Monday, April 18, 2016

The importance of secular studies

I would like to bring some sources which indicate that secular learning is important - not just because it is required by the government. I will be adding sources and commentaries over a few days - so check back for updates.


[I] Shabbos(75a): R. Zutra b. Tobiah said in Rab's name: … he who is able to calculate the cycles4 and planetary courses but does not, one may not praise him … R. Simeon b. Pazzi said in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi on the authority of Bar Kappara: He who knows how to calculate the cycles and planetary courses, but does not, of him Scripture saith, but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither have they considered the operation of his hands.7 R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Johanan's name: How do we know that it is one's duty to calculate the cycles and planetary courses? Because it is written (Devarim 4:6), "for this is your wisdom and understanding in the sight of the peoples", what wisdom and understanding is in the sight of the peoples?9 Say, that it is the science of cycles and planets.

Rashi (Shabbos 75a): In the eyes of the nations – because it is a self-evident wisdom because the accuracy of his words is testified by the movement of the sun and constellations. For example he says that this year will be rainy and it is is in fact so or that this year will be hot and it is so. That is because the nature of the seasons are determined by the movement of the sun and the constellations and their influence. Everything is determined by the stars and the time that the sun moves and interacts with the stars

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We see from the above that it is important for a Jew to be knowledgeable about astronomy and astrology

1) The goyim view it as wisdom and therefore a Jew who lacks this wisdom is viewed as inferior This principle means that a Jew does not have basic knowledge of science, history or biology is viewed as inferior and surely if he has trouble speaking or reading the lanuage of the land. This is a chilul Hashem.

2) Being able to predict events because they are caused by the mechanical and fixed movements of the stars shows that idolatry is wrong. That is because the predictions from the movements are rule governed and thus there is no need for appealing to the god of the sun or other heavenly bodies. 

[II] Rav Yisroel Belsky told me that his success in dealing with kashrus processes - and his ability to deal with these issues better than other rabbis - was due to the fact that he took his secular studies seriously.  It is obviously that if one wants to deal with metzius issues that one needs to have the basic background in physics, biology, and chemistry. A basic understanding of the scientific method of validation. Being able to read precisely and to be able to communicate accurately in writing as well as speech.

 From Making of a Gadol
My father related that he was told by someone whose oldest son had just reached school age that he had decided not to send the child to a school with secular studies so that the boy would be able to devote all his time to learning Torah. My father protested, "But your son will be unable to read even the street signs to know where he is standing." When the unbending father replied, "R' Hayyim Soloveichik also did not read Russian," our protagonist, who felt that the child's development would be impeded altogether by the abnormal education his father was charting for him, argued, "Yes, but R' Hayyim had a shamosh who knew Russian and read the signs while escorting him through the streets. Do you expect your son to have a shamosh when he grows up?"
 It is noteworthy that when asked as an octogenarian whether young students at a Monsey yeshiva may be permitted to read light English literature (which would pass faculty censorship), my father- with the caveat that he would be "considered a leftist" for the ruling - referred to this experience of his own to prove that such reading is not harmful. He mentioned that he read Russian translations of such classics as the science fantasies of Jules Verne and the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle :. He added that the licentiousness of present-day society and literature mandates that contemporary secular books be carefully screened before being put onto a permitted-reading list. The principal of the secular department in Mesivta Torah Vodaath, R' Moshe Lonner, reported d that my father suggested students study certain plays by Shakespeare "because in olden times there was less reference to topics to which yeshiva bahurim should not be exposed", and referred to his own reading of these classics in the Russian language. (He added at the time that we should not think that people of the Elizabethan and Victorian ages were better than those of latter times - "there was simply more ,nr, [shame] then".)
 Also like my father, R' Aaron Kotler dabbled in secular studies at this time. He was more interested in literature than in the sciences which attracted my father's interest. My father stated to his son-in-law R' Yisrael Shurin that R' Aaron was proficient in all of classical Russian literature'L This was corroborated when, during a visit with a young, intellectual protoge of the Hazon-Ish who headed a yeshiva in Ramlah, R' Aaron blurted out, "This was expounded by Aleksander Pushkin" - as reported to this author by the yeshiva head '. The Ramlah Yeshiva was visited by R' Aaron Kotler, R' Shmuel Graineman and the Kopycznitzer Rebbe, R' Avrohm-Yehoshua' Heschel, in the summer of 5714 (1954). At the same time, Moshe Bar-Sela', director of the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry and a Pushkin buff, dropped by for a glass of tea and a chat - people were wont to stop off in Ramlah on the then long drive from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. When Bar-Sela' quoted a line from the poem Yevgeni On'yegin without naming the author, R' Aaron reacted as reported. (Pushkin was a Russian author favored in Jewish intellectual circles. This author came across an interview of French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas by Francois Poiri in "Emmanuel Levinas, Qui etes-vous?? ''° which has the thinker relating, "A few years ago an Israeli born in Eastern Europe paid me a visit. Upon entering my home, he noticed that I had the complete works of Pushkin on the bookshelves. 'You can see right away,' he said, 'that this is a Jewish home.'"

[to be continued]

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