Monday, September 07, 2009

R' Shimon bar Yochai, The Yeshiva World & Modern Orthodoxy

I'm in the midst of reading Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm's Torah UMadda- quintessential reading for any Modern Orthodox Jew, incidentally. If you want to understand the history of the Torah U-Madda philosophy, why exactly you are allowed to go to college, why others disagree with your point of view and so forth, this is the book for you. I found the following passage to be particularly interesting.


Perhaps the key to the solution lies in a famous story recorded in Shabbat 33b concerning the threatened arrest by the Romans of R. Simeon bar Yohai and his son, R. Elazar. Father and son were forced to stay in a cave for twelve years, during which time they studied Torah and survived by the fruit of a carob tree. When they emerged, they were scandalized by the "normal" behavior of their fellow Jews, who engaged in worldly pursuits and neglected the transcendental demands of Judaism; whereupon a Heavenly Voice ordered them back to the cave. Their level of sanctity was too great and constituted a threat to Jewish society. Twelve months later they were again permitted to leave their cave, and this time the father became reconciled to the world, declaring that the two of them alone would suffice for the rest of Israel (in completely fulfilling the high demands of constancy in the study of Torah). Eventually, the son too joined the father in a new-found appreciation of "ordinary" Jews and their far less intense way of showing their love of the mitzvot.

This story hints at a basic change in attitude by R. Simeon bar Yohai. It is reasonable to assume that his view of hoi polloi,, highly elitist from the start, was powerfully enhanced and reinforced during his isolation in the cave, and that this view was radically altered by his experience upon emerging.

With the above in mind, we may summarize the views of the different Tannaim and Amoraim so as to eliminate the obvious contradictions mentioned. (The reader is reminded once again that the discussion and analysis is not being repeated here; only the conclusions are presented, and of them only those relevant to our theme.) R. Ishmael holds that the commandment to study Torah must be pursued at all times, "by day and by night," save for those times that must be devoted to "normal" living, by which he intends primarily the earning of a livelihood. Hence, the study of "Greek wisdom" is prohibited, since it does not fall within the parameters he set. Such study is therefore to be shunned as bittul Torah.

R. Simeon bar Yohai is consistent in his view that biblically, mi-de'oraita, the mitzvah to engage in the study of Torah is fulfilled by the minimum of studying one chapter in the morning and one at night. Beyond that, however, he originally held that as a matter of policy this would ultimately lead to the wholesale neglect of Torah, and he therefore insisted on legislating a seyag or special regulation requiring the study of Torah constantly, and not even agreeing to a dispensation for pursuing a livelihood. But after his experience upon leaving the cave and hearing the reproach of the Divine Voice, R. Simeon bar Yohai changed his mind and abandoned the seyag he had earlie rproposed. He now held that the original biblical law on the study of Torah was adequate even from the point of view of public policy and rabbinic legislation. (The passage in Berakhot would then be dated before his sojourn in the cave, and the one in Menahot after he left it.) R. Yohanan, who reports this postfugitive opinion of R. Simeon bar Yohai, determines, however, that given the situation in his own day it is best not to impart such information to the masses who might misuse it, whereas Rava is clearly satisfied to accept the (new) view of R. Simeon bar Yohai publicly and without any dissembling. Abaye, commenting on the Berakhot passage, clearly sides with R. Ishmael in rejecting the radical seyag of R. Simeon bar Yohai, holding that it is impractical as public policy for the masses.

The third opinion is that of R. Jonathan, who denies that the verse intended any obligation to study Torah all the time; it is a blessing, not a commandment. Apparently, he will agree with the view of R. Simeon bar Yohai after the cave experience; that is, that a chapter by day and a chapter by night suffices to qualify for the general biblical mitzvah of Torah study (and this law is not related to the verse in Joshua). Rava, therefore, may be said to side with either R. Simeon bar Yohai in his postcave period, or with R. Jonathan, there being no practical difference between them. Accordingly, there is no obligation to study constantly (that is, one must study constantly, but "constantly" is now redefined as meaning every day and every night, not all day and all night); and there is therefore no banning of Greek wisdom, which prohibition was predicated upon the obligation to study Torah all the time.

With this in mind, we may summarize the talmudic opinions adumbrated in this chapter and draw the relevant conclusions.

