Thursday, February 07, 2008

Rav Soloveitchik and Torah U-Madda

Last year, Yeshiva College's undergraduate newspaper, The Commentator, hosted a series of recollections about R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) by his students and those who knew him. These essays, along with a number of new articles, were combined into a book titled Mentor of Generations, edited by Zev Eleff.

The book is full of interesting stories, but one theme that is consistently discussed is that of R. Soloveitchik's attitude toward secular studies. Towards the beginning of the series, R. Abba Bronspiegel wrote that secular studies were fairly unimportant to R. Soloveitchik. Other writers took the time to disagree, some in brief and others in detail. Dr. David Shatz wrote an entire article on the subject. What follows below are some (but not all) excerpts on the subject from the book.

Click here to read moreR. Abba Bronspiegel, pp. 79-80:

A point should be made regarding the content on which the Rav lectured: he never publicly discussed secular education or Torah u-Madda on an ideological level. Privately, the Rav told several students to further their higher education; he advised me to attend Harvard for graduate school where I could study with his son-in-law, Dr. Isadore Twersky. It is true that the Rav promoted the notion of becoming a highly educated person for purposes of reaching a certain occupational plateau, but I never heard him speak specifically about Torah u-Madda or secular education...

It is true that there were a few times when the Rav was asked to deliver a shiur at a secular university or someplace of the sort and would aim those shiurim at college students or irreligious people. It was in this setting that the Rav spoke a different language from the one more familiar to his students. On such occasions, the Rav would put down his Talmudic texts and review philosophies and the sciences he had learned during his training at the University of Berlin.

To be sure, one cannot state that those who claim that he was very knowledgeable in philosophies are truly wrong. Nevertheless, the Rav was essentially a learner whose main philosophical ideas were derived from his studies of the Talmud and Rishonim.

R. Menachem Genack, p. 172:
Indeed, the Rav was enormously well read and committed to Wissenschaft, but in my almost twenty years in the Rav's shiur, he never mentioned synthesis in Torah U'Madah...

The Rav had a doctorate in philosophy, and Kierkegaard and Otto influenced his writings...

R. Menahem Meier, p. 191:
While Torah was primary for the Rav, zt"l, he recognized the validity and benefits of the study of math, science, philosophy and the humanities. The latter offers us a window into human creativity and into the history of the human experience. Disciplines such as literature, history, and philosophy provide us with a means for greater understanding of ourselves, others and the complexities of our society. Following in the tradition of Maimonides, he saw Talmud Torah in the broadest sense to include both Torah and wisdom.

Dr. David Shatz, pp. 211, 215-216:
Some question whether the Rav had a positive attitude towards secular studies. I think it is clear from what he studied that his attitude was positive. Furthermore, his grandson R. Mosheh Lichtenstein trenchantly remarked that the question about the Rav's attitude to secular studies could easily be settled by putting his library on display. The Rav's speeches also include some very strong statements about the importance of secular culture generally...

What is said here is that the Rav was unapologetic because he thought that madda sources are ways of understanding and elucidating what lies in Torah itself. They are tools--not only for, say, understanding the laws of Kil'ayim (as he states in Halakhic Man), but for formulating a world view...

Secular studies enhance mahashavah, and this is justification enough. Further--and admittedly this is my own speculative construction of an argument he might have endorsed--it is a very short step from saying that secular studies have value to him because they enhance our understanding of the Torah's world, to saying that they have value in themselves. For truth and insight are good things to have, things God would want people to own no matter what their religious orientation.

The Rav also believed that philosophy is part of religious experience... Philosophy is a means of deepening one's own understanding of what one is doing as a ma'amin, what one is doing as a shomer mitzvot, what one is doing as an osek ba-Torah, whether as teacher or disciple.

R. Shalom Carmy, pp. 245-246:
The Rav's son-in-law, R. Yitzhak Twersky, stated the obvious: nobody who examines the first page of Halakhic Man can deny the importance and thoroughness of the Rav's engagement with the history of philosophy and cognate disciplines. Students of U-Vikkashtem miSham will have no difficulty grasping the plain underlying religious motive behind the Rav's pursuit of general knowledge. In Torah God uniquely seeks us out, and reveals His will to us by commanding us with mitzvot... God has also given us the task to seek Him out. Each individual searches for God in accordance with his or her own capacities, employing all means at our disposal--science and the humanities; logic and religious experience.

R. Abba Bronspiegel, while recognizing that in the debate about the legitimacy and value of secular studies the Rav's position was unambiguous, has made the important observation that the Rav did not use the term Torah uMadda. This phrase, the motto of Yeshiva University, is a political slogan: like all slogans it can mean many things, or it can mean nothing... The Rav was no more obligated to define his outlook in terms of an institutional mantra than a Harvard professor is compelled to darshen Harvard's seal. Since he was averse to the herd mentality in religion and in education, it is not surprising that he chose not to do so.

One point should be clear. Though a frum individual who has chosen not to enter seriously into the study of Western culture cannot accompany the Rav all the way, and may forfeit spiritual and intellectual benefits too, the same is true, even more so, of the modernist who lacks interest in the Rav's passionate commitment to Talmud Torah as well. Thus the Rav cannot legitimately be made into the paladin of a Modern Orthodox "Torah uMadda sect" divided from the rest of Orthodoxy by virtue of its attachment to higher professional education and other middle class status symbols.

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