Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Torah U’madda? Or Torah Versus Mada?

One of my favorite names in the Torah world is Twerski. The Twerski family are truly shining lights of Orthodoxy. They are a Chasidic family stemming from Chernobyl Chasidus. And they have retained all of their Chasidic family traditions. With their long beards and their traditional Chasidic dress - they have the traditional look of Chasidim like Satmar, Bobov, or Ger. But that is where the similarity between the Twerskis and other Chasidim ends.

They are definitely Charedim. But they are among the most enlightened Orthodox Jews among us. Aside from being Talmidei Chachamim many of them have university degrees. Some have careers in the professions. Rabbi Dr. Benzion Twerski is a noted psychologist. Rabbi Dr. Aaron Twesrki was until his retirement the Dean of Hofstra Law School. And there is Chicago’s very own Rabbi Chaim Twerski - a Rosh Yeshiva at HTC who gives the Semicha Shiur. He has one of the most enlightened attitudes about science and Torah in all of Orthodoxy. The list of members to this accomplished family goes on.

Perhaps the most well known member of this family is a Musmach (ordained Rabbi) of my Alma Mater, HTC, and more importantly a Talmid Chacham. He is the internationally renowned psychiatrist Dr. Abraham J. Twerski. His list of accomplishments is legendary. He is a prolific writer on Jewish religious themes but is perhaps most famous for founding the Gateway Rehabilitation Center where he merged Mussar with the ‘12 Step Program’ of self help for patients with addiction problems.

One would think that with credentials like these he would be a living tribute to the idea of Torah U’Mada or classical Hirschean Torah Im Derech Eretz. But the fact is that he is not. In one of his more famous statements he said that he never trusts his own judgment when it comes to decisions of Torah import because of his secular education. He feels his thinking is influenced and therefore tainted by secular ideas which he has incorporated into his ideology. His decisions on Torah matters may therefore not be truly reflective of a pure Torah Hashkafa.

This is Daas Torah as defined by Charedim. And it in fact disqualifies anyone with a secular education from the ability to render a purely Torah decision because of their exposure to and influence from secular non Torah sources.

In answer to a question about this attitude he once gave n a 2007 interview he said the following:

I have had the opportunity to discuss issues with Gedolim, and I could see how their thought processes were qualitatively different than mine. I have also had discussions with some talmidei chachamim who had secular education, and although I respect them highly, I could see where they might have been influenced by non-Torah ideas.

When asked about the Rambam and other great Rishonim who were well educated in the worldly knowledge of their time – he responded that these men were giants and we cannot in our day compare ourselves to them.

This effectively eliminates Rav Soloveitchik as a Gadol in his eyes. As it does any other individual of recent vintage who has had a secular education – especially an advanced university education. In Dr. Twerski's view the Rav’s Torah Hashkafa is tainted by his PhD in philosophy.

This view differs dramatically from both TIDE and TuM. And I think it is one of the main things that divides Charedi Hashkafos from Centrist Hashkafos - even though we are virtually identical in our lifestyles and values. And even though I believe we constitute the vast majority of mainstream Orthodox Jewry in America we could not be farther apart on this issue.

Those of us who are adherents of TuM or TIDE – although having our own Hashkafic differences would - I think - nevertheless agree that secular knowledge actually enhances rather than detracts from our Judaism. This applies as much to Gedolim as it does to the rest of us.

I can completely understand where Dr. Twerski is coming from. But I profoundly disagree with him. In my view - if one has a firm grasp of Torah one can achieve even greater depths of Torah understanding by studying various secular disciplines. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has famously explained that his understanding of certain portions of Tanach was enhanced by his expertise in English literature. And this applies to all of worldly knowledge. This is one of the primary points made by Hirschean TIDE.

Using Dr. Twerski's own field of psychiatry to further this point I would ask: Does expertise in understanding the human psyche detract from one’s ability to Paskin on issues of mental health? Or does it enhance it? Does being educated and trained to understand the anguish sex abuse victims go through add or detract from the ability to Paskin a Shaila for them”? Doesn’t expertise learned in college enhance the ability to suggest Torah based public policies in areas like sex abuse?

It was Dr. Twerski’s response to the following that should clearly answer these questions:

Q: I can't understand why a frum person should consult a psychologist. Doesn't the Torah have answers to all kinds of problems? Isn't consulting a psychologist demeaning to the Torah?

A: The Torah indeed has answers to all problems, both physical and psychological. The Zohar says that Hashem used the Torah as the blueprint for creating the world, so that everything in the world is contained in the Torah. Inasmuch as the Torah is the wisdom of Hashem, it is perfect and complete in every way.

The problem is that we do not know how to derive the information from the Torah. For example, the Shelah Hakadosh says that anyone who would fully understand the first passuk in perek 2 of Bereishis would know the entire science of physiognomy (knowing everything about a person by studying his face) and palmistry (being able to interpret the hand). But who can say he achieved such knowledge?

Dr. Twerski’s very words here contradict his view that secular knowledge precludes one from rendering an untainted and purely Torah based decision. If one cannot in our day derive this important knowledge from the Torah we must get it elsewhere. Studying Mada in an organized way is the best way of achieving that in our day. Without it – Torah decisions by great rabbinic figures lack key components that Dr. Twerski readily admits are in the Torah but cannot be extracted in our day. How can a person who does not have such expertise then render a truly Torah based opinion?

I submit that the opposite of what Dr. Twerski suggests is true. Secular knowledge does not taint the purity of a Torah decision. As Hirschean TIDE suggests it enhances it – provided one is firmly grounded in Torah first. I agree that it is not an absolute requirement to have such knowledge since one can rely on experts to explain the Mada of any issue as part of the decision making process. Rav Moshe Feinstein was like that – relying on his son in law, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler for any issue dealing with human biology.

Nonetheless it is far better to have that knowledge personally. And even though I agree that Rav Moshe was a Gadol - I reject the notion that if Rav Moshe had gone to medical school or achieved a PhD in biology that his Teshuvos would have been any different. In our world today a good secular education improves rather than detracts from the decision making process of Poskim.