I. Secular Study
Dr. Ruth Calderon’s celebrated inaugural speech in Knesset last week was an impressive and emotional display of secular attachment to the Talmud (link). As such, it raises significant religious issues. The question we have to ask is whether secular study of the Talmud is itself contrary to the Talmud. Our democratic attitude toward knowledge might cheer this spreading of ancient texts but we must remember the larger context.
Non-observant Jews study Talmud for two main reasons–either devotional or intellectual. While these need not be mutually exclusive, the first attitude represents study as a religious act, a form of worship even if denying the Talmud’s full religious authority. The second considers Talmud study an intellectual exercise, a broadening of cultural awareness. Both are potentially problematic from a Talmudic perspective.
The proper intent for studying Torah is called learning “li-shmah.” R. Norman Lamm, in his important work Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah’s Sake in the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin and His Contemporaries (ch. 6), broadly divides the interpretation of the term li-shmah into three categories: functional (in order to know how to act), devotional and cognitive. We will return to these definitions shortly but first let us discuss someone who learns for an unapproved reason, she-lo li-shmah.
The Gemara (Berakhos 17a) quotes Rava as saying that one who “does” (i.e. studies Torah) for the wrong reason (not li-shmah) “it were better had he not been created.” Similarly, the Gemara (Ta’anis 7a) quotes R. Benayah as saying that whoever studies Torah she-lo li-shmah, “his Torah becomes for him a lethal poison.” The commentaries point out that these statements contradict Rav Yehudah’s saying in the name of Rav (Pesachim 50b) that you should study Torah even she-lo li-shmah because “from [doing it] without proper intent one comes to [do it] with proper intent.” Is Torah study with improper intent acceptable or not?
Rashi (Berakhos 17a sv. ha-oseh) and Tosafos (ibid. and elsewhere) differentiate between types of improper intent. When you study Torah as a means to argue with religious authority, you are sinning. When you study for personal honor or gain, you are doing something proper for the wrong reasons and may eventually do it for the right reasons. However, Tosafos (Sotah 22b sv. le-olam) defines the improper she-lo li-shmah as studying without intent to fulfill the laws you learn.
According to the second explanation, secular Talmud study falls under the improper she-lo li-shmah because secular students do not intend to put their study into practice. Torah study without intent to practice is a profanation of the sacred literature. According to the first explanation, perhaps secular study does not qualify as she-lo li-shmah because it is not necessarily intended to challenge authority. However, this argument fails when we consider Talmudic statements about the importance of connecting Torah study with practice.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Berakhos 1:5) quotes R. Yochanan as saying that someone who studies Torah with the intent not to practice it, “it would have been better for him had the afterbirth in which he lay been turned over his face and he not come into the world.” Rashi, in his commentary cited above, refers to this passage, implying that he also considers study without intent to practice as a negative type of she-lo li-shmah (R. Lamm, p. 221 n. 10).
III. Improper Students
Additionally, we are warned against teaching improper students. R. Gamliel and R. Elazar Ben Azariah disagreed on the level of moral perfection demanded from students (Berakhos 28a). R. Gamliel required that their external actions match their internal traits, i.e. complete moral perfection. R. Elazar Ben Azariah was less exacting and, when he rose to leadership, allowed many more students to enter the study hall. But we have no indication that R. Elazar Ben Azariah allowed in everyone, without any entrance requirements at all.
The Gemara (Chullin 133a) quotes R. Yehudah in the name of Rav that someone who teaches an improper student (talmid she-eino hagun) falls to hell and is as if he inadvertently worshiped an idol. Elsewhere (Ta’anis 7a), R. Chanina ben Dama says that one may not teach a talmid she-eino hagun.
Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Talmud Torah 4:1) codifies these judgments as follows: You may only teach Torah to someone with proper or average behavior but not to someone whose religious behavior is wanting. You must first help him return, verify his behavior, and only then let him into the study hall. This is quoted verbatim in Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 246:7).
