American Orthodoxy

Madda or Hokhmah? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the Integration of Torah and General Wisdom

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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

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks first met Rabbi Norman Lamm when the former was an undergraduate. R. Sacks described himself at the time as “religiously perplexed” and in need of a guide.[1] The two spoke about the conundrum of the two separate worldviews presented by Torah u-Madda and the disciplines that enliven each, but R. Sacks left without clarity on the relationship between them. In his lengthy review of R. Lamm’s book on the subject several decades later, R. Sacks traveled through the six models of Torah u-Madda as they were presented in the book and some of the problems associated with each. He acknowledged R. Lamm’s contribution to the discussion but stated that a defining question remained: where is the case for the Torah? When it comes to general studies, knowledge, and culture, these the “vast majority of today’s Jews already have in superabundance. What they do not have is Torah.”[2] This, he writes, requires “persuasive advocacy.” And then R. Sacks issued a challenge to R. Lamm, one that R. Lamm never took R. Sacks up on: the writing of a book to make the case for Torah in a world saturated with values and behaviors that challenge the primacy of Torah at every turn.[3]

One might argue that in throwing down the gauntlet, R. Sacks was actually confirming the work that he himself sought to accomplish in his public lectures both outside the confines of the Jewish community and within it. He used his position and the platform of the Chief Rabbi to promote this kind of constant integration, and, of course, it is evident on virtually every page of his many books and in his sedrah commentaries. R. Sacks often began his talks, essays, and book chapters with the latest of worldly wisdom―sociological trends, demographic reports, newspaper headlines―or a broad sweep of history or philosophy only then to explain how, in fact, the Torah actually addressed these very same issues and provided a solution or alternate perspective. He was doing what he challenged R. Lamm to do, which arguably R. Lamm did do―not in book form, but in the day-to-day work of running Yeshiva University, in the giving of his sermons, and in selecting the topics he addressed in his writings.

R. Sacks’s perspective on Torah u-Madda went far beyond a defense of general studies. This seemed, in ways, perhaps too small an objective or too obvious to defend, given his own educational background and commitments. Instead, he tried to present an integrated worldview not about what to study, but about how to live an integrated life, especially given modernity’s confrontation with tradition. He was the great defender of the faith and the faithful, according them not only a place of honor and dignity, but, in some measure, a position of moral advantage. They already had, within their tradition, the keys to an enviable life of meaning and purpose. That which to others may look and sound old-fashioned―like Sabbath observance, traditional family structures, prayer, a life of covenant and community―were, to him, remarkable contributions to Western civilization that spoke freshly to contemporary life’s trials and torments. If only everyone else knew more about and appreciated Judaism’s great contributions, there may be a lessening of the terrible loneliness and surrounding ennui of a society ethically adrift.

R. Sacks described this conversation across the ages in his review of R. Lamm’s book, where he described Torah u-Madda not so much as an educational philosophy as an intellectual and spiritual edifying activity of give-and-take:

Torah Umadda is a process rather than an ideology. It is the ongoing dialogue in which Jews reflect on the meeting between Torah, experienced as timeless command, and the time- and place-specific culture in which they have been set. That meeting has usually enriched both sides. Jews have taken and given in return.[4]

Wherever Jews have existed, they have participated in the dialogue that culture has presented, contributed to its enrichment, and gained in the process. They must do so, however, by first being well versed in their own tradition and proud of it. Only then will they gain the respect of others: “I discovered that non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism. Non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.”[5]

Just as R. Sacks visited R. Lamm, he also approached R. Soloveitchik to ponder the very same issues and to understand the Rav’s rich use of philosophy:

Rabbi Soloveitchik challenged me to think. At that time I was studying philosophy, and soon discovered that he was a master in the field. His approach to Jewish philosophy was unlike any I had encountered before. Already in that first meeting he outlined for me the method he had made his own. Jewish philosophy, he said, had to emerge from Halakhah, Jewish law. Jewish thought and Jewish practice were not two different things but the same thing seen from different perspectives. Halakhah was a way of living a way of thinking about the world―taking abstract ideas and making them real in everyday life.

