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I'd like to hear how people make their decisions about reading, watching, and listening to materials that express non-Jewish ideas and imagery... both for study, and for entertainment.

This question affects me in two different ways:

1.) I'm not Jewish. I don't have a Jewish identity, and so I still have the identity of my own nation and family heritage. And I love literature, art, et cetera. But Germanic-magical, Christian, and/or anti-religious themes seem pervasive in the literature I enjoy. Is there anything from my culture that I can bring to God in my understanding of how He's revealed Himself to Israel, and yet also wants a connection, a level of holiness, with every nation He has created? I think that every part of life, the religious parts and all the other parts, exist equally in the context of creation and therefore of relationship with the Maker of what is in the world.

2.) I'm currently doing an optional fourth year of undergraduate medieval studies. Previously, I was a committed Christian, because that's how I was raised. But lately I've been reading about Judaism, and also haven't really been reading medieval European literature. It's saturated in both Catholic devotion and in magical imagery. Part of me feels I should be able to read it without being affected, since I don't believe it. But, in another sense, I don't want to look at this kind of material. The reason I want to do this optional fourth year is because it will be a great opportunity to choose a topic related to Jewish literature in the Middle Ages. I'll be able to study the history of Jewish experience and faith. But doing so will surely include comparison with the surrounding non-Jewish literature. I have to make a decision about how open I'm willing to be about what I read and become desensitised towards, and know well whether that attitude comes from Biblical Judaism or from somewhere else. It could change my plans for this year. And it will probably affect my direction in the years after that, or at least the attitude with which I approach my studies.

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    Similar: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/21764
    – msh210
    Jan 23, 2013 at 7:25
  • (Re your comment:) Right, but see the block quotation in that question. Anyway, I certainly didn't mean that this is a duplicate of that.
    – msh210
    Jan 23, 2013 at 7:30
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    It would be great if you could trim this down a bit to get to the heart of the question. Jan 24, 2013 at 4:28
  • I used to find learning Torah a chore, and would make every excuse under the sun to read secular materials, whether it be science or fiction (or science fiction). Once Torah clicked for me, that completely did a 180 and now I couldn't imagine reading secular stuff... I also don't buy that we need to read secular stuff to improve our human condition! There is plenty of Torah, and it covers every aspect of life. Many people are under the misconception that Torah isn't very practical nowadays, except for keeping halacha. Chaval
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Apr 21 at 18:41

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It's been censored from many recent history books, but there were definitely personalities within the Mussar movement who believed in studying literature as a way of understanding (and thus improving) the human condition.

You'll also find the intersection of Judaism and the humanities discussed at length by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (who holds a PhD in English Literature from Harvard and is considered a world expert on Milton).

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  • I read the first three pages of the YUTorah.org article, which you were pointing to. It's interesting, and comes back around to what I asked. For Rabbi Lichtenstein, which of his writings do you have in mind? If studying other literature can be positive for Judaism as a whole, for individuals, and/or for the ability to communicate with other people about what you each see to be good and important... then the question remains about what lines need to be drawn (if at all). What level of discomfort or separation with certain literature is actually a good thing, biblically speaking?
    – Annelise
    Jan 23, 2013 at 6:34
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    @Annelise A good place to start would be Chapters 4 and 5 of his Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning, Ktav Publishing, 2003
    – Double AA
    Jan 23, 2013 at 6:40
  • I've just read Chapters 4 and 5, apart from the last four pages, which weren't on Google Books. It was a great suggestion, thanks! A lot to think about in terms of the value of humanities, which he well described, and how it fits with other real issues. I'm curious about his caveat that all secular study needs to be approached from the perspective of firm devotion to the truth of Torah... when the presumptions and methodology of secular truth-seeking would not allow an unchallengeable bias like that. How can loyalty to Torah, and loyalty to seeking truth wherever it leads, be one and the same?
    – Annelise
    Jan 23, 2013 at 8:34
  • Though I really liked the quote: “'It must never be forgotten,' Whitehead declared, 'that education is not a process of packing articles in a trunk… Its nearest analogue is the assimilation of food by a living organism.' … If nothing else, the success of modern propaganda has taught us how naive was Mill’s notion that the free clash of ideas must result in the triumph of truth. Falsehood does not always stick to the rules. We must be on our guard, and we must not venture out of our depth. Objectivity is fine, but one should beware of indifference."
    – Annelise
    Jan 23, 2013 at 8:35
  • And I still would wonder whether sometimes, even with the benefit of reading certain things, there is potentially greater benefit by not reading. In times where you feel you have something good in front of you but it's mixed in with things you refuse to take in. I guess that's the heart of the question.
    – Annelise
    Jan 23, 2013 at 8:43
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The question of the value of outside cultures and how they relate to Judaism is ancient.

There are many passages in the Talmud that describe the beauty and wonders of Greek culture (which is a stand-in for secular culture in general), and many other that deride and criticize it. As the Talmud enigmatically states in Menachot 99b: "Find an hour that is neither day nor night, and study Greek wisdom at that time." Clearly this issue bothered them as well, for they saw the benefit of studying secular wisdom, yet where had mixed feelings about it, and thus prescribed that one study it when it is neither day nor night.


In the words of Rabbi Livingstone, rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue:

"The process, in the words of one Jewish Sage, is likened to eating fruit full of bitter seeds it is a difficult challenge, but also a potentially rewarding one. Of course there are some who argued then - and still argue today - that it is far better not to eat such fruit altogether. But in many ways that would be to subvert the message of the Torah as the Rabbis understood it. For the verse in Genesis [37:27] declares, God will give beauty to Yefet, and will dwell in the tents of Shem. The Rabbis took Yefet to be Greece and Shem to be the Jews.

"The meaning, as they understood it, was that Greece had beautiful gifts to bestow upon the world - but these would be earthly, temporal, and secular as opposed to Godly and eternal. For spiritual sustenance one would have to look to the Torah, which would reside in the midst of Israel. But for other things one might indeed look toward Greece. Thus, while the Sages warned of the dangers of Hellenism forbidding the study of its most vehement secularism and its paganism, they nevertheless esteemed Greek knowledge and information, and even imported many ideas, concepts, and vocabulary directly into the Mishna and Talmud!

"A more recent attempt at this type of synthesis is the philosophy known as Torah Umadda, which holds that: Jewishness and Jewish faith ... and the universal concerns and preoccupations of humanity are not fundamentally opposed; Judaism and wider secular culture and knowledge are part of one continuum Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, worldly knowledge, on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone.

"But this approach is far from universal. Many orthodox Jews have chosen to opt out of secular media and have nurtured instead Jewish sources of news and information. But for the rest of Jewish society deeply embedded as it is in the information age the walls are already down. Perhaps the best one can do is to remind oneself that secular media are just that. They cannot give us religious guidance, knowledge, or inspiration but - provided we steer clear of the crass, immoral, and blatantly decadent we probably stand to learn a thing or two. To be informed or not to be informed? Well perhaps, after all, that's too stark a choice: it's how we choose to be informed that makes all the difference!"

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