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.

February 7, 2013 13:28
3 minute read.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (right)

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (right). (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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"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 tongue.”

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.

How ironic, 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 army service.

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.

Kook was 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.

The writer, 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 Lights).

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