American Orthodoxy

Sanctifying the Secular: A Torah u-Madda Approach to Popular Culture

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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

As a child watching the Disney animated version of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ the evil priest Frollo speaks to the gypsy Esmeralda after learning she has claimed sanctuary, telling her, “You think you’ve outwitted me. But I’m a patient man. And gypsies don’t do well inside stone walls.” I immediately thought of the laws of Ir Miklat, the city of refuge. On the one hand, this city protects the accidental killer. However, once this individual steps outside its walls, he is fair game for those who want him dead. The visual depiction of this concept stayed with me, bringing the idea to life, as did a later scene where Quasimodo shouts “Sanctuary! Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” having saved Esmeralda from the jaws of death.

Similarly, when I read The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander, there is a scene in which a character has a true dream about another individual, Ellidyr. “You I saw with a black beast on your shoulders. Beware, Ellidyr, lest it swallow you up” (27). Later on, he cautions once more “The black beast rides in the saddle with you. I see it even now” (31). Alternatively understandable as the yetzer hara, evil inclination, and also similar to King Saul’s ruah ra’ah, evil spirit (I Samuel 16:14), the black beast was a metaphor that clarified concepts within my own religion. 

Swan Lake is the story of two women, identical in form, who are confused with one another. There is Odette, a beautiful maiden wearing the form of a swan. Then there is Odile, the daughter of the evil enchanter Rothbart, who assumes her form. A confused prince pledges himself to Odile when he means to marry Odette, with whom he is in love. The passion, emotions, and challenges that ensue provide a wonderful counterpoint to the experiences of our patriarch Jacob. He too accidentally pledges himself to and weds the wrong woman, realizing only when it is too late that it is she, and not the beloved Rachel, to whom he is wed. He too suffers the consequences. When Swan Lake is performed as a ballet, there are alternate endings. In some, the prince dies. In others, he lives on, having broken the curse on Odette. Which one is Jacob’s ending? Though he lives, the repercussions of having wed Leah first forever alter the fabric of his life. 

I have found Torah in many fairy tales. I have given lectures about Star Wars’ ‘The Last Jedi’s Luke Skywalker as an educator,’ whether, as the Game of Thrones adage states, love is the death of duty, and what Wonder Woman can teach you about Judaism. For every class I’ve given, there are a thousand more examples that live in my mind. Because for me, reading books, watching movies, and viewing TV shows is a spiritual experience. And I believe there are others like me, those for whom such recreation is an uplifting, sanctified experience.

This approach is not for everyone. In his article, “Torah u-Madda or Torah u-Movies?” Moshe Kurtz states: 

I am a major proponent of all things Geeky, but I try not to delude myself into thinking that when I play Call of Duty or read Harry Potter that I am being mekayem some kind of mitzvat aseh (fulfilling a positive commandment). Rather, I listen, watch, play, and read what I do because I enjoy it―it’s my preferred use of necessary leisure time. Agav (incidentally), once I am doing that, I am open to being inspired or intellectually captivated by a theme that in some indirect way might enhance my Torah study and service of God. But I try to keep myself honest by endeavoring not to conflate my recreation with my religion.

For Kurtz, recreation is separate from religion. For me, they are indelibly intertwined. When I watch a movie, read a book, or view a TV show, I am always thinking, “How does this connect me to God? To Judaism? How does this enhance my understanding of my religion? Are there scenes here that echo the Tanakh?” It is a specific orientation towards recreation, and it is one that can be cultivated.

Why should we cultivate it? I will answer simply. In the Modern Orthodox world, it is very unusual to find individuals who are learning Torah 24/7. People are going to find some form of recreation. It might be watching sports games, chilling with Netflix, reading a popular novel, or attending a fitness class. And given that this is what the majority of individuals are doing, the question now becomes: what should the attitude towards such recreation be? 

