The Utilitarian Case for Torah u-Madda

It has become fashionable to say that Torah u-Madda has fallen out of fashion. In this environment, Lawrence Grossman’s recent essay title “The Rise and Fall of Torah U’Madda[1] comes as no surprise; after all, decades earlier, R. Jonathan Sacks had already noted that “Torah im derekh eretz is in a state of eclipse.”[2] Among other critiques, Torah u-Madda is denigrated as irrelevant to our truly pressing concerns or lamented as a victim of the rise of utilitarianism[3] and the steep decline of liberal arts. Yet this commonplace critique misses the mark. While its significance transcends practical application, Torah u-Madda, broadly conceived, is profoundly relevant to our daily concerns in ways that often have been overlooked even in the well-rehearsed polemics of the past half-century.

Of course, the legitimacy of an idea does not rise or fall on its popularity. As R. Mosheh Lichtenstein once quipped when asked why he remains dati le’umi even as the overwhelming majority of Orthodoxy is Haredi, “Rov ha-olam Notzri,” “Most of the world is Christian.” (I assume he didn’t mean this literally – Christians comprise roughly 31% of the world population – but his point was well taken). In any case, Torah u-Madda is inherently compelling and profoundly religious. We can debate the boundaries of legitimate intellectual inquiry and the best balance between our limited time allotments. But only the hardened soul can fail to be elevated by the soaring spiritual sweep of R. Lamm’s peroration to Torah u-Madda:

Grasping a differential equation or a concept in quantum mechanics can let us perceive and reveal Godliness in the abstract governance of the universe. An insight into molecular biology or depth psychology or the dynamics of society can inspire in us a fascination with God’s creation that Maimonides identifies as the love of God. A new appreciation of a Beethoven symphony or a Cezanne painting or the poetry of Wordsworth can move us to a greater sensitivity to the infinite possibilities of the creative imagination with which the Creator endowed His human creatures, all created in the divine Image.[4]

This vision is compelling and true. It is self-defeating to raise a white flag of surrender acknowledging that the battle for Torah u-Madda has been lost. Trading in Torah u-Madda for Torah u-Parnassah is an insult not only to Torah, broadly conceived, but also to those infinite possibilities with which the Creator endowed humanity.

Still, from an educational vantage point, abstract arguments are not enough. A pragmatic age requires a pragmatic case for Torah u-Madda. For a variety of reasons, practical arguments did not figure very prominently in twentieth-century debates over Torah u-Madda. More often, depending on the time, place, and audience, Torah u-Madda was cited to validate the desires of acculturated Jews who wished to remain true to their tradition while engaging in broader American society, or as an intrinsic act of divine worship. These were often contrasted with a purely utilitarian, vocational approach to acquiring an education. But this dichotomy overstates the case. We will cite a set of hypothetical scenarios which amply demonstrate that the practical case for Torah u-Madda is exceedingly potent and extends far beyond earning a livelihood. Quite the opposite: an abiding appreciation of the value of a broad liberal education equips us with the knowledge and skills to tackle everyday problems with actionable insights that are anything but theoretical.

For example: parents of young adolescent children often struggle with the scenario of a child who asks for a device of one sort or another. Many such parents find themselves in a bind: they don’t want to place devices with internet access in their children’s hands, but they also recognize that their refusal would effectively be tantamount to socially ostracizing their children. The conundrum is real, painful, and lonely.

Now imagine that instead of feeling trapped, the parent doggedly determines that the best path forward lies in finding a way to create a like-minded coalition among other parents in the class. So he begins reading some of the salient works on how to effect social change. He reads authors such as Atul Gawande, whose book Better does an excellent job distilling this literature, and reaches out to a well-read friend who works in public health and has been engaged in efforts to get more people to adopt safety measures before and during the pandemic.

