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Does Judaism encourage secular learning? Maths, Sciences: Biology, Chemistry, Automata Theory et cetera . . .

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    this might be too broad to answer. Not only would different individuals within Judaism present different answers, even the entity called "secular learning" is so broad that the answer would require breaking it down into many smaller parts. – rosends Aug 25 '15 at 15:29
  • I suppose I am looking to get a sense of the diversity of opinions. I'd be fine with an answer that presents differing/conflicting viewpoints. Actually I think that might be better. – Kinnard Hockenhull Aug 25 '15 at 15:31
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    Depends who you ask. Consisder Rav Hirch, Rav Schwab, Rav Breuer, the different answers from the various members of the Soloveitchi fasmily, the Vilna Gaon, ..... and all the many rabbonim and talmidei chachamim – sabbahillel Aug 25 '15 at 15:33
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    Suggestion, based on a discussion in my synagogue a few weeks ago. We were discussing Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the fathers) and there are numerous adgaes that stress the importance of learning Torah and not wasting time. This seems to suggest that one should NEVER have ANY leisure. Perhaps, if you excerpt an idea from there and toss it into your question, it may narrow its focus. – DanF Aug 25 '15 at 15:42
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    One of these things is not like the others... – Daniel Aug 25 '15 at 16:22
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You tell me.

"The group comprises the religious people who understand the depth of the Torah....Such people, who claim to be extraordinary; avoid contemplation of the causes of phenomena and thereby are ignorant of them, or most of them. Through intuition, or through Tradition, they know of the existence of the First Cause, God. They believe that thought and study of the channels He uses will lead them to deny His involvement and the principles of His Torah, as occurred with the heretical philosophers and their adherents. They (of this group) believe that proper religious faith is the denial of secondary causes and intermediate channels of God's actions.

This leads them to remain ignorant of the laws of nature and to deny facts observed by the intellect and experienced by the senses. They believe that this is the requisite faith of the Torah and that only through such faith can a servant of God properly rely on Him. In this way, they have earned the mockery and derision of the educated. If a distinguished and learned Jew holds such a belief, I and any fair-minded person consider that to be a desecration of God's Name (hillul Hashem)..."

Chapter 8 - Reliance of the Guide to Serving God by Rabbeinu Avraham ha Rambam Translation: Raabi Yaakov Wincelberg

  • So he is saying that it is chillul HaShem to disdain/shun secular knowledge? – Kinnard Hockenhull Aug 26 '15 at 1:14
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    @KinnardHockenhull Yep. But remember, we aren't talking about movie trivia secular knowledge or stuff like that – Aaron Aug 26 '15 at 1:17
  • Thank you. This in particularly addresses something I was wondering about as I feel some people I know shun/disdain secular knowledge because they think it is a kiddush HaShem. – Kinnard Hockenhull Aug 26 '15 at 1:22
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    @ray Indeed the trials have changed. Nowadays we unfortunately have people claiming to be Gedolim who are actually in the category described in the quotation as desecrating God's name. All the more so nowadays must we emphasize proper education so that these pseudo-Gedolim don't manage to corrupt Jewish tradition. – Double AA Aug 26 '15 at 17:34
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    @DoubleAA Amen. – Aaron Aug 26 '15 at 18:04
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There are varying viewpoints about this subject today depending upon who you are learning from.

But generally, the 7 secular sciences are considered to be "novolot chochma", unripened wisdom. This is like is found in both Sefer Kol HaTur which is purported to be the teaching of the Vilna Gaon and can also be found in the teachings of the Maharal of Prague.

You can think of this in relation to the sulam, the ladder in Yaacov's vision at Beit El. The rungs of the ladder are different types of wisdom. Some are closer to the material, physical plane of existence and others are closer to the spiritual. The higher wisdom, the wisdom of the Torah is farther away from physical, material existence. But in order to climb the ladder, you need to use all the rungs. You don't skip.

