Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reading Mevakshei Panecha - Part 1 - Secular Knowledge and The Torah Jew

My Israeli friend Mechel recently gave me as a gift the book Mevakshei Panecha, an interview of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein by Rav Chaim Sabato. It is not an easy read although Rav Sabato is a writer par excellence. Rav Lichtenstein has developed the dialectical method to an art form and some chapters leave the reader in a state of confusion – at least that was the case with me. The effort to read is however well worth it as we get a glimpse of the workings of a great mind and a Gadol Betorah, one of the greatest of our time. I am about half way through the book and I want to share/discuss some points that I found enlightening and interesting. As the book is in Hebrew, I will translate the pertinent excerpts.

In a chapter discussing how to relate to values that come to us from outside the Torah:

“There are people including gentiles whose historical mission is one of creativity – literary or moral creativity. These are people that you see in them greatness whether greatness of the soul or moral greatness. How can one not be impressed with Samuel Johnson  ?  A man who started life in the London gutter and climbed to a level of Gemilat Chassadim that I wish I could reach. Should I ignore this just because he was a gentile? …. What nobility, what fear of heaven and dedication are projected and the final lines of the wondrous sonata of Milton regarding his blindness! Why should I ignore this?”

We are not talking about TIDE (Torah im Derech Eretz) which is generally seen as a utilitarian approach to secular studies but rather a fundamental appreciation of that knowledge and the creativity found in that world. An appreciation that sees it as part of the basic education needed to make us into perfected human beings and Jews. However Rav Lichtenstein does set some limitations.

“One has to differentiate between the ideal and the practical. In practice, one must be careful when importing values from the outside by looking at two issues. One issue is self-suspicion. When I am searching for values outside the Torah I must ask myself: what propels me to look for universal values? Why am I not looking for them in our own sources? Am I truly looking? Is the search occurring only after I have fully evaluated everything that is written in the Torah about these values without finding them, to the point of having to look outside? Is there another reason that I am compelled to look in places other than the Torah? … The second issue one must investigate is where these external values come from. Are they possibly coming from sources that from our standpoint are unreliable and unwanted? Having concluded these two analyses I find myself confronting a universal question and not necessarily a Jewish one. It is told that the Caliph Omar Ibn Hatab, one of the famous Caliphs in the middle Ages ordered the burning of the famous great library in Alexandria. He argued that if what is written in this library is true it must be found in the Koran and if it is not found there it must be false…”

Rav Lichtenstein subtly points out that the standard Yeshiva world argument that anything not found in the Torah must be false is an old argument developed by other religions. As he points out further this argument was quite common in 17th century England between the Puritans and their more enlightened opponents.  Rav Lichtenstein then fleshes out the immediate questions one has to confront when going out to look for external values. First we have to determine how well grounded the person that embarks on the search is. Is he easily swayed or is he self-confident and has a firm footing in his thinking?

“We then have to focus on two additional issues. One is the environment the person is in. When I say environment I refer to two things. First is to analyze the social, financial and cultural environments. The whole environment could be so different from what it once was, that the sources do not address the current situation. We have to however caution; the fact that the circumstances changed does not mean that one has to automatically expect a changed stand. Not every circumstantial change forces us to modify our thinking or outlook. But we must at least be aware of the changed circumstances. I always ask myself whether the situation I am in now is a mirror of the situation and circumstances that is presented in the words of Chazal and the Rishonim. Second, even if the environment has not changed, I have to ask are the tools that I have now different than those that were available to the past. And even if there is no change in either the circumstances or the tools, sometimes there is a change in the weltanschauung that I have to things, which may not be exactly the same it was once….”

Rav Lichtenstein is very sensitive to the changes that have occurred over time and the effect they have on how we look at them from the Torah viewpoint. We cannot let the Torah viewpoint become ossified to the point of making it irrelevant. Rav Sabato asks him if his father in law, RYBS Z”L was influenced by external sources.