These were immensely inspiring figures, but what struck me most about them was the depth of their commitment to real engagement with the world. Rabbi Soloveitchik had no fears about the intellectual challenges posed by modern thought. He had studied it widely and deeply and felt no ultimate conflict between the worlds of the yeshiva and the university. The very institution in which he taught―Yeshiva University―defined itself simultaneously as both.[6]

His trip to Yeshiva University had certainly inspired him, but, with the exception of his review of R. Lamm’s work, R. Sacks clearly preferred the expression “Torah and Hokhmah[7]―Judaism and wisdom―rather than Torah u-Madda.[8] Where “madda” implies the realm of science, or more generally, secular disciplines, “hokhmah” encompasses all forms of wisdom that can benefit from the Torah’s enduring relevance. In discrete places, R. Sacks substantiates this approach without ever presenting a full-throated defense. That he deemed this integration essential is apparent in the R. Lamm review, where he asks the question simply, “What is, or should be, the relationship between Judaism and secular culture?” and then deems it “The question of Jewish modernity [italics his].”[9] He also opined on this in his book Future Tense, a book he wrote because he feared that Judaism was in danger of losing its place as a critical voice and force to shape humankind. On some level, this may have been the book he wished R. Lamm had written.

In Future Tense, R. Sacks describes the difference between Torah and hokhmah and the importance of consilience:

Chokhmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chokhmah is the shared heritage of mankind; Torah is the particular heritage of the Jewish people. Chokhmah is the world of ‘is,’ of fact; Torah is the world of ‘ought,’ of command. Chokhmah is where we encounter God through creation; Torah is how we hear God through revelation. The two are not equal in their significance to Jews―Torah is holy in a way chokhmah cannot be―yet both are significant, for if we are to apply Torah to the world, we must understand the world to which it applies. Because the God of creation is also the God of revelation, there is ultimate harmony between them, even though, given the imperfections in our understanding of both, it may not be evident at any given moment. There must, I believe, be an ongoing conversation between them, for otherwise Torah will remain a closed system with no grip, no purchase, no influence, on the world outside its walls.[10]

Beneath the rhetorical flourish lie the stark realities that these worlds, indeed mindsets, cannot always fit together comfortably. The Torah is inherited, particularistic, and aspirational. It is holy. Hokhmah, in contrast, must be explored and discovered rather than assumed. It is universalistic and descriptive. In this, R. Sacks shares the gifts of hokhmah and also its perceived limitations.[11] The two domains must remain in constant dialogue, if only―as R. Sacks mentions here―so that Torah can have the purchase it deserves. Leave it out of the conversation, and it can neither inform nor influence.

R. Sacks was also clearly concerned that those who represent the Torah were becoming increasingly inward and narrow, and that this constriction may betray, in part, the Torah’s very essence and purpose in generating light and wisdom for the world:

A Judaism divorced from society will be a Judaism unable to influence society. It will live and thrive and flourish behind high walls within its own defensive space, but it will not speak to those who wrestle with the very realities―poverty, disease, injustice, inequality and other assaults on human dignity―to which Torah was directed in the first place.[12]

This place that Torah is to occupy comes from the Torah itself, in a verse used by many Jewish thinkers, including Maimonides, to justify this endeavor: “Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people’” (Deuteronomy 4:6). Rashi, ad loc, comments, “Through this (wisdom) you will be deemed wise and understanding people in the eyes of the nations.” Rashi then asks and answers his own question: “What wisdom and understanding is there in the Torah that is in the eyes of the nations? You must say: This is the calculation of astronomical seasons and the movement of constellations, as the calculation of experts is witnessed by all.”[13] If we are to be a wise and discerning nation, it will be because we have a shared language with all of humanity, a language in the medieval world that Maimonides occupied, of physics and metaphysics.[14]

This desideratum is hardly achievable if we are not sufficiently educated in intellectual disciplines to share this language with the broader community. To this, R. Sacks wrote in Future Tense: “If we are to apply Torah to the world, we must understand the world. We need a new generation of Jews committed to the dialogue between sacred and secular if Judaism is to engage with the world and its challenges.”[15] Where in his review of Torah Umadda he questioned if Jews knew enough about Torah, in Future Tense, his concern is that the Jews of his day were not sufficiently tutored in general studies to participate in this ongoing dialogue, let alone contribute to it.

This gentle nudge to enjoy the process of discovery without finding one’s faith commitments threatened or compromised was not, in any way, to place Torah and madda on the same footing. Perhaps anticipating criticism or concern, R. Sacks advanced his position in the Lamm review:

Torah and madda are not equal partners… If we understand Judaism, we are led to explore the world we are called on to change. But if we understand the world, we are not led by that fact alone to explore Torah. The defence of Torah is intrinsically more difficult than the defence of madda.[16]

Here, R. Sacks believed that madda has the capacity to swallow the interests and energies of its proponents, who might then never turn to the Torah for guidance. This is why R. Sacks believed that advocating a life of Torah rather than merely assuming its values was one of the chief responsibilities of Jewish leaders.

