American Orthodoxy

Serpentine Psychology and Booming Babel

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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

Editors’ note: we are honored to include in our symposium the voice of Shalom Carmy, a leading thinker in Modern Orthodoxy whose career has long embodied the values of Torah u-Madda. This essay updates R. Lichtenstein’s famous serpentine metaphor for general studies. The need for Torah u-Madda is more urgent than ever before, but the challenge is different today; Babel-like confusion, rather than heresy, now pervades modern life.

There is an Apikoros within, a serpent potentially lurking within the finest of Edens, and we must be ready to reply to his proffer of the bittersweet apple. But we must first read a treatise on serpentine psychology.
(R. Aharon Lichtenstein)[1]

Art, nowadays, must be the mouthpiece of misery, for misery is the keynote of modern life.
(George Gissing)[2]


Let me end the suspense right away. I hold now what I have held for the past 50 years about the importance of liberal arts study.[3] Below I will comment on aspects of the subject that I consider especially pertinent, and why the need is more acute right now.

Let me clear away a few of the subjects I will not discuss here. One is the widespread worry that once a person learns anything about what people outside our Orthodox cocoons think or know, they will be swept away just like Native Americans centuries ago succumbed when introduced to imported European diseases. There is some truth to this fear: the social atmosphere in the Orthodox community combined with the inadequacies of its educational machinery do provide sufficient explanation for its graduates’ limited ability to withstand pressure. More importantly, unless we are exceptionally insulated against “outside” ideas, the heretical enemy is already within the gates. Those who cannot think critically and broadly, especially those who believe they have no need to do so, are usually in thrall to popular ideas they do not understand and may have difficulty identifying. I submit that we need general literacy and critical thinking now even more than we did half a century ago. This urgency should intensify concern about the present crisis of general education.

Nor will I discuss here the value of general education for specific “professional” tasks. Yes, those who study Zeraim ought to know about botany and agricultural technology; doctors and those who provide them with halakhic guidance should know biology; people in the business world should understand something of economics. Likewise, those not involved in these fields have less need for familiarity, and even those who are engaged in them may respectably rely on the judgment of experts as opposed to working out everything on their own.

Another widespread objection I have heard is that any time devoted to general education is stolen from Torah. Regarding this, I defer to the judgment of my revered teachers. To begin with, serious religious individuals who benefit from such studies will reap the dividends of their application by achieving greater clarity and insight in their Torah study, self-knowledge, and understanding of their fellow human beings. As R. Aharon Lichtenstein liked to say, the fact that bread is essential for life, while jam is not, does not imply that, when given the choice between more bread and a bit of jam, we must always opt for the bread. Additionally, as maran ha-Rav Soloveitchik pointed out, people who really think they won’t benefit from the supposed assistance or are afraid of its potential harm are free to do without it. And, to immediately echo R. Lichtenstein once more, if our communal attainments in Torah study fall short, it is not because our students are dedicating their free time to Plato and Wittgenstein.

Elsewhere I have categorized the possible benefits to be gained from a variety of such pursuits.[4] Among them are knowing truth about the world, truth that contributes to our knowledge of the Creator, albeit at a lower level than the truth of the Torah God gave us. Among these benefits also are the potential spiritual elevation that results from sanctification of the mundane, an attitude much favored by R. Lamm, drawing on hasidic sources.[5]

Most urgent, however, in my opinion, is the need for self-knowledge and human understanding. R. Lichtenstein has written of “the serpent potentially lurking within the finest of Edens.”[6] The finest of Edens includes our Orthodox institutions and the individuals and groups that comprise them. These are also not exempt from corruption, both of their own doing and through the infiltration of ideas uncritically adopted from the surrounding cultures. Studying history teaches that prevalent ways of living in our society are not the only ones possible; philosophy shows us that the beliefs and attitudes influential among intellectuals, assumed by the media, and parroted in our shuls and schools, are not the only ones available; literature helps us develop a way of speaking and imagining outside the language dominant in our culture.

The profound quarrel between the beliefs and obligations of Orthodoxy and what is acceptable and even normative in the culture that surrounds us has grown; the conflict has become harsher in the sixty years since R. Lichtenstein warned against the Apikoros in Eden. Therefore, the need for critical thinking and broad imagination is more urgent. The problem, however, is more than the widening gap dividing God-fearing Jews and the dominant culture. It may be easier for me to explain by looking at a late Victorian English novel.


