The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition
By Rabbi Norman Lamm
20th Anniversary Edition
Maggid Books, 2010, 247 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 10, 2011
Should religious people shun everything secular, even science? This question bothered many religious people for centuries. Some solved it by living in isolation, wearing clothes that distinguish them and keep them apart, and insisting that their children not view TV, go to movies, and read non-religious books. Others say it is impossible for people to understand the world unless they learn non-sacred subjects. Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm is on the side of Torah Umadda, combining Torah with Madda, with worldly knowledge (the letter U in Umadda is Hebrew for "and").
Rabbi Lamm is especially qualified to speak on this subject in this third edition of this book originally published in 1990. Lamm wrote many books on Judaism's encounter with the modern world. He was the Chancellor of Yeshiva University, the head of its rabbinical school, and a pulpit rabbi for decades.
Lamm notes that the great Jewish rationalistic philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) emphasized that the study of non-sacred subjects is not only allowed, but is a religious obligation. He describes the first Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, who lived at the beginning of the common era, and how he viewed Judaism from the perspective of the pagan Greek philosopher, Plato, who preceded him by several generations. He offers a chapter on similar views by the German scholar Samson Raphael Hirsch who spoke about an "enlightened Orthodoxy," and another chapter on the similar teachings by the mystical first modern chief rabbi of pre-Israel Palestine Abraham Isaac Halevi Kook. Each thinker, as well as others who he discusses, including Hasidic rabbis, had their own ideas of how to integrate Jewish law with the contemporary world, but each realized that failure to combine the two leaves Jews mired in the lowest level of ignorance.
There is nothing wrong in learning from non-Jews, even pagans, and accepting their teachings. The Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 16a, states: "He who pronounces a word of wisdom, even of non-Jews, is called a wise man." Maimonides wrote: "The truth is the truth no matter what its source."
The problem is how do we know which non-Torah ideas are true? This is a difficult question. However, it is wrong to solve the problem by ignoring science. Einstein may have been wrong about some of his ideas, but if it weren't for his ideas, which were later improved and corrected, many of today's social and scientific advances would not have occurred.
Rabbi Lamm analyses the views of rabbis who opposed integrating Torah and Madda. He discusses the rejectionist attitude of prominent sages such as Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik, whose descendant Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik attended a university and acquired a doctorate. He mentions Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman who prohibited secular learning because it involved the study of "heretical texts." The Satmarer Rebbe also feared heresy. He told his Hasidim that they may only read books whose authors identify with his brand of Orthodox Judaism. The Debrecener Rav mandated that his Hasidim may not buy "holy books" that are published by institutions or movements that are associated with heresy in any way. This fear of mental contamination prompted many rabbis to forbid their followers from reading the writings of Maimonides.
Other rejectionists insist that the Torah and Talmud contain all the information that humans need to know to survive the life that God wants them to live. They reject the fact that the Talmud's views on secular matters were never meant to be the final word, but only a reflection of the then-existing now-outdated science.
Still others claim that time spent on secular studies removes students from the "divinely-mandated requirement" to spend the day studying Torah. Maimonides rejected this notion in his law code: a person "who makes up his mind to study Torah and not work, but lives on charity, profanes the name of God, brings the Torah into contempt, extinguishes the light of religion, brings evil upon himself, and deprives himself of life hereafter."
Rabbi Lamm, in short, explains why the rejectionist fears and ideas are unfounded and cannot work. The "marvels of technology, will inevitably break through the protective cordons of such ideological and communal isolation" and the once-faithful Jews will be ill-prepared to confront modernity and will abandon Judaism. Also, how can Jews live without physicians, psychologists, lawyers, economists, sociologists, and other educated professionals? The end result will be a Jewish epitaph reading, "Died of a Theory."