Being well-educated in Torah and general studies, having the capacity to balance one’s time and one’s priorities, and representing Judaism well to the world ― is an arduous challenge. This difficulty was brought to bear at R. Sacks’s commencement address to Yeshiva University in 1997, where he singled out Yeshiva University graduates to take up the mantle of the Torah’s defense and the heady responsibility of integration:

I believe today the Jewish people [are] suffering from a lesion which has broken the connection between the left and right hemispheres of the Jewish people. And there is only one group of people who can help to heal that fracture, and that is you—the graduates of Yeshiva University—because you, almost alone in today’s Jewish world, have learned to combine Torah and chochma [‘wisdom’], to integrate Yeshiva and University.[17]

This address was, in essence, a continuation of the mandate he gave to R. Lamm.[18] But R. Sacks did not reference this integration as Torah u-Madda, even in the setting of a Yeshiva University event! He still called it hokhmah. This persistent use of terminology may be his simple and ultimate reframing of Torah u-Madda as a much more expansive enterprise encompassing all of life, not merely its cerebral aspects. For this synthesis to work, it has to be far more engaging than an intellectual approach; instead, it must embrace and inform all of life’s decisions and activities. R. Sacks’s appeal to R. Lamm and to Yeshiva University graduates to join him in the promotion of Torah values as a well-educated exemplar of this synthesis may have also been a thinly disguised request for more company.

R. Sacks also hoped that his own broad congregation in the United Kingdom and across the Commonwealth would also join him in this campaign as evident by the charge he set forth in his last formal publication as the Chief Rabbi. There he offers a call and a mandate to operationalize synthesis by being both proud and unapologetic as Jews and, from this noble perch, engage with the world and make Judaism profoundly relevant as a solution to a host of contemporary problems. I cite the three paragraphs together because they seem to represent a fulcrum of his thinking on this issue:

The challenge of our time is to go out to Jews with a Judaism that relates to the world―their world―with intellectual integrity, ethical passion and spiritual power, a Judaism neither intimidated by the world nor dismissive of it, a Judaism fully expressive of the broad horizons and high ideals of our heritage. There is no contradiction, not even a conflict, between contributing to humanity and affirming our distinctive identity. To the contrary: by being what only we are, we contribute to the world what only we can give [italics his].

We have much to teach the world―and the world has much to teach us. It is essential that we do so with generosity and humility. I have called Judaism the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind. Our ability to survive some of the worst tragedies any people has known without losing our faith in life itself; to suffer and yet rebuild; to lose and yet recreate; to honour the past without being held captive by the past―all of which are embodied today in the State of Israel, living symbol of the power of hope―are vitally important not just to ourselves but to the world.

In the twenty-first century, Jews will need the world, and the world will need the Jews [italics his]. We will not win the respect of the world if we ourselves do not respect the world: if we look down on non-Jews and on Jews less religious than ourselves. Nor will we win the respect of the world if we do not respect ourselves and our own distinctive identity. Now more than ever the time has come for us to engage with the world as Jews, and we will find that our own world of mind and spirit will be enlarged.[19]

Whether or not he succeeded in convincing others of the merits of a fully integrated life, R. Sacks lived and modeled one himself. That, in every sense, is more worthy of emulation than whatever he wrote to convince us. And we, the inheritors of his phenomenally rich legacy, will remain forever grateful.

