Thursday 3 September 2015

059) Secular Education - A Great Divide?

The first published translation of a classical science text into the holy language .
(Vilna 1780)
Many would be surprised to discover that there is a kaleidoscope of opinion regarding whether or not a Jew may undergo a secular education. For someone born into western civilization, it seems hard to imagine that this basic ‘right’ is even up for discussion. For others it is equally surprising that anyone would even want to study anything other than the Torah.

Although there are many sources that forbid secular studies, there are just as many that take a  very different view. The ensuing debate is rather colourful and most enlightening, highlighting a ‘great divide’ within the Orthodox community.


According to the Ramo, it is forbidden to engage in a fixed programme of secular studies. However, he says that the occasional study of secular wisdom would be permitted.[1] Some have suggested that the reason for this ruling is not bittul Torah (wasting time that could otherwise have been spent on Torah study), but rather bizayon haTorah (bringing disgrace to the superior value of Torah by ‘displacing’ it with something secular).


Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Lubavitch movement writes “The impurity of science is greater than the impurity of idle speech ...Thus it is forbidden, unless one employs this as a useful instrument (such as a means of earning a livelihood).”[2]


I am aware of a teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov that I am fond of quoting (although I forget where I saw it). It says something to the effect that the passionate pursuit of anything neutral, that is not expressly forbidden by the Torah, may be counted as Torah study as both have the same result, namely, keeping one away from sin. Yet, nonetheless, he was against secular education, intimating that faith and rationalism cannot go hand in hand without one yielding to the other.


Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman writes “If you must sit in a school with non-Jews and befriend them, it is forbidden...If you do not have to befriend them and you do not study heresy, and you study in order to make a living, then is permitted and is a mitzvah.”[3]


According to the late Chareidi leader, Rabbi Elazar Shach[4], all forms of secular education, even at high school level, are expressly forbidden. He singled out the study of history and psychology specifically, as absolute ‘heresy’. Furthermore, studying a trade was only permitted when one’s livelihood was under immediate threat. He said that if anyone who had undergone a secular education, and still achieved success in Torah study, it was ‘maaseh satan’(a result of satanic forces).[5]


Rabbi Moshe Feinstein said in an address to his students that in America one does not need a college degree to make a living and that anyway we should be content living with less if necessary.[6] On the other hand, a young man once asked the pragmatic Rabbi Feinstein if he could go to college, and he was told that if his parents insist that he attends, he may indeed attend.[7]


Not so well known is the view of the Vilna Gaon, who actually encouraged secular studies, especially by our talmidei chachamin or scholars. He felt that secular knowledge would, on the contrary, broaden the scholar’s knowledge of Torah, create a kidush haShem among non-Jews who would come to respect the prowess of the Torah scholar, and also serve to prevent religious Jews from wandering off the path (since they would already have had some sanctioned exposure to the secular world).[8]
The Vilna Gaon translated books on geometry into Hebrew, such as his Sefer Uklidos (Book of Euclid), and was consulted on matters of astronomy and mathematics by both Jewish and non-Jewish scholars.
In 1778, Rabbi Baruch Schick of Shklov, one his closest students, wrote “I heard from his holy mouth that according to what a person is lacking in knowledge of the ‘other wisdoms’, correspondingly he will be lacking one hundred portions in the wisdom of the Torah.”[9]
Rabbi Hillel of Shklov commented that the Vilna Gaon had ‘...delved considerably into secular studies in order to master the Torah, make a kidush haShem in the eyes of the non-Jews, and to bring the redemption nearer!”[10]


Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch[11] and Rabbi Azriel Hildershimer, with their Torah Im Derech Eretz philosophy, established schools in Germany in the mid 1800’s which provided both Torah and secular education, and laid the foundations for the establishment of the Orthodox movement.
This was vehemently opposed by the Chareidi movement, established in 1865, which forbid secular education outright[12].


