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  • Alfie Marcus

Torah and the Ways of the World

2nd Day Pesach 5782

Chag Semeach

For the memory of my father Yonah ben Yosef Yitzhak, a kind compassionate man who passed away in 1992.

Often I am struck by the contrast between a Torah reading and the Haftorah. Two different eras are displayed. We run from the time of Moshe and the goal setting process of settling the land to what actually happened; and what actually happened is not at all like what was intended.

Today’s Torah reading sets out the order of the shelosh regalim starting with Pesach; for 7 days the people are commanded to bring offerings to Hashem. The Haftorah, from the second book of Kings, presents a far different picture. It is centuries later and the Kingdom of Israel already has been destroyed. None of its kings are good. After Yeravam ben Navat splits the Kingdom and establishes alternative worship sites in Bet El and Dan to idols, representing the golden calf that the people worshipped in the desert, the path of Israel is downhill.

In our haftorah, Judah too is on its last legs – far better than in the North, maybe 40 percent of its kings have been good, but it is quickly descending into the same cycle of idol worship that led to the northern kingdom’s destruction. Yet, near to the Temple’s destruction, there arises in Judah a good king Yoshiyahu, the grandson of King Menashe, one of the vilest of the Judean rulers. Menashe has taken down the Temple altar and he has placed his image therein. Yoshiyahu, made king when he is but a child, on the other hand, is pious and brings about a restoration.

In rebuilding the Temple, a book of the covenant is discovered, or is it a matter of being rediscovered, since this book is considered to be Devarim. No need to get into the controversies among Bible critics here about what this discovery suggests about the Torah’s authorship and coherence. Rather what is important is that Yoshiyahu commands the people to observe the Pesach, as the book which was discovered requires.

The Haftorah then states,”no Pesach like this has been done like since the time of the judges.” Does that mean that for the majority of the time Jews inhabited the land from the time of the Judges on through the time of Kings they did not observe the Pesach? That which Moshe commands in the book of Vayikra is ignored. What Moshe intended did not take place.

How are we to understand this discrepancy? The author of the book of Kings, reputedly the prophet Yirmiyahu, gives a consistent answer, perhaps one that is not surprising for the first five books of the Torah alludes to it. The people who left Egypt kept rebelling against Moshe Why would their descendants many generations later be different? In the books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings, neither the people nor their rulers sufficiently resist the temptation of avodah zarah, idolatry.

Prior to the celebration of the Pesach in the time of Yoshiyahu, the King tries to remove all traces of idolatry from the entire land, both Yehudah and the Northern Kingdom. Within the Temple itself, he has the priests bring instruments to worship Baal, Ashera, and heavenly bodies. He destroys the altars in and around the city of Jerusalem and elsewhere in the land that have been set up to worship these idols. Despite his efforts, the Temple is destroyed only a decade or so later and the people are forced into exile into Babylon. Yirmiyahu’s reason for the destruction is crystal clear – it is the worship of alien gods.

Rabbi Solivechik, while regarding Yoshiayahu as a great hero, faults him for not going far enough. For despite the king’s efforts, such was the attraction of Avodah Zarah, that the people cheated and in their homes continued to adhere to it in secret. Had he been able to remove the Avodah Zarah from their homes, Rabbi Solivechik implies, the Temple might not have been destroyed.

The Germara states that all have ceased to exist -- the Avodah Zarah, the prophets who criticized it, and the non-Jewish people of the time who promoted. Perhaps, but the attraction of something alien, something that is not specifically Jewish still is great among us all, myself included. Haredi society is designed to isolate and defend its members from such influences. However, what about us, who consider ourselves to be “modern orthodox,” what walls have we established to protect ourselves? What fences have we erected, if any?

Should we build fences, or should we fully immerse ourselves in the society around us?

Every day I face choices. With my smartphone, on which there are no restrictions, unlike one that Haredi society would tolerate, I have access to everything from profound Torah discourses to trivial celebrity gossip and far worse. What should I listen to when I go into my basement and spend time on my elliptical? At an even more fundamental level, perhaps I should spend this time studying Torah in a more conventional way with an authoritative teacher and recognized text, but if I rationalize that health is important so spending time on the elliptical is justified, then what? My choices are infinite. I can listen to daf yomi tapes, Jewish history tapes delivered by Rabbis and/or non-believers, business, management and investment tapes relevant to my parnasa, current event tapes about the sorry state of the world or the contemporary Middle East and Israel, philosophy and general history tapes, stories read aloud from the New Yorker, you name it.

