For those of us who believe that there is much to be gained from, ‘chochmah begoyim’ – and that this even extends to philosophy and the humanities – the upcoming holiday of Chanukah can paradoxically be a dark time. With its central theme of the fight against Greek culture, many detractors of openness towards use this holiday as an excuse to militate against any but the most rudimentary and/or value free knowledge from the outside world. After all, many – if obviously, not all – of the Jewish Hellenists at the time of Chanukah were Orthodox. Though they kept the commandments and espoused loyalty to the Torah, their admiration for ideas outside of Judaism apparently went too far.
However, rather than making us defensive, the Chanukah season can serve as an impetus to think more deeply about the nature of our position and the importance of nuance. It is, after all, nuance that marks the difference between the aspects of Greek culture that were permanently accepted into the Jewish tradition and those that were not. I am convinced, for example, that the organization of the Mishnah into clear categories and subcategories is the product of such integration.
But how are we to gauge when we are going too far? The answer is a tricky one that may vary depending on the circumstances. Yet using that as an excuse not to seek out any outside knowledge at all is worse – it is ultimately no different than not taking any medication for fear of suffering from an overdose. By the same token, the strength of this analogy should not lead us to say that anything goes; as the analogy has an equally dangerously flip side – that since medicine is obviously helpful, there is no need to limit how much we take.
Perhaps a good place to start (and this article cannot be seen as anything more than a brief incursion into a very involved and complex topic) is to look at the limits suggested by those who understood the benefit that can be found in the outside world, but also understood that there had to be limits.
Accordingly, no less a proponent of openness than Rav S R Hirsch presents a strong critique of another paradigm of integration, Rambam, and accuses him of having gone too far:
His peculiar mental tendency was Arabic-Greek, and his conception of the purpose of life the same. He entered into Judaism from without, bringing with him opinions of whose truth he had convinced himself from extraneous sources and — he reconciled. (Nineteen Letters, 18)
One need not go so far as Rav Hirsch to notice that Rambam’s seeming dedication to completely free inquiry can be problematic. Rambam’s prioritization of reason over tradition comes out in this passage discussing why he subscribes to the notion that God created the universe, as opposed to it existing forever:
Being convinced that the question whether the heavens are eternal or not cannot be decided by proof, neither in the affirmative nor in the negative, we have enumerated the objections raised to either view, and shown how the theory of the Eternity of the Universe is subject to stronger objections… Another argument can be drawn from the fact that the theory of the Creation was held by our Father Abraham, and by our Teacher Moses. (Moreh Nevukhim 2:22)
Though a proper analysis of this statement requires more space, Rambam gives us the sense that he only looks to tradition as one argument among many in the determination of this question. While the Talmud also entertains arguments against various traditions, Rambam seems to only present tradition here because the point cannot be determined by reason, thereby giving credence to Rav Hirsch’s take.
Granted, Rav Saadia Gaon had already made the point that the Torah can never truly be in contradiction with truths gathered from observation or reason. But that does not mean that those truths will always be generated in their pristine form, nor does it mean that those truths cannot do damage while they are still being formed, a process which can sometimes take centuries or even millenia.
So while the tentative nature of human knowledge should not make us reject the results of human reason out of hand, it should make us cautious. One aspect of that cautiousness is to make them subservient to the ideas of our tradition. Subservient does not mean to crush them. Rather it means that in our integration of such ideas, we must insist upon the essential aspects of Jewish tradition as primary.