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Torah Umadda Is Better Than Ever

 

All readers will find much with which to disagree in Rabbi Norman Lamm’s classic book, Torah Umadda: The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition. The Chancellor of Yeshiva University explores in this important work, recently published in a twentieth anniversary third edition, multiple Orthodox Jewish approaches to secular studies. Combining history and theology, this venerable scholar uses his remarkable command of language and ideas to passionately argue for the importance of broad knowledge in a dedicated Jewish life.

I remember when I first received my initial copy of this book. “Received” is the proper term because all incoming Yeshiva College freshman at the time of publication were given a free copy. As a yeshiva bachur wannabe, I immediately placed my book on top of a shelf and closely watched how much dust it would accumulate (a lot!). Years later, I finally read the book and left convinced. Convinced that I found a framework that matched what my roshei yeshiva taught me and convinced that I disagreed with most of the other models for Torah Umadda in the book.

Rabbi Lamm offers six models for Torah Umadda: Rationalist (study to understand God’s world), Cultural (the best of secular culture helps us appreciate Torah), Mystical (everything is sacred), Instrumental (study what helps you understand Torah better), Inclusionary (the world is Torah), Chasidic (sanctify studying the secular). No soul, I suspect, can be attracted to all six. Every reader will reject one or another as insufficiently or overly spiritual, too weak or too strong, or for other subjective reasons. With the added effect of Rabbi Lamm’s passionate prose, one can hardly read the book without experiencing strong emotions. This book is powerful stuff.

The third edition includes a new preface and five appendices by the author. The appendices are important statements on crucial issues of belief but are frustratingly brief, offering too little from one of the few living voices of Modern Orthodox authority. Few others carry comparable combinations of wisdom, knowledge and brilliance. We need his authoritative input on the detailed challenges and opportunities of academic study of Talmud but, regrettably, will have to make do with his brief remarks.

The final addition to this reissue is a lengthy afterword by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Originally published as a review of the book, this afterword shows Rabbi Sacks at his best — insightful, eloquent and uplifting. Rabbi Sacks explains both what is in the book and what is not, what subjects have been explored and what awaits future treatment.

If for no other reason, you must read this book to understand the extent to which right wing detractors have gone to delegitimize Rabbi Lamm. The misrepresentation of his book as giving equal footing to both Torah and madda (see here for one example: link) is difficult to believe once you read the book and see for your own eyes how mistaken this claim is. This book, when compared with its right wing critiques, testifies like a hundred witnesses to the moral high ground Rabbi Lamm commands.

Containing plenty with which to agree and plenty to oppose, this volume is an important examination of contemporary worldviews. This book not only tells a story but, as a lightning rod of criticism, is itself a story. It is a work of history that has earned its own place in history.

 

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About the author

Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

50 Responses

  1. S. says:

    >Readers can hardly agree with Rabbi Norman Lamm’s classic book

    Is this what you meant to say?

  2. Hirhurim says:

    Yes, explained in the third paragraph.

  3. “one of the few living voices of Modern Orthodox authority”

    do you think he is an authority of MO philosophy or an authority for MO jews?

  4. Har Nof Academic says:

    Is the book being sold in Jerusalem yet?

  5. Skeptic says:

    >Readers can hardly agree with Rabbi Norman Lamm’s classic book

    This sentence is incoherent. And the third paragraph doesn’t ameliorate the problem.

  6. J. says:

    Rabbi Lamm’s book is indeed highly illuminating; but I have never understood why R. Lichtenstein’s classic essay in JJ Schacter’s book on Yotah U’Madda has not received more attention, perhaps due to the fact that it is not available anywhere online.

  7. Shlomo says:

    “Readers can hardly agree with ” should have been
    “Readers can hardly agree with ALL OF”

  8. Moshe Shoshan says:

    which frame work matched “what your RY’s taught” you?

  9. Anonymous says:

    First sentence makes no sense, none whatsoever, and isn’t clarified by anything later in the essay.

  10. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    Gil: How about “All readers will find much to disagree with in Rabbi…

  11. daat y says:

    The first statement is your headquarters.
    Rabbi Lamm presents different models-
    Who would even think that one would agree with all of them?
    That doesn’t mean one disagrees with his book.
    It just shows where you are coming from.

  12. Hirhurim says:

    Excellent edit, Dr. Kaplan. Thank you for the suggestion.

  13. Hirhurim says:

    It’s probably already in Israel since it was co-published by YU Press and Maggid, of which the latter is an imprint of Koren.

  14. J. says:

    Gil – I find it interesting that in the linked post you explicitly reject the idea that one can understand the circulatory system by studying Torah. Perhaps that is germane to some of the other discussions we have been conducting on the blog of recent.

