Monday, July 24, 2006

Secular Studies

[Note: For related information, check out the Kollel, College, and Modern Orthodoxy sections -taon]

"Kedei lehoros" - if you are in a position where you need to pasken on something, or "da ma lahashiv" - in order to know what to answer, you are permitted to learn or see whatever necessary. To get things in perspective, that includes shmutz and avodah zorah as well. If let's say a parent or Rebbe needs to know what their child or student is reading, they are allowed to examine it even if it may be something that they would chas vsholom never be caught dead looking at.

And even then it's worthwhile to "clear things" first. Rabbi Avigdor Miller ZTL went to Rav Moshe Feinstein ZTL asking if it is permitted for him to learn the New Testament in order to disprove it. Rav Moshe said "For you it is permitted", which meant that the heter is not blanket.

There is no question that a doctor is allowed halachicly to perform medical procedures on women patients. But humans are humans and "lev yodeah maras nafsho" so it is certainly not advisable - or even permitted - for everyone to go into that field. It is a mitzvah to save someone from a burning fire, but unskilled people are fools if they try. All they will accomplish is their own demise.


Secular studies are permitted kdei lehoros - like studying apikorsus is, like going into a Church, and other things that normally are forbidden - and in the laws of tznius, as well, in order to pasken, certain things are permitted and required that would otherwise be assur.

A doctor may examine women. That doesn't mean you shouldn't tell people it’s assur. And it doesn't mean "it depends on the individual."

The rule is: assur. That’s what we teach. A doctor is an exception.

Anybody who is on the level to have to read apikorsus in order to pasken understands that by himself.


Sislovitz, White Russia, 1900. A young masmid (diligent Torah scholar) by the name of Aaron Pines spends his days and night immersed in Torah learning. He is an intellectual prodigy, an anomaly among his peers. He is also an orphan – his mother died when he was an infant, and his father, the Rav of Sislovitz, passed away when he was just 12.

Having no home, Aaron thought to perhaps stay in the dormitory of a yeshiva, but first he had to be admitted - an impossible task for a child of 12. But he had little choice.

So he walked into the great Yeshiva of Slabodka, and, approaching the great Tzadik, The Alter of Slabodka, Aaron lacked the nerve to request admission to the Yeshiva Gedolah at such a young age, so instead he just began speaking to the Alter “in learning.”

After a while, the Alter said to him, “I know who you are and why you are here. You are the son of the Sislovitzer Rav, and you want to come to the Yeshiva.”

“How do you know?” Aaron asked.

“Such a genius like you could only be the son of the Sislovitz Rav, who was a similar genius, and only an orphan would travel alone to Slabodka at age 12. There would be no reason for you to do this other than you need a home here in the Yehsiva.”, answered the Alter.

The Alter admitted Aaron into the Slabodka yeshiva. Aaron’s dorm room was 2 blocks away from the yeshiva, but being so young, he was scared to return to his room at night after his studies. So every night, the Alter of Slabodka would come back to the Yeshiva, to walk little Aaron the 2 blocks to his dormitory.

Aaron’s name quickly spread far and wide as a truly amazing young Talmid Chacham. His brilliance had even impressed the tenacious Rogatchover Gaon ZT”L, a feat that few of even the greatest of the great of the generation could accomplish.

But even in Europe, in the small town of Sislovitz, the winds of modernization blew. His older sister, a brilliant woman in her own right, and secularly educated, tried her best to convince her beloved brother Aaron to abandon the outdated idea of learning Torah all day and to dedicate at least part of his time to the pursuit of secular studies. “The world is changing”, she told him. “The old ghetto life will soon whither and die. You’re so bright, Aaron, you have such potential. I implore you, don’t waste your life with the ‘old’ way. You can really grow up to be something important. You can really make a difference. If you pursue the ‘old way’, you will disappear into obscurity. Nobody will ever hear of you in this world.”

But Aaron was not impressed. He believed that just as Hashem does not change so too the Torah does not change, and the way of the Torah does not change. Cultures and civilizations rise and fall, but the Torah remains constant. Aaron ignored promises of fame and fortune, and stubbornly continued serving Hashem in the holiest way possible: dedicating his life to the splendor of His Torah.

