For Want of a Foundation From the Sichaof YudShevat, 5746 (paragraphs 20-24).

Idol worship in Egypt was not established by primitive, boorish, or ignorant people. On the contrary, the Egyptians were very advanced in the natural sciences, etc. In fact, when praising King Shlomo, the verse states:2 “And Shlomo’s wisdom was greater than that of all of the ancients, and than all of the wisdom of Egypt.” Their mistake, however, was in the fact that they applied their intellect only to understanding the cosmos itself, but they forgot about its root and source - the Creator of the universe. This is why they deified specific parts of creation. For instance, they served the Nile River, which was the primary source of irrigation to the entire Egypt, and they forgot about the cause for this plenty: Yakov had blessed Pharaoh in the name of G‑d “that the Nile would rise for him.”3

When wisdom is not properly utilized, and one forgets to seek the prior causes and sources, truth becomes distorted. It is even possible to deify a particular creature or creation, as a result of forgetting about the original cause - the Creator of the universe.

Indeed, the very first commandment given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai was:4 “I am the L-rd your G‑d…You shall not have other gods…Do not make for yourselves idols, or any form….” This was the response to all of the amazing depth exhibited by the scientists and naturalists of Egypt: one must remember, and focus on, the original source, the primary root of every being. When doing so, one reaches the conclusion that all of the wonders of nature were created by G‑d, the Creator and Master of the world.The same is true in recent generations: The very same country where science - including ethics - developed to the greatest degree, was also the source of the most inhuman behavior, behavior that was so terrible that people did not believe that human beings could act in such a manner, especially those same human beings who prided themselves on their ethical philosophies 5and perspectives on life and maintained that the entire world would do well to follow their lead in such areas as ethics! The reason for that was because their wisdom was not based on the fundamental foundation of everything: that “there is an owner in this house,6” and one must therefore behave according to the directives of the Creator.

Rules About RulesIgrot Kodesh, vol. 11, p. 8.

Question: Why can’t we change the decrees made by the Sages?

Response: Let us begin with an example from mathematics. Nowadays, this area of wisdom is based upon principles that were known, and published, already in the time of the early Greeks, such as Euclid, etc. Although their mathematical treatises were far inferior to those of today, nevertheless, it was on the basis of their methods and principles that the later mathematicians were able to develop and advance further. Therefore, ultimately all that came later was included in their principles and methods.

Though one is mundane and the other holy, the same is true in our Torah. General rules (as well as the methods and parameters within which those rules may be applied to reach new conclusions) were transmitted at Mount Sinai to millions of people concurrently. Since then, with the passage of time, our Sages in every generation developed the body of Torah thought based upon those fundamental principles - “the methods through which Torah may be expounded.”8 They continued to use the methods that Torah had declared to be true, and reached many conclusions - i.e., the Rabbinic laws and decrees. Although these laws may have been stated by a specific Mishnaic, Talmudic, or Gaonic sage, it was nevertheless included within the principles, rules, and methods that Moses had received directly from the Giver of the Torah.

Therefore, decisions and responses to questions must be approached in accordance with the rulings issued by the Sages throughout the generations, which were themselves based upon Torah principles. This applies both to deciding if a specific rule should be changed, as well as when responding to questions that only came into being in modern times, such as questions about electricity, etc. For example, one of those principles is that “a court of law cannot overrule the words of an earlier court, unless it is greater than it… 9” This too is a rule from the Giver of the Torah, as is the rule10 that we should follow the majority within that court itself, assuming, of course, that they are people who are using the Torah’s methods to reach this conclusion.

Contrasting Disciplines - and Methods11

Bread from Heaven; Bread from Earth

Intellect and wisdom are referred to as the “food” of the soul. Just as food enters internally into the person until it becomes one with him, so too do intellectual ideas enter into the person’s brain and become a part of him.12

In this food, just as in physical food, there are two categories: “bread from heaven,” i.e., G‑dly intellect, which is expressed in Torah, and “bread from earth,” i.e. human intellect and science.

