Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"I am distressed that students are taught to belittle the discoveries of science..."

I Thought the Greeks Lost

by Dovid Landesman

For many years, the Torah Umesorah Annual Dinner was scheduled for the week of Chanukah. One year, R. Gedaliah Schorr zt’l, rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaath, and at the time, the only member of the organization’s Rabbinic Advisory Board who spoke unaccented and fluent English, was invited to give the keynote address. The master of ceremonies, when introducing Rav Schorr, decided to use the opportunity to offer his take on the educational needs of the country. In his lengthy remarks, he challenged Torah Vodaath to open a college and “show how it should be done.” When it was finally his turn to speak, Rav Schorr stood silently at the podium for a moment, a pensive expression on his face. He then turned toward the m.c. with an enormous smile and said: “You know, I was under the impression that we defeated the Greeks!”

The relationship between am Yisrael and Greece has always been somewhat equivocal. Greece is counted as one of the four nations [along with Bavel, Persia and Rome/Edom] who have subjected Israel to exile, yet throughout the period when we were subservient to Greece, we were never physically absent from the land of Israel. Moreover, the initial acceptance of Greek domination was passive. Alexander the Great was crossing Eretz Yisrael on his way to battle the Persians for world domination when Shimon ha-Tzaddik – kohen gadol and leader of the sanhedrin – reached a political agreement with him to insure that Yerushalayim was not “accidentally” destroyed by the Greek legions as they made their way east. The physical conditions of exile under the Greeks were benign until the period of the Chashmonaim when the Jews revolted against their rule; a revolt that was in great part a reaction to the assimilation of Greek values by a significant portion of the Jewish population.

On one hand, Greek culture is seen as particularly depraved. The worship of beauty – especially of the human form – and the emphasis on aesthetics [art and literature] is considered to be the embodiment of the triumph of the physical over the spiritual. The proclivity towards homosexual behavior, the lack of elementary tzniut at public events, the vivid descriptions of intimacy among multiple gods in a series of classic fables – all of these would seem to point to a culture that is the absolute antithesis of Judaism. Thus, it is surprising to find that Greek language is considered to be second only to lashon ha-kodesh in its intrinsic holiness. I would expect that Chazal would have us avoid such cultural assimilation at all cost.

Yaft Elokim l’Yeffet v’yishkon b’ahalei Shem – God granted beauty to Yeffet so that it might dwell in the tents of Shem. The simple explanation would suggest that there is an entire area of Divine wisdom – the beauty of Yeffet – which was made accessible to Shem through the good offices of Yavan [Greece], the scion of Yeffet. Beauty has intrinsic value, for we find Chazal (Shabbat 131a) interpreting the verse zeh keli v’anvehu – this is my God and I shall beautify Him (Shemot 15:2) as indicating that in performing a mitzvah, one should do so in the most aesthetically pleasing manner possible. Given the clear link between the obsession with aesthetics in Greek life and the excesses of Greek culture, one might expect this to be less than important.

In building the mishkan, Moshe was commanded to specifically utilize the craftsmanship of Betzalel because he was blessed with extraordinary artistic talents in a wide variety of fields. Betzalel is considered to be “filled with wisdom” because he knew how to sew, weave and embroider magnificent tapestries – skills that as far as I know, no contemporary yeshiva has ever encouraged! True, these were undoubtedly inherent rather than learned qualities – I would be very surprised to discover that Betzalel had been enrolled as a student of the Ramses School of Design prior to yetziyat Mitzrayim – but they are nevertheless talents that are not usually considered to be part of Torah nor are they – or related fields like music or architecture – part of the yeshiva curriculum.

