American Orthodoxy

Bringing Back Torah u-Madda

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The notion of Torah u-Madda—that Torah and secular studies can enrich each other—has been a byword in the Modern Orthodox community for decades. Yet some have claimed it is in decline. Lehrhaus is proud to present a symposium grappling with Torah u-Madda: how we got here, the challenges that have arisen, and how its meaning continues to evolve over time.

Symposium Contributions: Editors’ Introduction, Elana Stein Hain, Stuart Halpern, Yisroel Ben-Porat, Sarah Rindner, Erica Brown, Shalom Carmy, Leah Sarna, Tzvi Sinensky, Yaakov Bieler, Moshe Kurtz, Elinatan Kupferberg, Olivia Friedman, Margueya Poupko, Noah Marlowe; Letters to the Editor: 1 | 2

I deeply believe that Torah u-Madda should continue to be of interest to contemporary Jews. However, this particular intellectual approach, which assumes an ongoing commitment to the mastering of Torah and at least one area of secular knowledge, appears to be receding from the consciousness of even institutions and individuals formally associated with Modern Orthodoxy. Instead of synagogue Rabbis boldly embodying and promoting the value of general secular knowledge by regularly incorporating it in their sermons and classes, and instead of educators in Jewish day schools serving as Torah u-Madda role models for their students by being interested and actively pursuing the many facets of the typical curricular and extra-curricular school goals, synagogues, Jewish day schools, and Jewish summer camps have increasingly focused upon narrower issues.

I detail below several reasons why Torah u-Madda remains important to our role as Torah Jews and some practical ways we can implement this approach.

Relating to the Nations

Torah u-Madda is important today because it assists Jews to fulfill God’s ultimate expectations of them that they be a positive influence on the surrounding nations. This role of the Jewish people in human history can be inferred from God’s expectations as expressed through His Prophet, Isaiah:

I the LORD have Called thee in righteousness, and have Taken Hold of thy hand, and Kept thee, and Set thee for a Covenant of the people, for a light of the nations. ( Isaiah 42:6)

Yea, He Saith: It is too light a thing that thou shouldest be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Yaakov, and to restore the offspring of Yisrael; I will also Give thee for a light of the nations, that My Salvation may be unto the end of the earth. (Ibid. 49:6)

This idea is further expressed in R. Elazar’s curious Talmudic perspective on Exile:

And Rabbi Elazar said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, exiled Israel among the nations only so that converts would join them, as it is stated: “And I will sow her to Me in the land” (Hosea 2:25). Does a person sow a Se’ah of grain for any reason other than to bring in several Kor of grain during the harvest? (Pesahim 87b)

From these texts, we come to understand that rather than circling the wagons and only worrying about ourselves, Jews are expected to engage positively and constructively with the mainstream populace.

Today, the general population either professes a religion different from our own, or no religion at all – in the words of the latest Pew survey, many are “nones.” Therefore, in order to relate to and influence them,[1] we will require some sort of common language and form of expression. While the Torah states that the other nations will value Mitzvah-observance and regard its practitioners as possessing a special relationship with the Divine (as stated in Deuteronomy 4:56, “for [these Statues are] your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that, when they hear all these Statutes, shall say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’”), I am not sure that such a view of religion in general, and Judaism in particular, is still pertinent in current society. Whereas adherence to religion in the past was an important value shared by many human beings, today observance and punctilious devotion, without accompanying sacrifice and social action, particularly for those who are different from your own group, is suspect in many quarters of the world.

So how do we relate to the other nations in the modern age? This is where Torah u-Madda comes in. When people encounter an individual who is accomplished in his/her professional field, unabashedly observant, a knowledgeable, serious practitioner of religion, and interested in people and the world at large, there is greater potential today for that individual’s spiritual and moral concerns to attract attention and even emulation. At the very least, religionists should be able to address questions directed at them, as well as those that well up within themselves, with sophistication, nuance, and gravity, instead of with a dismissive response. In order to influence the “other,” some commonality has to be established, and secular subject matter can certainly provide such a dimension. Otherwise, observant Jews run the risk of being viewed as obscurantists, and their potential for serving as a “light unto the nations” might narrow considerably. Rather than hermetically compartmentalizing parallel ideas extant in secular and Jewish sources, being able to illustrate Torah ideas with parallels from the secular world and vice versa anchors Torah concepts in such a manner that they can be seen to be reality-based and contemporarily relevant, rather than detached from current practical and theoretical concerns.

