By: Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein | Features  | 

From the Commie Archives (April 27, 1961; Volume 26 Issue 10) — A Consideration of Synthesis from a Torah Point of View

Editor’s Note: The Commentator has decided to reprint this article from over 50 years ago written by then-Rosh Kollel Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein Z”L on the topic of the relationship between religious and secular studies, a topic which still has great relevance in our times.

Since its original publication, the article has been reprinted (in an expanded version, with several more paragraphs) several times — Gesher 1:7-17 (1963); Shalom Carmy (ed.) Torah U’Mada Reader; Experimental Edition II (New York, 1985) pp. 33-38; Leaves of Faith, volume 1 (2003), pp. 89-103.


Ed Note: This is the third in a series of articles devoted to a discussion of the synthesis of our religious and secular studies. The author graduated Yeshiva College in 1953, received his Ph.D. in English from Harvard in 1957 and was ordained in 1959. Dr. Lichtenstein currently teaches English at Stern College for Women.

Few matters concern us—both disturb and affect us—more than the relation of our religious and secular studies. As students committed to Torah and its study and yet deeply engaged in the pursuit of a general education, we feel—and should feel—a strong need for understanding their respective positions in our lives. The need is related to both our outlook and experience. Philosophically, we recognize the necessity of determining how these varied aspects of our pluralistic culture coalesce within our overall weltanschauung. Practically, we are often confronted with the need for reconciling the demands which these aspects make upon both our loyalties and our energies. The formulation of a Torah attitude towards this question thus becomes of paramount importance.

Torah as a Way of Life

How is such an attitude to be formulated? I think it must rest on three fundamental premises. The first must be a clear and unwavering recognition of the absolute primacy of Torah as a way of life. This we posit as the supreme value—in a sense, as the only value. Fulfilling our spiritual destinies, furthering—in ourselves and in others—the development of Torah, strengthening and deepening our consciousness and experience of G-d, stimulating our love, fear, and knowledge of Him—this is the alpha and omega, our first, last, ever-present goal. Religion demands axiological monopoly; yichud hashem means simply that religion alone has absolute and comprehensive value. Everything else—no matter how socially or intellectually desirable—has only relative and secondary importance. Its worth is derived solely from the extent to which it contributes, however remotely, to the fulfillment of the divine will. On this point there can be no compromise and should be no misunderstanding. A man’s religion means everything or it means nothing.

Torah Study

Our second premise is that the achievement of chayei Torah, a Torah life, is dependent on talmud Torah, Torah study. Yahaduth has always held that the highest development of the Jew’s spiritual personality is impossible without the fullest exertion of his intellectual faculties — lo am-haaretz chasid. And this is true for many reasons.

Most obviously, study is a necessary prerequisite to proper religious observance. The fulfillment of moral and ritual norms is hardly possible without clear and accurate knowledge of both their general nature and particular details. But—as was pointed out by the Beth Halevi, talmud Torah is not merely a preliminary to observance. It is itself a mitzvah—indeed, one of the most basic. Torah study—ideally conceived as both an intellectual exercise and a religious experience—has been imposed by the Halacha as a universal daily obligation. Insisting that G-d must be served with the head as well as with hands and heart, yahaduth has seen intellection as an integral aspect of the religious life of every individual. It has never seen religious study as the private preserve of an ecclesiastical hierarchy or of a privileged intellectual elite. On the contrary, it has posited talmud Torah as the duty and destiny of all. It has realized that great success in the exercise of reason as a part of man’s search for G-d cannot come to all — or to many — but it has considered this no reason for abandoning the attempt. It is precisely for the effort, the process of the recherche, that the Halacha has pressed most insistently. Of y’diath hatorah, the knowledge of Torah, Chazal had relatively little to say; but of talmud Torah they can never say enough.

The significance of Torah study per se is twofold. First, it gives the Jew an insight—as direct and as profound as man is privileged to attain—into the revealed will of his Creator. It affords us an opportunity to get (salve reverentia) a first-hand knowledge of the divine will, to deepen and broaden our minute understanding of G-d’s infinite reason. In its essence, the Torah — particularly the Halacha — constitutes an immanent expression of G-d’s transcendent rational will. Through the study of its texts, the analysis of its principles, or the development of its ideas, we are able to approach haltingly that unattainable goal towards which Moshe Rabbenu strove so desperately—hodiani na eth drachecha,” “let me know thy way.”