In general, Judaism does not seem to completely reject the absorption of values from outside sources. Chazal declare chachmah bagoyim, ta’amin – recognize that the nations are in possession of wisdom; i.e., there are valuable fields of knowledge that are accessible without recourse to Torah. This would not a priori mean that these fields of knowledge are unavailable to one who has never been exposed to secular studies. In theory, one could utilize his natural talents and eventually achieve the same results. As far as I know, there is not even an illusion to the healing properties of Vitamin E in Torah shebichtav or sheb’aal peh. Nevertheless, even if I had never been exposed to the scientific process of observation and experimentation through which all pharmacology is established, I could in time determine the medicinal value of Aloe vera on my own. Similarly, the complex nano-technology which allows for the manufacture of microscopic devices is ultimately a result of the scientific process that could theoretically be developed without relying on the instruction of others. Obviously, however, it is more efficient to utilize the publicized findings of others rather than repeat experiments by yourself. But is this determination the totality of what Chazal had in mind when they spoke of chochmah bagoyim?

I would posit that chochmah bagoyim ta’amin means that we should accept that this chochmah is valid even though it comes from non-Torah sources. These fields of knowledge do not depend upon Divinely revealed wisdom accessible only through Torah; they are a byproduct of the Divine gifts of intelligence and creativity with which all mankind was imbued and which everyone can develop to the extent that his potential allows. If you decide that you will ignore scientific breakthroughs because they are not rooted in Torah and instead engage in your own research and experimentation so as to be sure that your life is al taharat ha-kodesh, then know that you will be guilty of a grievous amount of unnecessary bittul Torah.

I am distressed that students are taught to belittle the discoveries of science, claiming that we have no need for it since hafoch bah, hafoch bah, d’kulo bah – study it (Torah), study it, for everything all [knowledge] is in it. I have often heard students – and quite a few rebbis – point to the mathematical and medical genius of the Chazon Ish as proof that there is no need to teach our children a core curriculum of general studies. Glibly, they claim: “Look how much the Chazon Ish knew without ever having gone to college!” My invariable reply is that the Chazon Ish also achieved an incredible level of mastery in all fields of Torah despite [or perhaps because of] the fact that he never attended a yeshiva!

There is another factor that needs to be analyzed when considering the extent of general knowledge to which one allows himself to be exposed. Our ability to efficiently utilize the wisdom of the scientific process is dependent upon a basic familiarity with the fundamentals of math, science, and foreign languages augmented by reading comprehension and writing proficiency. Most of these areas of knowledge are not included in the basic cheder curriculum in Eretz Yisrael. I wonder whether the excesses that the scientific method is judged to have brought to society have led to a rejection of the notion that there still is wisdom among the goyim.

Casey Stengel once wisely commented that “nostalgia aint what it used to be.” Nonetheless, I think that it is worthwhile to look back and see if we can determine why the yeshivot a few decades ago were apparently more successful in producing talmidim who saw no contradiction in straddling the divide between Torah study and general education.

Forty or fifty years ago, parents expected the yeshivot – at least the non-chassidic mosdot – to provide their children with a decent secular education, for the majority of them intended that their sons continue with professional studies after they graduated high school. To be sure there were a number of students who did not do so – if I recall correctly, approximately 30% of the beit midrash bachurim in Torah Vodaath did not attend college – but as a general rule, this was the expected path.

For the most part, talmidim learned two sedarim in the yeshiva and then attended college from about 5:30-10:30 two or four nights a week. Many then continued onto graduate studies in a variety of fields, including law, accounting, business, medicine, engineering, psychology and the sciences. For the most part, and there were of course exceptions, they remained bnei Torah and have built homes that are paradigms of Torah and chessed. I would say without hesitation that in the overwhelming majority of cases, their homes are more strictly observant than those of their parents. Their immersion in the world of general knowledge did not erode their level of observance.

Did Rav Schorr see them as casualties of Greek culture? I obviously cannot speak for him, but can only convey the impressions I have based on what I heard from him. Rav Schorr also served as head of Beit Medrash Elyon in Spring Valley – which was a parallel institution to Lakewood – but he made the bachurim in Torah Vodaath feel that we were no less bnei Torah than the students there. He stressed that the primary responsibility we had was to establish our own identity as bnei Torah. Some talmidim learned all day, others learned less while still others were kovea itim for a defined period based on the time they had. But we were all equal, for Torah was the mirror which we looked at when we wanted to see our image.

