Friday, September 29, 2023

Coping with Modernity: An interview with Rabbi Emanuel Rackman

Jewish Review: One of the arguments against the ?modern Orthodox? or ?Torah im derekh eretz? point of view is that it seems to inevitably produce individuals who are less committed to halakha and who are less involved in Jewish learning.? Could you comment on this charge?

Rabbi Rackman: It is true, and there is no doubt that the rabbis of the Talmud recognized this too.? They spoke of four men who went into an orchard (the orchard, presumably, is Greek philosophy); one of them looked and went berserk, another one looked and converted to another faith, and one looked and died.? Only one of the four, Rabbi Akiva, entered in peace and came out in peace.? This indicates that we have always been aware of the danger, and that, therefore, not everybody should feel that all secular learning should be approached through an open door.? This is why many Orthodox parents who send their children to universities encourage them to study accounting, to become businessmen, chemists even, but not to engage in the study of philosophy and psychology.? The threats and challenges to Judaism come from the humanities and the social sciences, not so much from the natural sciences.? Natural science, we know, has no pretense to absolute truth; at best it gives you a good guess, a relative truth, and thus most observant Jews can safely enter its realm.? By the same token it is very important for some people to study the humanities, philosophy and social sciences, because, first, we know that the majority of Jews are going to be exposed to modern culture, and hence our permitting the dual exposure to Torah and philosophy, for example, helps to allow those who want to remain loyal Jews to do so without undue conflict.? In addition, we ultimately discover, for example, that the writings of the Rambam and his successors (including those who frowned upon him and prohibited his works) showed an influence of ?secular? ideas.? There were some ideas which emerged from the encounter of torah and secular thought which are of everlasting religious value.? For example, the writings of Samson Rafael Hirsch are so influenced by Immanuel Kant that we cannot fully appreciate Hirsch without an understanding of Kant, and there are indeed some insights of Hirsch, albeit stemming from a Kantian or Hegelian influence, which are valid despite these influences and have and will outlive (what might be perceived to be) the failure of Kant or Hegel.

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