  15. Hirhurim says:

    J: I absolutely agree that you cannot understand the circulatory system by studying Torah.

  16. I have been a fan of this book from the moment I read it (Not being in YU I had to buy it. I consider it one of the most important influences in my life and included it in the bio on my blog. I have not read this upddated version, but I’m sure it would only add to my appreciation of Dr. Lamm. I completely agree that Dr.Lamm has been very much misunderstood and therefore maligned and villified by members of the right. And this is not the only time that has happened. Thank you Gil, for this very important post.

  17. Hirhurim says:

    Moshe Shoshan: which frame work matched “what your RY’s taught” you?

    Rationalist

  18. mycroft says:

    ““Received” is the proper term because all incoming Yeshiva College freshman at the time of publication were given a free copy”

    In my days they did not give out “in His Image” to freshmen.

  19. Uber Mentsch says:

    The only book we ever got was a Gemara, and it has fared well for all who got them. Someof us have no need for updated thinking.

  20. Shalom Spira says:

    With the kind permission of our Rosh Yeshiva R. Student, the Ramban in his introduction to the Pentateuch indicates that all sciences can be found in the Torah. Similarly, in the Haggadah of the Gr”a (-which, admittedly, was not written by the Gr”a but rather compiled by his students), at the end, in the introduction to Shir Hashirim, the Gr”a’s disciples report the Gr”a was able to discern trigonometry and algebra from Shir Hashirim. So there seems to be a legitimate school of thought which takes “Hafokh bah va-hafokh bah dikhulah bah” quite literally.

    Nevertheless, the guidance I have received from my teacher R. Joshua Shmidman of blessed memory is that it is permissible to study science in a secular context. My understanding of what R. Shmidman was telling me (though I could be mistaken and I claim no inside information) is that yes – everything is in the Torah, and if one wishes, one can devote himself exclusively to studying Torah and – like the Chazon Ish – thereby become a champion scientist. But at the same time the Torah itself (e.g. Rambam Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah 2:2) permits us to study science in a secular context if one so chooses, and – if one wants – one can receive a PhD in a secular university – like HaRav HaGa’on R. Moshe David Tendler – and thereby become a champion scientist.

    A closely related (if not overlapping) issue is the accuracy of the science of Chazal. RJDB catalogues the various sources on this issue in his article “New York City Water” in Tradition 38:4. One source not quoted by RJDB (because it was published at just about the same time) is R. Ovadiah Yosef’s responsum in Shu”t Yabi’a Omer X, Yoreh De’ah no. 24.

  21. mycroft says:

    “The only book we ever got was a Gemara, and it has fared well for all who got them”

    The Gemara fared well-but how about those who received the Gemara?

  22. S. says:

    > if one wishes, one can devote himself exclusively to studying Torah and – like the Chazon Ish – thereby become a champion scientist.

    Really? Does this include not studying “Torahdik” math and science texts? For example, Maaseh Tuvia and Sefer Habris were very, very popular, as were books like Sefer Elim by Yashar of Kandia. People like the Chasam Sofer quoted Maaseh Tuvia and the others. So are you saying that the Chazon Ish didn’t study these? And if he did, why isn’t this studying science books?

  23. Shalom Rosenfeld says:

    R’ Gil wrote:

    > J: I absolutely agree that you cannot understand the circulatory system by studying Torah.

    See the Malbim’s essay in Parshas Terumah where he compares the Mishkan to human anatomy. I think his description of the circulatory system there is pretty accurate. Of course don’t ask me where he got *his* material … OBVIOUSLY had to have been “sod Hashem nasan lirei’av” :)

  24. Jonathan Hirsch says:

    I am generally sympathetic to Dr. Lamm’s arguements however I think by creating a different ideology (Torah U Mada ) this causes many in YU to feel lacking a connection to Mesorah .This makes many of the people connected with the institution insecure and explains the wide prevelance of” Modern Orthodox Uncle Tomism ” .YU in my opinion would be better off that using a classic Askanazic formula(malemed Zechus) we do not ideologically embrace modernity but accept it and as a reality you can allmost the same results using this approach .(this was Dr Revel’s idea when he started the college ) perhaps we would have less insecurity and we would feel more legitamately connected to Mesorah

  25. S. says:

    >YU in my opinion would be better off that using a classic Askanazic formula(malemed Zechus) we do not ideologically embrace modernity but accept it and as a reality you can allmost the same results using this approach .