As a young Torah scholar, Aaron’s name spread far and wide, to some, as one of the greatest Torah scholars of his time; and still to others, as one of the greatest wastes of talent of his time. But Aaron knew what he believed in: it was the power of Torah to overcome all.

In those days, all able-bodied young men were forced to serve in the Russian army. No freedom of religion was allowed, and so military service was like unto a death sentence for religious young men. There was, however, a military dispensation if you were an only child with no siblings. So in order to protect himself from the draft, Aaron adopted the family name of an elderly couple in his home town that passed away without any children. This way, he would appear as having no siblings, and be saved from serving in the army.

From that day on, our young Torah scholar was known as Rabbi Aaron Kotler.

Rav Aaron grew to be the greatest Torah gaon of his generation, and the most vehement fighter against modern Orthodoxy on these shores.

Rav Aharon taught that no matter people say or believe, there is no force in the world stronger than Torah. One word of the Torah contains more light and strength than all the galaxies put together. Torah is the force with which the entire cosmos was formed.

Said a leader of Modern Orthodoxy about life in America. “We would be enveloped by a new economic order. . . society would be based on science, where “the sun and the moon and the eleven stars” will radiate scientific learning and technology.”

Light? Sun? Stars?

Every time a little child in 5th grade raises his hand to ask a question on his Chumash lesson he ignites the entire universe in a display of flame and fireworks that outshines ten thousand suns!

Every time a Kollel yungerman learns another page of gemora, worlds upon worlds are created, enough power is unleashed into the Shamayim that Hashem Himself, kav’yochel, gets nachas from it, and proudly proclaims to the all His heavenly hosts, “Look! My dear children are abandoning everything else in the world to learn My Torah!” (Zohar Vayera).

You’re worried about the “light” of technology? Then LET THE LIGHT OF TORAH BURN BRIGHTER, ever brighter, and watch as the glitter and glamour of the world disappears like a single candle in a blazing universe.

If the energy of secular America and the energy of Talmidei Chachamim learning Torah do collide, just watch as America gets swept away like dust specs in a hurricane.

If America is a spiritual wasteland incompatible with pure Torah, then let Torah shine, and watch as America bows, for the entire universe is subservient to Torah.

Rav Aharon taught that to say Torah stands no chance of survival against of the “powerful forces of America” without “integration into the social and economic culture” is wrong! To think that any forces mustered in this world, in this universe, can “swallow up” the light of Torah scholars is an insult to Torah and the Creator of the world.

No, said Rav Aharon. If it is difficult to be frum in America, the solution is more Torah, not less; what will give us the spiritual strength and the siyata d’shmaya we need is increased dedication to Limud HaTorah, not to secular studies.

So Rav Aharon set up a Yeshiva where there will be no secular studies, where there will be no tests, no “smicha” programs (although if someone wanted smicha he could receive it), no “degrees”, no “certifications”, nothing. Nothing except the learning of Torah for the sake of learning Torah. Not learning Torah as a means to any end, not even to become a “rabbi” or “teacher” (although if one wanted to that would be altogether proper) but rather as the greatest end in the world. That’s what I will do, Rav Aharon said. And let’s see. Let’s see whose light shines brighter.

Torah only. For Torah’s sake. “L’shmah”, it was called.

Here’s what happened:

In April, 1942, Rav Aharon started a yeshiva in a small town called Lakewood, NJ, with 12 students. Not necessarily the best or the brightest, but 12 boys willing to learn Torah l’shmah, 12 little flames lighting up the universe, while others were busy “integrating into America’s socio-economic culture”.

Rav Aharon’s Yeshiva grew, but it was a struggle. Rav Aharon himself went collecting to ease the financial burden of supporting the students. Rav Aharon said it is worth walking up 5 flights of stairs for even one dollar to support the Light of Torah.

When Rav Aharon passed away, 20 years later, in 1962, Bais Medrash Govoha of Lakewood had 150 students. And two more Torah L’shmah Yeshivas were opened by students of Rav Aharon, in Missouri (St. Louis) and Pennsylvania (Philadelphia).

But despite Rav Aharon’s success, people were not deterred from preaching the imminent dousing of the “separatist” flames of Torah in America. Indeed, the words quoted in our “Modern Orthodoxy” boards about the vital necessity of creating a “new type” of Talmid Chachamim and the necessity of integrating into American society were said in the 1960’s, not the 1940’s!

But Gedolim Tzdikim b’misasan yoser mib’chayehen, “Tzadikim are greater in their death than they are in their life.” By 1980, Beth Medrash Govoha was not only a flourishing Torah institution but the largest Yeshiva in the history of America, the largest in the world, with over 1,000 students.

Today, BMG boasts over three thousand full time Torah-only students, the largest Yeshiva Klall Yisroel has seen in thousands of years. Literally thousands of new students apply for admission each year, and the number of students accepted is limited only by the physical constraints of available facilities. Dozens of branches of BMG have opened up all over the USA and the world, as far as Australia.
[This article had to be shortened here, but I posted it all in the Modern Orthodoxy section. It can also be seen at -taon]


Question: If secular studies make you a better "person" do they make you a better Jew? How does studying anthropology, for instance, make you a better Jew? If you have 2 Jews, one who learns all day and the other who learns part of the day and the rest of the day studies anthropology, that, all else being equal, the anthropologist is the better Jew?

Don't mussar seforim also make you a better person? So why would I choose to study anthropology more than Rav Yisroel Salanter? In my quest to be a better person, am I not abandoning the better path for the less effective?

Question: Even if we concede that there is some value to secular knowledge, what about priorities? Isn’t there more value in Torah? There is value in pennies but more value in dollars, so which should I pursue? There is only 120 years in a lifetime, in which I cannot even finish Torah! So why should I spend time that could be providing me with Torah, on anthropology?

Question: Is ALL secular knowledge in this category? Knowledge of sports? The latest developments in the UNIX platform? The different approaches to mass transportation in different cities? The sleeping habits of duck-billed platypuses? The latest developments in pornography? What is and what isn’t? If going to college means spending required time on non-productive knowledge as well, is it worth it?


Reb Elchonon Wasserman says that girls would also be prohibited from secular studies if the prohibition is due to the affront to Kovod HaTorah involved with college, but if the prohibition is only due to Bitul Torah, it seems he is not certain. His words are:

"If the prohibition is due to Bitul Torah, maybe it applies only to men but not to women, but the truth is, women are also obligated to learn the Halachos that pertain to them in order to fulfill the Mitzvos.

"Or perhaps, even without this reason [of Bitul Torah] it is prohibited to learn secular studies regularly, so as not to give them value like the value of the Torah...."

He does not come to a conclusion regarding this.


Regarding High School, the only reasons it is allowed is either because education is mandated by State Law (in New York it is until age 17), or simply because if they did not have High School education in the Yeshivas, parents would simply send their kids to worse places to get it.

But it is definitely looked upon not as a l'chatchilah, but rather as something that is annoyingly necessary in the current environment.

Rabbi Chaim Segal ZTL, the Menahel of the HS of Chaim Berlin was once told by Rav Shach ZTL that if possible, he should not be teaching english studies. In Eretz Yisroel, almost all Chareidi Yeshivos do not have english at that age.

Rav Aharon Kotler ZTL made some kind of commitment not to allow English studies on the high school level in Lakewood. The exact details, and if this was actually a Takanah or merely a preference, is not clear and depends who you ask. In any case, Rabbi Elya Svei, Rosh Yeshiva of Philadelhia and a student of Rav Aharon's, was asked why he allows english in Philly if Rav Aharon was against it. What difference can there be between the town of Lakewood NJ and Philadelphia PA?

Reb Elya answered that he has no choice, and that currently, the Baalei Batim would not send their kids to the Yeshiva except under these circumstances.

Today, there are a small number of High Schools in America - particularly in Lakewood - that do not teach english. Also, many Yeshivos do try to reduce the amount of secular studies as much as possible, through knocking out the last semester of english, and a number of kids are leaving HS early to enter Bais Medrash.

