American Orthodoxy

Torah u-Madda Thirty Years Later

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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 religious person who loves knowledge and is stimulated by study of all kinds, I owe a great debt to Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm z”l. Thirty years ago, he set out to describe why study of general knowledge (Madda) alongside a Torah curriculum is religiously meaningful. As the chancellor of a university that offered such a dual curriculum, his goal was to describe how the individual student might understand and orient the study of secular knowledge as a Jewish pursuit. Dr. Lamm’s own life’s work reflected his belief that the mind is a primary, if not the primary way to inspire a connection to God.

In this essay, I summarize Dr. Lamm’s original arguments on behalf of Torah u-Madda and then push us to articulate new avenues and questions about the relationship(s) between Torah and Madda that have emerged as central thirty years later.

In his writings, he articulates six models for the relationship between Madda and Torah:

His first model – called the rationalist model – is Maimonidean. According to this model, study of science, philosophy, and metaphysics brings one to greater knowledge of God and God’s creation, and thus constitutes a religious obligation.

The second model, which he labels “cultural,” is based on Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s idea of Torah im derekh Eretz, or alternatively, Denkgalubigkeit, or enlightened Orthodoxy. His version seems to be more about not being too intellectually narrow-minded than about shaping an actual dialogue between secular studies and Torah. Moreover, he sees the value in secular studies being able to help explain and facilitate Torah, such as the use of chemistry to explain ta’aruvot.

Rav Kook serves as the exemplar of the third model, the mystical model, of Torah u-Madda. According to this model, when a religious person studies secular wisdom, the secular can become infused with holiness. Not only does the mundane not mar what is holy, there is no true realm of the secular because it becomes infused with holiness.

Rabbi Lamm distinguishes his final three models by describing them as emerging from Eastern European Jewish life, the first two related to Mitnaggedic thought and the final related to Hasidic thought.

The fourth model is the instrumentalist model which he attributes to the Vilna Gaon in which secular knowledge has no inherent value. Instead, it is valuable insofar as it helps students of Torah to understand Torah better. Thus, the study of Madda is a type of hekhsher (preparation for a) mitzvah rather than a mitzvah in its own right.

The fifth model combines R. Hayyim of Volozhin’s hierarchical understanding of various Torah texts with the Rambam’s inclusion of the study of metaphysics, science, and philosophy within the concept of Gemara. By this model, labeled “inclusionary,” the study of Madda is equivalent to the study of “textless” Torah. In other words, it has value, but it does not have the same value as the text of Torah itself. It is valuable insofar as the world is an emanation or disguise of God, and thus, studying the world is an attempt to grow closer to God.

It is the final model which is both the most original and the one which Rabbi Lamm clearly espouses as his own, even as he recognizes the value of all six models. The final model is a creative appropriation of the theological paradigm shift of Divine immanence offered by Hasidic thought. While Dr. Lamm admits that the Hasidic masters negated the study of Madda as “alien studies” that undercut “pure faith,” nonetheless, the ideology of Hasidism itself contains the potential for understanding the religious value of general studies. The Hasidic focus on Divine immanence and the resulting value of having a pervasive God consciousness in all aspects of life shaped the concept of avodah be-gashmiut, worship of the Divine through corporeality. Rabbi Lamm argues that this concept is ripe for application to the study of Madda: all of one’s activities, including all intellectual activities, can be oriented towards the service of God.

A colleague recently summarized Rabbi Lamm’s argument for Torah u-Madda as follows: he wanted Orthodox Jews to be curious and confident – that is, curious about all forms of knowledge, but confident in their commitment to Torah. But his arguments are primarily directed over his right shoulder, towards those who are quite confident in Torah but are not curious about Madda: those who see “Torah only” as the way to live a truly religious life. Today we expand that category to include not necessarily “Torah only” stalwarts, but those religious people who show little to no interest in general society. For people who are confident but lacking in curiosity, Rabbi Lamm’s arguments still stand thirty years later.

However, today there are also many in Orthodoxy who are not just curious but who value Madda deeply. And even those who do not value it deeply are nevertheless exposed to it all the time whether through books, the internet, or the arts. Moreover, many yeshiva day school students pursue degrees – both undergraduate and graduate – at secular universities, where they enjoy a sophisticated Madda education. What is more concerning for this subset is confidence: ensuring that Torah does not lose its vitality.

The Torah u-Madda inquiry for this group is not whether Madda is valuable; it is whether and how Madda should influence our understanding of Torah. This entails asking two separate questions:

  1. How should our understanding of Torah relate to questions posed by Madda disciplines?
  2. How should our understanding of Torah relate to answers offered by Madda disciplines?

Bringing the questions of Madda into the study of Torah.

Since time immemorial, people have asked themselves the most basic questions about what it means to be human, our place in the universe, what it means to have a relationship with God, what a good life looks like, how to construct a good society, and how we ought to respond to injustice. Within those broader questions follow more specific questions. For individuals, for example, how to deal with personal adversity, how to relate to God and to nature, how to balance commitments to others with one’s own needs and autonomy. For communities and societies, how to deal with conflict and difference, the role of boundaries and rules, how to inculcate a sense of mutual responsibility, the role and value proposition of power, and balancing between the collective and the individual. By virtue of being human beings, we have some basic questions in common, even if some of our questions differ based on local circumstance.