Insight into Divine Wisdom

Secondly, Torah study—where properly pursued—affects our total spiritual personality. Partly because it does afford us a better insight into inscrutable divine wisdom, and partly because it engages the mind—and with it the whole man—in pursuit of religious knowledge, it transmutes our innermost being. The knowledge we can acquire of G-d’s will increases our consciousness—and subconsciousness—of Him; the very act of weighing His words or of analyzing His laws draws us imperceptibly nearer to Him and to them. Shemaor sheba machziron Lemutav. It matters not what segment of Torah we study. Provided that we approach it with an awareness of its true character, Baba Mezia will do as well as Brachot and Ohalot will affect us no less than Avot. As both the Baal Hatania and Rav Chaim Volozhin—respective pillars of Chassiduth and Mithnagduth—agreed, within the proper context, an analysis of the most technical minutiae of miggo lehotzi or chometz nukshah is, at bottom, spiritually uplifting. Torah study leaves an indelible imprint upon our total personality and, in the process, transforms it. Of course, it can only affect this spiritual renovation if we approach it with the proper attitude. If the fundamental awareness of the divine character of Torah is lacking, its study can have little force. Indeed, if negatively approached, it may even have a pernicious effect—lo zachah (lilomdah lishmah ulekaima—Rashi), naaseth lo sam mitha. But given this basic acknowledgement, Torah study becomes the prime agent in effecting a gradual spiritual regeneration. Paradoxically, through a constant reciprocal process, it both sustains piety and is sustained by it. Keener study leads to greater piety and more fervent devotion leads to profounder knowledge. The dialectical interplay of talmud Torah and yirath shomayim is the heart of Torah life.

General Studies

If our first two premises are an insistence upon the primacy of Torah, and the awareness of the overriding importance of its study, our third is the recognition of the great — albeit ancillary — value of a broad spectrum of general studies. Their practical value is of course obvious. They help provide both professional or vocational training and a general orientation towards the innumerable pragmatic exigencies of human life. These are, in themselves, matters of little moment; but I am presently rather concerned with general studies; directly spiritual significance. To begin on a negative note, secular knowledge is invaluable for the understanding of the environment in which we all, willy-nilly, find ourselves. No matter where we live, we are in the midst of a society which is generally indifferent if not hostile to religious values, one in which advancing the development of Torah entails an almost perpetual struggle. “Paganism,” said Eliot, “has all the best advertising space.” And “paganism” (to adopt a remark once made about the “genteel tradition”) is best defeated “in the classical way, by understanding it.” We cannot combat worldliness until we know what it stands for; we cannot refute the secularist unless we have mastered his arguments. Furthermore, if we wish not merely to react to our environment, but to act upon it, we must be thoroughly familiar with its mores and its values. If bnei Torah are to exert some positive religious influence upon modern society, they must clearly maintain some contact with it. To this end, secular study is virtually indispensable.

Aids to Torah Study

Secular knowledge is not merely a tactical weapon, however. It possesses considerable intrinsic merit. We may consider it under two headings. First, secular studies are often invaluable as a direct accessory to talmud Torah proper. Consider simply the aid we derive, by elucidation or comparison, from semantics in Amos, history in Melachim, agronomy in Zeraim, physiology in Niddah, chemistry in Chometz Umatzoh, philosophy in Yesodei Hatorah, psychology in Avodah Zarah, political theory in Sanhedrin, torts in Baba Bathra—one could continue almost indefinitely. As the Gaon insisted, there is hardly a province of Halacha for whose mastery scientific, historical, and linguistic knowledge is not only helpful, but indispensable. If its pursuit is not talmud Torah, it is, at the very least hechscher talmud Torah. And contrary to the general assumption, it is precisely the weaker student who stands most in need of such auxiliary aid. While learning Sanhedrin, R. Chaim Brisker could evolve his own practical theory. Most of us merely fumble.

Develop Spiritual Personality

While the importance of general knowledge as a direct auxiliary in the study of Torah is great, it is perhaps even more significant in a third capacity. Secular studies possess immense intrinsic value insofar as they generally help to develop our spiritual personality. Time and again, they intensify our insight into basic problems of moral and religious thought. History and the sciences show us the divine revelation manifested in both human affairs and the cosmic order. The humanities deepen our understanding of man—of his nature, functions, and duties. In one area after another, a whole range of general studies sustain religion—supplement it and complement it—in a sense deeper and broader than we have hitherto perceived. Of course, we cannot always see how a specific isolated detail can have such an effect. One could easily seize upon a minor point—say, L'Hôpital’s Rule or the dates of Louis-Philippe—and ask how that will improve us in any way. We should remember, however, that knowledge is attained only by degrees—nay, but minutes and seconds. Whether a specific fact is sufficiently relevant to merit study is a question which must be decided with reference to a particular context. No doubt one may lose wisdom in the search for knowledge and knowledge in the search for information, but we shall continue to pursue all three. No one would contend that metrics or grammar have any intrinsic merit. Yet their value as instrument-knowledge led the Ramban and the Baal Hamaor to master the one and all gedolei yisroel to learn the other.

Realistic Problems

I have so far been dealing with our question on a more or less ideal, abstract plane, that at which the respective positions of Torah and madah can be neatly charted and at which they can be seen as existing in easy, perfect harmony. We are all well aware, however, that no such easy concord exists. We are rather only too familiar with complex problems and recurrent conflicts. Certainly, these problems neither can nor should be ignored; we slight them only at our own peril. Indeed, they are so formidable that they have led many to question whether religious and secular studies can enjoy any fruitful relation; whether, in the life of a ben Torah, there is any room at all for serious general education. At Yeshiva, we of course take this for granted. Historically, however, the question has been persistently and fervidly debated—and at the very highest levels. Chachmei yisroel have clearly been divided. As the Rama put it, “zu machloketh yeshana bein hachachomim.” In Chazal proper, references to the problem are relatively few and, taken as a whole, rather inconclusive; they can be—and have been—interpreted in either direction. Subsequently, however, two conflicting views have developed and they have persisted, with alternate ascendancy, through the centuries. If the Sephardic rishonim were mostly in favor, the Ashkenazic were generally opposed. If the Maharal extolled philosophy, the Maharshal condemned it. R. Yisroel Salanter might send his prime students to the finest universities in Europe; but Volozin—easily the greatest Yeshiva of modern times—shut its doors rather than introduce the most limited of secular programs. We are dealing here with gedolei yisroel, not mere obscurantists. The problems arising from the integration of Torah and secular studies must have been pressing indeed if they produced such controversy—and they still are pressing. We would be committing the gravest folly were we to regard this controversy (as I am afraid many of us do) as a remotely irrelevant issue, almost as a historical curiosity. I have referred to it briefly to underscore its seriousness and, at the same time, to remind us of its pertinence. A question gedolei yisroel could discuss with such fervent interest cannot be lightly dismissed. Even if we feel justified in rejecting the verdict of some—we cannot, after all, agree with all—the very awareness that some many of our greatest men, before whom the best of us can only stand with bowed heads, steadfastly opposed secular studies, should in itself prove a sobering influence. It may, above all, by giving us the proper perspective, enable us to grasp the basic problems. For in the course of the controversy, virtually all the major questions concerning the relation of religious and secular studies have been raised. They are so fundamental that any formulation of a Torah view regarding this question must not merely answer them but consider them as part of its basic frame of reference.

Danger of Secular Studies

What are those problems? The principle objections against secular studies will bring them into clear focus. It has been asserted, first, that secular culture, especially of a freethinking nature, may exert a dangerously powerful influence over its student, luring him from the fold of Jewish tradition. Hence, the discussion has tended to center around the question of studying philosophy.

Secondly, it has been argued that the study of even innocuous subjects constitutes a waste of precious time, time which might — nay, must — more profitably be spent in deepening and expanding one’s knowledge and understanding of Torah. Vocational training, so runs the argument, might be necessary, but every moment available for spiritual or intellectual concerns must be devoted solely to Torah study. Finally, many have objected that, quite apart from the time which they consume, secular studies weaken the individual’s religious position simply by diverting his interest and thus sapping his personal resources. By focusing his attention elsewhere, often by riveting it upon trifling vanities, they help drain him of his intellectual and emotional energies. Diversification leads to both diversion and distraction; it leaves the student involved with irrelevant matters but unmindful of his own vital religious concerns, “weeping the death of Dido for love to Aeneas, but weeping not his own death for want of love to Thee.”


First, the problem of “influence.” Its consideration leads us back to our initial premise. We have so far been concerned with the primacy of Torah on the axiological plane, in the realm of value. The primacy of Torah is also logical, however, We recognize it as the basis upon which all human culture, all arts and sciences, must stand. This recognition is twofold. First, on the objective level, we see the Torah as the logical groundwork of all truth. Its principles constitute the premises to which everything else is related; and they provide a philosophic framework within which all knowledge attains meaning. Of course, the details of thermodynamics or of the declension of pes can hardly be referred back to a specific pasuk or halacha. In its totality, however, Torah constitutes the objective foundation of all ruth: istakal b’oraitha, bara alma.