There are several choices. Some mindsets suggest that such recreation lies outside of one’s religious self. One such attitude is inspired by guilt. “Really, I should be attending a Gemara class right now,” is what this individual is thinking. “Instead, I’m watching The Avengers.” If this guilt-based approach actually spurs the individual to act such that he or she does indeed join a Torah class, that is wonderful. Too often, however, it does not. 

Another person’s response may be defensive. “Everyone needs to relax sometimes,” such an individual thinks. “After a long day at work, I deserve to sit back and enjoy a show.” And so she does. 

Whether guilty or defensive, both approaches suggest that the form of recreation one has chosen has little to no redeeming value. It is outside of Judaism. Outside of God. 

For me, this is false. I am inspired by a Hasidic approach to our world. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about it in his book To Heal a Fractured World. He explains that God, in making the world, “could not leave it devoid of his presence.” God therefore “sent forth rays of his light.” The light was “too intense for its containers, which thereby broke, scattering fragments of light throughout the world. It is our task to gather up these fragments, wherever they are, and restore them to their proper place” (74). This theory, based on Lurianic thought, is called shevirat ha-kelim (“breaking of the vessels”). When one lives a life “suffused with the love of God, it is possible to redeem these fragments and restore them to their proper place as containers of divine light” (75). 

Rabbi Zev Reichman explains this further in his book Flames of Faith: An Introduction to Chasidic Thought. He clarifies that “nothing can exist divorced from God. Even evil has a bit of Him in it to sustain it, this little bit of Godliness is called a Nitzotz, a spark of Divine light. When a Kellipah is broken, when I break a wall and find God behind it, then I am causing the spark of God that is hidden to be revealed” (163). Torah prohibitions set limits on which sparks we can raise—for example, we cannot eat pig while having the intention to use the energy we receive from the food for studying Torah. However, there is much within this physical world that is permitted to us. These are referred to as Kellipat Nogah, permitted physical pleasures.

The Baal Shem Tov believed:

People with finely developed vision see each angel, that is, each manifestation of Godly power, with every tap on every blade of grass; they hear each heavenly decree and echo as it goes forth into the wide world. These people know that every place has sanctity, not only the heavenly realms. Not only is every vision and prophecy heaven-sent but also every utterance is a messenger from above. The discerning person will realize its purpose after sufficient contemplation.

And that is why certain people can weave a cloth of halachos and lessons from seemingly mundane matters.

Tales of the Baal Shem Tov by Yisroel Ya’akov Klapholtz, Volume 5, page 42.

More recently, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook espoused such beliefs. There was a purpose, he argued, to be found even within atheism. In his essay “The Pangs of Cleansing,” he explains “Atheism has a temporary legitimacy, for it is needed to purge away the aberrations that attached themselves to religious faith because of a deficiency in perception and in the divine service” (The Lights of Penitence, Lights of Holiness, The Moral Principles, Essays, Letters and Poems, page 264). In his piece “Concerning the Conflict of Opinions and Beliefs,” he argues that religions other than Judaism contain an “inner spark of divine light” (273). He argues:

Therefore, instead of rejecting every pattern of ideas from which the tiny elements of good have begun to sparkle and which in themselves have trapped souls to lead them to the depths of the abyss—the place where reigns the darkness that deadens the soul in its prime of vigor—a task that is bound to fail, it is for us to enhance the original light. It is for us to disclose the breadth and depth, the universality and eternity that is immanent in the light of the faith of Israel. It is for us to clarify how every spark of the good that is manifest in the world stems from its source and is linked with it in a natural bond [emphasis mine]. 

-Page 274.

Why are people attracted to secular books, TV shows, and movies? Because there is something good to be found within them, something attractive, moving, poignant, and powerful. They stir our spirit. They make us feel. I would argue that often what people find so moving is actually a spark of holiness. It is linked back to God. And we can raise it up. We can explicitly discuss the insight the book or movie afforded us and how it helped clarify a Torah, Jewish, or Godly concept. 

