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.