SECULAR STUDIES - PART II
IV. HALACHIC IMMUNITY
In addition to the discussions in the gemara concerning various types of scholarship that may not be studied, there is a second aspect to this issue that is discussed. That stems from Menachot 99b where Dama the nephew of Rabi Yishmael asked Rabi Yishmael if it was permitted for him to learn Chochma Yevanit, since he had already learned the entire Torah. Rabi Yishmael answered him by citing the verse "And you shall speak of it (the Torah) day and night" - it is permitted (to learn Greek wisdom) at a time that is neither day nor night, i.e. never. Tosefta Avodah Zara 1:3 has Rabi Yehoshua giving the same answer to one who asked him if it was permitted to teach his son from a Greek book.
Yet despite this seemingly hard-line position taken by the gemara on this issue, that position is one that is subject to much scrutiny. First, we should note that those statements may be referring to very specific types of knowledge (e.g. Aristotle, love stories, the Greek language) and not to any and all secular studies. In Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 4:13Rambam states that one should not "walk in Pardes" unless he has "filled his stomach with bread and meat." Translated into conventional parlance, Rambam is referring to the warning against delving too deeply into the story of creation and the story of the heavenly chariot in Yechezkel chapter 1 (see Chagigah 11b and on for more on this topic). The latter part of Rambam's statement - "one who has filled his stomach with bread and meat" - refers to one who has learned the law and other mitzvot in terms of what is forbidden and what is permitted, to the point where learning these other topics will not affect his faith. Of course, this is not necessarily a solid safeguard, as the gemara in Chagigah tells us the story of Elisha ben Avuya, one of the Sages, who was one of the four people to "walk in Pardes" and emerged as a heretic. Nevertheless, Rambam states that, as a general rule, one who meets this requirement may venture forth into the more secret meanings of the Torah and the world. Meiri applies this standard to the discussion in Bava Kamma, stating that one may learn Greek wisdom once they have filled their stomach with meat and wine. However, he adds that one should only study these topics in order to be prepared to debate with heretics and members of other nations who challenge us on issues of faith, and in order to strengthen one's own faith (presumably the intention here is that by reading these other works, one will realize the error of their ways and come to a deeper appreciation of the laws and Torah of Hashem). Making Plato into pleasure reading does not seem to fall into Meiri's definition of permitted reading. The Kesef Mishne underscores this point by stating that the Talmudic wisdom, i.e. Torah and the words of the Sages, is the method of study through which one will be able to merit reward in the World to Come.
This last point stems from the verse in Devarim (18:9), where the Torah states that we should not "Learn to do" the ways of the nations that surround us.Rashi ad loc cites the Talmudic idea that while we may not learn their ways so as to do them, nevertheless we are permitted to learn them "lehavin U'lehorot" - to understand them and to teach others how reviled they are. The main usage of this text in the gemara is in Sanhedrin 68a. In discussing magic, the gemara tells us that Rabi Yochanan performed a certain magic trick for the benefit of Rabi Akiva. How was he allowed to do so if magic is deemed to be forbidden (see our previous Chabura on that topic)? The answer given is that while his act was a forbidden one, he performed it so as to show Rabi Akiva what it was like, and thus his purpose was purely academic. Based on this, Rav Moshe Feinstein, in the aforementioned responsa, affirms the view of Meiri, claiming that one may certainly learn secular subjects if it is for such purposes, or if they come up as part of a course. He proves this from Rambam in the laws of Sanhedrin 2:1, where it states that members of the Sanhedrin had to be well versed in magic and the ways of idolaters so as to be able to effectively try any and all cases that would come before them. Given that, Rav Feinstein makes the qualification that while their is no prohibition of such study, it ideally should only be permitted to the Torah giants in each generation.
As far as halachic works go, theRamo (Y.D. 246:4) takes a strong view on the issue. He states that one should learn only scripture, Mishna, Gemara, and the law, and should not involve himself in any other type of wisdom. However, he does allow one to casually study other subjects, insofar as it is done in a way that is not and will not become permanent. This leniency does not apply to the works of heretics, and reading their works constitutes "walking in Pardes." The Shach takes a more lenient approach to the matter. he rules that subjects such as philosophy, astronomy, and Kabbalah are considered to be "other wisdoms," but learning them is not considered to be "walking in Pardes." (He also notes that one should not learn Kabbalah until the age of 40.)
V. GET WITH THE TIMES!
I would like to spend this final section of the Chabura looking into a few of the views that have emerged during the course of the twentieth century. As I noted earlier, it is beyond the scope of this Chabura to include every view that has been expressed, and I do recommend the article noted above to fill in those blanks. However, I feel that it would be irresponsible to omit the views of those who live or lived closer to our time, a time when a secular education is often a natural part of one's life, and the issue is often how far one may take that education and what restrictions one should impose on oneself.