Is any of this the ideal? No. It is not. Is it justified? The schools say it is, as they have no choice. But the point is not what the Jews do, it's what Judaism wants. Everyone agrees that it would be a higher level, a preferable situation if we would indeed not learn English even at the HS level, at least not beyond what is necessary to survive. Nobody claims it is an ideal. The problem with Modern Orthodoxy is not what their Jews do, but what their Judaism says. Jews are imperfect - we know that and accept it - but Judaism is perfect, and unchangeable. We do not make over G-d in our own image.

That’s why all this talk about those able to learn all day being an "exception to the rule" misses the point.

Not everyone will become Moshe Rabbeinu, to be sure, but everyone should try to come as close as they can. And everyone admits that being Moshe Rabbeinu is something to look up to, strive for, and admire. Even if most of us don’t ever make it there.

So too even if many people will not learn all day, we all must recognize that it is certainly a higher level, it is a prize and privilege and merit that we should all try to attain, since it provides us with a higher spiritual level, and reaching the highest level possible in this world is our goal.

Today, thank G-d we live in a society where many, many people can learn all day. They recognize, BH, that learning Torah is better for your soul than practicing law. Or accounting. Or writing software. No question about it.

The point is the values, not the behavior. Behavior represents Jews; the values represent Judaism. To say that not everyone will reach the high level of learning all day is acceptable. But to say that it is not a higher level, is changing the Torah's values. Talmud Torah Kneged Kulam. And that includes every second of learning.


To pick up a biology book once in a while to appreciate your body is permitted, but to make it into a curriculum is not. Because while appreciating your body is nice, learning to keep Shabbos is more important. And as the Chofetz Chaim writes, if someone does not know Hilchos Shabbos cold, he will not go even one Shabbos without being Mechalel Shabbos.

Whatever benefit there is in secular studies, there is infinitely more benefit to your soul - in Limudei Kodesh. So if you have a choice to pursue crumbs of a lavish banquet, which will it be?


Rav Yaakov Emden's studies of the New Testament was in order to disprove them and defend our religion against them (see for example Shailas Yaavetz 2:136). This is permitted, as per the Gemora's heter of "kdei Lehoros", that was discussed elsewhere on these boards. Rav Yaakov Emden did not study the NT or any other secular studies academically. That would be prohibited.

Furthermore, secular studies is permitted if not done for recreation, but every now and then (as opposed to a regular curriculum or regimen which is prohibited). Sifrei Minim (heretical books), however, would not be permitted even occasionally.


First of all, there is very little history and science etc. in Gemora, compared to simple Torah information. And even that science is usually not science but Torah information (meaning, the scientists would not agree with it); and the fact that some people find it so interesting is not a reason for you to be jealous of them any more than you might be jealous of Phillip Berg's Kabbalah School, whose students will tell you that they find "kabbalah" more interesting than anything else. You're learning Torah is for religious reasons - not because Torah is an interesting piece of literature - and so you have to do it according to the will of G-d. Hashem prohibits girls from taking Gemora classes, just as he prohibits ignorami to learn kabblah.

Second, to many people, Gemora is no more "interesting" than any other limud, and often gets tedious and complicated. The grass is always greener on the other side - so stick to Chumash and Meforshim, which G-d said is your job, and leave the Gemora to those who G-d said is their job.

For parnasa, secular studies are often permitted - and sometimes not. Depends on what you are learning and in what environment.


The Chasam Sofer in Parsha Beshalach states clearly that certain secular knowledge is useful for learning certain Torah topics, such as cow anatomy being useful for shechitah, and arithmetic for Eruvin and Sukkah, but that before we embark on obtaining secular knowledge - and of course that means only to the extent that it is useful for our Torah studies - we must first fill ourselves with Torah-only knowledge. After we are strong in Torah, only then can we move to acquire the useful secular knowledge that we need for our Torah studies.

He quotes the Rambam, who he describes as "the father of philosophy" in our religion, in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, stating that a person may not learn philosophy until after he has "filled his stomach" with Shas and Poskim, which are the things, and only the things, that bring us Olam Habah.

Then he quotes the Rashba, saying that there is a cherem against learning any secular studies if you are under age 25!

