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The Israeli yeshivah Merkaz Harav was the subject of worldwide media attention last month after eight of its students were shot to death by a Palestinian terrorist as they studied Talmud.
Not many reporters remarked on the name of the yeshivah. Harav means simply “the rabbi”. Rav comes from the biblical Hebrew word meaning large or great (see Genesis 25:23). A rav is a master and also a teacher of Torah.
The definite article in Harav suggests that the Rav being spoken of is unique in stature. Merkaz Harav is named after Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, who founded the yeshivah in 1925. Rav Kook’s uniqueness lay in a philosophy that enthusiastically embraced the emerging reality of Israel, within a profoundly religious outlook. (At the time most of the religious world was anti-Zionist.)
As a founding thinker of religious Zionism, Rav Kook defined a world of spiritual possibilities for the 15 per cent or so of Israelis who identify with the national religious camp that serves in the army and combines secular studies and careers with Torah study and observance.
In the USA, a similar designation of uniqueness, The Rav, is used to refer to Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903-93), who moulded American Modern Orthodoxy for half a century. Like Rav Kook, he had the intellect and courage to define path-breaking religious possibilities for generations of students.