Thursday, May 15, 2008

Does This Man Hate God?

If you read my bio at the top of this blog you will see that I am an adherent of the Torah U’Mada philosophy. Briefly that places the two disciplines of Torah knowledge and worldly knowledge on independent planes - each its own tower of wisdom and each valuable in its own right.

Dr. Norman Lamm has been one of my biggest influences in choosing this philosophy. Many of his critics have accused him of equating Torah with Mada. I have always countered that he was being misunderstood. He clearly stated that Torah has primacy. But his critics have retorted that at best he may give a slight edge to Torah but overall he considers them equal – two equal towers of knowledge each deserving equal study. This is an accusation often thrown at him to discredit him and his Hashkafa. But of course that isn’t the only thing he’s been accused of. He has been accused of being a Sonei HaShem – a hater of God!

I’m not going to go into the circumstances of that canard. But suffice it to say that Dr. Lamm is a lover of God, not a hater which is evident from an interview in the latest issue of Yeshiva University’s student newspaper The Commentator. Throughout the interview his love of God, love of Torah, and love of knowledge is clear. To call someone a hater of God quoting a comment he made out of context is the height of Sinas Chinam and contributes to the diviseveness between the Charedi and Modern Orthodox worlds.

One thing that this interview shows is that Dr. Lamm’s understanding of Torah U’Mada is that they are not equal in value. He articulated that Torah is the first obligation in his book, and reiterated it here. Nowhere did he say it better or clearer. In speaking about the importance of studying Mada he said:

In all cases, we must accept as a foregone conclusion that while a great deal of what we study in the academic world may be helpful in support of religion, much of it is certainly antagonistic. While it is important for all of us to have a “taste” of those worlds, we must leave deep involvement in such disciplines to those who are ready to devote their time and energy to fully explore them and to remember that their first obligation is to Torah and their ultimate commitment is to the Almighty, and not to submit to the latest fashionable apikorsus.

There is another inersting facet to this interview. He deals with the Rambam’s positive attitude to secular studies and counters those who interpret the Rambam otherwise:

Indeed, an excellent example of this can be found in the Rambam in a famous teshuvah in which he refers to “secular wisdom” as rakkachot ve’tabbachot ve’ofot - a locution denoting servants or helpers, preparing the way for Torah. Opponents of Torah UMadda quite erroneously point to this responsum to argue that the Rambam regretted his high estimation of philosophy and science in the hierarchy of disciplines contained in the Pardes, thus undermining the usual conception of Maimonidean espousal of a positive view towards Torah UMadda, reducing all worldly knowledge to the rank of mere instruments, devoid of any inherent value.

However, I believe this is simply not so. (In my Torah UMadda, chapter 4, I point out that some of the most significant authorities on Rambam, such as the late R. Kapach, have questioned the authenticity of this letter. Moreover, the overwhelming weight of Rambam’s writing solidly supports the autonomous role that chokhmah plays in Maimonidean thought. In all probability, therefore, he is offering a wistful remark as to what gives him personally the most spiritual pleasure - it is Torah, in which he delights -and that is certainly no surprise. I assume that all of us, me included, feel that we derive our greatest intellectual fulfillment and spiritual enjoyment from the study of Torah even though we do not denigrate the independent role of Madda in our lives.) What the Rambam is doing is saying that the “other wisdoms” serve two functions: on one level, they have innate value because they explain the world which the Almighty created, and this contemplation leads us to a genuine religious experience; this is Torah UMadda in its broadest sense. And second, they serve specifically to enhance the study of Torah. This latter function fits nicely into the rubric of academic study as propaedeutic to our Talmud Torah, enriching it - and us. In this sense, of course, academic study of sacred texts can certainly be considered as helpful.

No - I don’t know what ‘propaedeutic’ means but I assume he means that it is a good thing to study Torah in tandem with Mada. In any case this is a fascinating interview with an individual who - though controversial in the Charedi world - has helped shape modern thought in Orthodoxy.

It is all too easy to criticize someone based on rumor and innuendo, or on criticism unrelated to his Hashkafa. Many of his critics criticize and even condemn him without any direct knowledge. They base themselves on the rumors and attitudes absorbed from their Roshei Yeshiva, Mashgichim, or Rebbeim. I recommend reading this article in its totality. It will help to better understand him and get a truer unbiased picture of who he is and what he believes.

One does not have to entirely agree with him. But one cannot in good conscience deny him legitimacy in Orthodoxy. He is sincere, he is pious - a major thinker, and a Talmid Chacham. And deserves to be respected as such.