The yeshivot – and roshei yeshivot – were able to convey to the talmidim a sense of proportion. General knowledge was never glorified but neither was it disparaged. The atmosphere in the yeshiva’s beit midrash was eclectic; one year my morning seder chavruta was the son [and eventual successor to] a prominent chassidic rebbe while my afternoon chavruta was destined to become the chairman of the psychology department at a well known local university. While the latter did not wear the same garb as the former, there was very little difference in their world views. The fact that they chose different “career” paths did not translate itself into a parting of their ways. The talmidim felt that we shared a similar commitment to Torah despite our diverse backgrounds and aspirations which created a ruach within the yeshiva that helped us when we were outside its doors.

Certain behaviors were considered to be “conduct unbecoming” a Torah Vodaath boy and this self-imposed and accepted code was a great source of support during the times we found ourselves on the college campus. We did not need a va’ad harabbanim to set these standards for us; the roshei yeshiva – especially Rav Schorr and Rav Pam zt’l – made us feel that they trusted us to do what was right. Perhaps the atmosphere on college campuses was somewhat less hostile than it is today. Personally, I doubt that the yetzer hara is stronger than it was then; it is the methodology that has changed.

Today a bachur who leaves the beit midrash to study or work is burdened by a sense of guilt; either because he is led to feel that he must be a failure because he does not have sufficient motivation to continue or because he lacks the mesirat nefesh (or deep pockets) to survive the economic rough spots. That leaves him with few choices. He can either plod on and increase his discomfort and sense of frustration, masking it behind a false sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, or he can break away – partially or completely. Without a sense of accomplishment or identification with the yeshiva, the student seeks those signs of success in the world of general studies. This is an unnecessary tragedy that is the basic ingredient that allows the contemporary Greeks their victory. Rejected in his own world, he seeks acceptance and recognition elsewhere.

At what point does a focus on the absorption of general knowledge and culture lead us to the point, in Rav Schorr’s words, of providing the Greeks with a belated victory and at what point does it fit into the rubric of chachmah bagoyim ta’amin? Can we establish a quantifiable amount of general knowledge desirable or is it a moving target that depends upon the era and location of the community? At what point do we risk becoming assimilated rather than acculturated?
I’m not sure whether there are clear parameters that can be drawn. In one community in which I lived one of the local roshei yeshiva would prepare his shiurim while listening to Bach and Beethoven. I doubt that the people there would have been as understanding if he had done so to the music of the Beatles. Unquestionably lines have to be drawn; just as there are chochmot that we can draw upon to enhance our Jewish lives, there are those that can be misused and become destructive and dangerous. The trick, and challenge, is to develop the skills to differentiate between them.

The Greeks succeeded because they were able to convince the Jews that adherence to Torat Moshe was primitive and uncultured. The contemporary fallout from the yeshivot suffer from a similar damaged self-image. Distanced for many reasons from the spiritual light of Torah – as expressed by commitment to Torah study – which they cannot appreciate and which brings them little satisfaction, they are easy victims for seduction by the neon lights of the outside world. The antidote, however, is not to lock them behind high walls and deny them the benefits of general knowledge; that would be self-defeating as well as increasingly unfeasible in a technology driven world.

At the very least schools, mechanchim, mechanchot as well as parents must be sure to reinforce the sense of self-worth of each and every talmid – reassuring them that they all have their own portion in Torah – portions that are of equal import provided that they are the paths that are right for each child’s potential and ability. Chanoch lanoar al pi darko – instruct the child according to his path – based on the road that he can follow, not on a one size fits all course of study. For some students that might be defined as spending years in a kollel mastering many blatt gemara, for others it might be applying the lessons of Choshen Mishpat that they have been taught in yeshiva in their businesses or medical practices. Yaft Elokim l’Yeffet – the outside world has considerable beauty. It can be threatening when glorified as an end unto itself or it can be enriching when it is properly brought l’ohalei Shem – to dwell within the tents of Shem.

[Rabbi Dovid Landesman resides in Ramat Beit Shemesh where he comments on the foibles of life in Israel. His collection of essays, There Are No Basketball Courts in Heaven is available in Jewish bookstores and his new book, Food for Thought – No Hechsher Required, will be published b’ezrat Hashem this winter.]