The Torah—the Basis

Secondly, Torah must be the subjective basis from which we, as students, shall judge all else. From a religious point of view, secular studies—especially the social sciences and the humanities—should derive not only their value but their meaning from a religious source. For us, Torah is at once the criterion of truth and the touchstone of value. Whatever the ben Torah reads, he will see through its eyes; whatever he studies, he must judge by its standards. Its weltanschauung becomes the prism through which everything is seen. The importance of viewing all subjects with a critical appraisal of their relation to Torah can hardly be exaggerated. Failure to do so can only lead, at best, to intellectual schizophrenia. Whatever the Hegelians may say about history, in education, the successive independent study of thesis and antithesis hardly produces synthesis. “Literary criticism,” Eliot has written, “should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological viewpoint.” The remark may be applied to virtually every field of study. Of course, it does not apply with equal force to all areas. Some subjects — the humanities, for instance — are closer to our religious life than others. Even within the same subject, some aspects are more significant—potentially both more enlightening and more dangerous—than others. In all areas, however, Torah furnishes at least a perspective. In some, its relation is much more direct, as it may give us specific guidance.

In a larger sense, the need for a religious approach to secular culture is universal. At one point or another, everyone is in contact with secularism. And critical appraisal in the light of Torah is particularly necessary precisely at those points at which we tend to lower our guard.

Primacy of Torah

The position I have been advancing suggests practical corollary. If secular culture is to be judged from a religious perspective, religious knowledge is an obvious prerequisite to its study. Ideally, the primacy of Torah should therefore also be chronological. This is, indeed, what the Rambam held — wenimuko imo. The student’s understanding of his religious outlook should always be more perceptive and more advanced than his appreciation of corresponding secular viewpoints. There is, however, a practical difficulty. How is one to know when he is ready? There is no simple answer. The context of every student differs, and each case must be decided on its individual merits. With regard to the study of idolatry, Chazal established the principle of lo thilmad laasoth avol ata lomed lehovin ulhoroth — “you shall not study (if it may lead) to practice but you may study in order to understand and pass judgment.” When can one venture, confident of his purpose? The question must be decided on the basis of individual circumstances. A second difficulty is that, in some cases, the lack of early religious training makes the priority of Torah knowledge almost impossible. Under these circumstances, the gap may be partially filled by guidance from friends and teachers (to some extent, such guidance is of course needed by all). But in any event, it is important that the principle be kept intact.

Some may find my position illiberal. Perhaps it is. But are we to sacrifice eternal salvation on the altar of untrammeled objective inquiry? The danger of having our faith undermined by our studies is one which we dare not underestimate. Ideas are potent. They are powerful agents, directly affecting the growth of our spiritual personality.

If nothing else, modern propaganda has taught us how naive was Mill’s notion that the free clash of ideas must result in the triumph of truth. Falsehood does not always stick to the rules. We must be on our guard and we must not venture out of our depth. Objectivity is fine, but one should beware of indifference. If knowledge is to be meaningful, it must be approached with a point of view. In engrossing ourselves in the “objective” study of a subject, there is danger that we may forget why we wanted to study it in the first place; hence the need for seeing it in a Torah perspective. Absolute perishuth is the wrong solution, but zehiruth must be unrelenting.

Our second major problem, no less pressing than the first, is of a more practical nature—simply a matter of budget. Working within the bounds of limited time and energy, we are constantly confronted by the need for balancing the conflicting demands imposed by various studies. We return once again to our fundamental premises. Thus, translating the primacy of Torah into pragmatic terms, we must make the study of Torah our principal intellectual endeavor. Especially during our formative educational period—the high school and college years—it is imperative that we devote the major portion of our time and effort to talmud Torah. First and foremost, above and beyond all personal and professional ambitions, every student at Yeshiva College should have one overriding aim: to become a talmid chochom.

If talmud Torah gets the lion’s share of our attention, general studies nevertheless are left with a sizable portion. The purists of course see them as a waste of time. One must point out, however, that we are dealing with a quantitative rather than a qualitative problem—not a question of whether to study but how much. If the principle of bitul Torah were to be carried out consistently to its logical conclusion, in applying it to, say, mathematics, we should stop teaching children how to count. The suggestion has yet to be entertained. Where, then, are we to stop? With multiplication? Fractions? Square roots? Logarithms? Determinants? Complex numbers? Clearly, budgeting is a process of weighing schar keneged schar, advantage against advantage; and it should be obvious that again no single answer can be offered. It would be ridiculous to insist upon a uniform standard of so much or so little secular education for all students at all times. Conditions vary, and vary widely. The point of diminishing returns—that at which the loss due to time spent on secular studies exceeds their contribution to the cause of Torah—differs in every case. No doubt for some a double program at the college level is too much. Certainly, for many if not most, stretching the college program over summers, a fifth year, or both, would be highly advisable. The principle should be kept in mind, however—the student’s development as a talmid chochom must come first. As to everything else, a proper sense of proportion must be preserved.

