Wednesday 2 December 2015

065) Halachic Attitudes towards Secular Studies:

The following post is loose translation of what is, in my view, a brilliant analysis of the secular studies issue, as presented in Peninei Halacha.[1]

(It is of particular interest to me as I was severely discouraged from pursuing any form of secular studies by my early rabbinic mentors.):


What is the Torah attitude towards secular studies?

First and foremost we need to clearly establish that Torah is considered the most important body of literature as it refines the soul and awakens a sense of G-dliness that lies dormant within.  Secular studies, however, is viewed as essentially a means to an end.[2] The end being an improvement in the quality of life a person with a secular education may enjoy.


The Maharal of Prague (1520 – 1609) writes[3] that all forms of knowledge are aspects of the highest revelation of G-dliness that manifest in this world.[4]  The world was created by means of this knowledge and thus all science rooted in holiness.


Our Sages instituted the recitation of a blessing upon seeing a person well schooled in secular wisdom. The formula is similar to all other forms of berachot, beginning with Baruch Atah...and concluding with Shenatan mechochmato lebasar vadam (who has given of His wisdom to flesh and blood). This again emphasizes the idea that even secular knowledge is part of the composite of holy wisdom.


According to the Gemora[5], anyone who has the ability to delve into secular studies but does not do so, is distancing himself from G-d. Furthermore the Gemora says that as a result of a Jew mastering secular knowledge, he creates a kiddush haShem (a favourable impression) in the eyes of non-Jews.


There remains a legitimate question: If Torah is of primary importance, then surely it would be a squandering of time to take away from it as one would by studying secular literature?
The answer is simply that it is never bitul Torah (a waste of time) to study wisdom.[6]
The Maharal supports this view by quoting Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, of whom it is said that he never wasted Torah time, yet he was extremely proficient at Astronomy. This shows that although he obviously spent much time studying that secular discipline, it was never considered to be bitul Torah.[7]


An apparently opposing view is found in another Gemora[8] which states that one should not study ancient Greek wisdom. The Maharal and Rivash counter this by saying that this was not a blanket prohibition against secular studies, but rather a specific exclusion of classical Greek wisdom which was inextricably intertwined with counter Torah ethics and ethos. It was not referring to general secular knowledge at all.
In general then, the view of many of our Torah giants as well as the classical view of the Sages of the Talmud, was to encourage involvement in secular education.[9]


Anyone who follows modern Torah trends would know that today there is much opposition to secular education in many contemporary religious circles. Given the positive picture the classical sources paint, where did this (in some cases fierce) opposition stem from?


From around the 11th Century, the beginning of the period of the Rishonim, opposition to secular studies started manifesting in earnest. This was because in those days, the main portal through which one acquired secular knowledge was through the writings of Aristotle. And his philosophy promulgated ideas that ran contrary to those of Torah Judaism (particularly the principle of the eternity of the universe which negated the concept of creation, and also the principles opposing Divine providence and those antithetical to the reward and punishment concept).

As a result of indulging in Aristotelian teachings, many Jews of that era became assimilated into the general culture of the times and left the Jewish fold. For this reason we start to see the first wave of opposition to secular wisdom emanating from the Torah world.

It is important to point out that this opposition was never directed against the secular studies themselves, only against the ‘package’ in which they were presented at that time.
The Rashba, for example, imposed a ban upon anyone under the age of twenty five who indulged in secular studies from ancient Greek sources.

Similarly the Rivash also discouraged the study of Aristotelian thought. As did the Maharal of Prague who only permitted indulgence in that literature if one needed to acquire knowledge to debate and defeat the Jewish Aristotelian protagonists.


The second (and more intense) wave of opposition to secular studies came about two hundred years ago at the time of the Age of Enlightenment. On the one hand, students no longer had to go through the portal of Aristotelian philosophy to gain access to secular wisdom as by then it was already widely spread. On the other hand secular wisdom was so popular and enticing that it seemed to offer people everything they were looking for without the imposition of all the restrictions of religion. In fact it was such a successful movement that at the time more than half of all Jews[10] were drawn into its camp.

Understandably there was much consternation in rabbinic quarters, and secular studies were seen as such a threat, that the opposition to it became in some instances quite vehement.


An outstanding exception to the general rule of opposition to secular study was the famous Vilna Gaon. He went so far as to actively encourage his students to study secular wisdom. He instructed his disciple Rabbi Baruch of Shklov to translate Euclid’s Elements into Hebrew so that they could better understand Geometry. The Gaon said that if one lacks a measure of secular knowledge, one will lose out on a hundred measures of Torah knowledge. He believed that Torah and secular wisdom were intertwined.[11]

Another student of the Gaon[12] testified in the name of his teacher that an understanding of the secular sciences was an imperative prerequisite to Torah study. He said that the Gaon mastered Algebra, Geometry, Engineering and Music, as well a host of other such disciplines. The only field he didn’t explore was Medicine as his father strongly advised him not to do so as good doctors never have much free time for anything else.


Another exception to this second wave of opposition was Rabbi Shimshon Rephael Hirsch, who witnessed the devastating blow the Enlightenment had on German Jews in particular, yet instead of opposing secular studies, he chose to embrace them. He established Torah schools which also offered a high standard of secular education. This approach became known as Torah Im Derech Eretz. He determinedly believed that the way to combat the multitudes that were leaving the Torah lifestyle, was not to ban, but rather to offer religious students exposure to, secular literature in addition to their Torah studies.


From what started out as general endorsement and encouragement of secular studies in Talmudic times, to the first wave of opposition to it during the period of Rishonim, to the second wave at the time of the Enlightenment  - the spirited debate continues today creating a great divide within the religious Jewish community. [See Secular Education – A Great Divide?]

