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 in your study and in your entertainment.

There are all sorts of issues involved in censorship, and I don't want to be extreme in unnecessary ways. On the other hand, Judaism holds an understanding that our Creator actually does care where our loyalties lie, and what we fill our heart and mind with. What we read, see, and listen to can affect our sensitivity to what is good, our imagination, and our loyalties. So Tanach suggests a concept of modesty in not looking at things that are foreign to Biblical Israelite worship. If you really believe that these things have a basis in reality, then your engagement with what is right and good will probably involve choices about what materials to let into your life.

This question affects me in two different ways. Firstly, I'm not Jewish, so on a halachic level that probably also makes a difference. But in terms of my loyalty to Hashem alone and desire to come close to Him through goodness, the decision is still important to me, whether or not it seems culturally normal in my society. The thing is, I don't have a Jewish identity, and so somehow I still have the identity of my own nation and family heritage... and I love literature, art, etc. But the near-complete pervasion of non-Jewish cultural expressions with Germanic-magical, Christian, or anti-religious themes can make this attempt seem futile and confining. 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.

The other way is that I'm enrolled to study an Honours research year at university in Medieval Studies, because I did my undergraduate degree in Medieval literature. During that period I was a committed Christian, because that's how I was brought up, but for the last year I have been learning a lot 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 by it, since I don't believe it, and just comment from a distance or enjoy the parts that are positive and good. But in another sense, I don't want to look at this kind of material. The reason I want to do this Honours year now is because it will be a great opportunity to choose a topic related to Jewish literature in the Middle Ages, and learn more about the history of Jewish experience and faith. But doing so will no doubt include comparison with surrounding literatures, even if only to understand the mutual interactions between Jewish and foreign literature of the past. 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; it will probably affect my direction in the years after that, or at least the attitude with which I approach the study.

I know that in both areas this isn't a straightforward question, but I'm sure there are both rabbinic and personal perspectives that could help. In that it is a personal question I'm also talking about it with a few rabbis I know and with other friends and family.

  • 1
    Similar: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/21764
    – msh210
    Jan 23, 2013 at 7:25
  • Similar in some ways, definitely. But you don't tend to constantly immerse yourself with 'in your face' idolatrous writings (even if the writers were sincere and not deliberately false), or constant imagery of relying on other powers or magical spiritual terrains, when reading a newspaper.
    – Annelise
    Jan 23, 2013 at 7:28
  • (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
  • I read the quotation, that's why I felt it was relevant... and thanks for it. I guess that for some reason I feel a lot more sensitive towards reading Catholic devotional literature or Celtic faery tales than I would towards reading secular news etc... maybe because aesthetically and even spiritually there are some areas of great value in the literature, mixed in with things that I don't want to take in. On a sub-rational level it's hard to separate them. This may be a personal thing, though.
    – Annelise
    Jan 23, 2013 at 7:33
  • 2
    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

2 Answers 2


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).

  • 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
  • 3
    @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

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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