George Gissing was a significant writer of his time, though not ranked among the giants. Gissing is known as a voice for the struggling lower classes, and The Odd Women (1893) plays a role in women’s studies. The book depicts three sisters, whose middle-class physician-father was expected to provide for them before his sudden death left them dependent on a small annuity supplemented by their own wages as unskilled workers. One ekes out a marginal living in teaching; another is paid to keep wealthier women company, both subsisting with neither success nor enjoyment. The third works in a shop; her looks attract a much older husband, with adequate means, but a man too set in his ways not to be a disaster. If they were brought up to read serious books, they are too worn down by the struggle for existence to keep it up. An intersecting plot involves two well-off women who offer salvation to the “odd women” in straitened circumstances, who are unlikely to find themselves a suitable mate, by teaching them how to type.

From one perspective the situation described and debated in this book is distant from us. We expect women to be gainfully employed before marriage and most married women continue to earn, preferably doing something both of use to others and fulfilling, or at least agreeable, to them. Our society would heartily agree with one of Gissing’s women who says, “There should be no such thing as a class of females vulgarized by the necessity of finding daily amusement,” and with her male cousin’s friendly amendment: “nor of males either.”[7]

For all the anxiety about money and material possessions that plagues our upper middle-class milieu, we can barely conceive the endless penny-pinching dreariness that characterizes Gissing’s lower middle-class women, women for whom the comfort provided by a glass of gin, for example, is purchased at the cost of food.

At the ideological level, the feminist voices in the book are uncertain as to whether marriage ought to be the norm for those women able to achieve married life with dignity. In the Orthodox community, by contrast, marriage remains the ideal. At the same time, the issues raised by Gissing’s novel continue to reverberate here and now. We support women working, yet we are unhappy about women putting the job ahead of the home. We do not possess a comfortable and feasible formula that silences our uneasiness. We preach marriage even as we strain to justify the sacrifices that are often seen as a weight on modern family domesticity. And we cannot repress our awareness of widespread misery; we know that most of our fellow human beings live in quiet desperation and physical want.

Two points to keep in mind: first, the temptation to “outsource” these questions, to kick them upstairs to some rabbinic authority who will supply the “correct” answers and enable us to keep going without thinking about them. If all that matters is external behavior this might work. However, we cannot separate our responses to these questions about women’s roles, family structure, social ills, and the like from our inner world of reflection and feeling. Our inner life, alas, cannot be outsourced.

Secondly, and related to the previous point, the questions such literature raises do not lend themselves to unambiguous cut-and-dried answers. It is not as if we can recognize one side of the discussion as evil and the other as good, and then simply fortify our “good instinct” against the evil one. When we consider The Odd Women, and other works of literature, philosophy, or history, we are confronted by insights from a different era and a different background that do not yield a straightforward final resolution. God gave us two eyes, enabling us to combine perspectives, and thus to see the world in greater depth. We study the liberal arts, in part, to see with that second eye, to free ourselves from the prison of one-dimensional thinking. If we have no permanent “solutions” to our questions about the role of women, the place of the family, or poverty, it is not because we have failed to press the right button or to summon the optimal expert; it is because these are questions that demand ongoing attention rather than difficulties to be disposed of.

When we encounter R. Lichtenstein’s evil enemy within, the Apikoros in Eden, the treatise of serpentine psychology ought to mobilize intellectual and psychological resources against evil. That Apikoros is still very much with us, yet today confusion more than conflict presides over the uncertain, fearful battlefield of modern life. Every metropolis, one might say, is darkened by the shadow of its own Tower of Babel, and the task of thinking religious individuals is not only to resist its temptations but no less, perhaps even more so, to overcome the cacophony of its “ignorant armies.”


Supporters of a genuine general education conjoined with the primacy of Torah have heard the objection that theirs is a noble but unrealistic program, and even more horrible, that it is elitist. Too many lack the intellectual capaciousness and commitment to do the work, and not many develop the sensitivity required to translate nominal educational breadth into spiritual depth.

Is this indeed a damning criticism of the “Torah u-Madda” program? Perhaps, its defenders will parry, little is lost by the masses who go through the motions of getting an education that is largely wasted on them. Only this morning I successfully used my refrigerator, turned on the stove, and operated the microwave without understanding the technology involved. Physicians may prefer active patients who are curious and intelligent about their condition, yet familiarity with biochemistry and physiology is not a prerequisite for receiving advanced cancer treatment. Insofar, then, as cultural literacy and critical acumen are viewed as a particular kind of intellectual competence or technical skill, the experts must have them; the rest of us do not.