We must bear in mind that historically, even amongst the camp that opposed secular education, all our Torah leaders acknowledged the inherent worth of secular study in essence[13]. It has only been in more recent times that a new trend has emerged where some Torah leaders see no intrinsic value whatsoever in secular studies[14]. They believe that our Torah students will become enticed with secular knowledge and thus be drawn away from religious values.

Fascinatingly, if one examines the numbers of religious people who have left the Torah system over the last one hundred year period, it is not clear which of the two ideologies suffered more attrition. All the modern institutions on both sides of the divide seem to have lost a similar number of alumni to assimilation.

Thus, till now, it has not been possible to say with any degree of certainty which system has succeeded in maintaining more adherents than the other.


Finally, the Peninei Halacha cannot resist stating his own arguments in favour of combining both religious and secular studies:

Particularly in our modern times and for the future, it is essential for most religious students to be well educated in secular matters. This is because in truth, secular study has always been essentially endorsed and encouraged by most of our sages throughout our history.

Secondly, from Talmudic times to the Vilna Gaon, excellence in secular education has always been one of the best ways of creating a kiddush haShem (where non-Jews respect Jews because of their prowess and expertise in the secular and professional world).

Thirdly, through pursuing a secular profession, a graduate of the yeshivas can live with dignity by supporting their families with honour. A good profession will place then in a respectful position amongst their peers.

Fourthly, the Peninei Halacha steadfastly maintains that going forward, the most effective way to keep people from leaving the fold in our times, is to allow them to access secular knowledge together with their Torah studies.


(The closing words are mine and no longer a paraphrase of Peninei Halacha).

If ever there was a time when secular education needed to be emphasized, it must be now, in our times and particularly in our market economy. Where is the dignity in keeping religious people poor and (secularly) illiterate? Even the previously forgotten multitudes of indigenous peoples of the third world are all being allowed more and more access to education and are already emerging as a significant middle class. Where is the kidush haShem in intentionally leaving our own people behind to fill their places at the lower stratas of society?

The Vilna Gaon asked many times: “Compared to the Torah scholars of the past, what are our contemporary scholars doing when it comes to Kiddush haShem? In previous generations our scholars made an indelible imprint in the hearts of non-Jews who came to respect religious Jews for their secular knowledge.”[15]

As noted previously[16] the Chareidi segment of our religious population generally discourages and even forbids secular education. It has now grown so large that for the first time they have overtaken the numbers of the Modern Orthodox segment that does encourage secular studies and professional work. One of the Chareidi leaders, Rav Shteinman, recently said that it is better to steal than to get a secular education. This, he said, is because one can always give the money back, whereas the damage of a secular education can never be erased from the soul.

The unsuspecting Torah public need to be made aware of these numbers, trends and statements.

If things continue as they are - until and unless there is some change in mindset of the Chareidi leadership, or a bolstering of the centrist movement - the average religious Jew in our times and in the foreseeable future will be (secularly) uneducated and illiterate.

What dignity will others find in that?

[1] Peninei Halacha Likkutim 1, Chapters 14 and 15.
[2] This view is consistent with the Torah Im Derech Eretz model. The Torah Umadah model gives a more elevated status to Secular Studies. See Kotzk Blog 59) Secular Education – A Great Debate or a Great Divide?
[3] Netiv HaTorah, Chapter14.
[4] “Giluy haEloki hanaleh beyoter sheyeshno baolam”.
[5] Shabbat 75a, as explained by Rambam and Maharal and others.
[6] “Ha’isuk bechochmot ayno nechshav bitul Torah”.
[7] I am aware that some may challenge this conclusion by saying that he needed to know Astronomy in order to understand the Calendar which is crucial for various Halachik observances. But many commentators understand the reference to ‘Astronomy’ as a reference to secular wisdom in general and not Astronomy in particular. Again indicating that secular learning is not bitul Torah.
[8] Bava Kama 82b.
[9] “Zu hayta amadat Chazal.”
[10] “Ve rov hatzibbur hayehudi nimshach achar hahaskallah”.
[11] “HaTorah vehaChochma nitzmadim yachad.”
[12] Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, in his introduction to his book ‘Peat HaShulchan’.
[13] “Muskam al kol Gedolei Yisrael sheyesh erech beyediyat Chochmot chitzoniyot.”
[14] “Omnum bedort ha’acharonim hayu bein gedolei Yisrael shehoru she’adif lilmod beyeshiva shein mushlavim ba limudei chol”.
[15] Kol Hator 5,2
[16] See Kotzk Blog 59).


  1. I go by what the Vilna Gaon says....

  2. "From around the 11th Century, the beginning of the period of the Rishonim, opposition to secular studies started manifesting in earnest. This was because in those days, the main portal through which one acquired secular knowledge was through the writings of Aristotle. And his philosophy promulgated ideas that ran contrary to those of Torah Judaism (particularly the principle of the eternity of the universe which negated the concept of creation, and also the principles opposing Divine providence and those antithetical to the reward and punishment concept).

    I don't get it. At the time of the hashmonaim, assimilation was rampant and yet even after hanuka there was no ban on greek studies ? Aristotles writings diapeared from the jews hands from hanuka until the rishonim era ??

  3. Thanks David,

    My feeling is that, as you pointed out, opposition was always there but may have coalesced into a more organized form 'in earnest' around the time of the Rishonim.

    I asked your question to my friend Jack Bloom who is working on his doctorate on the period of the Hashmonaim and this is his thinking:

    "The big reaction against secular learning was after the Bar Cochba revolt as an emergency measure against assimilation, but it was subsequently relaxed.

    But even in secular circles, philosophical writings suffered a decline and ironically were only rediscovered in a big way in certain periods under the Muslims."