After learning and thinking critically about the problem, he devises a plan to partner with other parents in the class to shift expectations around device usage. After some successes and missteps along the way, he manages to collaborate with other parents and lead a meeting that results in the creation of an active parent Whatsapp group on this topic. Within just a few weeks, nearly all the children in the class receive child-friendly devices that do not permit access to the internet, including social media, but still allow children opportunities for online social interactions with peers. It is not perfect – a few of the kids in the grade already had smartphones, and their parents ultimately decide against taking them away – but his child now finds himself in the class norm, not the exception, and the torrent of complaints has subsided. The father lets parents of children in other grades know about his experience, offers them some informal coaching, and mentions the story to the school’s principal. The principal shares the ideas with a number of colleagues, and reviews the story of the father’s success while introducing a parent lecture dedicated to the topic of children’s device usage at home and in school.

This case seems fairly benign, which is precisely the point. Drawing on rigorous social science research to develop creative solutions to practical problems, instead of simply despairing or relying exclusively on intuition, is a compelling, real-world example of Torah u-Madda.

Next, take the case of a student in yeshiva or seminary who is set on “gaining a kinyan,” an acquisition of his or her learning. What is the most effective way to commit knowledge of, say, a Talmudic tractate to memory? Numerous books propose systematic approaches to learning retention, yeshivot emphasize hazarah particularly at the end of the zeman, and programs such as ve-Ha’arev Na offer their own methods for acquiring a kinyan ha-Torah.

But what if, instead of using a “heimish” approach, the student (or rebbeim designing a new bekiut night Seder initiative) were to utilize the cutting-edge neuroscientific research on memory retention? Or take our elementary school principals, rebbeim, and morot, who often acknowledge that they struggle to produce graduating students who possess sufficiently broad basic Torah knowledge. What if they were to use this literature to craft a new approach that they find to be far more effective than yediot kelaliyot or similar tests with which they have been unsatisfied for years? Classics such as The Art of Memory, Make it Stick, and Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning summarize the history and current state of scientific research in sophisticated, accessible ways. Why reinvent the wheel when data-driven solutions might help us master Torah more effectively?

Some may resist introducing these amendments, insisting that we already have excellent methods in place, and that the yeshiva system has a mesorah (tradition) of effective approaches to Talmud review. But I suspect that if that a yeshiva were to begin utilizing this research as a basis for a new hazarah system, the results would speak for themselves. Students would likely demonstrate far higher levels of retention, and, I suspect, if introduced in a non-threatening manner, such objections would largely fall away.

What might such a course of study look like? Following the findings, throughout the zeman, students take strategically-spaced, interleaved quizzes that build upon one another. The teacher intentionally utilizes a spiral curriculum that reintroduces key principles from time to time, challenging students to expend significant mental effort in order to retrieve the information (struggling to remember is often a harbinger of stronger, not weaker, long-term retention) and creatively apply the knowledge to new domains, using higher-order cognitive abilities to deepen their understanding. Toward the end of the zeman, instead of rereading their notes or attending hazarah shiurim and taking a second set of notes, or even highlighting key points in their notes, students transfer the key information from the Gemara and their notes to color-coded index cards (or online equivalents), and then drill themselves on the distilled knowledge with increasing levels of difficulty. Finally, each student compiles a haburah culling the major themes and sources covered throughout the zeman.

As a final example, take the commonplace annual tragi-comedy of sinat hinam, popularly translated as baseless hatred. Each year around the time of Tishah be-Av – and often during the Omer mourning period as well – we bemoan the fact that the Second Temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred, which the Talmud equates in severity to the violation of all three cardinal sins (Yoma 9b). We recommit ourselves to Jewish unity. Invariably, nothing changes, and the Tishah be-Av mussar schmoozen bring us no closer to eradicating sinat hinam. But what if, instead of waking up to Groundhog Days for three weeks each year, we were to use Torah u-Madda as a roadmap toward making meaningful progress?

Following Socrates as presented in Plato’s early Dialogues, we might begin by defining our terms. Sinat hinam, as has been widely noted, is nearly meaningless. A useful working definition of sinat hinam might be something akin to hatred without sufficient basis (as opposed to hatred without any basis) or, better, following R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin’s remarks in his introduction to Genesis, a tendency to view Jews with whom I have fundamental disagreements as enemies. Defining the term allows us to better identify the problem we seek to address.

