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Shabbat Parashat Vayechi 5782

Igrot Hareaya Letters of Rav Kook: Incorporating Secular Studies in Rabbinic Curriculum


Date and Place: 9 Sivan 5667 (1907), Yafo


Recipient: Rabbi Shem Tov Geffen – kabbalist, philosopher, mathematician, and friend of Rav Kook, who had recently made aliya and was living in or near Yafo.

Body: I have received your letter, and most of what you wrote is in line with my thinking. 

Regarding your program [of incorporating secular studies into a yeshiva setting], I certainly have a great desire to increase the light of general studies among the elite few, who are special in their Torah and their fear of Heaven, especially those who live in the Holy Land.

Our main goal should be to have true, full-fledged Torah scholars, as in previous times. In order to have the broadest level of da’at Torah (Torah-based or Torah-inspired wisdom) it is necessary to possess all important types of knowledge, including medumah (ed. note – I do not know how to translate that word in this context). Therefore, it is necessary to show the path forward for future Torah leaders as to how to use every discipline of knowledge in order to embellish the reach of the Torah.

For this purpose, it would be worthwhile to establish a program of studies with a short explanation of the content of every discipline (among those that are not well known among the masses) and to demonstrate how they can be used regarding certain Torah disciplines. In that way, the general knowledge can broaden and clarify the Torah approach.

In truth, the completeness of a person’s humanity is good and desired in and of itself (which makes much of the secular knowledge valuable in its own right). However, we should not be embarrassed by the guidance of our great Torah leaders from time immemorial, who possessed all the areas of wisdom but as “maid servants and kitchen staff” in relation to the Torah. Only when we have done this can we say that our scholars are truly the Wise Men of Israel.

However, since the separation between elements of wisdom has come into the world, the matters [of incorporating intrinsically useful wisdom] have taken on a foreign form. When other elements of impure ethics make their way into these disciplines, then the dangers are inestimable.

Therefore, we very much need to support the ancient rule that all elements of wisdom are included in the Torah, when referring to Torah in its true and broad meaning. Therefore, it is necessary to have all of the wisdoms in order to understand and broaden the Torah.

For this purpose, I plan to set the cornerstone for the Otzar Chayim (lit., the storehouse of life – this was the name of the yeshiva that Rav Kook would open in Yafo in 1909) for the nation of Hashem, who are His legacy. If you are inclined to be of assistance in this ambitious project, with the great wisdom you possess, the thesis I have set out for you can serve as a guide. If you would be so kind as to expand the program you sent me or to form another one, based on the characteristics we have discussed, it would be of great help for our activities with G-d’s help. [Ed. note – apparently, he did help Rav Kook in the establishment of Otzar Chayim.]



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