All agree that someone who does not intend to practice Torah should not be taught it. R. Lamm, after dividing interpretations of proper intent into the three general categories mentioned above (functional, devotional & cognitive), adds (p. 192):
It will be seen that those who espouse either of the two latter definitions accept the functional definition as a secondary element, or at least negatively as the insistence that the study of Torah never be pursued with the conscious preclusion of the resulting implementation of the precepts studied: lilmod al menat she’lo laasot.
Particularly to the point, R. Lamm writes about R. Chaim Volozhiner’s approach (p. 242):
The transformation of the study of Torah from a religio-intellectual to a cultural exercise is sinful. A secularist, detached, uncommitted study of Torah is considered by R. Hayyim a subversion of his definition of lishmah and his understanding of the purpose of the study of Torah.
R. David Tzvi Hoffmann (Melamed Le-Ho’il, Yoreh De’ah 77), in a very different context, explains that we may not teach Torah to a gentile son of a Jew because “the Torah of Israel is not a song or poem that you study in order to understand Jewish religion but its purpose is learning in order to practice.” While we cannot compare secular Jews to gentiles, the message about the religious act of Torah study remains relevant.
However, this raises a fundamental question on the contemporary yeshiva system. While many schools accept only observant students, many others have broader admission requirements. On what basis do they admit students who will not practice the Torah they learn, talmidim she-einam hagunim? I have not seen a systematic treatment of this subject but I believe the answer to this question lies in the discussion of the Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav.
In his Hilkhos Talmud Torah (4:3), the Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav states that the Rambam’s prescription for an improper student only applies if it will work. Ideally, we must bring a student back to observance before allowing him into yeshiva. However, if that is not possible, we are better served by allowing him to study than not. (Quoted by R. Ovadiah Yosef, Yechaveh Da’as 3:74:6.)
Similarly, secular students of Talmud will likely have no other access to Torah if not in a secular setting. Perhaps this might be considered outreach and justify an otherwise forbidden study. On one hand, you would be hard pressed to classify as outreach one secular Jew teaching another. However, developing a connection to Judaism, adding even minimal entry of Judaism into the void of modern Israeli life, is a massive step in the right direction. How can we object when secular Israelis add a touch of Torah, in any form, to their lives?
But we also cannot ignore the reasons for the above rules. Restricting access to Torah is not intended to punish the non-observant or retain power for the rabbis. Maharal (Chiddushei Aggados, Chullin 133b) offers two explanations for the statement that teaching Torah to an improper student is like inadvertently committing idolatry. First, Torah study is an act of religious devotion. Teaching a sacred text to someone who rejects its authority is an act of sacrilege. You are secularizing the holy text.
Additionally, you are empowering your student to mislead others. When the improper student becomes a teacher, he will teach his wrong ideas and attitudes to others in the guise of Torah scholarship. By teaching to an improper student, you are spreading his improprieties, leading others astray. An improper student will become a subversive influence who will cause religious damage with his scholarly accomplishments. This last point deserves expansion. When people with very different ideas about a text approach it, they each see it very differently. A traditional student of the Talmud treats it as a sacred text, interpreting it as a chain in an ancient transmission. When a secular student approaches the Talmud, he reads it with a different critical attitude. We are, to a degree, reading different books.
Does a secular yeshiva teach the same Talmud that religious yeshivas teach? In one sense, no. If the secular approach to the Talmud spreads, we will find our sacred text profaned widely in society. Abayei and Rava will be two ancient debaters whose words are twisted beyond recognition in the public arena. We will also see religion challenged by a foreign textual sensibility that is difficult for the uninitiated to identify and reject. This is not a matter of protecting rabbis from challenge but protecting the Talmud’s sanctity, open to all students who accept it as a sacred text.
In the end, I can’t object to a secular yeshiva because Israeli society is so shallow that even a little religion, even if subversive, is a blessing. But I see the dilemma.