SECULAR STUDIES - TO LEARN OR NOT TO LEARN, THAT IS THE QUESTION
Masechet Kiddushin ends with a statement from Rav Nehorai : "I will put aside all trades in the world and only teach my son Torah, for all other trades only support a person when he is young, but when he is older he is left in hunger, but Torah is not like that, but rather it supports a person in his youth and gives him hope when he is older." In a similar vein, the first mishna in Pe'ah lists Torah as one of the things that has no minimum or maximum measurement affixed to its performance, and Shabbat 127b states that it is equal in value to all the commandments and acts of kindness for which a person receives reward in both this world and the next.
There is no question that Torah is the alpha and omega of Jewish experience. It defines who we are, dictates our every action, and guides our moral and ethical selves. More specifically, the actual learning of Torah is treated in Rabbinic literature as the optimal way that one can, and must, spend one's time. The question that we will deal with is what about everything else? We do not live in a vacuum. We live in a world we are surrounded by a culture that does not stem from Torah. We attend institutions where the term "ethics" is seen more as a reference to Aristotle and Spinoza than to Pirkei Avot and Ramchal. We are confronted by scientists claiming that the world is millions of years old, while Chazal maintain that we have yet to reach the 6,000 mark. Beyond all of this, we live in a world of breathtaking beauty, a world that beckons to one to uncover its wonders, and yet the mishna in Avot instructs us that "anyone who is walking along the road and stops his learning and says 'how lovely is this tree'...is considered as if he is deserving of death." Is it possible that it is incumbent upon us to ignore the world around us and focus only on Torah?
Clearly, the answer is no. The Talmud is replete with laws and anecdotes that prove the contrary. We know that many of the Rabbis of the gemara had occupations, many were well-versed in the natural sciences (see, for example, Sanhedrin 5a), and that many had connections to and in engaged in debate with the nations that surrounded them (see Bechorot 8a-b). Chullin 63b discusses the need for professional expertise in areas where mere "book-smarts" prove insufficient to decide the case.
Of course, this tension is not limited to the times of the gemara. Throughout the ages, the greatest Torah scholars have had to grapple with the question of how to relate to the world around them and to what extent to do so. Some have responded by calling for a more insular approach, effectively seeking to ignore the secular world and follow Rav Nehorai's approach as much as possible. However, many have ventured out into the world of secular thought and knowledge in varying degrees. Our project now will be to gain a basic understanding of the issues involved. Are all non-Torah studies equal? Are some more permissible than others? Are some completely forbidden? Can anyone study secular studies or is their investigation limited to only a select few?
II. IT WAS GREEK TO ME
The gemara in Bava Kamma 82b relates a story that occurred during the Hasmonean dynasty (2nd century BCE). John Hyrcanus was holding power and was thus inside the walls of Jerusalem. His brother, Aristobulous, was contending for the throne and was encamped outside the walls of the city. Every day those inside the city would lower a basket of money and animals for the daily sacrifices would be sent back. An old man, versed in "Chochmah Yevanit" (lit. Greek wisdom) was sitting nearby and told Aristobulous that as long as those on the inside performed the Temple service they would remain in power. The next day, instead of a kosher animal, they placed a pig in the cart to be raised over the wall. On the way up, the pig stuck its hooves in the wall and the ground shook. At that time, the Sages declared that cursed is the person who teaches his child "Chochmah Yevanit." As Tosafot point out, originally this decree merely took the form of a curse, yet is was later upgraded to a full-scale Rabbinic prohibition.
The question to be dealt with is what exactly is meant by Greek wisdom? This anecdote certainly does not seem to be speaking of the writings of Plato!Rashi (Sotah 49a) claims that the wisdom in question refers to a special language known only to the intelligentsia of the time. In Menachot 64b Rashi claims that this term refers to a system of sign language and hints. In his commentary on the mishna in Sotah, Rambam states that Chochmah Yevanit refers to a linguistic system that is used for hinting and deviance. However, he notes that this wisdom no longer exists in any form. Taking a different approach, the Rama suggests that this term refers to astrology (see earlier Chabura on this topic with regard to varying opinions on astrology). Without specifying what the term means, Meiri notes that learning such wisdom is forbidden as it draws one's heart and leads one away from many fundamental principles of faith. We will further explore the scope of this prohibition later in the Chabura. First, we will look at other forms of study that are subjects of controversy.
III. OUTSIDE READING
The last chapter in Sanhedrin lists those individuals who do not have a share in the World-to-Come. Rabi Akiva claims that among these people is one who reads "Sefarim Chitzonim," literally "outside literature." What falls under this category? According to the gemara on 100b, it is a reference either to books written by heretics or the book of Ben-Sira (Ben-Sira is an apocryphal text, i.e. one of the books left out of the canon of the Tanach, which in many ways mirrors the Book of Proverbs. Interestingly, he is cited in the gemara on several occasions.). Rashi's version of the gemara replaces the term "heretics" with "Sadducees". Regardless of that change, we see here the two main views on what this term means. The first option is that there is an inherent problem with any book written by one who is a heretic. The gemara in Gittin 45b discusses cases where heretics wrote tefillin and the like, and the general trend there is that such religious articles may not be used. Here, the gemara is speaking of works that the heretics authored, and is seemingly concerned about the content of the books, as they will likely contain heretical material. The second option does not have as clear a reason. Since Ben-Sira is listed as an alternative definition of "Sefarim Chitzonim," it must be something other than heresy that is being forbidden. As noted above, Ben-Sira is cited by the gemara at times, and it would thus be difficult to claim that it is a problem due to its heretical nature. Rashi claims that since there is a lot in that work which is mere foolishness, one who reads it violates the prohibition of bittul Torah (spending one's time doing something other than learning Torah or engaged in activities promoted by the Torah).Rif addresses both sides of the issue. He claims that the gemara is referring specifically to the Biblical commentaries of heretics, which do not rely on the received tradition of the Sages and thus are likely to contain heretical material. This being the case, even the "good" things written within those books are forbidden (again, see Gittin 45a). With regard to Ben-Sira, he forbids it because it is rife with worthless statements. Yad Rama sharpens the point with regard to Ben-Sira, stating that the main problem is that one may come to rely on that book for guidance and not on Hashem. More recently, Margoliyot HaYam has taken a different stance. He writes that the term "Sefarim Chitzonim" refers only to the apocryphal texts. However, any books that do not fall into that category, and thus do not arouse a fear that one may add them to the canon, are permitted to be studied. This is in stark contrast to the view of the Pnei Moshe on Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:1, who states that this terms refers exactly to what the Margoliyot HaYam permits, namely the works of Aristotle and the love stories written by the other nations, as they are worthless and lead one to waste time. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe Y.D. 2:111) places heretical works into the same category as works that espouse idolatrous views, claiming that they are all forbidden due to the prohibition of "Do not turn to them (idols)."
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