Rav Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Shiurim 2:47) addresses many aspects of our issue. He begins by writing that if involvement in outside studies will lead one to reading heresy, then that reading is forbidden based on the verses of "And you shall not stray after your heart" and "Do not turn to the idols." Beyond that level, there is the even more severe level of reading works that are not merely heretical, but actually deny several principles of faith (much modern-day Biblical scholarship falls into this category). This level is certainly forbidden, as it presents the danger that one will, God forbid, see reason in the arguments contained in them and begin to neglect the words of the Sages in favor of these works. Specifically with regard to the issue of attending secular universities to study these subjects, Rav Wasserman says that this is a problem due to the potential of establishing friendly ties with non-Jews, a violation of the verse "Lest you be lured into their ways." Rav Wasserman is lenient if studying other subjects is necessary in order for one to make a living, although he forbids the learning of heretical material in all cases, including for the purposes of teaching it as just another subject. Even if one merely wants to dabble in these subjects there is still a problem of bittul Torah, and certainly no one should make such studies a permanent fixture in their lives, and even when dabbling one should always realize that Torah is the ultimate purpose and goal of all knowledge. Finally, he states that even though there is much debate regarding philosophy specifically, only those who are fully steeped in Torah should even consider approaching such subjects.
A somewhat similar approach is taken by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Block, the Av Beit Din of Telz. However, Rav Block's approach is to spell out under what conditions one may be permitted to learn such subjects. First and foremost, he states that one must always realize that Torah is the primary form of knowledge. He then forbids philosophy based on a statement in Avodah Zara 17a. He concedes that there are individuals who can learn such things, but they must meet the following requirements: they must have filled their stomachs with meat and wine, they may only study it in a dabbling manner, and they must always be thinking while engaged in these studies that Torah is the main goal. He then deals with the problem that many studies that contain much truth also contain that which is heretical. For example, while much of what one studies in a biology class is factual and vital knowledge, may one study biology at all if it means learning about Darwin's theories, ideas which severely minimize, if not eliminate, the role of Hashem in creation? Rav Block decides against throwing out the baby with the bath water, and states that one must approach these subjects aware of the dangers involved and should be careful in distinguishing between that which is good and that which is bad. If it is possible to obtain books on these topics written by God-fearing individuals, then one should certainly try to do so. As far as schoolchildren go, they should first be given a solid foundation in Torah, and when learning secular studies they should be taught by a teacher who is God-fearing and will be able to steer them clear of any dangers to their faith posed by the material. Furthermore, such subjects should not be made obligatory for children, as our obligation is to study Torah. He concludes by mentioning subjects such as mathematics and geometry. With regard to these disciplines he claims that they are not inherently forbidden, yet studying them does take time away from Torah and thus results in an act of bittul Torah. Thus, he states, they should only be studied within certain boundaries, i.e. by girls, who have no obligation to learn Torah (I suppose we will have to make this a future Chabura topic), by those who for some reason need to learn such things, and for professional purposes.
A different attitude is taken byRav Aharon Lichtenstein ("A Consideration of General Studies from a Torah Point of View"). Rav Lichtenstein begins his article by stressing the idea that our goal should be to live a Torah life and that the main method of doing so in deep involvement in the learning of Torah. He discusses how Torah brings one closer to Hashem and gives an insight into His revealed will, as well as its ability to effect one's total spiritual being. Shifting his focus to general studies, Rav Lichtenstein deals briefly with the need to study them for vocational purposes. His main focus is fitting them into a Torah way of life on a much deeper level. First, he notes that there are many areas of knowledge that are useful in the study of Torah ("agronomy in Zeraim, physiology in Niddah, chemistry in Chametz U'Matzah..."), and thus claims that such subjects are either Torah themselves are at least hechsherei Talmud Torah - actions needed as a preparatory stage to performing the mitzvah of learning Torah. Further, Rav Lichtenstein attributes to many secular works the ability to aid one in one's own personal spiritual development, stating "Who can fail to be inspired by ...the passionate fervor of Augustine or the visionary grandeur of Milton?...We have our own genius, and we have bent it to the noblest of pursuits, the development of Torah. But we cannot be expected to do everything." Rav Lichtenstein goes on to deal with some of the major pitfalls involved in his views, namely the fact that dangers still do exist arising from coming into contact with many secular thinkers and writers. His solution stems from the ideal of having one's stomach full with meat and wine, but seems to apply more generally. He writes that our approach to any subject outside of Torah must be through the perspective of Torah. He dismisses the notion of an objective approach to such studies and stresses the need to learn them using the spirit of the Torah as our critical guide. He concludes with two points. First, the idea that our commitment to Torah will ultimately be the key to our ability to venture outside of it. Second, the notion that the secular world exists for us to sanctify it. We are allowed to explore it and learn about it, but only for the purpose of fitting into our overall world view as determined by the Torah.
Finally, I want to conclude with a statement of Rambam, cited byRav Ovadiah Yoseif in Yechaveh Da'at 3:75. It is well known that Rambam, in addition to being a doctor, was well-versed in many areas of secular knowledge (perhaps most notably Greek philosophy). However, in describing himself in a letter he wrote that "all that he (Rambam) has studied in other areas of knowledge such as philosophy and medicine and the like has only been to serve Torah, so as to show the nations and the nobles her beauty for she is indeed beautiful."
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