web analytics
September 2, 2014 / 7 Elul, 5774
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (L) visits the JewishPress.com booth at The Event. And the Winners of the JewishPress.com Raffle Are…

Congratulations to all the winners of the JewishPress.com raffle at The Event



Home » InDepth » Op-Eds »

From Athens To Vilna To Jerusalem

All secular wisdom is essential for our Holy Torah and is included in it.
The Vilna Gaon

The Vilna Gaon

Secular education has become the focus of public discourse and debate in Israel, as the Ministry of Education seeks to implement its core curriculum (tochnit haliba) in religious schools.

New legislation would make the funding these schools currently receive contingent on their adopting this core curriculum. The program consists of basic instruction in language, mathematics, science, and history. The hope is that students will achieve a level of proficiency in these subjects, giving them valuable skills for the future.

But these changes were met with tremendous opposition in parts of the religious community. For some, teaching children secular subjects is seen as somehow being in conflict with Torah values. Which raises the questions: What is the place of secular education in Jewish life? Is there a value in secular knowledge? How do we as Jews relate to the dominant secular culture that surrounds us?

These questions are at the heart of the holiday of Chanukah, when we celebrate our victory over Hellenism; over the influence of Greek culture on our people.

A famous interpretation of the menorah, often attributed to Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman of Vilna (1720-1797), the Vilna Gaon, speaks to these very questions.

Aharon is instructed, “When you kindle the lamps, toward the center of the menorah shall the seven lamps cast light” (Num. 8:2). According to the Vilna Gaon, the branches of the menorah represent the pillars of secular wisdom and knowledge. The center lamp, which all the other branches face, represents the light of Torah. Torah is at the center, but its study requires illumination that can only be gleaned from the light of secular knowledge (See also the Netziv’s ha-Emek Davar to Ex. 27:20, Ex. 37:19, Num. 8:2).

For many, the Vilna Gaon personifies the perfected Torah personality, with his complete and unflinching dedication to Torah study. Yet he also possessed a profound knowledge and deep understanding of secular studies – and he even encouraged the study of secular subjects.

In their introduction to Aderet Eliyahu, the Gaon’s own children attest to the fact that “by the time he was twelve years old, he had mastered the seven branches of secular wisdom…”

One of the Vilna Gaon’s closest disciples, Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, writes:

[The Vilna Gaon] explained that all secular wisdom is essential for our Holy Torah and is included in it. He indicated that he had mastered all the branches of secular wisdom, including algebra, trigonometry, geometry and music… [Pe’at haShulchan, p. 5a]

The Gaon traveled between Athens and Vilna effortlessly. And according to written testimony, he openly encouraged his students to pursue secular knowledge.

Rabbi Baruch Schick of Shklov translated Euclid’s Elements into Hebrew. Euclid, considered the father of geometry, lays down the major principles of geometry in this classic work, written around 300 BCE. In the preface to the Hebrew translation, Rabbi Schick writes: “I heard from his [the Gaon’s] holy lips that to the extent one is deficient in secular wisdom he will be deficient a hundredfold in Torah study, for Torah and wisdom are bound up together.”

He adds that the Gaon “commanded” him to “translate into Hebrew as much secular wisdom as possible.” Should anyone question the veracity of this account, it was published in the Hague in 1780, during the Vilna Gaon’s lifetime.

This should not be shocking, as the Talmud is full of examples of how our sages used science and mathematics to assist in their understanding of Torah. To cite just two, Rav spent eighteen months among the shepherds to study what types of blemishes on animals heal and which do not (Sanhedrin 5b) and Rabbi Zeira was hesitant to rule on issues of family purity without requisite knowledge of the physiology involved (Niddah 20b).

The Talmud (Shabbat 75a) even offers criticism of one who knows how to calculate the calendar and positions of the constellations but does not do so.

Throughout Jewish history, many of our great thinkers and leaders were broad-minded and worldly. Maimonides, Nachmanides and Yehudah HaLevi were physicians and philosophers. Don Yitzchak Abarbanel was a statesman. These great men possessed an intellectual prowess and curiosity that is absent in many corners of religious life today. They embodied the ethos of Torah U’Madda. They understood, as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, that the beauty and wisdom found in Western culture can dwell in the tents of Torah (see Rav Hirsch’s comments to Gen. 9:27).

A Torat Chaim – a living, breathing, healthy Judaism – is a balanced Judaism, a balance between tradition and modernity. But finding the perfect balance is not simple. In his classic work on the subject, Rabbi Norman Lamm warns, “The intersections of Torah and Madda are not always clear; indeed they are more often than not elusive and indeterminate” (Torah Umadda, 3rd ed., p. 10). Rather than flee, however, we embrace the struggle, the conflict, the dialectical tension inherent in the modern religious experience. When we confront the challenges of the modern world, the fruit of our labor is a richer, fuller, and deeper Judaism.

