Dear Daat Emet staff,
I am amazed by the vast knowledge found on this site and I want to tell you that I greatly enjoy your site. I discovered it only five days ago, but I have already managed to read a lot of the material you wrote. It’s like I was dying of thirst and now am drinking deep; that’s how I read your essays. I’m especially enjoying the comments on the weekly Torah portions.
I want to ask a question that always bothered me. What’s the problem with a general education? Is it religiously forbidden to study nature and the creations which G-d wrought?
We are happy to feed your thirst for the words of Daat Emet and thank you for the compliments.
About the study of sciences and nature, there are two schools of thought in rabbinic Judaism about the topic. One school (Maimonides and Chovot HaLevvavot) exalt the study of nature as a higher level than even the study of Talmud. The second school (the Rashba, Ritva, chassidut, and the yeshiva world) forbid such study. Maimonides writes: “This exalted and fearsome G-d commands us to love and fear Him, as is written ‘Love the Lord your G-d’ and as is written ‘Fear the Lord your G-d.’ What is the way to love and fear Him? When man studies His marvelous actions and creations and sees His wisdom, which has no measure and no end. Immediately he begins to love and praise and glorify Him and feel a great desire to know G-d… Even though the sages were giants of Israel and very great sages, not all of them had the capability to understand and comprehend these matters. I say that it is not fitting to study esoterical philosophy unless one has first studied what is metaphorically called `bread and meat’, which is the study of what is permitted, what is forbidden, and other commandments. These matters were called small matters by the Sages, as they have said, ‘Mystical and esoterical speculation is a big matter, whereas the debates of Abayeh and Rava are small matters.’ Nevertheless, it is still fitting to study other commandments first, because they settle a man’s mind…. It is possible for everyone — adults, children, men, women, those who are narrow-minded and those who are not — to know these matters” (Maimonides, Fundamentals of Torah 4:13).
According to Maimonides study of nature is actually study of the Divine, whose level is great and which cannot be obtained by all, in contrast to the study of Talmud, which is of a lesser level and can be understood by all, even children and those who are narrow-minded.
But Rabbi Yom Tov ibn Abraham Asevilli (the Ritva, 1250-1320, Spain) responded to Maimonides’s words as though he had spoken apostasy which begs forgiveness. He wrote: “Since the disputes of Abayeh and Rava are questions and answers…they are greater than all the wisdom of the gentiles, and this is the true and correct interpretation for all believers, and not as others [Maimonides] have interpreted it heretically” (Novella of the Ritva, Tractate Sukkah 28a).
This polar disagreement between a view which sees study of nature as causing a love for G-d and a view which sees the study of nature as causing heresy against G-d gained force in the modern era and the age of enlightenment.
One of the amazing phenomena in the age of enlightenment, which breathed hope of a better, happier world into people was scientific development. The inventions and discoveries of the new era were revolutionary. Technology and industrialization, the rotation of the planet Earth, Newtonian laws…all of these left the traditional Jewish community behind. They continued to study Torah as of old, as though nothing had changed outside the world of Torah. The enlightened in Eastern Europe who absorbed scientific progress from the enlightened of the West felt greatly insulted by the situation of the Jews. Unbridled curiosity and a strong desire to raise the Jews up along with the rest of the world through scientific development caused them to start to act, to explain and teach the importance of natural wisdom without taking anything away from religion; to the contrary, such wisdom would contribute to and elevate “fear of G-d.”
To further this aim they released a book, Te’udah b’Yisrael by Rabbi Isaac Ber Levinson (the Ribal). The Ribal was called the “Mendelssohn of Eastern Europe,” the first enlightened man to lead a change in the fabric of Eastern European Jewish society. He tried, along with the Russian authorities, to establish general education schools in the place of the cheidars and to teach all Jews general education. Ribal himself was a Torah observant Jew, but championed education and an improvement in the economic and social living conditions for Jews. He wrote his book Te’udah b’Yisrael with the aim of bringing proof and support from the world of Torah, from the Talmud and the Mishnah, of the need to learn natural studies. To this end he enlisted Maimonides and the Chovot HaLevvavot. The more conservative public, particularly the Chassidic world and the yeshiva, objected to natural studies. Thus, for example, did the leader of the Breslov Chassidim react to enlightened opinions after the death of their rabbi: “[The enlightened want] to draw Israel into the ways of heresy and philosophy to make them break the Jewish covenant” (R’ Natan, a student of R’ Nachman of Breslov). In his opinion, the study of philosophy and apostasy are the same thing.
The enlightened were in the habit of quoting Maimonides’s dictum “Accept the truth wherever you find it (even from a gentile)” and Breslov chassidism (R’ Natan the student of Rav Nachman of Breslov) responded; “We knew that the whole shaky foundation [of the enlightened] is the Guide to the Perplexed and these low-lives knew how all the greats of the geonim’s generation and the truly righteous cried out against what is written in that book, to the extent that they burned [copies of the Guide to the Perplexed].” To support his claims R’ Natan appealed to the hearts of the believers and said “And tell, my brother, whom you must fear — Maimonides or the holy One, blessed be He, and Moses and his teachings…is not all awe of scholars due to the Torah’s commandments which warned…” To refute Maimonides’s opinion upon which the enlightened relied, R’ Natan argues that the result — fulfillment of the commandments is what is important and awe of scholars is only a means to achieve it. Therefore one who observes the commandments must reject this opinion of the enlightened, even if they rely upon great men. He adds that one must subjugate his wisdom in the face of faith: “We are believers, sons of believers and we do not follow the path of investigation at all…all our knowledge comes from the blessed One through faith alone.”
For more on this issue, see our words on the portion of Shelach.