One may therefore accuse me of overdramatizing. The issues mentioned earlier in connection with Gissing’s novel may be bothersome and unresolved, but most people, including benei and benot Torah, manage to muddle through: they do what everyone else does and think what everyone else thinks. It is neither feasible nor desirable for them to undertake the time-consuming drudgery of convening and presiding over their private think tanks. We compartmentalize our lives, behaving like other Orthodox Jews when advisable or necessary, otherwise “dimming the lights” and avoiding questions that require hard and sometimes distressing thought. “Outsourcing” may be a mediocre, shallow way of living, but it is a modus vivendi for the multitudes. From their perspective, nothing is seriously wrong with conformism that cannot be remedied by more conformism.

Indeed, this is nothing new, for the greatest minds have always handled mixed audiences, seeking to address the best while attempting to offer something true and edifying to the general. With respect to the cultivation of inwardness and self-examination, let us keep R. Soloveitchik’s words in mind: “Knowledge in general and self-knowledge in particular are gained not only from discovering logical answers but also from formulating logical, even though unanswerable, questions.”[8] When we contemplate living role models like Rambam and the Rav, one question we sometimes ask ourselves is what we can learn from how they dealt with this aspect of their teaching vocation. For their part, responsible rabbis, teachers, and parents carefully ponder the capacities and motivations of those whom they would influence. And in our predicament, we may be forced to make peace with our community’s limitations.

Why is that not quite good enough for us? If the primary goal of liberal arts education is specialized expertise or amassing a storehouse of information, compartmentalization and conformity might be adequate. Education would be a bonus conferred on the especially gifted or a luxury item for the cultured classes. The problem, however, if you follow the account I have just given, is that daily spiritual and moral activity requires all of us to draw upon the self-knowledge, human understanding, and critical facility gained through education. If the challenges we face, as religious individuals, are increasing, then engaging those outside the “magic circle” becomes more necessary but also more daunting.

Am I exaggerating the need? In recent years, there is more, not less, polarization in our society and community regarding a plethora of public issues: crime, social and economic inequality, the nature and value of democracy, and so forth. What would you have said only a few years ago about an America, and conspicuously the Orthodox inhabitants thereof, bitterly divided over the observance of such health precautions as vaccination and public masking?

Can these conflicts, and so many others like them be settled from the top down, by marshaling the best halakhic decision-making? Outward behavior can be controlled, to a limited degree. But whether we admit it or not, we know in our hearts that such conflicts are inextricably intertwined with a host of personal attitudes, informational, philosophical, and spiritual. To anyone familiar with history, philosophy, or literature the existence and stubborn persistence of the conflicts should not be surprising. We know that people will disagree about anything worth disagreeing about for all sorts of logical, ideological, and self-interested reasons. This is but one reason that trying to examine, understand, and appreciate critically how we and others contend with such complexities cannot be outsourced or overcome through authoritative pronouncements alone; we, as thinking individuals, must participate in the reflective work. Doing so may help create consensus or set the stage for compromise, though we must beware the tendency of those who seek shelter in homogeneous intellectual environments to misread the impediments to success. Precisely because modern people are so narrow, they underestimate the depth of disagreement and the incommensurability of diverse ways of thinking. Understanding why we differ from others, and why they differ from us may, at the very least, help raise the level of civility among the combatants.

Instead, we seem condemned to the steady deterioration of intellectual articulateness, along with the accelerating ideological Balkanization of society. Compartmentalization kept conflicts from becoming intolerable by masking the reality of contradictions among groups and within individuals. As the contradictions multiply and deepen, obliviousness to them is harder to feign. Conflicts in one area spill over into others, regardless of whether this expansion is justified logically or ideologically. What one high school principal is said to have told his teachers, that COVID would pass, but the ill-will in the community that COVID brought out, would not disappear so quickly, is a terrifying warning.

Intellectual breadth and self-discipline are now more crucial for everyone. But the exigency of our situation, which makes the need greater, also makes it infinitely harder to attain. Once upon a time the “Torah u-Madda” slogan advertised harmony and tolerance among Jews: compartmentalization helped one ignore or minimize fundamental quarrels. As reality breaks in, one fears that serious liberal arts education in our contemporary Babel may make communication more difficult, as people belonging to different educational subgroups no longer understand one another’s tongue.