In the modern orthodox world, we can find new thinking about the old question of the relationship between Torah and Mada, or as Rabbis Lam and Sachs, may they rest in peace, I believe referred to it, as Torah and Hachma, and by Hachma, they meant the wisdom of the world. How should we distribute our time and energy between the two? The editors of the Lehrhaus, a forum for generating discourse, ran a symposium on this topic this March, with contributions from many writers. It brought me back to Rabbi Lamm’s 1989 book on the topic, which I have and which I read many years ago, a brilliant book, well worth careful study.

The abstract of a recent article by Lawrence Grossman in Modern Judaism, called “The Rise and Fall of Torah U’Madda” states.

Lamm insisted that serious exposure to both Torah knowledge and the arts and sciences fulfilled the Torah's mandate to understand and appreciate all aspects of God's world. Lamm's initiative failed, however, because economic conditions induced many students to forsake the liberal arts for vocational and pre-professional courses, and the trend to the right in American Orthodoxy–expressed by rabbis at Yeshiva itself and abetted by the year or more spent at Israeli yeshivot before college–stressed single–minded concentration on Torah study and justified secular education only for the purpose of making a living.

No doubt if the conclusion of this article is correct, then my podcast choice is simpler – Torah comes first with some small concession to those business tapes to help me make a living. Cut the rest out. Yet even choices within Torah are large. How precisely to divide my time between Torah and tapes that may help me make a living, is a difficult call.

Be that as it may, Lamm presented a number of models of the Torah and Mada relationship. For this summary, I draw heavily on an article of Elana Stein Hain from the Lehrhaus symposium. The rationalist model of the Rambam is appealing because it holds that the study of science and philosophy brings one to greater knowledge of God. The mystical model of Rav Kook also is appealing for Rav Kook holds that a religious person can infuse secular studies with holiness. Related is the Hasidic model that all a person’s activities, even those not directly Torah related, can be oriented to G-d since G-d is found in everything. Of course, Rabbi Lamm points out that Hasidic masters also understood secular studies as being “alien” and undermining “pure faith.”

From my perspective, the following models in Rabbi Lamm’s book are less appealing. There is the instrumentalist model of the Vilna Gaon in which secular knowledge has no inherent value except in helping Torah students understand the Torah. Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin view was that secular studies were meretricious -- a mere disguise for G-d’s true emanations. Similarly, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s idea of Torah im derekh Eretz was also instrumental. He mainly saw secular studies as being a means to obtain a livelihood

If secular knowledge in some way is mine, or our Avoda Zarah, then I suppose these warnings have to be taken seriously, but I prefer the opposite. I am for full enlightenment to everything the world has to offer. I use the word enlightenment deliberately, for in general I support the Jewish movement of Haskalah that started with Mendelsohn. But is my choice in trying to find G-d-liness in everything not a danger? Would it not be better for me, and all of us, to devote ourselves to Torah and to Torah study exclusively?

How will be judged 100s of years from now, if human beings and the planet still exist? Will we be seen as the students of Yerovam ben Navat who compromised with the world around us and brought about calamitous results?

Rabbi Lamm repeats a story of how in the post war period a number of great Yeshiva Rabbis including Rabbi Mendlowitz of Tora Vedaat and Rabbi Hutner of Chaim Berlin were ready to start a university, but Rabbi Aaron Kotler, then just starting Lakewood, vehemently opposed and they dropped the idea. Similarly, the Chazon Ish, the leader of Israel’s Bnai Brak community, tried and was able to veto a similar proposal that the then chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Moshe Amiel, made. Rabbi Kotler and the Chazon Ish fully opposed secular knowledge, their goal being to vanquish this form of idolatry completely.

Betting my life on being entirely open to what the world has to offer, I have told you what I think, but more important is what do you think? How do we best accommodate Torah with the ways of the world? Clearly, this dilemma is not simple.

So let’s get down to tachlis. I would appreciate any help you can give in how to allocate my time when I work out on my elliptical. That very mundane decision captures the essence of the problem.

Have a happy and very fulfilling Pesach.

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