In 1946, the Torah Umaddah movement was formed by Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik and others affiliated to Yeshiva University.[13] This movement (which became the originator of Centrist Orthodoxy) actually sees benefit in secular studies for their own sake and as an end in itself. Rabbi Soloveitchik strove to create a system of ‘synthesis’ between the best Torah scholarship, and the best secular scholarship in western civilization. He said “A person who is secure cannot be an extremist.”[14]As Rabbi Norman Lamm writes “Torah...and science... together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone.”[15]


It’s interesting to see that while Religious Zionists generally concur with the Torah Umaddah philosophy, they maintain that secular studies are valuable only insofar  as they benefit the State of Israel, but not for their own sake. Thus they would encourage the study of architecture as opposed to, say, the study of music.


The Peninei Halacha explains that in Talmudic times, the basic learning curriculum was completed by the age of twenty, after which the student would get married and then leave the world of full time study and start to work in order to support his family. During the ‘work’ phase, he would of course make time to continue and further his Torah studies, part time.[16]

This may come as surprise to many who today grow up in some factions of contemporary Torah society that have created a ‘new’ model of full time Torah Study and no work. The full time Kollel system for the masses has no real basis in the historical Torah world.

The Peninei Halacha continues by suggesting that the Talmudic model should still be followed today. Namely, that up to the age of about twenty, the student should be involved in developing the fundamentals or ‘yesodei haTorah’, after which he must participate in the ‘yishuvo shel olam’ by working, or studying for a profession and making some contribution to society whilst at the same time returning to, and maintaining an ongoing regimen of Torah study.


The debate around the value and permissibility of secular education is today, essentially between Chareidim and those to their left. However, the deliberation takes on very different dimensions when one looks at the statistics.

Contrary to popular perception, the Chareidim in Israel and America now number about two thirds of the general religious Orthodox community. And they are growing much faster than any other segment of the population. Also, the non-Chassidic Chareidim have now outnumbered the Chassidim.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the issue of Chareidism apropos Centrist Judaism, these numbers are hugely significant. Since Chareidim are generally opposed to secular education and since they generally believe in full time Torah study without the option of a profession (or even work) - the voices in favour of a more balanced approach to the issue, are simply being drowned out.

When sheer force of numbers, solely, determines the outcome of a debate, there no longer is a debate.
All indications are that the majority of the next generation of religious Jews will predominately be unschooled in secular matters. 

[1] Ramo 246,4. This is based on a Talmud Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin.
[2] See Tanya, Likutei Amarim, 8.
[3] See Kovetz Shiurim by Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, 2,47.
[4] 1899-2001.
[5] See Michtavim Umaamarim vol. 1
[6] This speech is published under Vaad LeHaromas Keren haTorah, New York, 1978.
[7] See New Rulings From Rav Moshe Feinstein, by Rabbi Yair Hoffman.
[8] See Peninei Halacha Likutim 1, p. 29.
[9] From the introduction to Sefer Uklidos.
[10] See Kol Hator 5,2.
[11] 1808 – 1888.
[12] See Kotzk Blog 41) A Short History of Chareidim.
[13] The phrase ‘Torah Umaddah’, however, is said to have originated with Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz (1690 – 1764), although it may have had a different connotation then.
[14] See A Reader’s Companion to Ish Ha-Halacha, Introduction.
[15] Norman Lamm, Torah Umaddah, p. 236.
[16] See Peninei Halacha, Likutim 1, p. 4.

1 comment:

  1. You should make a back-up of this website as I think at one point they will put it down. Like burning Rambams books style.
    I agree a lot with this article and blog in general.
    And I have been in different yeshivot. The modern orthodox seems the most balance.
    Torah without science is dangerous, I see so many dumb people that dont even grasp the depth of Hashem. I once heard the dinousaurs didnt exist! Ahh thanks again Dr Gerald Shroeder, and Rambam, and to all of the greats that we indeed have. I have the feeling that the Tanaim and Amoraim would laugh at this new schollars.