I have hitherto been concerned with the liberal phase of education, that which merely concerns our development as human beings. As Chazal recognized, however, education also has a professional aspect — lelamdo umanuth. This aspect presents a new problem. Of course, hopefully, many students — especially the better ones — will go on to find a career working for Torah, either in the rabbinate or in education. For these, professional study (one hates to call it that) will happily coincide with further intensive talmud Torah. Such a course cannot be followed by all, however; and for those hoping to enter other fields, the problem of budgeting time acquires a new dimension. Particularly in a period so dominated by specialization, placing the primary emphasis upon the study of Torah would seem to block the path to professional success. Our fundamental thesis remains unshaken, however, As liberal educators from Newman to Hutchins have argued, full professional preparation should come in graduate school rather than in college. The graduate student, like the practitioner, may admittedly have to shift his emphasis. However, the critical college years should focus upon our personal development, and this means upon our growth as bnei Torah.


The final problem—that of diversion—must be met by a single word: commitment. Realizing the danger of possible distraction, we can avert it by sincere dedication. We must recognize that, deeply involved as we are in other fields, we are committed to only one thing—Torah. This commitment should be both profound and comprehensive. It cannot merely involve an occasional resolution. Commitment is the permanent recognition, both emotional and intellectual, that Torah is our principal concern. Whatever else we may be doing, we know that Torah and its study, the conscious development of our spiritual personality, is the main thing. Compelling reasons may temporarily force u to lay it aside; but we can hardly wait to return. As Rabbenu Tam said, there can be no hesech hadaath, no distraction, with regard to talmud Torah. Any other activity, whether auxiliary to Torah or independently necessary, we regard as incidental. We have only one spiritual destiny. Lolecheth bohem, says the Sifrei, velo lipoter mitochom. We can never be done with the study of Torah.

Hence, even in later life, when many will find it necessary to devote the bulk of their energies to earning a livelihood, talmud Torah can never cease. Indeed, one should always recognize that toratho umanutho, his main occupation is talmud Torah, all else secondary. As the Rosh pointed out, the primacy is not measured by the crude yardstick of time. Most likely, the financier or grocer spends more time working than studying. What is important is, first, the value-judgment, and secondly, the determination to devote one’s spare time to the study of Torah. A person’s avocation—that to which he turns with joy when the letters of obligation have been cast off—reveals more of his character than does his vocation. As bnei Torah, committed to a life of Torah, we shall know where to turn. Lifelong study, quite apart from its intrinsic importance, is what gives this commitment a focus. It provides us with an activity which indeed renders everything incidental. Only through study, furthermore, can our total religious life become meaningful.


In conclusion, I should like to place our whole problem in a somewhat broader perspective. Ultimately, one’s view of the relation of secular and religious studies depends upon a corresponding attitude towards the relation of religious and secular life. On the one hand, there may be a dualistic conception which would set up a rigid barrier between the two; which conceives of man’s purely natural life as intrinsically corrupt; which sees the religious as being established not upon the secular but despite it; which, in short, considers kodesh and chol not simply distinct but disjunct. One the other hand, we have a unified conception which stems from a deep-seated belief that life is basically one; that the secular and religious aspects of human experience are in fundamental harmony, the latter perfecting rather than destroying the former; that, finally, while kodesh and chol are neither identical nor coextensive, they are both contiguous and continuous. I think the attitude of Torah is clearly aligned with the latter view, with what a Canadian scholar has called “the principle of integration.” Our whole weltanschauung — from eschatology to ethics — is firmly grounded upon the profound conviction that the physical, the natural, the secular, is not to be destroyed but sanctified. The Halacha stresses not rejection but inclusion, not segregation but transmutation. It never sought to mutilate life in some Procrustean bed. Rather, with its vitality, flexibility, and breadth, the Halacha has repeatedly proved to be as expansive and as inclusive as life itself. Its catholicity, its magnificent scope — these are of its essence. The Torah is neither world-accepting nor world-rejecting. It is world-redeeming. In the education of a ben Torah, therefore, there is room for both secular and religious studies. Not equal room to be sure — the obverse of integration is the hierarchy of value, and within that hierarchy, Torah reigns supreme. At the bottom, however, the comprehension of Torah’s outlook establishes a rich education as the basis of a rich life. The final word is with integration and harmony.