Friday, August 08, 2008

Torah U’Mada’s Bad Rap

I hear it all the time, most recently from Rabbi Dovid Landesman.

Just to be clear I cast no aspersions on Rabbi Landesman. Just the opposite. I admire his courage in discussing some very difficult issues in two guest posts here. I pretty much agree with him there. But I do not share his view on Torah U’Mada. In part, I believe this feeling is based on a misunderstanding of Torah U’Mada. But I also believe their may be some unconscious motivation going on.

I am frankly tired of the bad rap Torah U’Mada (TuM) gets from adherents of TIDE who have a Charedi perspective. It’s almost as if they have a chip on their shoulder - feeling the need to establish their Charedi credentials by bashing TuM. So in accepting TIDE they must differentiate it from the TuM so vehemently rejected by Charedi Hashkafos. Never mind that the TIDE that Charedim now find acceptable is not even remotely related to the TIDE of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch.

I take strong exception to what seems to have become to be their mantra: TIDE and TuM have very little in common.

Yes there are differences. But... very little in common?! I beg to differ.

The common feature is a positive attitude about the need to study secular subjects. That supercedes the differences which in my view are minor.

First of all TuM has many versions to it and has yet to be clearly and exclusively defined. To some it is merely the combined study of Torah and secular subjects with no underlying philosophy other than it is permitted to do so.

To others it is an elaborate philosophy. The best known version is Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm's. It is the 'two towers' philosophy. His idea in brief is that there are two towers of knowledge - one of Torah and one of Mada - and that they should be studied independently. To still others it is somewhere in-between. It is for example grossly unfair to compare Rav Ahron Soloveichik’s TuM with that of Dr. Lamm's.

Rav Ahron’s version is very closely related to that of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsh’s TIDE. But he rejects the study if Mada if it is only for reasons of livelihood. As Rav Ahron puts it - if someone became a doctor only to improve his finances via a better paying job, he would never go to such a doctor. A detailed description of Rav Aharon’s TuM can be found in his two chapters on the subject in his book, Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind.

But even if you take Dr. Lamm's version - The two towers of Torah and Mada – it is still unfair to say that TIDE is so radically different from TuM. Furthermore - Dr. Lamm’s version of TuM is always accused of equating the two towers of Torah and Mada. No such thing. He clearly puts Torah ahead of Mada.

He just sees them as independent truths to be studied independently - and when combined they will provide an overarching truth about God and His Torah.

If one looks at the study of nature, for example - no one can deny its truths. Nature is God's creation. Science is the method of its study. There is nothing wrong with calling Mada (in this example - knowledge of nature via its scientific study) a truth. When one combines the knowledge attained about nature together with his Torah knowledge one can indeed find a greater and more profound truth.

TIDE is not so different. Rav Hirsch put it this way - quoted in a Wikipedia article:

"Torah im Derech Eretz, as used by our sages, means the realization of Torah in harmonious unity with all the conditions under which its laws will have to be observed amidst the developments of changing times" (Gesammelte Schriften vii p.294).

Wikipedia continues:

Thus on a regular basis, he quotes secular scientists in his Torah commentary. It is known that he was strongly influenced by Hegel and Friedrich Schiller; in fact, in a speech given in the school he founded on the centenary of the birth of the latter, he claimed that the universalistic principles of Western culture embodied in Schiller's writings are Jewish values originating in the Torah.

On the other hand, Hirsch cautioned as to the danger of scientific knowledge leading one away from God; further, his schools, unlike others in
Germany at the time, taught modern (business) languages as opposed to classical languages. Famously, in his commentary to Leviticus 18:4-5, Hirsch clearly delineates the relationship of secular knowledge and Torah, where Torah is “ikkar” (עיקר), the essential, while secular knowledge is “tefel” (טפל), secondary or supplementary to Torah. He states that "[w]e are confident that there is only one truth, and only one body of knowledge that can serve as the standard... Compared to it, all the other sciences are valid only provisionally".

As I understand it - instead of the two towers of Torah and Mada - Torah and Mada are integrated into a single unit of study. The combined integrated study of Torah and Mada (TIDE) is in service to the understanding of God and His Torah. To the extent that Mada enhances Torah is to the extent that we study it.

How TIDE and Dr. Lamm's TuM arrive at a greater appreciation of God and His Torah does not make any substantive theological difference in my view when one considers that Torah is always primary in both Hashkafos.

One (TIDE) studies them as a unit and includes only those disciplines which have a direct bearing on the goal. The other (TuM) studies them independently and adds the knowledge gained from the study of Mada to his Torah knowledge to achieve that same goal of understanding of God and His Torah. But neither subordinates Torah to Mada. Torah always wins in a conflict.

Why is this so difficult?