Thursday, May 16, 2013

Enlightenment & the Jews: What part should G-d play in secular culture?

This is the first of a series of posts on the relationship of Judaism to secular society and secular knowledge. I had previously mentioned the Seridei Aish's view that the Mussar Movement was a frum enlightenment which I understood literally. Dr. Marc Shapiro corrected me and said that I can not take this literally. Apparently the Seridei Aish simply meant it was enlightenment - but only in the spiritual sense and was never meant to include the issue of secular knowledge or tikun olam. However no one else seems to have characterized the Mussar Movement as frum haskala.  Dr. Shapiro said he would send me a letter from the Seridei Aish that discusses the issue more fully.

However once on the topic - since it is the issue today with Rabbi Lipman and his attempt to bring the chareidi society into the modern secular world with compulsory secular studies in high school, compulsory draft and in general a compulsory interaction with the secular world - I thought it would be of value to explore the historic lessons of the traditional Orthodox world dealing with the secular world. The issues facing Israeli Chareidim now were faced by the Jewish community beginning with the end of the 17th century when the secular enlightenment occurred together with emancipation from the ghetto - and continued to the present day.
Paul Johnson (A History of the Jews page 298-299): Although the haskalah was a specific episode in Jewish history, and the maskil or enlightened Jew is a special type peculiar to Judaism, the Jewish enlightenment is nevertheless part of the general European enlightenment. But it is, more particularly, linked to the enlightenment in Germany, and this for a very good reason. The movement in both France and Germany was concerned to examine and readjust man's attitude to God. But whereas in France its tendency was to repudiate or downgrade God, and tame religion, in Germany it sought genuinely to reach a new understanding of and accommodation with the religious spirit in man. The French enlightenment was brilliant but fundamentally frivolous; the German was serious, sincere and creative. Hence it was to the German version that enlightened Jews felt attracted, which influenced them most, and to which they in turn made a substantial contribution. For perhaps the first time Jews in Germany began to feel a distinct affinity with German culture, and thus sowed in their hearts the seeds of a monstrous delusion.

To intellectuals in Christian society, the question posed by the enlightenment was really: how large a part, if any, should God play in an increasingly secular culture? To Jews, the question was rather what part, if any, should secular knowledge play in the culture of God. They were still enfolded in the medieval vision of a total religious society. It is true that Maimonides had argued strongly in favour of admitting secular science and had demonstrated how completely it could be reconciled to the Torah. But his argument had failed to convince most Jews. Even a relatively moderate man like the Maharal of Prague had attacked Rossi precisely for bringing secular criteria to bear on religious matters. A few Jews, for instance attended medical school in Padua. But they turned their back on the world outside the Torah the moment they re-entered the ghetto in the evening, as indeed did Jewish men of business. Of course many went out into the world never to return; but that had always happened. What the awesome example of Spinoza had shown, to the satisfaction of most Jews, was that a man could not drink at the well of gentile knowledge without deadly risk of poisoning his Judaic life. The ghetto remained not merely a social but an intellectual universe on its own. By the mid-eighteenth century the results were pitifully apparent to all. As long ago as the Tortosa dispute, early in the fifteenth century the Jewish intelligentsia had been made to seem backward and obscurantist. Now, more than 300 years later, the Jews appeared to educated Christians - or even uneducated ones - figures of contempt and derision dressed in funny clothes, imprisoned in ludicrous superstition, as remote and isolated from modern society as one of their lost tribes. The gentiles knew nothing, and cared less about Jewish scholarship. Like the ancient Greeks before them, they were not even aware it existed. For Christian Europe there had always been a 'Jewish problem'. In the Middle Ages it had been: how to prevent this subversive minority from contaminating religious truth, and social order? No fear of that now. For gentile intellectuals, at least the problem was now rather: how, in common humanity, to rescue this pathetic people from their ignorance and darkness


  1. I don't accept the term "secular" or the demarcation of what is allegedly secular.
    For example, cutting a diamond, and selling it involves secular science of mineralogy and marketing, yet it is a very frum thing to do.
    So why is selling glass or manufacturing iphones any different?
    Next, the Army, ideally is a halachic obligation, as long as they act according to Torah laws on warfare and self defence.
    Same goes with agriculture.
    These things were carried out by Avraham, and by Kings and Neviim.
    So the issues is more complex than just suggesting that everything £secular£ is suspect.

    1. Eddie that which is not now part of your religious life - needs to justify itself. If you don't like the term secular then call it "not clearly part of religious obligations and life". The fact that in some culture at some time an activity was accepted - doesn't make it accepted elsewhere. Army is not ideally a halachic obligation nor is agriculture. That which was done by Avraham etc - doesn't establish it for contemporary society.

    2. Etymology and definitions
      Look up secular in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

      Secular and secularity derive from the Latin word saecularis meaning of a generation, belonging to an age. The Christian doctrine that God exists outside time led medieval Western culture to use secular to indicate separation from specifically religious affairs and involvement in temporal ones.

      This does not necessarily imply hostility to God or religion, though some use the term this way (see "secularism", below); Martin Luther used to speak of "secular work" as a vocation from God for most Christians[citation needed] Secularity is best understood, not as being "anti-religious", but as being "religiously neutral" since many activities in religious bodies are secular themselves and most versions of secularity do not lead to irreligiosity. [2]

    3. @DT - "The fact that in some culture at some time an activity was accepted - doesn't make it accepted elsewhere"
      The difficulty with this is that I was referring to Torah culture (ok it is Biblical times). And also I am not generalizing it to every secular activity eg movies, theatre etc.
      There are many things that might not be part of my religious life, but could be tomorrow or next year. For example if someone moves from ChuL to EY, they will need to deal with maaser and terumos/ sheviit. If circumstances change, even economic and political ones, we do respond. I accept that the haredi worldview is to isolate oneself from all external factors. But even this is a change brought about by the Haskalah.