Many forms of general knowledge – both the sciences and the humanities – address these more universal questions either explicitly or implicitly. The humanities – including psychology, literature, sociology and philosophy– relate deeply to the human experience. They reflect quite clearly and in a familiar idiom many of the questions that preoccupy me as a person living in the 21st century.

Torah also addresses such questions, but sometimes it can be hard to detect how. Torah – and here I refer to Tanakh and Gemara specifically – do not speak in overtly philosophical categories even as they contain so much philosophy. Moreover, they are not organized based on the kinds of themes we might think about today as philosophical – such as epistemology, ontology, justice, or even theology. Instead, the organizing principles of Torah relate to Halakhah or narratives. It takes some work to pull out the broader themes in order to frame them in a way that is familiar to general discourse today, and especially to broader themes that respond to universal human experiences and questions.

I believe that bringing some of the framing questions of Madda into the beit midrash provides a fruitful way to relate Madda and Torah: doing so can help us access the implicit ways that Torah addresses these questions.

Permit the following illustration:
The opening sugya of masekhet Hullin is all about who may perform shehitah because of the opening words of the mishnah הכל שוחטין. The Gemara goes on for several dapim trying to ascertain who is included in the ha-kol of ha-kol shohatin. When I first learned this sugya, my orientation[1] was primarily halakhic – at the end of the day, who may perform shehitah? While this orientation certainly helped me understand the bottom line of the discussion, it did not necessarily deepen my appreciation of the many options that were offered before the bottom line was proffered.

However, when I tried on a different framing after reading contemporary theory about the construction of communities and their boundaries, I observed an additional layer of the debate over ha-kol shohatin: this halakhic debate is also rabbinic case study in constructing community. The rabbis are responding to an age-old human question: what hard boundaries are necessary for the construction of a community, and what boundaries should remain porous? When do we look for affinity between ourselves and adjacent groups who may share some practices with us and not others? What actions can be done by “outsiders,” and what actions are reserved for “insiders”? All of these questions are contained in asking who is permitted to slaughter our food – whether they need to be a fully bought-in member of the community who espouses the same belief system, or perhaps they might be part of a group that is distinct but shares some practices and beliefs with us. This orientation towards learning the sugya deepened my appreciation for the shakla v’taria, as the sugya negotiates when to narrow the boundaries and when to expand them.

To be clear, this orientation does not replace the halakhic orientation; rather it places the halakhic orientation within the context of ongoing universal questions. It makes Torah both normative in a legal sense but also formative in a philosophical sense, informed by and informing general human experience.[2] What I call a Madda orientation connects the halakhic discussions to questions that any person might have when they wake up in the morning and observe their own lived experience. It expresses the multi-layered relevance of Torah: how religion encompasses our beliefs and obligations, and in doing so it offers wisdom related to the ongoing questions of human life. Who may slaughter my food does not appear on its face to be an existential question but a halakhic one. But seen through the rabbis’ philosophical lens, this halakhic question IS an existential question. Both the halakhic and philosophical orientations matter a great deal. The playfulness and debates of the shakla v’taria itself reflect this expansiveness. And I do not think I would have understood the universal layer alongside the particular layer without appreciating the kinds of questions that Madda often deals with.

More recently, I’ve been thinking about uncertainty, given how much uncertainty pervades during this pandemic. While we often group sugyot about safek by their respective legal arenas, I looked through an additional lens at the rabbinic material, one that is more overtly philosophical. Thinking about rov, mi’ut and hazakah through the prism of life’s uncertainty underscored just how many big ideas are contained in the daily decision-making of halakhic life. Moreover, rather than narrowing my focus to the particular halakhic concepts, I was able to juxtapose rabbinic discussions related to kashrut with debates about certainty and uncertainty in the judicial system, and again with aggadot about giving people the benefit of the doubt.[3] It is true that when I learn or teach these sugyot, I may include an excerpt from this or that philosopher. However, what I suggest here is not necessarily about citing a Madda passage alongside Torah. It is about bringing the philosophical questions framed by Madda about human life into the study of Torah – not to the exclusion of other orientations, but in addition to them. My study of the humanities and my study of Torah are in dialogue with one another.

There is of course a branch of study known as Jewish philosophy. However, we need not restrict our philosophical inquiry to that discipline alone: it belongs in the study of Tanakh, Gemara, and Halakhah as well.

What about the answers of Madda?

For those who already appreciate Madda, there is another dimension to consider in the relationship between Torah and Madda. How do the answers – not only the questions – offered by Madda impact the way we interpret Torah and shape a Torah-observant lifestyle? To be clear, by Madda I mean the conventional wisdom, ethics, and assumptions of the ambient cultures in which Torah is being understood and lived out.