Next, we might inquire as to why it might be natural to expect internal tensions within communities. Recent research on evolution has brought to light some extremely important and potent ideas with immense explanatory power. One common theory maintains that humans achieved an evolutionary advantage over animals by using our superior intelligence to build large, interdependent communities whose common identification went beyond physical proximity or familial kinship. What if, along similar lines, instead of decrying sinat hinam, we gained a deeper understanding of the situations in which we might be motivated to conceive of our survival as inextricably bound up with that of our fellow Jews, thereby replicating evolutionary circumstances and increasing our motivation to collaborate constructively? Understanding and utilizing this evolutionary definition of an “in-group” may stand a better chance of effecting real change than even the most inspirational Tishah be-Av video. An understanding of evolution, it turns out, is not just relevant to questions of science and Torah, or Rav Kook’s theology, but may have profound implications for combating the internal scourge of sinat hinam and external threat of anti-semitism.

Similar exercises can be repeated for a host of other burning issues in our community: Why does anti-semitism appear to be on the rise? How likely is U.S. Jewry to become existentially endangered by growing anti-semitism in the way that much of Europe already is? Why have traditional attitudes toward Zionism fallen out of favor in so many Jewish circles? Can liberal Zionists carve out a middle space between conservative Zionism on one hand and anti-Zionism on the other? What are the effects of wealth and consumption on our community? Why are we so politically polarized? Why is adolescence such a difficult stage? Why is modesty back in style, and what are the implications for Jewish education? Will #metoo and rape culture mean a return in society to more traditional mores? Most immediately, how might the literature on group trauma, habit formation, and loneliness help inform the efforts of rabbis and shul leaders to bring people back to the pews in a post-pandemic world?

These examples not only more compellingly demonstrate that Torah u-Madda is invaluable, but they also resolve many of the classical objections raised against Torah u-Madda. It is difficult to imagine that using social science research to help ensure that my child is shielded from some of the pernicious effects of social media at too young an age is a form of bittul zeman. Unless one makes the mesorah or self-sufficiency argument, it is equally difficult, if not more so, to claim that it is bittul Torah to research the best way for one to retain his or her learning. And the argument that we are not as great as those in the past who did study sophisticated secular wisdom, which R. Lamm discusses at length,[5] misses the point if I am a rabbi trying to understand anti-semitism, particularly if it is my job to opine and provide guidance on burning issues confronting the community.

Beyond these cases, there may be an even more profound, penetrating sense in which Torah u-Madda can be actionable: it is an indispensable tool toward achieving self-understanding. It is, after all, difficult to accomplish much of anything as an oved Hashem or otherwise without self-understanding. Similarly, it is difficult to succeed as a parent, educator, or leader without first developing a keen understanding of one’s student or child. This point was certainly clear to Hazal,[6] Rashi,[7] R. Hirsch,[8] and the Piazescner Rebbe.[9]

What is more, certain basic features of the human condition, as well as central elements of our culture, are essential components of our identity. For this reason, we can’t begin to fully understand ourselves and those around us without first acquiring some basic notion as to what it means to be human, and at least a rudimentary understanding of the current zeitgeist. Of course, understanding the zeitgeist entails understanding its intellectual and social roots, including thousands of years of the West, as well as the series of upheavals since the dawn of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

And while some can arrive at this depth of understanding through intuition, most can only manage this by way of a deeper dive into culture and society. As R. Lichtenstein put it in A Consideration of Synthesis:

Secular knowledge is invaluable for the understanding of the environment in which we all, willy-nilly, find ourselves. We cannot combat worldliness until we know what it stands for; we cannot refute the secularist unless we have mastered his arguments. Furthermore, if we wish not merely to react to our environment, but to act upon it, we must be thoroughly familiar with its mores and its values. If bnei Torah are to exert some positive religious influence upon modern society, they must clearly maintain some contact with it. To this end, secular study is virtually indispensable.[10]

To put the same point in terms of intellectual history, one need not hold a PhD in philosophy to see that massively influential thinkers such as Kant, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud set the foundations for the intellectual skepticism rampant today.