    That’s what the American yeshivish world did. Almost everyone in Torah V’Daas, Chaim Berlin, etc. went to Brooklyn College and so forth, and then to Touro. Now most don’t go, and most aspire not to. This is what happens when ideologically you oppose modernity but say, nebech, what can you do. You accommodate until you stop accommodating. Besides, without that ideology YU has no business having a university. Results are very different when you do what you do while holding your nose and when you do it feeling good about it.

  26. Ben says:

    Not everyone went to or goes to college to find out what the other half of the world is doing or saying or has discovered. Most had permission to go from their Roshei Yeshivas so they could get a degree and earn a living and support a family. The ones who buy into the secular views becasue of what they learned in college have failed their Roshei Yeshivos miserably. I earned a degree too, but do I believe the nonsense I was taught? No way. I memorized and repeated everything so I could get the grades, thats all. A bochur who goes to get that college experience and see the world so to speak, is a definite risk for going OTD later.

  27. joel rich says:

    Ben,
    So would it be fair to say that you see the world outside of orthodoxy (or limited to a particular version of orthodxy) existing in order to be a nisayon for those within?
    KT

  28. Ben says:

    Yes, thats quite fair indeed.
    I recall when I was in yeshiva it was just becoming mutar to attend college. The yeshiva had made some kind of deal with the one college they permitted that the bochrim would not have to take any philosophy courses, maybe some others as well. Just going at all was a major thing back then, and they were bussed from yeshiva and bussed right back, no “campus life” at all, thank G-d.

  29. Nachum says:

    You can get it in Israel. I got it straight from Koren, but I’ve even seen it in secular bookstores.

  30. Isaac Balbin says:

    Those frumteens links turned me right off as soon as the moderator referred to the author only as “Norman Lamm”. It’s so disrespectful.

  31. Hirhurim says:

    You’ve only reached the surface of his disrespect. It goes so much deeper. You need to go to the mikveh after reading that website.

  32. Shalom Spira says:

    With the kind permission of our Rosh Yeshiva R. Student, who is a tzaddik gammur, I believe that “your nation are all righteous” (Isaiah 60:21). We can learn from the positive dimensions of that website, and the author of that website can learn from the many many positive dimensions of this website, including the great mitzvah to manifest reverence toward Moreinu ViRabbeinu HaRav HaGa’on R. Nachum Lamm, apropos the obligation of revering all talmidei chakhamim (pursuant to the gemara in Pesachim 22b). Going to the mikveh and exploring the wonders of Tractate Mikva’ot are always excellent ideas.

  33. Steve Brizel says:

    I would suggest that a real understanding of R D Lamm’s Hashkafa should include his doctoral thesis on R Chaim Volozinher and Nefesh HaChaim as well as the recently published Haggadah and upcoming book on the Moadim. I agree with both R Gil and Larry Kaplan’s post and comments, respectively, and especially question whether one can claim that secular wisdom can be viewed as constituting a Cheftzah Shel Torah.

  34. Jerry says:

    Steve: “especially question whether one can claim that secular wisdom can be viewed as constituting a Cheftzah Shel Torah.”

    By definition, how could anything that is not Torah be Torah?

    This sounds like the sort of non-sequitur usually uttered by the same folks who ask “if a science textbook fell on the floor, would you kiss it?”

  35. S. says:

    >This sounds like the sort of non-sequitur usually uttered by the same folks who ask “if a science textbook fell on the floor, would you kiss it?”

    If memory serves, in trying to define the precise line between Torah and Madda, noting that this isn’t entirely clear, Dr. Lamm rhetorically asked if it might be possible to make a birkhas hatorah on Madda. All this is for the sake of definition, and is not at all absurd. He doesn’t give this example, but should one make a birkhas hatorah before reading Sefer Elim by Yashar of Candia? Anyone who knows about seforim knows that there are tons of these, which are full of Torah and full of science, and indeed were the major science books for the Torah scholars throughout the ages who knew science, such as R. Yaakov Emden, the Vilna Gaon and the Chasam Sofer. They bring these seforim into Torah contexts. Are they Torah? That’s not an easy question to answer, or dismiss. And what is the line between these seforim and an outright science text?

    Anyway, this passage in his book was dutifully attacked. Imagine, they said, this fool thinks that there is even a hypothetical question about what to make a birkhas hatorah on.

  36. Isaac Balbin says:

    Steve,
    Would you accept that secular knowledge can have a din of tashmishei kedusha?

  37. Jerry says:

    S.

