Opening our minds to worldly knowledge
In order to fulfill a religious Jewish life, one must, of necessity broaden, one’s knowledge far beyond the bounds of traditional Jewish learning to include the study of the humanities in all their fullness.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (right) Photo: Wikimedia Commons
"How shall man obtain a conception of the majesty of the Divine so that the
innate splendor reaching within his soul may rise to the surface of
consciousness, fully, freely, and without distortion? Through the expansion of
his scientific faculties; through the liberation of his imagination and the
enjoyment of bold flights of thought; through the disciplined study of the world
and of life through the cultivation of a rich, multifarious sensitivity to every
phase of being. All these obviously require the study of all the diverse
civilizations and the doctrines of ethics and religion in every nation and
This bold and challenging statement was not made by some
Conservative or Reform thinker, or even by an enlightened modern Orthodox rabbi.
It was made by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi.
Kook clearly advocated the study of all religions and ethical systems, of
science and all things of human interest and knowledge, with the specific
purpose of obtaining a deeper understanding of the majesty of God. In other
words, in order to fulfill a religious Jewish life, one must, of necessity
broaden, one’s knowledge far beyond the bounds of traditional Jewish learning to
include the study of the humanities in all their fullness.
then, that the educational system of the ultra-Orthodox community and of the
Shas school system is the exact opposite of this very broad and open education
that Kook advocated. It is so narrow that even the basic subjects of math,
science, literature and foreign languages are shunned, to say nothing of
“doctrines of ethics and religion in every nation and tongue.” Even the
so-called “core curriculum” that is required by the Education Ministry is not
taught in these schools, without which it is difficult – if not impossible – to
find employment in the modern world.
Why the government of Israel is
willing to finance schools that refuse to teach these basic subjects is beyond
understanding. This is the perfect way to perpetuate poverty and ignorance in
Israel. We may not be able to require independent systems to teach these core
courses that are so important to our society, but we certainly do not have to
finance the perpetuation of ignorance.
We often hear leaders of these
groups asserting that only “holy subjects” are important and anything else is
“taking time away from Torah study.” The same excuse is often given regarding
Yet it is not true that Judaism has always demanded such a
narrow education. Maimonides, hardly a talmudic slouch, was an accomplished
physician as well as an expert in Greek philosophy; and he was not the only one.
This attitude negating general knowledge is something that has been emphasized
in recent generations as part of a movement toward greater isolation from the
world. It is voluntary ghettoization, the building of fortress walls against the
outside world – the very opposite of what Rabbi Kook advocated.
concerned not merely with educating people so that they could make a living but
with educating them so that they could be more deeply religious. Whereas others
see knowledge as a threat, he saw it as a necessary tool for understanding God
and deepening the worship and service of the Divine. Without it, he taught, one
could not be truly religious.
Judaism will not be preserved by fear of
knowledge and isolation from worldly wisdom. It may be true that Torah is to be
found only in Judaism, but it is equally true that wisdom is to be found among
all the nations – as are beauty and morality. To cut ourselves off from the
world is to deny ourselves a wealth of knowledge and inspiration that could
deepen our Judaism and strengthen our piety and belief.
former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner
of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish