Wednesday, November 02, 2005

New Letter in the Jewish Press

The Jewish Press has printed my letter on religious students and secular college. I wrote a very long letter, which they cut significantly, so I'm including both versions. I can't really object to a newspaper cutting a 1300+ word letter, but that's what blogs are for, I guess.

The article which I am responding to may be found here. The edited version of my letter may be found here, and is followed by the response of Dr Yitzchok Levine, the author of the original article.

My version:

To the editor:

Though I admired Dr. Yitzchok Levine's argument for secular studies in high school, I find his article on college education to be misinformed. To assert that a secular college education is inappropriate for yeshiva students because of "negative influences" insults the intelligence and commitment of those yeshiva graduates who do attend these schools and do perfectly well. Earlier this month, Dr. Yisrael Aumann, a religious Jew and graduate of City College and MIT who gave a lecture at the Technion last year entitled, "Risk Aversion in the Talmud", shared the Nobel Prize for economics. For these reasons and many others, Dr. Levine's argument against secular college falls on its face.

Every morning on the Long Island Railroad I pass religious commuters on their way to work as lawyers, accountants, financial analysts, doctors, teachers, and other professions, learning from a safer or davening Shacharis. This happens to be a golden age for the religious Jew who wants to work in the secular world.

There is a paranoid notion in conservative communities that secular colleges are bastions of immorality where religious students cannot survive. This is a dangerous half-truth, because the result is to needlessly insulate and isolate religious students from the secular world and to deny those who have the intellect the opportunity to attend institutions capable of foster that intellect. Online courses, at this point in time, are often no substitute for the kind of liberal arts and scientific educations most good secular colleges offer and the benefits that come from interacting with other students who share similar interests. And in an era where the colleges of the City University of New York are experiencing a renaissance, a good secular college education is quite affordable; scholarships and student loans are always available. Students who do well in high school and on the SAT stand a good chance of receiving scholarships for City University.

Antisemitism is not a problem in the form of physical attacks, and certainly not a reason to forgo college altogether. The San Francisco incident is the rare exception, not the rule. There are pro-Palestinian organizations of some form on many campuses. There are pro-Israel organizations, most of them stronger than the pro-Palestinian ones, on most major campuses. It is hysteria to suggest that Jewish students, particularly those in New York, face antisemitic mobs. It is also contradictory to refer to antisemitism on the one hand and claim that the college atmosphere in the 1940s and 1950s, when antisemitism was still institutionalized on many campuses, as preferable. It fits within the general tone of the case Dr. Levine makes, which relies more on fear than reality.

By the time most yeshiva students graduate from high school, they are more than equipped to handle the temptations of the average college environment and should be prepared to debate those who may hold views opposed to their own. Those who wish to attend secular schools without dorming, can always do so as many NYU students, Fordham students, and virtually all City University students do. Commuting eliminates many of the issues of modesty yeshiva students may struggle with on the college campus.

It is also important to note that the so-called atmosphere students confront in college is not the same as that confronted in graduate schools and professional schools. While the excesses of the college atmosphere come from its status as a place for 18 to 21 year olds to experiment and decide who they are, these are largely absent from graduate and particularly professional schools, where the student bodies are more career-oriented. Dr. Levine fails to make this distinction, and it is an important one because while one might plausibly argue that a student with a very strict background might feel uncomfortable in a secular undergraduate atmosphere, the same is not true for post-college higher education, though the lack of a secular college education makes gaining entry into these schools more difficult. Nevertheless, a significant number of my classmates at Fordham Law School were yeshivish in orientation and some came via rabbinical schools with no secular college experience. (Talmudic training, not surprisingly, is excellent preparation for the rigors of law school, though this should certainly not be taken as a suggestion that one should learn Talmud for the purpose of studying American law.) I'm not so sure about higher learning in math, science, and the humanities.

I remember Dr. Levine's defense for secular studies in high school. I felt sad reading it because I thought it was unfortunate that the case had to be made at all. It is unfortunate that secular knowledge has become so devalued in some parts of religious society that a serious attempt was recently made at Yeshiva University to remove the institution's "Torah U'Maddah" motto.

A nebulous idea has been allowed to take hold that secular studies are unimportant because some of today's Torah scholars were not consumers of such low knowledge as basic math, geography, history, and science. Perhaps this is why they often seem divorced from all reality, and why their devaluation of secular studies appears to be more about carrying on an old medieval tradition of keeping the flock ignorant and obedient than anything Judaic. This approach might have had merit in an era where learning was generally unavailable. It is no longer appropriate.

A part of Dr. Levine's argument for secular studies in high school deftly swept away any notion that such a view had anything approaching universal historical rabbinical support. In Pirkei Avot, Rabban Gamliel directly warns against Torah study without secular study: "Beautiful is the study of Torah with the way of the world, for the toil of them both causes sin to be forgotten. Ultimately, all Torah study that is not accompanied with work is destined to cease and to cause sin." (Pirkei Avot, 2:2, see Both, as the Maharal suggests, are essential to the development of the complete person. (An extensive analysis of the Maharal's position is available online at The Rambam was well-read in the philosophy and science of his time, as were many of his disciples, and many rabbeim since then.

Secular knowledge is a misnomer. Perhaps if it was called "knowledge of Hashem's universe", which is what is really is, there would be less of a tendency to see secular knowledge as competing with or in direct conflict with Torah study and consequently more thought devoted to mixing the two as Dr. Levine suggested in his previous article. Just because the laws of physics, the intricacies of calculus, or the location and features of the physical world are not detailed in the Torah does not mean they are not Hashem's creations to be studied and enjoyed. Just because many problems and conflicts in the world involve people other than Jews does not mean that Hashem wishes us to ignore the study of politics, economics, and psychology. Indeed, how do we fulfill our mandate to be exemplify Hashem's principles without these tools? In that vein, I see little wrong with mixing religious values with secular study, as long as neither suffers.

I've run across too many intelligent, strong-minded religious people with yeshiva backgrounds to put any stock in the notion that allowing them to attend college would result in a diminution in their religious practice. Indeed, the permissive atmosphere on college campuses is a two-way street, and I think it far more likely that a strongly committed religious Jew will cause more people to become obversant Jews, not the other way around. This can only be a kiddush Hashem. Encouraging religious Jewish students to stay away from the college campus only reinforces stereotypes, particularly among secularized Jewish students, that being observant offers little but narrow, ignorant insularity. The prevalence of these stereotypes is inversely proportional to the presence of religious Jews on campus.

To encourage religious Jews to accept a second-rate college education on the basis of fear of the secular world is to commit the sin of wasting their talents and denying them to humanity. We hated the Romans not because they offered us secular knowledge, but because they tried to force us to believe that so-called secular learning required assimilation. That is why the lesson of Chanukah is to hold fast to Jewish ideals and practice, not to reject the notion of worldly knowledge altogether. To do so is to grant the Romans and their ideological ancestors the victory of proving that worldly knowledge is incompatible in Torah knowledge.

Michael Brenner, Woodmere


At 9:18 PM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

Great letter. Shame they cut it.


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