Our subject until now has been the potential value and challenges of serious liberal arts study. Let us now look at another related element. The effect of breadth, articulateness, cohesive reasoning, and the like are not confined to cultural analysis, social dialogue, and self-examination. Internalized educational virtues influence our study of Torah and Judaism as well, whether we are speaking of Gemara, Tanakh, or Jewish thought or history. We all carry with us a tacit or explicit standard of what counts as a good question, well-formulated and perspicuous, and what is a far-fetched substitute for serious learning; correspondingly, we have our models of what constitutes a satisfactory answer. To be sure, many talmidei hakhamim without formal education or wide and deep reading explain themselves with exemplary lucidity, penetrating insight, and disciplined creativity; similarly, the acquisition of diplomas cannot disguise the intellectual mediocrity of others. Nonetheless, especially at the lower and middle levels, the discipline and perspective that ought to come with general education are somewhat correlated to our intellectual expectations and horizons in Torah as well.

Consider a disturbing but not unrepresentative example: a sincere, intelligent young man, not blessed with stellar yeshiva training, has chosen to devote as much of his discretionary time as possible to Torah study. When he studies Gemara or Tanakh, he raises noteworthy points and seeks to analyze them carefully and respectfully. To some extent, his seriousness owes something to his “secular” background and his academic and professional training. What he gets in return, at his local Beit Midrash, when he raises questions and explores possible insights, is a fanfaronade of cheerleading for Torah, varied with lame, half-hearted attempts at real discussion that veer off into self-celebratory proclamations about the superiority of the yeshivish lifestyle. After a while, the young man is disappointed; he will not go “off the derekh” whatever that means, but his appetite has been blunted.

There are ample remedies for the situation I have just sketched. Books are available; you can educate yourself. Recordings and Zoom sessions have brought high-quality shiurim into our living rooms. The internet allows us to prepare and review Torah at the highest level we are capable of. Many quality educators are happy to respond to e-mail or over the phone. If being part of the frum community obligates me, at times, to nod my head at tepid “discoveries,” to smile weakly at sugared, tiresome homilies and refrain from laughing at earnest, egregious non sequiturs, I am willing to pay the price of admission, just as my interlocutor is willing to look thoughtful and try to stay awake when he must attend my discourse. In Torah study, too, it is increasingly important for us to work with all the intellectual aptitude and integrity we can achieve. At the same time, it is disturbing to realize the danger of Babel invading our forums of Torah as well.


Lastly, we cannot forgo turning the tools of analysis and self-criticism at the putative fortress of liberal arts study: the academy. This is not the place to descant on the decline of the humanities in today’s university. Suffice it to say that academic scholarship and advancement in these fields has become progressively tied to supposedly scientific methods, meaning an over-reliance on quantitative data and specialized jargon; rejection, in the name of egalitarianism, of the idea that some books are more valuable than others in some significant way (morally, aesthetically, etc.), and the pressures of political correctness and secularism. Some of this scholarship is worth reading, although it does not pursue the traditional personal and cultural goals of humanistic learning. Much valuable work, more in the spirit of traditional humanism, continues to be produced. As a rule, however, professors of liberal arts are not distinguished by unusually intelligent thinking outside their area of expertise, nor are they paragons of self-insight or moral sensitivity.

R. Lichtenstein, in one of his last lectures on the subject, recognized that today’s universities may not provide the opportunities he took advantage of with Douglas Bush at Harvard. As I recall, he concluded that if the institutions of higher learning are no longer up to it, students would simply have to read and think on their own. In practical terms, because it is important to think critically and not to blindly follow the outlook prevalent in our society, or the ideas trumpeted by influential cliques, it is necessary to recognize that academics are also prone to huddle together in herds. Precisely because liberal arts research and success requires the approbation of the gatekeepers who have already “made it,” the pressure to conform in choice of subject matter, social attitudes, and other areas can be enormous. R. Lichtenstein, almost seventy years ago, and anyway not intending to make a career as an English professor, aggressively put his theological convictions on display in at least two crucial passages of his thesis on seventeenth-century Anglican writing. Would that be prudent today?

It would be attempting too much here to discuss in detail “academic Jewish studies.”[9] To the extent that utilizing the methods and insights of liberal arts disciplines to plumb the depths of Torah is appropriate, one can refer to much of what we said above. But insofar as the Torah is sui generis, different in kind from other disciplines, we cannot uncritically treat the Torah as we would any other ancient document. What standards to apply, when to incorporate “secular” insights and arguments, and when to refuse such interplay, requires substantial knowledge, long experience, and a strong sense of one’s identity and religious priorities.