Enhancing Torah through Secular Studies

Another dimension that justifies a Torah u-Madda approach which combines study of Torah and secular subjects is the degree to which secular knowledge can enhance Torah topics. In his essay “A Consideration of Synthesis from a Torah Point of View,”[2] Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein argues that secular studies can contribute to greater understanding of one’s Torah learning:

Secular studies are often invaluable as a direct accessory to Talmud Torah proper. Consider simply the aid we derive by elucidation or comparison from linguistics in Amos, history in Melachim, agronomy in Zeraim, physiology in Nidda, chemistry in Chometz U’Matza, philosophy in Yesodei HaTora, psychology in Avoda Zora, political theory in Sanhedrin, torts in Bava Batra—one could continue almost indefinitely. (p. 93)

While it is probably an impossibility for most typical individuals to become polymaths and display deep understanding of a variety of secular disciplines, one can still attain expertise in some subset of secular disciplines based on one’s personal proclivities. Someone with a scientific and/or health services orientation ideally will be able to make use of his or her knowledge of those topics to constantly contribute to his or her Jewish perspective. Rambam, in my opinion, makes a powerful case for studying science as a method of familiarizing him/herself with Jewish theological concerns:

What is the path (to attain) love and fear of Him? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His Infinite Wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify (Him), yearning with tremendous desire to know (God’s) Great Name, as David stated: (Psalms 42:3) “My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God.”

When he (continues) to reflect on these same matters, he will immediately recoil in awe and fear, appreciating how he is a tiny, lowly, and dark creature, standing with his flimsy, limited, wisdom before He Who is of Perfect Knowledge, as David stated: (Psalms 8:4-5) “When I see Your Heavens, the work of Your Fingers… (I wonder) what is man that You should Recall Him.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:2)

Similarly, Hazon Ish, in the first chapter of his Emunah U-Bitahon, specifically discusses human anatomy from the perspective of appreciating the wondrous “engineering” achievement that God has Done vis-à-vis one’s body.

In a parallel vein, someone interested in the humanities can use those studies to better understand the human condition and therefore God. In a talk that he gave in the 1980s entitled “The End of Learning,”[3] R. Lichtenstein acknowledged that in the Torah world, if secular studies are in fact championed, it is usually “objective” science and mathematics, rather than “subjective” humanities. Having received a Ph.D. in literature, R. Lichtenstein articulately defended the latter, stating:

The humanities…initiate us into the world of Ruach Memalela[4] at its finest, introducing us, in Arnold’s celebrated phrase, to the best which has been thought and said in the world.”[5] Great literature presents either a rendering, factual or imaginative, of aspects of the human condition, or a record of an artist’s grappling with the ultimate questions of human existence: man’s relation to himself, to others, to the cosmos, and above all, to the Ribbono Shel Olam. (p. 113)

Religion in general is looked upon as part of the “humanities,” and its presentation to young and old ought to include the existential orientation mentioned so passionately by R. Lichtenstein. Someone interested in the humanities should be able to look up to role models and become adequately educated in such a discipline in addition to continually studying aspects of the Jewish outlook.

While it is most likely that someone could pursue a course of Torah u-Madda thinking and learning professionally if one serves as a communal Rabbi or Jewish day school educator, laypeople should also be encouraged to take advantage of opportunities made regularly available to them. Efforts should be made to merge Torah and Madda in educational offerings within synagogues Jews attend regularly, as well as in the educational institutions in which they enroll and the summer facilities in which they participate.

Torah u-Madda and Interdisciplinarity

A theme of Torah u-Madda that is in essence educational and therefore suited for Jewish day schools is the topic of “interdisciplinarity.” Such a pedagogic approach has become an educational given in the Jewish day school with respect to the development of critical thinking and a balanced weltanschauung on the part of the members of the student body. In my view, this type of study should not only take place among different secular subject matters, but should also involve comparing and contrasting Jewish ideas with those proffered by non-Jewish sources.

Not only will this type of cross-fertilization create deeper understandings of both Judaic and general studies themes and principles, it will also engender a “checks-and-balance” system that will lend perspective to all that is being learned and discussed. I look to both Judaic and general studies as potentially serving as correctives to extreme positions in domestic politics, Israel advocacy, responses to the pandemic, concern with environmental threats and more that may at first glance appear appropriate. Different sets of values and attitudes can have a profound influence on each other and moderate one’s positions.

Some in the Torah world, even if they are positively disposed to general studies learning not only for the purposes of making a living but also as an area of knowledge that is important to acquire, will be adamant that Torah must always constitute the central emphasis of a Jewish life, and therefore secular studies must perforce be viewed as secondary and not temper Torah commitments. I am not so sanguine about prioritizing Torah in this manner given the excesses of particularism–i.e., caring exclusively about Jews as opposed to the global environment in which we find ourselves– that seem to have come to dominate the Orthodox world. Ignoring general studies can also lead to the adoption of extreme positions as noted.

In order to address this significant lack, I have long advocated that teachers of both Judaic and general studies in day schools, Rabbis of synagogues, and educators and counselors in summer camps, be trained in integrated thinking and multiple disciplines that specifically include Judaic and secular studies. If such individuals only think about the world in single dimensions, it is more than likely that their students and congregants will do likewise. When Jewish leaders present such a mindset as a given, they perpetuate some of the problems from which we are currently suffering. Every student should annually be challenged to undertake a topic from the Jewish and general studies perspective, reviewed by joint faculty members. Courses should also be presented from an interdisciplinary approach, thereby not requiring students to reconcile Torah with Madda on their own. Sermons and Shiurim should regularly introduce and integrate ideas from multiple disciplines. And camp educational and experiential programming ought to focus on and encourage this type of thinking.