[1] Jonathan Sacks, “Torah Umadda: The Unwritten Chapter,” reprinted in Norman Lamm, Torah Umadda (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2010), 204. The original review appeared in Jews’ College journal of Jewish Studies, L’eylah 30 (Sept. 1990): 10-15.
[2] Ibid., 218.
[3] I do not believe this challenge was a rhetorical device to make his point. Rabbi Sacks writes explicitly of Rabbi Lamm that “no one could write it better” (ibid., 218).
[4] Sacks, “The Unwritten Chapter,” 216.
[5] Jonathan Sacks, A Judaism Engaged with the World (self pub., 2013), 23.
[6] Ibid., 11. I am grateful to both R. Johnny Solomon and Dan Sacker for directing me to this digital monograph that R. Sacks penned as he was completing his years as the Chief Rabbi. At the end of the publication, he wrote that he was stepping down after 22 years of service “feeling younger and more energized” than when he started (28). It is interesting to note that while this may be R. Sacks’s most compelling defense of Judaism’s engagement with the world, he used neither “Torah u-Madda” nor “Torah and hokhmah” anywhere in the essay, despite using and translating other Hebrew words. Perhaps he felt that these phrases actually limited the vision he was trying to put forth or sounded too particularistic for his audience.
[7] One of the distinct advantages of the term madda is its ease of pronunciation and spelling, especially for a non-Hebrew speaker and reader. Hokhmah can be written in a variety of ways; the difference in spellings used in the citations in this essay reflect the original citations and were kept for the sake of accuracy. R. Sacks himself spells hokhmah (or chokhmah) differently in different places. When not in a direct quote, the spelling follows the Lehrhaus style guide.
[8] In correspondence (January 18, 2020), R. Johnny Solomon posits that R. Sacks preferred the term hokhmah because it is biblical “and thus its use conveyed greater authenticity.” Solomon also suggests that R. Sacks used hokhmah because madda is often used as a synonym for general studies, making it, as I have contended in this essay, too limiting. Solomon notes that in R. Sacks’s book, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, it would be an anachronism to equate hokhmah with secular knowledge because, as R. Sacks wrote, “The concept of secular knowledge hardly existed before Sir Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning (1605). Chokhmah has many meanings in classical Hebrew, but in its primary sense I define it as the knowledge of the natural universe as the creation of God, and of the human being as the image of God” (New York: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2003), 34.
[9] Sacks, “Torah Umadda: The Unwritten Chapter,” 203.
[10] Jonathan Sacks, The Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah (London: HarperCollins, 2003), 6-7. In Future Tense, R. Sacks uses almost identical language: “Chokhmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chokhmah is the universal heritage of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chokhmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God. Chokhmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding. Chokhmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be. Chokhmah is about facts; Torah is about commands. Chokhmah yields descriptive, scientific laws; Torah yields prescriptive, behavioural laws. Chokhmah is about creation; Torah is about revelation” (214). Repetition of a sentiment he expresses elsewhere seems to be a reasonable indicator of how strongly he held a particular view and what the view was.
[11] R. Dr. Rafi Zarum pointed out in correspondence (January 20, 2022) that when R. Sacks referred to Torah u-Madda as a process rather than an ideology, R. Sacks may have been “referring to the changing face of madda, and thus the relationship to Torah, in different historical periods and contexts.” Zarum also notes that Torah u-Madda may evolve for us as a concept and life framework as we go through different psychological stages. The binary way in which Torah u-Madda is so often assumed and discussed is almost too simplistic: “The ideal perspective is to have a unified view, which comes in the act of living a life.” In considering these ideas, Zarum directs readers to James Fowler’s Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: Harper One, 1995).
[12] Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Schocken Books, 2012), 227.
[13] Rashi on Shabbat 75a.
[14] Much has been written on this. For a helpful framework, see Dov Schwartz, “The Passion for Metaphysics in Maimonides’ Thought” [Hebrew], Daʿat 81 (2016): 162–206; see also Joel L. Kraemer, “Maimonides on Aristotle and Scientific Method,” in Moses Maimonides and His Time, ed. Eric L. Ormsby (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1989), 53–88.
[15] Sacks, Future Tense, 211.
[16] Sacks, “The Unwritten Chapter,” 218.
[17] This was the 66th commencement address at Yeshiva University. The full address is available here.
[18] I thank R. Johnny Solomon for reminding me of an important passage on Torah u-Madda in Rabbi Sacks’s Traditional Alternatives (printed in North America under the title Arguments for the Sake of Heaven): “Speaking at its fiftieth anniversary, he [R. Norman Lamm] recalled that as a student he had complained to the then President, ‘Why don’t you tell me how to combine the two worlds?’ He was told, ‘Our job is to give you the materials, your job is to let them interact within you.’ Rabbi Lamm added: ‘I disagreed then. But I agree now.’ The synthesis, in other words, could not be made programmatic. It was personal. It did not take place in the curriculum. It took place in the mind of the student.” Solomon wisely observes that when R. Sacks was young, he thought Rabbi Lamm should write a book to explain how to do this work of synthesis but that as he aged, he understood that no such book could be written and that there is something perhaps disingenuous in the attempt, as Solomon writes in personal correspondence with the author: “Ultimately, rather than writing a book about ‘how’ to achieve this, Rabbi Sacks became the living ‘Sefer Torah V’Chokhmah for our generation, and in doing so, modelled to us that―though admittedly challenging―this is the ideal way to live one’s life as a Jew.” I am grateful to him, to Dan Sacker, R. Dr. Stu Halpern, and R. Dr. Rafi Zarum for their helpful comments on this essay.
[19] Sacks, A Judaism Engaged with the World, 24-25.

To see the rest of the symposium, click here.

Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the founding director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership. Her most recent book is Staying Human: Wartime Fragments of Anguish and Hope (Maggid). Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, an Avi Chai Fellow, the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award, and is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation. She has written 13 books on the Hebrew Bible, spirituality, and leadership, co-authored 2 books, and co-edited one anthology. She has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet, First Things, and The Jewish Review of Books. She wrote a monthly column for the New York Jewish Week and is a consulting editor for the journal Tradition. She currently serves as a community scholar for Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston, New Jersey. She is the proud mother of four children, four in-law children, and five beautiful grandchildren.