“A certain person once asked me if Rav Soloveitchik was influenced by Kierkegaard. I understand that one who asks this question does so with a critical undertone, as if saying that should the Rav have been influenced by Kierkegaard, woe is to us!   I answered him that if the question was whether the Rav read Kierkegaard, of course he did!  But if the question was did he take anything from him? I don’t know for sure but I suspect the answer is positive too. Of course, a great person like the Rav, who learned Torah all his life, who is rooted in its world, its opinions and its values – such a person when he is confronted by a book by Kierkegaard, if after a careful inspection he discovers that the things he read in there are true, moral and deepen our understanding of divine worship, does he have to ignore them? Does he have to turn away from them? Why? Just because they are based on Kierkegaard? If the notion is true, he will take it and if not he will ignore it, not because it comes from Kierkegaard but because it is wrong... There is a problem that many people nowadays have, including Yeshiva students. They lack the ability to dive into stormy seas. They live in a world of fear. They are afraid of everything. A part of the Yeshiva world suffers from this disability. True, in some matters they are right, but in many other things, and not necessarily literary matters, they are not right…”

Rav Lichtenstein interestingly starts the discussion by setting very clear parameters. One has to analyze and be suspicious of one’s motives. We first have to explore the whole Torah and try to find an answer to the existential question that is intriguing the searcher. He then admits that there are contemporary matters and issues that because of the environment, the culture, the tools we now have, cannot be solved by ignoring external sources. And then he turns to the Rav and how he did take out good ideas from secular culture and introduced them into Judaism.  The way I read the progression of his thought is that people of the caliber of the Rav are able to independently fish in the deep waters of secular thought and find the kernels of truth that advance the thinking of a modern Jew living in our world today. He does not say it, but it is clear that he sees himself as capable of doing the same. Lesser scholars and other interested students can then study their insights which help them navigate the contemporary cultural currents. The Yeshivot are so afraid of possible deviance that they prohibit even that, thus restricting their members from fully participating in the contemporary world. As we will see further, this respect for truth from whatever its source leads Rav Lichtenstein to a unique and extremely enlightening perspective on the secular Jews of our time. I will write about that in an upcoming post.




  1. Is R. Lichtenstein speaking about taking such great care only when exploring Non Torah opinion in issues that could be a contradiction to Ikkarim in the Torah?

    I can't tell based upon your limited quote.

  2. i am not sure what you mean by Non Torah opinions. i understand that he is referring to general values that affect our moral compass as his extolling of Samuel Johnson gemilat chassadim shows.

  3. You quote R Lichtenstein as saying:

    "When I am searching for values outside the Torah I must ask myself: what propels me to look for universal values? Why am I not looking for them in our own sources"?

    You note that R Lichtenstein is extremely cautious about the class of works he calls "outside of the Torah".

    I am wondering which exact works R Lichtenstein refers to, that he is cautious about,indicated in his phrase "searching for values outside of the Torah". My first interpretation is that he means works written by Non Jews, such as Kirkegaard or Milton.
    Is this what you think R Lichtenstein means by works "outside of the Torah" that he is cautious about?

    As I noted R Lichtenstein is extremely cautious about the class of works he calls "outside of the Torah". I am wondering if perhaps R Lichtenstein is concerned that works "outside the Torah" might lead one away from Ikkrim.

    I could understand this concern with Kirkegaard, less so with Milton.

  4. As I prefaced the post, Rav Lichtenstein is very difficult to pin down and get a clear read. He seems to be addressing the issue of not looking for any external value, before exhausting the internal teachings the Torah has. I think his concern is not to encourage a relaxation of Torah study for the sake of secular studies. At the same time he is also concerned that some of the external readings should indeed affect the Hashkafah prescribed by Judaism. He talks about the need to be well rooted and to have our critical sense developed before engaging in these studies.I think the underlying thought is a development of Rambam's havayot abaye verava that precede pardes.

  5. Ah, that makes sense.

    Does he explore the study of Ikkarim as having a vital role in calculating whether a "Non Torah source" is dangerous or not worthy of much time?

  6. No. he is not that specific as you know if you read Rav Lichtenstein before.

  7. I actually have read very little of his, though I have been very impressed by what I have read, especially his concern for contemporary students who are striving to find their way in the modern academic world.

    Do you have any thoughts as to why he would not deal with Ikkarim more directly, since they are such an important element of using Havayot Abaye Vareva to for their intended purpose?