Rabbis and Ba’alei Batim

A final consideration that would contribute to the necessity of Torah u-Madda is that we live in an age of ever-increasing specialization, and this type of exclusive focus has affected even religion. Those in rabbinic lines of work are expected to be knowledgeable about the depths of Torah, and other Jews are not expected to share this knowledge. The corollary to such thinking is that only Ba’alei Batim will be interested in the matters associated with the general world, and that Rabbis ought to “stay in their lane.” While Jewish professionals and laypeople physically come together on Shabbat and Yom Tov mornings, or at Shiurim, these fleeting occasions are insufficient for the two groups to impart to each other what each has to offer and provide a qualitatively excellent, ongoing grounding in Judaics, general studies, and sensitivity to other people. A conscious effort must be undertaken in order for these two groups to “play-off” of one another on an ongoing basis in order to influence the thinking of every individual.

It seems to me that the centrality of Torah u-Madda in Judaism is a top-down issue, and that the educational centers at which Rabbis and educators are initially trained and then return periodically for Sabbaticals, Yarhei Kallah, and general “Hizuk,” ought to be committed to, at least in part, presenting Torah u-Madda as an important way of thinking about all things Jewish within contemporary society. While some individuals can be counted upon to be autodidacts and develop Torah u-Madda sensibilities even though they were never provided with the proper preparation, this will only be a minority of those who serve in shuls and schools. I think that some of the individuals who head these institutions and services, are themselves lacking in Torah u-Madda sensibilities, and therefore do not consider this a value for their training institutions. That being the case, the Rabbis and educators produced and reinforced by these centers may be ill-prepared to meet the needs of the constituencies that they serve. Torah u-Madda done right, on the other hand, can bridge the gap between rabbis and laypeople.

When all is said and done, Torah u-Madda ought not to be the province of one group of Jews, but a philosophy to animate and inform our lives as Torah Jews today and tomorrow.

[1] While some “Kiruv” professionals might contend that promoting full observance of Torah and Mitzvot is a Jewish objective, a case could be made that Jews should attempt to be exemplars of moral and ethical living, and the Jewish mission is to try to encourage adherence to the Seven Noahide Commandments rather than the symbolic 613 representing a more complete corpus of Mitzvot. See Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 224:2: “One who sees a place from which idolatry has been uprooted from it, … Just as He has Uprooted it (idolatry) from this place, so too He should Uproot it from all places, and restore the hearts of those worshiping it to worshiping You.” Further, those who established Judaism according to the bible were interested in spreading monotheism rather than conversion. See Bereishit 12:8 “…he (Avraham) built there an altar to the LORD and invoked the LORD by Name.” Ibid. 13:4 “…and there Avram invoked the LORD by Name.” Ibid. 21:33 “…and (Avraham) invoked there the Name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.” Ibid. 26:22 “So he (Yitzhak) built an altar there and invoked the LORD by Name…”
[2] Originally published in The Commentator (April 27, 1961); reprinted in Gesher, vol. 1 (1963); reprinted in Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning, vol. 1, Chapt. 4 (Jersey City: KTAV Publishing, 2003).
[3] Leaves of Faith, Chapt. 5.
[4] Targum Onkelos, Beraishit 2:7.
[5] “Literature and Science” in The Portable Matthew Arnold, ed. Lionel Trilling (New York: 1949), 409.

To see the rest of the symposium, click here.

Yaakov (Jack) Bieler has been engaged in Jewish education and the synagogue Rabbinate for over forty years. Yaakov Bieler was raised in Bayside, Queens, and attended local public schools. Following graduation from Yeshiva College and the James Striar School for Jewish Studies in 1969, he attended Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Israel in 1969-71. Rabbi Bieler then returned to Yeshiva University where he was ordained by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and received an MA in Jewish Education from the Ferkauf Graduate School of Education in 1974. Following graduation from Yeshiva, Rabbi Bieler served on the faculty and was Chairman of the Talmud Department of the Joseph H. Lookstein Upper School of Ramaz from 1974-1988. During his tenure at Ramaz, he was awarded a Gruss Outstanding Educator award in 1984. Concurrently, Rabbi Bieler served on the faculty of the Adult Education Institute of the Lincoln Square Synagogue between 1971-1977, and as permanent scholar-in-residence of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun from 1977-1988. In 1985, he received a Jerusalem Fellows fellowship and spent the year with his family in Jerusalem. In 1988, Rabbi Bieler assumed the position of Lead Teacher and Chairman of the Judaic Studies Department at the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington, now as Berman in Rockville, MD. He served as the Upper School Assistant Principal in charge of Judaic Studies in 1991-2005. In 1993 he was appointed as Rabbi of the Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, Maryland where he has served until his retirement in 2015. He has been an active member of the Rabbinical Council of America, serving on various committees over the years. In 2013, Rabbi Bieler was awarded the Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein Memorial Award for Outstanding Rabbinic Leadership by the RCA. Rabbi Bieler has published numerous articles on Jewish education and issues facing Judaism today, especially from the perspective of Modern Orthodoxy.