The Russian-born Jewish scholar Abraham Isaac Kuk (1865-1935), or Kook, was the first chief rabbi of Palestine, now Israel. He was noted for his Talmudic knowledge and his extraordinary love of his people.
Born in northwestern Russia into a famous rabbinical family, Abraham Kuk received an intensive Talmudic education in his native city of Grieve. At 15 years of age, already recognized as a prodigy, he went to Lutzin, where he continued his studies not only as an intellectual pursuit but as an act of piety. He later studied in the famous academy of Volozin.
Kuk's personal outlook led him to espouse the Musar (personal piety) movement and to employ Hebrew instead of Yiddish for daily use. He saw no dichotomy between the sacred and the secular and insisted that the most menial tasks are replete with religious overtones. He continued to study after his marriage and did not hesitate to include German philosophy and modern Hebrew literature in his curriculum. His fame grew as an expert in Jewish law, and he was given the title of gaon (excellency).
Financial need led Kuk to accept a rabbinical post in Zimmel and later in Boisk, where he remained until 1904, when he became rabbi in Jaffa, Palestine. He included German culture and Cabala in his spectrum of studies and began to write extensively in the areas of Jewish law and thought. His devotion to orthodoxy was not compromised, and he succeeded in gaining the recognition of both the orthodox and the modernists. He embraced the Zionist movement without reservation and saw in it no contradiction to traditional Judaism. While many Zionists were secularists, Kuk insisted that regardless of their indifference to religious rites they were doing God's work in the only land in which the Jewish people could fulfill its mission.
When Kuk came to Palestine, he mingled freely with the colonists, who accepted him warmly because of his fluent use of Hebrew and because of his deep sympathy with their problems. He insisted that all Jews must work together. He sought to encourage the use of Palestine products, especially for ritual purposes. He lectured widely in the academies, and he insisted on adding a daily discourse on the Kuzari (a medieval philosophical work) to the lecture on the Talmud.
The start of World War I found Kuk in Europe, and he could not leave until it was over. He employed his time in the furtherance of Zionist aims and in the issuance of the Balfour Declaration (1917), in which England assured the Jews of its favorable attitude toward the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He returned to the Holy Land and organized the Banner of Jerusalem movement in support of Judaism in Palestine. He became chief rabbi of Jerusalem in 1919 and 2 years later chief rabbi of Palestine.
Kuk's incumbency coincided with the initial growth of the Jewish community, which eventually achieved its independence in 1948. He sought to pave the way for this historic event by breaking down barriers between groups. Many extremists refused to recognize his authority, but he won the admiration of the masses, for whom he had a great affection. He could find no reason for not being a Zionist, "seeing that the Lord has chosen Zion." Kuk wrote articles and brochures on a wide range of subjects; some were published during his lifetime and many posthumously. His poetry was beautiful and tender and his excursus into the realm of mysticism most elevating.
Jacob B. Agus, Banner of Jerusalem: The Life, Times and Thought of Abraham Isaac Kuk, the Late Chief Rabbi of Palestine (1946), is a full-length biography. Agus also wrote a sketch of Kuk in Simon Noveck, ed., Great Jewish Thinkers of the Twentieth Century (1963).