brother/enemy, Esau, "I have seen you; it is like seeing the face of Elokim" (Genesis 33:10).

Rabbi Kook continued: “The words of Yaakov shall not go down as a vain utterance. The brotherly love of Esau and Yaakov, of Itzchak and Ishmael, will rise above all the “mehumot” (disturbances) ... and transform them to “or ve’chesed olam” —universal light and compassion (Letters 1:112).”

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While rabbis Marmorstein and Zagha view the former home and study hall of the country’s first Chief Rabbi as both a national and spiritual treasure, other Jews take a narrower view of R. Kook’s legacy. In the latest incarnation of the ongoing battle between tradition and modernity, the Old Yishuv and its spiritual heirs in today’s hareidi community argue R. Kook had a flawed understanding of Jewish nationalism. They claim the Talmudic genius as one of their own, whose true legacy is being distorted by the Zot laRaAYaH Association.

The kulturkampf is partially about the potential redevelopment rights of a prime piece of real estate now ringed by a ganglion of luxury housing projects under construction. Ultimately at issue is which version of Judaism will prevail in the State of Israel – that of religious nationalists who sport crocheted skullcaps, or that of radical anti-Zionists who wear homburgs, fedoras and fur hats.

For the hekdesh (charitable trust) known as the Va’ad ha-Clali - Knesset Israel (VH-KI), the modern Orthodox Zionist rabbis are squatters who don’t pay rent and distort the Torah-true message of Rabbi Kook.

In 2007 the Va’ad scored a legal victory in Jerusalem’s Supreme Rabbinic Court allowing it to charge the Zot laRaAYaH Association back rent for their use of the building. Poor as synagogue mice, rabbis Marmorstein and Zagha are unable to pay the arrears.

R. Marmorstein counters that the Rav Kook House is a national landmark protected by the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites. Birthright recently added Beit ha-Rav to its list of accredited Zionist heritage sites to be visited by the 40,000 young adult Diaspora Jews it brings to Israel every year, he adds.

At issue is a second floor addition to Beit David, an almshouse for needy Jews, which was the fourth Jewish neighborhood outside the walls of Jerusalem when it was erected in 1873. Built on land just north of Jaffa Road donated by a Jewish Quarter kollel, the one-storey building and courtyard contained a synagogue and 10 studio apartments so as to guarantee a minyan. Today several of those ground floor rooms house the Museum of Psalms featuring 150 kabbalistic paintings of Moshe Tzvi ha-Levi Berger. The nonagerian artist also lives at the site.

In 1922-23, at the behest of High Commissioner Samuel, New York architect and philanthropist Harry Fischel added three wings on the second floor of Beit David to serve as the home, office and seminary of the Chief Rabbi. This space, initially called the Universal Central Seminary, evolved into the seminal Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, which in 1964 relocated to a much larger complex in Kiryat Moshe on land which R. Kook had acquired.

Fischel was a Sabbath-observant New Yorker who became a developer of luxury high-rises along Manhattan’s swank Fifth Ave. and Park Ave. because no firm would hire an architect who wouldn’t work on Saturday. A key donor to New York’s Yeshiva University, Fischel designed Beit ha-Rav to the luxurious standards of his New York projects. The addition was the first in Jerusalem purpose built for electricity. Fischel ceremoniously pulled the switch at Pinhas Rutenberg’s Naharayim hydroelectric plant in 1930.

Click to enlarge

The Harry Fischel plaque

Relocating to Beit David in 1923 from his modest studio home in the Bukharan Quarter, R. Kook’s new center became a focus of Torah scholarship in Palestine. But in 1935 the rabbi died of stomach cancer. The battle for the property, which began shortly thereafter, revolves around the agreement between Fischel and the Va’ad; the contract stipulates the building must never be sold and will be the home of the Ashkenazi chief rabbi forever.

However in 1936 instead of the next Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yitzhak haLevi Herzog of Ireland moving in, the building continued to serve as the home of Rabbi Kook’s widow and family. In time it evolved into a shrine, albeit a neglected one.

The Va’ad, which has other properties scattered across Jerusalem in which it offers subsidized housing for impoverished hareidim, has tried for decades to regain the premises, claiming it is not fulfilling its original purpose, which they say is to help the poor rather than serve as a memorial to Rabbi Kook.

After repeated hearings by rabbinic courts, five years ago the Supreme Rabbinic Court determined the Va’ad is the rightful owner of the property. Under that judgment made by R. Avraham Sherman, the religious-Zionist association promoting Rabbi Kook’s heritage may remain in the building but must pay rent and arrears for 77 months.

“We’re in a delicate situation,” acknowledges Rabbi Yohanan Fried, chairman of the Zot laRaAYaH Association. Revenue in 2012 amounted to a mere NIS 70,000 grant from the Ministry of Education and the admissions of 25,000 museum visitors, he says. Expenses are currently three times higher than revenue, he states.

Noting that the last 20 yeshiva students left the Beit ha-Rav building in 1973, and nine years later the Institute for Clear Halacha also moved out leaving the space virtually abandoned, R. Fried asks why the VH-KI allowed the empty building to fall into disrepair for so long until he began to restore it in 1985.

Raphael Stub, the attorney representing the Va’ad, dismisses the religious Zionists’ claim that the Va’ad wants to take over the Kook property for real estate redevelopment.

In R. Marmorstein’s view, the hareidim are attempting a hostile takeover of the cradle of Israel’s national-religious ideology. He ambitiously hopes to resurrect the Rav Kook House as a living memorial to his master and a yeshiva where students will immerse themselves in the texts of R. Kook and the Nazir (Rabbi David Cohen – R. Kook’s chief disciple.)

“I want people from all parts of the Jewish world to come here to learn Torat ha-Rav. His extraordinary insights into the universal and redemption should be part of the public conversation in Israel. Rabbi Kook meant for his teachings to be the last word before the messianic age,” he says.

For tickets to Orot Hashira call 054-819-3391.