Having an initial and primary basis in holy studies is essential, especially for young children. But to have a mature understanding of the wisdom of the Torah, also requires broad knowledge of the secular sciences. They are complementary to each other.

This approach was also favored by Ramban who strove for practical knowledge of how things worked in order to properly grasp the decisions of poskim from earlier generations. That knowledge of how things behave in the physical plane of existence cannot be learned above. This was what G-d explained to the angels when they objected to Moshe taking the Torah from above to be given to the Jewish people. The angels have little or no connection to the physical. The Torah is intended to be used in the physical plane.

On a deeper level, Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla in Sefer Ginat Egoz relates this to the doubling letters in the Hebrew alphabet. There is nothing that exists in the material world that doesn't have its root and source above. This "fractal" kind of relationship is derived from the doubling letters. Knowledge of both, the upper wisdom and the lower wisdom gives complete and mature understanding.

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    "The rungs of the ladder are different types of wisdom" are you using this episode as usefull imagery to convey an idea, or are you saying that this is actually the significance of the episode. If the latter, do you have any sources? – mevaqesh Aug 25 '15 at 23:21
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    "This approach was also favored by Ramban who strove for practical knowledge of how things worked in order to properly grasp the decisions of poskim from earlier generations." I have seen a lot of his writings, but have never seen him doing this. Have a source? – mevaqesh Aug 25 '15 at 23:22
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    "This was what G-d explained to the angels when they objected to Moshe taking the Torah from above to be given to the Jewish people. The angels have little or no connection to the physical. The Torah is intended to be used in the physical plane." However one interprets that Midrash, all we see is that mitzvos are physical acts which angels are by definition excluded from. Where do we see anything about secular learning? – mevaqesh Aug 25 '15 at 23:23
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    No idea what you are talking about in the last paragraph. – mevaqesh Aug 25 '15 at 23:24
  • Thank you. I feel like this provides a good way of thinking about it. What are the '7 secular sciences'? – Kinnard Hockenhull Aug 26 '15 at 1:19
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Pirkei Avot 3:18:

רבי אליעזר בן חסמא אומר, קנין ופתחי נדה, הן הן גופי הלכות .תקופות וגמטריאות, פרפראות לחכמה.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Chisma says: the laws of Kinin [bird offerings] and Niddah [menstruation], these are the body of the laws. Astronomical calculations and Gematria [numerical calculations] are the condiments to wisdom.

Here, "astronomical calculations" is not the greatest translation. What is meant is according to commentary Bartenura, is the orbit of the planets and constellations. In a sense, it is part of astronomy.

Gematria refers to the art of using the numerical equivalence of the Hebrew letters (Aleph = 1; Tav = 400, etc.) and figuring out how a word has the same numerical equivalent as another word. Obviously, this does involve basic "mathematics", in terms of being able to count.

As for math, in particular, we see numerous places in Tana"ch were counting and percentages are used, so, knowing that area of math is necessary to be able to perform mitzvoth.

Getting back to this adage, Rabbi Eliezer calls these two fields "condiments". This term is used in comparison to the beginning of the adage that discusses the two things that are essential (basics) of Torah laws. The last two are "extras" because, according to Ikar Tosfot Yom Tov, these items (planet movements and gematria) helps one's heart be drawn to appreciate G-d's wisdom. See the rest of the commentary for a more detailed explanation of this concept.

I can't state, per se, whether math and astronomy would be considered "secular" in this concept. But, based on Rabbi Eliezer's teaching it appears that it was encouraged then, and he seems to encourage a knowledge of these areas now.

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if it's necessary for earning a livelihood then obviously yes.

if it's necessary for one's mental balance as some kind of outlet then perhaps and depends to what extent.

if it's just to kill time then no.

consult with LOA. many factors involved and each person is different.

  • Sources? Why should we take your word for any of this? – mevaqesh Sep 25 '16 at 16:30

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