As the Vilna Gaon taught, the light of Torah and the light of secular wisdom can exist on the menorah side by side, with the Torah at its center, of course.

About the Author: Rabbi Shimshon HaKohen Nadel lives and teaches in Jerusalem.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

One Response to “From Athens To Vilna To Jerusalem”

  1. The evangelical Christian movement in the states has this problem. Through their desire to simplify things, they take scripture literally (without studying it at the root language). By doing this, they go around telling everybody that the world is only 6000 years old and if you deny it, you're going to hell. They even built a creation "museum" around the concept (complete with children playing with carnivorous dinosaurs). In the end, they look silly taking such stands against scientific discovery. If they wanted to market their religion effectively, they would own scientific advancement and incorporate it into their own beliefs. If it truly is tested and undeniable, then it must be in accordance to the Creator's design. Science should be revered by religious men because it shines a light on that design. Instead, some religious institutions deny it, making the world see religion as a source of darkness, not of light.

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
Along the Israel-Syrian border.
Jihadist Threat Rising on Israel’s Northern Border
Latest Indepth Stories
0.5-Shekel-hatasham-RJP

The War projects to lower Israel’s 2014 GDP 0.5% but will have little influence on foreign investors

The_United_Nations_Building

It is in the nature of the Nations of the World to be hostile towards the Jewish People.

champions

Hamas and Islamic Jihad are actually fighting to “liberate Jerusalem and all Palestine.”

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz reviewing maps on the Golan Heights.

The bad news is that ISIS and Al Qaeda are on the Syrian Golan. The good news is that every terrorist in Syria is killing each other.

The congregants, Ethiopians spanning generations, were beaming with joy and pride.

The withdrawal from the Gaza Strip nine years ago did not enhance Israel’s security.

How does a soldier from a religious home fall in love with a soldier from a non- religious kibbutz?

In 19th century entire ancient Jewish communities fled Palestine to escape brutal Muslim authorities

Responsibility lies with both the UN and Hamas, and better commitments should have been demanded from both parties in the ceasefire.

But the world is forever challenging our Jewish principle and our practices.

If this is how we play the game, we will lose. By that I mean we will lose everything.

Reportedly, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have formed a bloc that seeks to counter Islamist influence in the Middle East.

One wonders how the IDF could be expected to so quickly determine the facts.

While there is no formula that will work for everyone, there are some strategies that if followed carefully and consistently can help our children – and us – gain the most from the upcoming school year.

More Articles from Rabbi Shimshon HaKohen Nadel
The Vilna Gaon

All secular wisdom is essential for our Holy Torah and is included in it.

Nadel-050313

A flag with the Star of David hung prominently in the synagogues of Prague since the mid-14th century, with the approval of their great rabbis.

Minutes after candle-lighting, sirens rang out in Jerusalem, disturbing the peace and tranquility ushered in by Shabbat. Earlier that day, my wife and I assured our parents that we are far from the rockets in our home in Har Nof, a quiet suburb nestled in the Jerusalem Forest.

In February, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled the Tal Law discriminatory and unconstitutional in a vote of six to three. The law, which provides exemptions for young men studying in yeshiva full time, has been the subject of much criticism and controversy.

The message of the Biblical account of the Spies has tremendous relevance today, here in the modern State of Israel. With a nuclear threat from Iran, enemy states on its borders, the ever-constant fear of terrorism, and pressure from the International Community, Israel is not without its challenges. But it’s also the ‘Start Up Nation,’ with a healthy, growing economy when most of the world’s economies are failing.

In the early days of Statehood, when Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, the famed Chazon Ish, and other leading rabbis reached a compromise with David Ben Gurion to provide military exemptions for yeshiva students, only some 400 students were exempted. Writing about a Milchemet Mitzvah, the Chazon Ish himself recognized that “if there is a need for them, they must come to the aid of their brethren.”

It has been said ‘It is easier to take the Jew out of the Exile, than to take the Exile out of the Jew’. While in Egypt, the Jewish people could not even hear Hashem’s promise of Redemption because of their “shortness of spirit.” Their bondage wasn’t merely a physical bondage, but a mental one. And so, while still in Egypt, Hashem began the process of taking the Jew out of the psychology of Exile, ridding him of his slave mentality.

With thousands of Haggadot in print, it can be overwhelming to decide what to buy and what to use at the Seder. Just like kashering the home for Pesach requires preparation, so too the material for the Seder. And according to the investment is the return. Below are twenty of my favorite Haggadot.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/from-athens-to-vilna-to-jerusalem/2013/11/30/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: