In the Book of Numbers (15:37-41) we read the well-known third and final paragraph of the Shemah prayer, regarding the mitzvah of tzitzit, the fringes required to be placed on all four-cornered men’s garments.
The Almighty admonishes His people against following the desires of their hearts and their eyes, which lead them astray, so that they may remember and do all of His commandments and be holy unto Him (15:39-40).
The commandment to remember and perform all of God’s mitzvot is what drives the Jewish obsession with learning and education. The Rambam writes (Laws of Torah Study 1:8) that every Jew, whether rich or poor, healthy or ailing, young or weakened by old age, is required to learn Torah.
Rabbi Yaakov Philber, in his important volume Hemdat Yamim, notes that there is a longstanding debate among the classical Jewish philosophers regarding the requirement to study Torah and pursue education. Does the requirement apply to the study of Torah and Judaism exclusively, or does it also include secular education? It is a debate that continues to rage to this day.
All agree, however, that only those secular studies that enhance Torah study should be pursued. Secular studies that are destructive may not be studied. (Some authorities maintain that it is important to know what the heretics and our enemies say, in order to respond properly to skeptics when necessary.)
Due to the dangers that abound in being exposed to destructive ideas and philosophies, the Torah sets boundaries and demands that Jews not follow “the desires of their hearts and eyes.”
These limitations set by the Torah fly in the face of much of contemporary opinion and values. Effective education, declare many experts, must be “open” and “open-minded,” requiring the legitimization of virtually all speech and study, even that which is harmful and dangerous.
They further believe that those who honestly seek truth must allow for an uncompromised free exchange of ideas in the media, in universities, in all places of study and debate.
Judaism also recognizes and values the benefits that accrue from open-mindedness and honest intellectual inquiry. Yet Jewish law sets limits. Just as there are strictures concerning what we eat in order to protect our physical health, so must caution be exercised when imbibing ethical and spiritual knowledge. In fact, many Torah rules are purposely designed to “limit” our physical and intellectual activities. The laws of lashon hara restrict wanton speech and the laws of forbidden marital relationships restrict certain sexual activities.
There’s a famous quip, attributed to a several sources but most often to the physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988), that goes: “Keep an open mind – but not so open that your brain falls out.” This bit of advice is not being widely heeded in contemporary society.
Just a few weeks ago the media focused on the mass killing that occurred near the campus of the University of California Santa Barbara. The young gunman authored a long “manifesto,” spelling out his grievances toward the women on campus who rejected him socially.
This attack touched off an anguished conversation regarding the ways in which women are perceived sexually, as well as the violence frequently perpetrated against them. Talk of misogyny captured the airwaves, with both men and women urging authorities to consider the implications of the deadly rampage and its impact on society.
Yet the issue is greater than male attitudes toward women. What we see today is the product of seeds that were sown over the past thirty or forty years. Should we really be surprised by the contemporary lack of morality and decency when more than 85 percent of American entertainment features violence and sex? (Much of this change in values actually took place long before the Internet pushed the envelope in a way that was unimaginable just a few years ago.)