Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed PR photo

Q: From time to time, debates arise in the religious and haredi public regarding the integration of science and language studies in educational institutions for children and youth. Some claim that “pure education” should be without studying science and languages, and some claim that there is no choice and they should be taiught in the manner required by necessity, and some say that they should be studied le’chatchila (a priori), and with respect. What is the right way according to the Torah?

A: Integrating science studies into the curriculum is le’chatchila, because of two very important foundations. One is fundamental – without studying science, understanding ofTorah is lacking. The second – to fulfill the parents’ duty to prepare their children so that they can make a decent living (Kiddushin 30b).

I will explain the two foundations.

The Study of the Sciences as Part of the Study of Divine Wisdom

Our Sages said (Shabbat 75a): “Anyone who knows how to calculate astronomical seasons and the movement of constellations and does not do so, the verse says about him: “They do not take notice of the work of God, and they do not see His handiwork” (Isaiah 5:12). And this refers to all the wisdom of nature, that from looking at the actions of He Who spoke and the world was created, one can know Him, and this is the basis for loving God, and fearing Him. Our sages brought, for example, the wisdom of astronomy, because it is the most complex wisdom, which requires a high mathematical ability (Teshuvot Rambam 110, and others).

Our Sages said (Sukkah 28a) about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai that he did not waste any time from Torah study in his life, and dealt with all the wisdom in the world, and hence, dealing with wisdom is a great mitzvah and is not bitul Torah, but the study of the works of God, and by this one can better understand the wisdom of God and the Torah.

And thus wrote Rabbeinu Behaye in his commentary to Tractate Avot (chapter 3): “And it is well known that seven wisdoms are all a ladder to ascend to the wisdom of God.” And so wrote the Maharal from Prague (Netiv Torah 14).

Our Sages even determined that one who sees a wise man among the wisest of the nations of the world, blesses: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, the King of the world, who has given his wisdom to flesh and blood” (Berachot 58a; S.A., O.C. 224, 6-7).

We see then that the various sciences are called the wisdom of God. For the whole world was created with wisdom, and whoever studies science, studies the divine wisdom that is hidden in the world.

We have also found that the Gedolei Yisrael studied wisdom and languages ​​and many even served as doctors, such as Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, the Rambam, the Ramban, and many others. The Ralbag excelled in mathematics and astronomy, and even developed a precise measuring device that was used by sailors for hundreds of years. The Maharal corresponded with the greatest astronomers of his generation, and was so renowned in the history of astronomy that there is a place on the moon named after him - and there are many others like them.

The Lack of Wisdom is lacking in the Study of the Torah

The Gaon from Vilna encouraged his students to study science, and ordered his student Rabbi Baruch from Shklov to translate Euclid from Greek into Hebrew, so that students could learn geometry. And he told him that just as a person lacks knowledge from the rest of wisdom – compared to this, he will lack a hundred measures in the wisdom of the Torah, because the Torah and the wisdom are in unison.

He also wrote on behalf of his student Rabbi Yisrael from Shklov in his introduction to his book ‘Pe’at HaShulchan’, that all wisdom is necessary for our Torah, and Rabbi Yisrael testified that the Gaon of Vilna knew algebra, triangles, and engineering well, the wisdom of music, and all other wisdoms.

And even Maran Rabbi Kook (in the article “Drishat Hashem” in his book “Ikvei HaTzone”) brought these words of the Vilna Gaon: “Whoever lacks the knowledge of a portion of the secular sciences, lacks a hundred portions of knowledge of the Torah, because the Torah and wisdom are in unison, said Rabbeinu the Gaon to loyalists of his house. Therefore, together with increasing the “strength of the Torah”, we must expand the study of worldly wisdom as much as possible”. Indeed, it is impossible to demand from every Talmid Chacham to be “an official intellect in all the sciences, but he can be someone who knows the general situation of the intellectual character of his generation”, in other words, is knowledgeable in the natural, spiritual, and social sciences.

Even more sharply, our Sages said (Shabbat 75a): “One who knows how to calculate astronomical seasons and the movement of constellations, and does not do so, one may not speak with him”, in other words, one should not talk to someone who is capable of learning wisdom and insists on not learning it, for he turns ignorance into a principle. And Rabbeinu Behaye in ‘The Duties of the Heart’ (2, 2) wrote that whoever does not observe nature and learn from it about God’s wisdom, is worse than an animal, since an animal has no disadvantage in that it does not think, for that is its nature.

Sanctification of God in the Eyes of the Nations

Our Sages also said (Shabbat 75a): “From where is it derived that there is a mitzvah incumbent upon a person to calculate astronomical seasons and the movement of constellations? As it was stated: “And you shall guard and perform, for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations.” What wisdom and understanding is there in the Torah that is in the eyes of the nations, i.e., appreciated and recognized by all? You must say: This is the calculation of astronomical seasons and the movement of constellations, as the calculation of experts is witnessed by all.”

In other words, the Gentiles have no interest in the Torah itself, which is unique to Israel, but Israel’s role is to bring a blessing to all the families of the earth by continuing the light of the Torah and its blessing to all the sciences, and by doing so everyone will believe in God and ascend in the ways of truth and morality – each nation and each person according to what is appropriate for him.