Indeed, a deeper understanding of ourselves and our society provides not only a general framework in which to make sense of the world we live in, but also has the potential to be transformative in a more practical sense.

To take a concrete example along these lines, this time of a more controversial variety, consider conversations about gender between students and teachers in almost any Jewish Day School. Such conversations often highlight a generational gap. When asked, many of our adolescent students opine that sex and gender are fundamentally unrelated categories, the former biological and the latter culturally constructed. Yet others insist that sex is a fluid category, and that there really is no such thing as a pure male or female, only different points along a spectrum of personal identity. Those of us who grew up in peer groups for whom sex and gender were widely assumed to be interchangeable, might respond with not a small dose of perplexity.

But what if we committed ourselves to understanding the intellectual context in which these ideas have arisen? What if we were willing to think deeply as to why the ideas of third-wave feminism and poststructuralism, which respectively pose radical critiques to “traditional” forms of liberal feminism and the foundations of Western epistemology, so deeply permeated the curricula and ideological orthodoxies of universities throughout the West?

One need not go as far as I and study gender and masculinity in depth. And I would not recommend it for most. But this I know: there is no substitute if you want to understand the air our students breathe. Reading Judith Butler’s inestimably influential, jargon-laden Gender Trouble, which argues that sex is performative – meaning that it is not intrinsically tied to biology, but merely a function of the meanings particular societies assign to individuals’ outward behaviors – is slow-going for most, and hair-raising for many traditionally-minded readers. But once you’ve read her, you can detect her fingerprints everywhere. Michel Foucault, whose works often recast claims to epistemic certainty as tools wielded by those in power to maintain their positions in society – is equally troubling. But like it or not, you can’t go very far in today’s climate without encountering his colossal influence, especially in the United States – including in daily discussions in Jewish Day Schools across the globe. An inside understanding of these and other thinkers helps us better understand where our students are coming from, and the kinds of ideas they are likely to encounter online and on college campuses. Most importantly, they can help us begin to formulate a response that we believe in and that will simultaneously resonate with our students – no mean feat, but a process that I believe we are obligated to undertake.

Of course, the charge of studying heretical ideas is a serious one, and one that must be confronted particularly in matters of gender studies and poststructuralism. Certainly, at the very least, one must first fill one’s stomach with the meat and potatoes of Torah study before diving in. And there are ideas out there that are certainly very much antithetical to any serious construal of Torah Judaism. But it seems self-evident that helping our students navigate the dizzying world around them qualifies for Meiri’s concept of le-havin u-lehorot, which encompasses heretical ideas in general and not just idolatry,[11] or da mah she-tashiv la-apikores.

In fact, many outstanding contemporary figures we associate with Torah u-Madda exemplified precisely this wider approach that utilizes broad study to arrive at greater self-understanding.

R. Soloveitchik, for instance, understood that as a product of Western culture, he inevitably struggled with many of the same characteristics that animated other Western thinkers. R. Soloveitchik exemplified this brilliantly in The Lonely Man of Faith. in which he demonstrated a profound grasp not just of the condition of modern man, but also his own condition as a modern, as one haunted by a pervasive sense of self-alienation. We might imagine that R. Soloveitchik intuited this on his own, but his footnotes[12] tell us otherwise: through a combination of keen psychological insight and wide, profound philosophical reading and reflection, R. Soloveitchik understood that, as it were, he had become estranged from himself. Without this broad grounding in Western literature and thereby self-understanding, a book of the caliber of The Lonely Man of Faith would never have been written.

R. Lichtenstein similarly drew on literature and Victorian thinkers to uncover timeless truths of human nature, such as its tragic dimension and, above all, its complexity. And R. Lamm argued for and personified the notion that the synthesis of Torah u-Madda can help modern man, torn internally asunder, recover a sense of inner unity or sheleimut.[13]

R. Sacks’s greatest intellectual and moral insights were also built on a piercing understanding of the human condition and the intellectual and cultural context of the world he inhabited. R. Sacks’s earlier work framed Judaism today in context of the series of seismic shifts that ushered in the period of modernity. By situating us in that context, R. Sacks was better positioned to frame Jewish life today. Next, R. Sacks turned to the intellectual foundations of the West, and its contemporary ills, including multiculturalism, overcoming differences, religious violence, science and religion, consumerism,[14] morality, hope, the fracturing of society, and more. R. Sacks drew on a deeply literate and comprehensive understanding of the West before identifying its ills and offering Torah-based solutions.

Another example of a thinker whose philosophy was rooted in a profound understanding of our cultural moment–albeit one who encountered a very different culture than R. Soloveitchik and adopted a far more sanguine response–is R. Shagar. R. Shagar’s greatness lay in his fusion of profound empathy for and understanding of his students, with a return to the immediate historical circumstances, as well as textual and philosophical influences, that had shaped a new generation.[15] Of course, his autodidactic approach led him to certain presentations of postmodern thinkers that have been questioned. And for those less sympathetic to what R. Shagar terms “soft postmodernism,”[16] it is also not hard to see the importance of being steeped in this material in order to argue against it (R. Carmy, an esteemed participant in this symposium, is an excellent exemplar of this approach). But whether or not one finds herself inclined toward R. Shagar’s theological-education positions, there is no disputing R. Carmy’s observation that the former “is a master diagnostician of the human soul under postmodernism” (ibid.). The common denominator between all these thinkers, then, is that they demonstrate that we cannot begin to understand our world, our students, or ourselves, without understanding the very air we breathe.

If these outstanding thinkers are any indication, Torah u-Madda is anything but outdated. It may be countercultural today, but so was Abraham in his time. First and foremost, it represents an authentic and rich approach to connecting with God. For those looking for more, Torah u-Madda can help us to address myriad challenges in our everyday lives. Torah u-Madda’s insights come from more than just pure research in areas such as biology, history, philosophy, the social sciences, and literature. Applied research of the varieties we have sampled is a relatively untapped and underappreciated resource for Torah u-Madda whose findings can prove immensely impactful in our everyday lives. For anyone mired in the mindset that Torah u-Madda is an impractical, overly intellectualized exercise relevant only to those who spend most of their waking moments in rarified ivory towers, it might be time to think again.

[1] Modern Judaism 41:1 (Feb. 2021): 71-91.
[2] Torah Umadda, Afterword: “Torah Umadda: The Unwritten Chapter,” 209.
[3] Here and throughout the essay, I use the term utilitarianism to refer not to the philosophical school widely associated with thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but simply to one motivated to acquire knowledge that has practical application in everyday life.
[4] Torah Umadda, 189.
[5] Torah Umadda, 75-90.
[6] Numbers Rabbah 21:2; Yalkut Shimoni Numbers 776.
[7] Numbers 27:16, s.v. Elokei.
[8] See his Commentary to Genesis 25:27 in regard to the rearing of Jacob and Esau.
[9] Introduction, Hovat ha-Talmidim.
[10] For a compelling presentation of this idea, see too R. Lichtenstein, “Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict,” in Judaism’s Encounter With Other Cultures, ed. Jacob J. Schacter (Maggid, 2017), 297-299.
[11] Beit ha-Behirah Sanhedrin 90a, s.v. ve’elu. See Lawrence Kaplan and David Berger, “On Freedom of Inquiry in the Rambam—And Today,” The Torah U-Madda Journal Vol. 2 (1990): 38.
[12] See, for example, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” Tradition 7:2 (Summer 1965): 6, 46, 48, 57-59, 61-62.
[13] Torah Umadda, 181-191.
[14] “Through constant creation of dissatisfaction, the consumer society is in fact a highly sophisticated mechanism for the production and distribution of unhappiness.” Covenant and Conversation, Exodus: The Book of Redemption, 262.
[15] All his work is permeated with this theme, perhaps none more so than Luhot ve-Shivrei Luhot.
[16] Luhot ve-Shivrei Luhot, 45-52.