In fact, one might say that Torah u-Madda is less of a prescription than a description. From the Humash itself, which references Mesopotamian law and myth to Hazal’s engagement with Greco-Roman and Persian culture, to Saadia Gaon’s exegetical and philosophical revolutions, to the tumult of modernity that yielded Ultra-Orthodoxy, Sarah Schenirer’s Bais Yaakov movement, and religious Zionism, to 21st century neo-Hasidic movements today, Torah has generally been lived and/or expressed in negotiation with the intellectual and cultural trends of different times and places. Thus, just as the Gemara in Menahot pictures Moshe Rabbeinu not understanding the discussions of R. Akiva’s beit midrash, Jews of other generations might likewise be confused if they found themselves today in any Orthodox community – be that community more conservative or more progressive. There would certainly be shared threads, but there would be profound differences.

However, the negotiation is not monochromatic. Jewish leaders and communities have always engaged in a process of determining (consciously and less so) what aspects of general culture to incorporate, what aspects to reject and what aspects to mediate through a push and pull. And today is no different. It is this process of determining adoption, adaptation and/or rejection that poses a major question and perhaps a crisis for Modern Orthodox Jews in the 21st century who are rooted in Torah but see truth in Madda as well. How much should/can the understanding offered by 21st century Madda impact our interpretation of Torah and halakhic life?

To be sure, there are plenty of ideas within Madda that can help reinforce ideals that are already found easily within Torah: where a beautiful poem can elucidate a Torah idea in our own vernacular or today’s neo-Platonists can help us understand the Rambam better or ritual theory can reinforce the importance of performing mitzvot. But there is also Madda that challenges what we thought about the world and about the human condition, and that is where Torah u-Madda gets complicated. It is this tension that pushes some people towards Torah only and others towards Madda only. (And, of course, it is this tension that erupted into denominationalism in European Jewish life just a few centuries ago) One obvious site of tension about the questions of adoption/adaptation/rejection within Orthodoxy today relates to gender, but there are and will emerge other arenas as well.

Anyone who is reading this publication is likely familiar with – and may even personally experience – the strain between Torah and contemporary Madda. In fact, one can find debates about such clashes in the “pages” of Lehrhaus and other Orthodox publications. However, it is important to frame this specifically as a Torah u-Madda tension because that is precisely what it is. Those who choose “Torah only” do not confront this issue in the same way because of the overt attempt to keep Torah life from intersecting with the trajectory of the broader human conversation. (This does not mean, however, that “Torah only” environments are not impacted by general culture. In fact, they too may even unconsciously adopt or adapt certain general cultural ideas; they likewise may be shaped precisely through their rejection of Madda’s answers, which in itself is a form of influence.) But for those who have chosen the Torah u-Madda path, the where, when, and how of adoption, adaptation, or rejection will define Orthodox life in the 21st century. Sometimes these choices will be negotiated more subtly, at other times more explicitly; some choices will emerge from “facts on the ground,” others from articulated arguments; some from leadership and others from the actions of community members themselves. But as we have already seen, people and institutions within the Orthodox world will continue to disagree about where to draw the boundaries, what influences are legitimate, and not only what is desirable but where authority lies in shaping Orthodox life.

In April 1990, Dr. Lamm said the following in an interview with the The Jewish Review:

I should point out that all Torah-U-Madda is based upon the belief that the world of culture outside of Torah is not necessarily a friend or an enemy, and you must neither dismiss it with contempt and fight it, nor embrace it without reservation. But, on the contrary, you have to be both critical and respectful of it, and it is this sort of engagement which is what we stand for.

While Rabbi Lamm was very clear on which aspects of Madda he critiqued and which he respected, a (the?) major challenge of Modern Orthodox continuity in the twenty-first century will be determining its critique of and respect for the world of human inquiry outside of Torah. What conclusions of secular culture do we abstain from or reject, what do we embrace, and what does the messy in between look like?

And of course, the meta-question: can we stay together as a community if we answer this question differently from one another?

[1] I have used the term “orientation” here based on an article by Jon Levisohn charting ten orientations to teaching rabbinics. He explains that an orientation refers to what one is trying to extrapolate from the text. For instance, while learning a talmudic sugya, a person might focus on skill building – learning grammar, syntax, or vocabulary. Alternatively, a person might focus on learning the practical Halakhah. A third option: one might zoom in on the historical experience of ancient rabbinic culture through the study of a sugya. And there are many other options. While these are not mutually exclusive options, of course, they do each lead to a different focus and distribution of time spent on different aspects of one’s learning/teaching. I believe that studying Madda – and particularly the humanities – has the potential to orient one’s study of Torah towards a philosophical engagement with some of the most pressing human questions.
[2] See Moshe Halbertal’s People of the Book for a distinction between normativity and formativity. I believe that Orthodox communities need both.
[3] It is worth noting that Jewish studies in academia often follows this precise pattern: taking a question in general human thought and examining how it is reflected in Jewish texts. In the case of uncertainty, for example, I was aided by Chaya Halberstam’s book Law and Truth in Biblical and Rabbinic Literature – which explores how the concept of “truth” was understood by Hazal – and Moshe Halbertal’s book The Birth of Doubt, which examines different negotiations of safek in rabbinic literature.

To see the rest of the symposium, click here.

Elana Stein Hain is the Director of Faculty and a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She was one of Professor Halivni’s final three graduate students.