So how does one go about doing this? There are two ways. Either one can do it on one’s own, or one can learn from someone who has the knowledge base to do it well.

If one wishes to go about this on one’s own, one must first be conversant with Jewish texts. This means setting aside time to study, or at least read, the Tanakh. (Reading it in English works, too!) I would recommend reading Midrash as well, whether in the original Hebrew or through a compendium like Louis Ginzberg (and Henrietta Szold’s) Legends of the Jews. The Midrash is imaginative, fantastical, and redolent with magic. Unlike Moshe Kurtz, who writes, “On occasion, one will find epic moments in Tanakh, such as when Eliyahu calls down a fire from heaven, but for the most part, one will not find the same breathtaking supernatural feats that the Fantasy genre provides,” I have found that every incredible moment in fantasy has its counterpart—or something even more scintillating—within Tanakh, Gemara, and Midrash. Indeed, one of my favorite things to do when I teach is to take a breathtaking moment, whether from a book or TV show, and show how our Jewish tradition had it first. (One easy example— and this contains spoilers for the Game of Thrones franchise—before there was the Red Wedding, there was Absalom’s sheep shearing party.) 

Then, one must become an active reader or viewer. Do not sit back passively and consume content. Instead, engage eagerly and avidly. You are searching for the spark of holiness that animates the book, the novel, or the show. Sometimes, you may even be searching for the point of departure. Take, for example, Harry Potter. In the final novel, Harry Potter must die and be reborn in order to kill the part of Voldemort that resides within him, the final Horcrux. (This death and resurrection is a reference to Christ.) There are so many directions one can go with this. There is the overt Christological reference, which one can examine through the lens of Judaism. Alternatively, one can begin a text-based discussion on whether it is better to slay the yetzer hara [evil inclination] within oneself in its entirety, just like Harry must kill the Horcrux within himself, or whether it is better to redirect it. One can question whether heroes in Jewish tradition are martyrs, sacrificing their lives for the sake of others, or whether Judaism privileges a different kind of heroism. 

Finally, if you wish to model this approach to others, you must do so explicitly. This means actively discussing the book one is reading or the movie one is watching with spiritual mentors, teachers, friends, one’s partner, or one’s family—and explaining or examining how it has deepened your connection to God and Judaism. (Remember: not every book or film’s messages and values will directly align with Judaism, and that point of departure is also useful! Figuring out what the religion that you live and love has to say about the ideas that fill your mind is important.) 

There may be some forms of media that are so crude or model such poor behaviors that they are ireedemable for most people. If they contain any sparks, those sparks are “tied up” and off limits, similar to how we cannot lift up the sparks within pig meat. So even if you are availing yourself of this approach, it is still appropriate to be selective in the content you consume. Are you being honest with yourself when you state that there is something in the book you are reading or film you are watching that will heighten your empathy, your goodwill to your friends or family, your understanding of fellow human beings, or your connection with God? Examine your motivations and make sure they are pure.

If you have set aside time to become conversant in your Judaism and religious heritage, are willing to become an active, not passive, consumer of secular content, can orient yourself to look for whatever can be uplifted, and be honest with yourself when you truly cannot find anything of value, then your recreation has the potential to be utterly transformed. You too may become the kind of person who can sanctify the secular—and who can see God within a story told on the silver screen.

To see the rest of the symposium, click here.

Olivia Friedman is a creative thinker with a penchant for literary analysis, pop culture and Tanakh—as expressed in her podcast, ‘Enchanted Torah.’ A graduate of the Matan Bellows Eshkolot fellowship, she also teaches Tanakh, Jewish Law and Oral Thought and serves as an Instructional Technology Coordinator at Ida Crown Jewish Academy. Previously, she taught at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD. Olivia earned her M.A. in Bible from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, MSEd with a concentration in Gifted Education from Northwestern University, and B.A. in English Literature from YU’s Stern College for Women. Olivia welcomes your comments and questions at Please feel free to view more examples of her students’ work at