    4. Eddie activity that you have mentioned doesn't necessarily become a permanent part of religious life because it was once done. This has nothing to do with isolation from the world - it is a question of what is appropriate for a viable and productive religious life. Once starts and ends with religion.

      this is the way it always was and is not unique to the challenge of haskalah

  2. For example if someone moves from ChuL to EY, they will need to deal with maaser and terumos/ sheviit.

    actually (and not to get caught up on this point) the vast majority of people here almost never have to deal with these issues.

  3. The fact that in some culture at some time an activity was accepted - doesn't make it accepted elsewhere. Army is not ideally a halachic obligation nor is agriculture.

    i don't think that chabad or rav kook would agree with any of this

    1. there are lots of activities which are not halachic obligations which are never the less religious activities. talmud torah is a good example. women may not be obligated to learn certain subjects in torah but if they do it is a mitzva

      larger than that however, i find it absurd to think that if i sit down and learn a gemara, a rambam, on the laws of business i am doing a mitzva. but i if actually go out and work (using those lessons) i have somehow left the world of torah.

    2. actually looking at the post, most of what i wrote above is basically irrelevant. the question isn't is farming or computer programming a mitzvah. the question is how will chareidi jews deal with working in places like RAD, ECI, or Teva. it might be nice to fantasize about yeshiva guys going out to work in all frum places, but these jobs are few and far between. and (AFAIK) they pay less.

  4. "Eddie that which is not now part of your religious life - needs to justify itself." "The fact that in some culture at some time an activity was accepted - doesn't make it accepted elsewhere."

    I find both those statements problematic. Your point of view seems to be "Everything that it is not explicitly indispensable is forbidden". I would say "Everything that is not explicitly forbidden is allowed".

    On second thought, this might be the main difference between the modern orthodox and the obscurantist point of view, with the more open hareidim somewhere in the middle.

    Your second statement is even more problematic: "The fact that in some culture at some time an activity was accepted - doesn't make it accepted elsewhere."

    this would imply that new restrictions (humrot) are always acceptable, even if, as a whole, they will strangle the livelihood of orthodox jews. That's really the method of a modern-day cult.

  5. Look up secular in Wiktionary, the free dictionary etc.

    Doesn't this dictionary entry imply that the entire premise (that because God exists outside of time, there is a division between "religious" and "secular") of the question, "What part should G-d play in secular culture?" is not inherently a Jewish one?

    Perhaps it runs more like this: The Jewish polarities are more like טוב/רע קודש/חול טמא/טהור. Due to heavy influence from Christian thinking, they have become mapped onto the secular/religious polarity.

    For some reason, this reminded me of a comment from "Ezra" on Rabbi Slifikin's blog:

    for Rambam, all the laws of tumah & tahora have nothing to do with any "real" impurity. In the Guide he states that the reason is to (deliberately) keep most of the people tam'e most of the time - for the express purpose of keeping them out of the Temple, or sanctuary (lest over-familiarity lead to a loss of reverence)

    One of my teachers made the point that the laws respecting kashrut for keilim and tumah/tahorah for keilim clearly are talking about different properties, acquired and removed in different ways; becoming non-kosher was pretty much a physical process based on physical contamination. IIRC this was a response to my asking what's the connection between tahor and kosher.

    It actually looks as though going by Ezra's Rambam that for most people, most of the time, where they were holding (being unable to sustain a proper attitude if they were in and out of the Beit Hamikdash on a frequent basis -- and come to think of it, a lot of the Pharisaic practices were focused on making it possible to enter the Beit Hamikdash at almost any time because you would be tahor most of the time) -- being tam'ei was a good thing!

    Rav Soloveitchik's The Emergence of Ethical Man contains the following assertion: "Christianity has been bent upon a transcendental adventure, namely to free man from his bondage to the flesh and raise him to a spiritual level. Judaism, in contrast, proclaimed the goodness of the whole of man, of the natural man-plant-animal." (Man-plant-animal is a concept which Rav Soloveitchik has, by the time of its appearance on p.73, spent a good deal of effort developing.)

    Rav Soloveitchik then goes on to say that the difference between man and animal is brought out in Genesis 1:28; "Reading the story of man carefully, we notice that the Torah used a unique term in regard to him. While the divine blessing to animal is described as va-yevarekh otam Elokim (God blessed them), in the blessing to man, a new term was introduced, namely va-yomer lahem..."

    This book is Rav Soloveitchik's attempt to lay out the ways in which it is necessary to strip out the Greco-Roman-Christian (and Greco-Roman-Christian-Arab/Muslim) distortions which Jewish thought has acquired ove the centuries and establish, in modern intellectual terms, a truly Jewish way of thinking about man and nature. I think it will repay the effort it takes to grapple with it.

  6. Secular culture itself, even at allegedly high levels, has undergone a rather drastic yeridah in our days. Less and less is worthy of assimilation, in any form, into our thought. Technology itself is another matter, but see how often the prevailing culture uses it for degraded purposes.


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