Consequently, when there are great scientists in Israel, the name of God is sanctified in the eyes of the nations. And the more those scientists are God-fearing, and draw inspiration from the faith and the Torah, the more sanctified is the Name of Heaven. And by doing so, the redemption is brought closer.

As stated in the book ‘Kol HaTor’ (5:2): “It was known to all that Rabbeinu (the Vilna Gaon)… also engaged a great deal in investigating the virtues of nature and researching the land in order to obtain the wisdom of the Torah, and for the sanctification of God in the eyes of the nations, and for the sake of bringing salvation… He also commanded his students to learn as much as possible of the seven wisdoms of the world, also in order to elevate the wisdom of Israel, according to the wisdom of the Torah in the eyes of the nations… and from word of mouth, he told us many times: What are our Torah followers doing in favor of the sanctification of Hashem, as the Gedolei of Yisrael did, many of whom sanctified Heaven by their abundant knowledge in the investigation of the secrets of nature from the wonders of the Creator, blessed be His name, and many of the followers of the nations praised the wisdom of Israel, the Sages of the Torah, the Sanhedrin, Tana’im and Amora’im, etc.

And in the later generations, Rambam, and the Baal Tosafot Yom Tov and others, who often sanctified the name of Heaven in the eyes of the Gentiles by their wisdom in the study of the world.”

Basis for Livelihood

The second foundation that requires the integration of science studies with Torah studies is the principle of “Derech Eretz” (worldly occupation), which includes within it the moral responsibility of a person to provide for himself and his family, and to participate in yishuvo shel olam (the development of the world). Without this, the Torah has no existence, and as our Sages said (Avot 3:17): “If there is no derech eretz, there is no Torah.”

Likewise, one of the greatest rabbis of recent generations, the Gaon and Mekubal, Rabbi Yosef Chaim, author of ‘Ben Ish Chai’ (in his book Emrei Binah, p. 233-242), in a sermon he delivered on the occasion of the establishment of a Kol Yisrael Chaverim school in Baghdad: “And it is appropriate teach the youth while they are still young in these two studies, one of our holy Torah, and one of Derech Eretz… and they should engage in these two kinds of studies at the same time, which is the time young children have a clear mind. And this is what the Tanna said in Pirkei Avot (2, 2): ‘Excellent is the study of the Torah when combined with a worldly occupation, for toil in them both keeps sin out of one’s mind.’

In other words, it is appropriate and beautiful that one study both Torah and Derech Eretz at the same time.” True, later he was disappointed with the school’s management for not giving an important place to limudei kodesh (sacred studies), but the principle of the combination remained the same.

The Highest Virtue in Tzedaka

In recent generations, scientific education has become a central component of a person’s ability to make a living, and without it, many find it difficult to exist with dignity. The Rambam wrote (Matnot Aniyim 10:7-14): “There are eight levels in charity, each level surpassing the other. The highest level beyond which there is none, is a person who supports a Jew who has fallen into poverty by giving him a present or a loan, entering into partnership with him, or finding him work so that his hand will be fortified so that he will not have to ask others for alms.” This is also codified in the Shulchan Aruch 9Y.D. 249:6).

In other words, the greatest mitzvah is to help a poor person get out of the cycle of poverty, and support himself. Today, a decision to prevent children from studying science condemns many of them to be poor, and makes it difficult for them to get out of the cycle of poverty. It turns out that this decision contradicts all the many mitzvot in the Torah that are intended to help the poor, and put them on their feet.

And if the goal is to encourage many to learn in the Kollel and earn a living from tzedaka (charity), the Rambam has already responded to this in the Laws of the Talmud Torah (3:10): “Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates God’s name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the world to come.”

Nevertheless, it is agreed that it is appropriate to support the learners in order for them to become teachers and rabbis; however, regarding those who are not suitable for this, or who are not needed by the public, the Rambam’s words are fully valid.

How Do We Raise More Faithful Jews

Some argue that it is true, it is appropriate to study science, but reality proves that graduates of state-religious education are less religious than graduates of the haredi education.

Indeed, among the graduates of state-religious education, there are about ten to twenty percent non-observant, and among the graduates of the haredi, slightly less. In other words, more from among those who are ba’alei teshuva (returners to Judaism), and less from haredim who come from a haredi home.

However, this is not due to the integration of science studies, but because some of the parents of the high school yeshiva students themselves are not observant but traditional, or secular. And also, among the observant parents, quite a few are not precise in fulfilling the mitzvot. If you take all of this into account, it turns out that the success of the high school yeshivas is enormous.

Moreover, those who claim this, usually measure “religiousness” on a scale that takes into account some of the mitzvot and the hiddurim, but ignores major foundations in the Torah that include many mitzvot, such as yishuv ha’aretz, serving in the army, honesty in business, helping others, and participating in the building of society and the economy. From this point of view, it turns out that the graduates of the education that combines science studies are in a higher place.

And the main thing is, that it is our duty to preserve all the principles of the Torah and pass them on to future generations, because without this, we will not be able to fulfill our destiny as the nation of God, to reveal the faith in all areas of life, to bring blessing to all the families of the earth, and to fix the world in the kingdom of God.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.