The threat of adapting and assimilating what should be overriding convictions in order to blend into the professional landscape is especially acute in Jewish studies, precisely because they overlap with the subject matter of Torah, our beliefs about Torah she-bi-Ktav and Torah she-be-al Peh and the reverence that should go with them. Yirat Shamayim is liable to be corroded as the academic wannabe checks his or her emunot ve-deot at the door of the seminar room, adopts, perhaps unconsciously, the dispassionate tone of ironic sophistication that seems appropriate to the setting, and later discovers that the compromise initially done she-lo lishmah has at some point turned into lishmah. Students who consider choosing academic life as a refuge from the inbred rhetoric and the political claustrophobia they associate with institutional Orthodoxy should know that their new Eden may have its own rigidities and not always anticipated constraints.


Earlier I quoted from the Rav’s Lonely Man of Faith. The intellectual path that I chose and continue to commend is a lonely one. It was never a popular one. In today’s world, it is lonelier than before. In the same section, early in the essay, the Rav acknowledges that loneliness engenders “sharp enervating pain as well as a stimulating cathartic feeling.”[10] Solitude can be splendid when it “presses everything in me into the service of God.” At the same time, as we noted above, loneliness also means the threat of isolation and desolation, when our supposed gains in self-knowledge and knowledge of human reality erect a barrier between us and the rest of society.

I also referred to a remark by one of Gissing’s characters lamenting the fact that well-off people may be condemned to the vulgarizing task of seeking out a daily quota of amusement, for lack of anything better to do. Despite the frenetic pace of most modern lives, we have more time at our disposal than our ancestors; surely, we have many more years of schooling. How sad it would be if all that enormous expenditure of time and effort did not help us to press everything in us into the service of God.

[1] Aharon Lichtenstein, “A Consideration of General Studies from a Torah Point of View,” in Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning, Volume 1 (Jersey City: KTAV Publishing, 2003), 89-103 (quotation p. 93). An earlier version of the essay appeared under a different title in The Commentator, April 27, 1961 (Volume 26 Issue 10).
[2] George Gissing, The Unclassed (New York: R.F. Fenno, 1896), 165.
[3] Among my recent writings, see “As We Are Now Is Not the Only Way to Be: On the Place of the Humanities in Contemporary Religious Culture,” Tradition 45:2 (Summer 2012); also in Developing a Jewish Perspective on Culture, ed. Yehuda Sarna (Hoboken, 2013). Expanded version of one part of this paper appeared in First Things, November 2011 as “On Literature and the Life of Torah.” See also “The Proper Business of Mankind,” First Things (November 2018).
[4] R. Lichtenstein’s primary articles on the subject are the Commentator article noted above and its iteration inLeaves of Faith; “Tovah Hokhmah Im Nahalah”: On Torah and Wisdom,” in Mamlekhet Kohanim Ve-Goy Kadosh (Jerusalem: 1989), 25-43; and, most extensively, “Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict,” in Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration? ed. Jacob J. Schacter (Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1997), 217-92. For discussion of these works, plus R. Lichtenstein’s Henry More: the Rational Theology of a Cambridge Platonist and some unpublished discourse, see my “Music of the Left Hand: Personal Notes on the Place of Liberal Arts Education in the Teachings of R. Aharon Lichtenstein,” Tradition 47:4 (Winter 2014): 223-239, which is part of the biographical essay on which I collaborated with Shlomo Zuckier in Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, eds. Meir Y. Soloveichik, Stuart W. Halpern, Shlomo Zuckier (New York: 2016).
[5] See his Torah Umadda.
[6] Lichtenstein, “Consideration of General Studies,” 93.
[7] George Gissing, The Odd Women (New York and London: Macmillan and Co., 1893), 131.
[8] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (1965; Doubleday ed., 2006), 8.
[9] I have sketched some aspects of the methodological and substantial tensions in two programmatic articles: “To Get the Better of Words: an Apology for Yirat Shamayim in Academic Jewish Studies,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 2 (1990), and, respecting Tanakh, “A Room with a View but a Room of Our Own” in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, ed. Shalom Carmy (1996), which also appeared in Tradition 28:3 (Spring 1994).
[10] Soloveitchik, Lonely Man of Faith, 3.

To see the rest of the symposium, click here.

Shalom Carmy teaches philosophy and Jewish studies at Yeshiva University, and he is Editor Emeritus of Tradition. He has published hundreds of articles on Tanakh, Jewish thought, and other Torah subjects. He also serves as a Contributing Editor of First Things.