    You’re right, of course. I don’t question the difficulty of drawing lines – that is one of the things I have admired most about Rabbi Lamm’s intellectual output. This is why I think the birkas haTorah question is interesting as an intellectual exercise – it’s a concrete halacha that can be usefully problematized. But what I think may be unhelpful is to use ill-defined buzzwords, etc. – like “Cheftza shel Torah” or kissing a fallen sefer – to ask this question. Mostly because I think those questions, by virtue of relying on vague slogan-sounding terms/actions, are designed to elicit a very specific answer (which is why I think things like this are a non-sequitur).

  38. S. says:

    “Cheftza shel Torah” in the context of these kinds of discussions is a polemical term. Maybe you haven’t been reading Steve’s comments as long as I have, or, as evidenced by your reply, maybe you have.

  39. joel rich says:

    The kissing the dropped book issue is an interesting one as R’S mentions above – but in addition I wonder where the kissing practice stems from – the only mention I ever came across was in the A”HS Y”D 282:11 and he doesn’t quote a source.

    Question-Is there a kiyum of talmud torah when learning medical sections of the gemara, especially ones that the rishonim say no longer apply?
    KT

  40. A says:

    Reading these comments is a good introduction into the small-mindedness that characterizes ‘the Torah world.’ Why not just do your thing – learn the way your learn and live the way you live – and move forward. Religious Jews come off as sooooooo self-absorbed.

  41. chloe says:

    As R’ Lockshin has explained, we (the people of the book) NEED a variety of texts. And even more so (I opine) we MUST study original texts.

    One of our eyeopeners was the contrast among a British English language concordance, Jastrow and a Hebrew-Hebrew text.
    There is a black hole(:)) in what is lost in translation.

  42. Sarah says:

    I don’t even know if I should add my two cents, BUT here it is… Learning Torah is an important service of the Jew from any tradition, or level of observance. I have to say that in many of these debates/discussions about secular vs. religious, learned of the sacred vs. learning of the world, etc… perhaps the most meaningful points are missed. How to be a good Jew in the present (we are not living 400+ years backwards in time) we have to use everything HaShem has given us, lets not be wasteful of all our resources. We have so many authorities, I will be so bold to say that we have far too many. Many of us are confused whirling in circles, not really learning at any deeper level and just regurgitating and even bastardizing teachings of the great sages. I dont know how we can “fix” this problem. Perhaps the Torah academics should be left to fight this one out till only Heaven knows when, until our inner compasses are thrown completely off. of course, who am I to say anything? I am just a woman and not a Yeshiva student. But I do have to make due in this world, in the here and now. And I know HaShem has been gracious towards me and taken care of me exceedingly, despite my setbacks.

  43. Steve Brizel says:

    Issac Balbin wrote:
    “Steve,
    Would you accept that secular knowledge can have a din of tashmishei kedusha?”

    In some, but not all instances,such as understanding some intricate areas of Halacha such as Eruvin and Nidah. Yet, we should always have a very healthy sense of skepticism that borders on cyncisim due to the fact that some of the worst crimes against humanity and the Jewish People were committed by some of the most literate, scientifically amd mathematically advanced people in the world.

  44. Steve Brizel says:

    RJR asked:
    “Question-Is there a kiyum of talmud torah when learning medical sections of the gemara, especially ones that the rishonim say no longer apply”

    I think that RHS has stated repeatedly that there is no such Kiyum.

  45. Steve Brizel says:

    S and Jerry-Merely because a Rishon or Acharon relied upon a scientific work does not convert the same into a Cheftzah Shel Torah,It may very well be of great assistance to the Rishon and/or Acharon in understanding a particular Halachic inquiry, but viewing the same as Torah Mi Sinai or a Cheftzah Shel Torah that warrants a Bircas HaTorah, however one defines Bircas HaTorah strikes me as problematic. The question remains-would the CS or R Yaakov Emden had the same reaction to such books being dropped on the floor as they would have to a Torah text being dropped on the floor or worse?

  46. mycroft says:

    “Steve Brizel on January 25, 2011 at 9:39 am
    RJR asked:
    “Question-Is there a kiyum of talmud torah when learning medical sections of the gemara, especially ones that the rishonim say no longer apply”

    I think that RHS has stated repeatedly that there is no such Kiyum”

    Would RHS skip those sections when teaching Gemarrah?-why learn them-they are faulty info and no kiyyum of talmud torah-it should be bittul zman.

  47. mycroft says:

    “As R’ Lockshin has explained, we (the people of the book) NEED a variety of texts. And even more so (I opine) we MUST study original texts.”

    For better or worse, many chidushei Torah have been written by people who can’t read the original-see eg how many Briskers could read Arabic-did that stop chiddushim on the Rambams perush hamishnayot etc.

  48. […] Torah Umadda Is Better Than Ever, a review by Rabbi Gil […]

 
 

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