The he quotes the Gemora in Brachos "Keep your children away from science" (higayon, as some meforshim translate it), noting that the Gemora is directing its prohibition at "your children", but not at the adults, for adults, who are already advanced in Torah knowledge need some secular knowledge, such as cow biology (I keep emphasizing that so that we do not make the error of thinking that the secular knowledge that we need is a college education). But it is dangerous for us to pursue it until we are armed and ready with a Torah foundation.

This is because someone with a Torah perspective looks at the value and culture of secular studies differently than does someone ignorant of Torah. And we do want to get the proper perspective.

It's kind of like firemen putting out a fire. They have to (a) dress in their heat-resistant protective outfits, and (b) run into the fire and put it out. But of course, they have to do it in the right order.


If you could be making $1,000,000 an hour and instead opt to make 2 cents an hour, is it because you are afraid to make the million?

The issue is simply that Torah studies are what we are here in this world to do, and so they get for us Olam Habah. Secular studies do not get us any Olam Habah. So if you pursue the secular studies when you could have been pursuing Torah it shows that you do not value Hashem's gift. If I were to give you a million dollars and asked that you come pick it up, and instead you go to work during that time in a sweatshop, it shows you don't believe me.

Not to mention that you're silly for doing it altogether - why make less when you can make more?

It doesn't matter if you have a greater appreciation for Torah if you learn secular studies. Appreciating Torah is good, but learning it is even better. Not to mention the fact that by learning Torah you come to appreciate Torah even more than by learning secular studies.

So the cost-benefit ration of learning secular studies in order to obtain spiritual benefits concludes that it is not worth the price. Better to learn more Torah instead. Every word of it merits you more Gan Eden than a lifetime of doing Mitzvos.


It's understandable that you're OK with being able to be friends with a mere three billion people - for the other three billion are males, give or take. You have more than enough people to fill your social calendar as it is.

But if you're satisfied with that, then you should be even more satisfied with knowing that the Torah contains much more knowledge than you can ever amass even if you'd live a thousand years or more. It is endless.

You have more than enough to learn (even if you are a girl and can't learn Gemora) than you will ever accomplish. Don’t worry - everyone is in the same boat.

As far as missing out on "education", there are two choices - learning secular studies and thus missing out on the Torah you could have learned during that time; or learning Torah and missing out on the secular studies you could have learned during that time.

Which is the wiser choice?

The issue is accepting the Torah's values - in which case the choice is a slam dunk - or accepting "the world's" values, in which case perhaps, in order to meet the standards the "word" set on being "educated", you should forgo Torah learning and learn anthropology instead.

And that is indeed what it boils down to - do we value the Torah's standards of education more than that of the secular world or vice versa?

The choice is simple: All the secular "education" that you get will be useless to you in the next world. There, they will not ask you if you know how many US presidents were re-elected in history, or whether you are familiar with the policies of Chairman Mao, or if you know how to program a computer. They will bring a Sefer Torah scroll to you and ask "do you know what it says in here?" The more you know of that, the more you will be considered "educated". The less you know, the more you will be considered ignorant.

So the question is - do I want to be educated on this world or on the next?

And please note, there is no minimum threshold for the amount of Torah you are obligated to know. The rule is: more is better; less is worse. And the difference between just a little more and a little less is staggering. As the Vilna Gaon points out, one word of Torah knowledge gives you more holiness than an entire lifetime's worth of doing other Mitzvos.

And here we thought that a secular education is expensive! It’s much more expensive than you think - you can acquire it only at the expense of your time and effort that you could have been putting toward becoming educated in Olam Habah.

The Modern Orthodox lifestyle is indeed driven by the values - not the accomplishments -of the secular world. What the secular world considers valuable, they do; what the secular world considers unsophisticated, they consider unsophisticated.

We can take the useful aspects of what the secular world produces - but their values are theirs, not ours. The Torah teaches us what is valuable and what is not.




Anonymous Anonymous said...

im a girl in community college and i need help on this subjest... is anyone there to help me?

9:12 PM  
Anonymous taon said...

Sure, what is it? If we cant help here, there is of course the main site.

10:37 AM  

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