kosher bookworm

Secular studies in yeshivas today and in tradition


Recently the issue of high quality secular education in New York state’s non-public schools came to the fore when Boro Park state Senator Simcha Felder forced through legislation that may lower the academic quality of secular curriculums in some of those schools.

Thus, this week’s column features a letter written by Dr. Yitzchok Levine to the Jewish Press, made available for publication here by its author, wherein he details his take on this vital issue.

At the center of Dr. Levine’s letter is a reference to a 70 page essay entitled, “Rabbinic Openness to General Culture in the Early Modern Period in Western and Central Europe” by the distinguished scholar, Dr. Shnayer Z. Leiman, that appeared in the book, “Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration?” edited by Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter (originally published by Jason Aronson in 1997, reissued this year by Maggid).

I bring this to your attention with my strong suggestion that you read these works carefully to fully understand the implications of Felder’s legislative actions.

Also, please keep in mind that this week marks the sheloshim of the passing of Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman the founding rabbi of Beth Shalom of Lawrence. His classic study, “The Story of Yeshiva University,” is thematically linked to the Felder initiative whose major focus would, in effect, reverse all the achievements that both Yeshiva University as well as Touro College have made, along with many other major Jewish educational institutions. A careful reading of Rabbi Klaperman’s study would help you to better understand the historic and very negative implications of the Felder legislative proposals involved.

Here are Dr. Levine’s comments:

While it is certainly true that there are elements of the public school curriculum that are simply not palatable for Orthodox young people, and Felder attempted to protect the Hassidic yeshivas from this, he did not deal with the real issue at hand — namely, that many Hassidic yeshivas are giving at best a substandard secular education. Some are actually giving no secular education to the boys that attend their yeshivas. A woman who resides in Williamsburg told me that her sons received absolutely no secular education in the yeshiva they attended. 

While it is certainly true that one can point to some products of such a dismal secular education who are financially successful, the majority of graduates from these Hassidic yeshivas that do not give a reasonable secular education are handicapped for life.

Does it make sense that a bar mitzvah boy who is born in America cannot read English on an eighth grade level? Cannot read an eighth grade science book and write a report in acceptable English about what he has read? Cannot speak English properly? Knows nothing about the history of this country and cannot relate, at least briefly, to what happened during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War? Has the mathematics skills of a third grader at best? Does not have a basic knowledge of science and hence has no idea of how, say, the digestive system works? (BTW, one way of appreciating the wonders of Hashem is to study how some of the systems in our bodies work.) Has no real knowledge of how our government works? I think not.

Parents do not have a blanket right to determine the education of their children. Would you say that a parent has a right to send his child to a school that preaches anti-Semitism and prejudice? Also, based on my experience as an educator for over 50 years, I have to say that parents do not always know what is best for their children educationally. Choosing to enroll one’s sons in a school that does not give a basic secular education is a very poor choice. Also, having a school that does not give a basic secular education is against the law.

Boys have to be equipped with an education that prepares them to earn a living to support a family. How many boys who attend a Hassidic yeshiva actually earn a basic high school diploma let alone a Regents diploma?

Also, a decent secular education is required from a Torah standpoint. There was no bigger Masmid than the Vilna Gaon who slept only four half hours in 24 and spent essentially all of the rest of his time studying Torah. Yet he found it important to master many secular subjects. The following are selections from an article I have posted about the Vilna Gaon’s view of the study of secular subjects.

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The following selections from “Rabbinic Openness to General Culture in the Early Modern Period in Western and Central Europe,” by Rabbi Dr. Shnayer Z. Leiman, records information about the Vilna Gaon’s view of the study of secular subjects.

R. Barukh Schick of Shklov (d. 1808): When I visited Vilna in Tevet 5538 [1778] ... I heard from the holy lips of the Gaon of Vilna that to the extent one is deficient in secular wisdom he will be deficient a hundredfold in Torah study, for Torah and wisdom are bound up together. He compared a person lacking in secular wisdom to a man suffering from constipation; his disposition is affected to the point that he refuses all food. … He urged me to translate into Hebrew as much secular wisdom as possible, so as to cause the nations to disgorge what they have swallowed, making it available to all, thereby increasing knowledge among the Jews. Thus, the nations will no longer be able to lord it over us — and bring about the profaning of G-d’s name-with their taunt: “Where is your wisdom?”

R. Abraham Simcha of Amtchislav (d. 1864): I heard from my uncle R. Hayyim of Volozhin that the Gaon of Vilna told his son R. Abraham that he craved for translations of secular wisdom into Hebrew, including a translation of the Greek or Latin Josephus, through which he could fathom the plain sense of various rabbinic passages in the Talmud and Midrash.

The Gaon of Vilna’s sons: By the time the Gaon of Vilna was twelve years old, he mastered the seven branches of secular wisdom. … First he turned to mathematics … then astronomy.

R. Israel of Shklov (d. 1839): I cannot refrain from repeating a true and astonishing story that I heard from the Gaon’s disciple R. Menachem Mendel. … It took place when the Gaon of Vilna celebrated the completion of his commentary on Song of Songs. … He raised his eyes toward heaven and with great devotion began blessing and thanking God for endowing him with the ability to comprehend the light of the entire Torah. This included its inner and outer manifestations. He explained: All secular wisdom is essential for our holy Torah and is included in it. He indicated that he had mastered all the branches of secular wisdom, including algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and music. He especially praised music, explaining that most of the Torah accents, the secrets of the Levitical songs, and the secrets of the Tikkunei Zohar could not be comprehended without mastering it. ... He explained the significance of the various secular disciplines, and noted that he had mastered them all. Regarding the discipline of medicine, he stated that he had mastered anatomy, but not pharmacology. Indeed, he had wanted to study pharmacology with practicing physicians, but his father prevented him from undertaking its study, fearing that upon mastering it he would be forced to curtail his Torah study whenever it would become necessary for him to save a life. … He also stated that he had mastered all of philosophy, but that he had derived only two matters of significance from his study of it. … The rest of it, he said, should be discarded.

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For the record, the Gaon wrote a sefer on plain and solid geometry, Ayil Meshulash. How many graduates of any yeshiva, Hassidic or not, are capable of studying this sefer?

To me it seems that the only conclusion one can draw from this information about the GRA is that the study of secular subjects is crucial for the learning of Torah.

Link here to a clarification from Prof. Levine.