For R. Ishmael, any activity not including the study of Torah, other than the basic necessities for human existence and the pursuit of a livelihood, was considered bittul Torah, for such time must be devoted to the study of Torah. Because all one's time must be devoted to the study of Torah, there is no relevance to the concept of keviat ittim le'torah, setting aside regular times for study. Greek wisdom is therefore unacceptable (because of bittul Torah, not because of heresy.) This view was apparently espoused by Abaye. Thus, working for a living is acceptable; the study of Madda is not.

For R. Simeon bar Yohai, bittul Torah as a biblical law applies only to one who fails to fulfill the minimum requirement of one chapter by day and one by night. His precave view was that any activity, including working for the basic necessities of life, involves the rabbinic transgression of bittul Torah. Hence, not only the worldly intellectual pursuits but also ordinary working for a living is prohibited as an act of bittul Torah. His later view reverts to the biblical law that establishes the minimum of two chapters, as mentioned. This view considers both working to support oneself and the intellectual pursuit of Madda as acceptable, provided there is some form of ongoing daily study of Torah.

For R. Jonathan, one must establish a daily regimen of Torah study (keviat ittim le'torah); should he violate that routine (which minimally should be one chapter by day and one by night), he is guilty of bittul Torah. (This accords with the later view of R. Simeon bar Yohai.) Rava agrees, as mentioned, both with this point of view and with the later view of R. Simeon bar Yohai, there being no difference between them. R. Yohanan agrees with Rava, differing only on policy regarding the publicizing of this ruling among nonscholars. Madda is therefore acceptable, as is engaging in work in order to sustain oneself.

Now, the "Torah only" school opts either for the opinion of R. Simeon bar Yohai (which we have interpreted as limited to his experience before emerging from the cave, and reflected in Berakhot), thus prohibiting not only secular studies but any form of working for a livelihood; or for the ruling of R. Ishmael, thus banning Madda but permitting the earning of a livelihood.

-pages 66-69

I really like Chancellor Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm's use of Shabbat 33b. When R' Shimon bar Yochai and his son emerged from the cave, they saw a man plowing and sowing. Alarmed and upset that this man engaged in mundane activity rather than Torah learning, everything they cast their eyes upon burned up. For this, they were sentenced to return to their cave so that they could learn how to interact with the world in a positive way. When they emerged the second time, whatever R' Shimon bar Yochai's son wounded with his eyes, R' Shimon bar Yochai healed. They then saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle to commemorate 'Shamor' and 'Zachor' and realized that the commandments of God were nevertheless precious in the eyes of these people. Thus were they comforted.

I think this is a perfect analogy for the interaction between the more fiery elements of the Yeshiva World and their Modern Orthodox counterparts. Those who have been hidden, "a hundred of the Lord's prophets in two caves, fifty in each, and supplied with food and water," namely, the Torah that is their sustenance, will of course be disturbed by a world that does not seem to consist of the same zeal and desire for God which exists in theirs. And perhaps they will burn up those of the other camp with their eyes, disturbed as they are by what they perceive as the fact that God's honor is forgotten.

And the truth is that were this to be accurate, they would be correct in their actions. However, the word of God is precious even in the mouths of those who are not the scholars resolute within the walls of the yeshiva. There is the elderly man with his bunches of myrtle, and there are those who are Modern Orthodox who are precisely that elderly man. With such as he, they ought to be comforted. Of course, there are also those who have truly forsaken God in pursuit of pleasure and the rush toward modernity, but oftentimes, these are people who were not taught properly. Thus, it will avail neither camp to become angry or strict with such members of their respective sects; it is only through love, warmth and interest that you shall interact, learn and simultaneously give over that which you uphold as true and valuable.


Anonymous said...

What happens when the interaction with the mundane lessens the Torah in people's minds?

Chana said...

Anon 9:39,

I think it would depend on who you are in terms of whether or not that would be a problem. If you are someone who is truly brilliant and has the potential to lead generations and are occupying yourself with that which is mundane, this becomes problematic. If you are a regular person who needs to have some outlets/ breaks from learning, I think it makes sense and is fine. Also, sometimes that very interaction with the mundane uplifts and strengthens your Torah- I know I have yet to watch a film or TV show that hasn't inspired some kind of Torah thought in my mind.

harry-er than them all said...

See heschel's The Sabbath Chapter 4 (Only Heaven and Nothing Else?)

"even if they dedicate six days of the week to worldly pursuits, their soul is claimed by the seventh day"

Chana said...


Oh, that's beautiful!

Unknown said...

You are too young to remember the great Revel War of the early 90's. sheal avicha veyagedcha, zikenecha v'yomru lach

Anonymous said...

no polished words and justify an institutional laxity in shemiros hamitzovs

Unknown said...

More to the point, R. Lamm confuses two separate (though potentially related )issues. the question of the relative value of Talmud Torah and other spiritual pursuits vis a vis involvement in the material world, including working to make a living and even potentialy doing mitzvos like oneg shabbos. This is the subject of the story of the gemara and it has been debatedin one form or another through out Jewish history, including in our own day. TUM on the other hand is about the relative value of Talmud Torah veres other intellectual pursuits.
Mathematics, Physics, Poetry, Philosophy. The story does not deal with these questions.

Chana said...


"TUM on the other hand is about the relative value of Talmud Torah veres other intellectual pursuits."

No. It's not. By saying this you prove you haven't read the book.

"Our starting point is the conviction that when we speak of Torah and Madda, it is not because of practical economic necessity or because we impute any imperfection or inadequacy to Torah unintended by its divine Author, but because we affirm that both Torah and Nature are the results of divine revelation; and even as God is ONe, so is there no split between His self-revelation in Torah (His word) and His self-disclosure in Nature (His world.) Hence the study of Torah is the contemplation of God's self-revelation as Teacher (as in the blessing melamed Torah le'amo Yisrael, "He who teaches Torah to His people Israel"); and Madda is the study of Him as Creator. God as Creator is the focus of Genesis, the first Book of the Torah, whereas God as Teacher is the focus of Exodus, the second Book. And both "are given from One Shepherd" (Ecclesiastes 12:11).

-page 144 in 'Torah UMadda' by Chancellor Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm


It's difficult to respect points you make about Chancellor Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm when they demonstrate the fact that you haven't read, or at least have not fully understood, the arguments he offers throughout the entire book.

Dorron Katzin said...

Here is a comment on a related topic:

I will not comment further until after I read Rabbi Dr. Lamm's book.

Anonymous said...

"and Madda is the study of Him as Creator."

nice of him to say that, but chazal says you see it by learning agadah,

דורשי רשומות אומרים רצונך שתכיר מי שאמר והיה העולם [למוד אגדה שמתוך כך אתה מכיר את הקב"ה] ומדבק בדרכיו [ואם] עשיתם מה שעליכם אף אני אעשה מי שעלי:

besides, the extent one can see god through natural sciences is severely limited, to the point that it falls out of the realm of torah. the torah is infinite, and mada is very finite. only though the infinite can you come to recognize god who is infinite.

Garnel Ironheart said...

The problem I had with the book was that at the end I was no closer to understanding the definition of TuM than I was at the beginning.

His presentation also disappointed me. Instead of a positive, independent theological position, I got "A little bit of this, a little bit of that, throw in a dash of the other..." which is fine for a fruit salad but not for strong religious identity.

Dorron Katzin said...

Garnel Ironheart:

Have you shared your opinions with Rabbi Dr. Lamm?

Unknown said...


When I said TUM- i meant the concept, not the book. R. Lamm certainly thinks that Torah UMadda is about engaging the natural world. I am arguing that this definition does not address the facts on the ground. Lots of people believe in avodah shebegashmius or the importance of encountering God through nature, while opposing secular studies. Torah UMaddah as it is practiced in YU and as it is conceived by RAL and Rav is precisely not about the natural world but the artificial world, the creations of the human mind- once again, poems, novels, theorems, philosphical and scientific theories. the question is, are these products, created by mortals independent of revelation or mesorah worthy of of a Jew's time or consideration?

OTD said...

I don't think I've read Rabbi Dr. God Lamm's book

Anonymous said...

you could put lipstick on pig...

Unknown said...

I'd suggest reading some other books which discuss R Dr. Lamm's book and seeing what they say on the subject.

Unknown said...

after accusing me of not having read R. Lamm's book, I think you at least owe me a response.

Moshe Shoshan

Shira Salamone said...

And now, for something completely different--some translations (which I hope are correct), for those of us who did not have the privilege of receiving a yeshiva education:

Torah uMadda--roughly, biblical and secular studies. Some in the Orthodox community think this is a good thing, while others believe that one should study as much Torah as possible and as little of anything else as one can get away with.

bittul Torah--a waste of (the time in which one should be studying (Torah)

If my translations are incorrect, kindly provide corrections.