All areas of wisdom, with the exception of Torah, are limited. Besides the fact that every type of wisdom has some “garbage,”13 even the parts that are correct are nevertheless limited. Within this realm, limits are imposed by the specificity and focus inherent in a geven area of knowledge. Moreover, each individual theory or concept has its clear limitations, much the same as physical bread is limited to the taste of bread alone, and nothing more. Spiritual bread, on the other hand, such as the manna that the Jews received while in the desert, contained all possible “tastes” one could desire.

Despite the limitations of human intellect — in fact, because of them — secular knowledge manages to satiate the person, who is after all also finite. Such limited wisdom is digested within him and fulfills his hunger. This is analogous to how the Jews lusted after physical bread even while they had the manna. They appreciated being able to see it and knowing they would have some for the next day 14. In a similar way, “earthly” forms of wisdom — i.e. those that are not Torah — bring about self-satisfaction, i.e., ego and haughtiness15. Furthermore, as a result of the specialization within the wisdom itself, its study leads to social limitations — to separation and distance between the scientist and the average person.

However, in the area of Torah wisdom, the “heavenly bread,” the situation is completely different. Torah is completely true, and thus there is no chaff or refuse at all. It is also infinite. Like the manna, it contains all possible “tastes”; it even brings in its wake physical wealth (similar to the “diamonds and precious stones” that came along with the manna16). As a result, it is impossible to fully grasp and understand it, and the person always feels how distant he is from a true appreciation of the infinitude of Torah. This is why the study of Torah does not inflate the studier’s ego or make him haughty; on the contrary, it causes humility and self-abnegation. The more he studies and knows Torah, the more humble he becomes, thus enabling him to unite with his fellow man.

Torah has Demands17

The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Schneerson, replied to a person who had asked for advice regarding how to order his Torah studies, saying that the nature of Torah is, that to be successful in its pursuit, one’s body must be kosher, and one’s day-to-day mode of behavior must be in accordance with the Torah’s demands.

In science, it doesn’t work that way: One can be the greatest medical expert, and give practical directives to people both ill and healthy, while personally doing just the opposite. The doctor’s personal behavior doesn’t detract at all from the value of his medical advice.

The same is true in architecture: A house must be built “with insight, understanding, and knowledge.”18(G‑d desired it to be so with regards to the construction of the Tabernacle and the Temple, every individual Jewish home, and by extension every structure.) Yet, it is possible that a world-famous architect, when building his own home, will completely ignore all of those sensible standards and guidelines. If so, “His house will indeed fall”19 and cause whatever damage goes along with such a collapse. However, it will only hurt the one upon whom it falls; the architect’s knowledge and abilities will emerge unscathed.

In the case of Torah study, on the other hand, the very nature of Torah is that if the person is not worthy, the Torah becomes a negative rather than a positive. If his intent in studying Torah is not to find out what the Torah requires of him, but rather to bring the Torah down to his own level — i.e., rather than to “bring creations closer to Torah,20” he intends to bring the Torah down to the level of those creations which have no value other than the fact that they were created by G‑d.21In such a case, it becomes an “elixir of death.22” Furthermore, this person believes that this warped view of Torah is indeed true.

He doesn’t stop being wise, yet “bribery blinds the eyes of the wise.23” Even when there is a dangerous breach in the wall, one whose use leads to certain injury, this wise man has been blinded; he convinces himself and others that it is an entrance/exit, and he reaches a sad end.

Only when a person studies Torah with fear of Heaven and attempts to fulfill it in its entirety, can his studies and rulings be met with blessings and success, and be in accordance with the truth of Torah.

Colleges Vs. Yeshivas24

In college, a student is taught a specific field, sometimes wise and sometimes foolish. If he reviews his studies well, he receives an academic degree stating that he is complete in his knowledge, and nothing else is asked of him.

In a Yeshiva it doesn’t work that way. When a student is sent to a Yeshiva that is founded on fear of Heaven — which precedes Torah — the purpose of his Torah studies is not the knowledge itself, but rather the implementation of the entire persona, to become a truly G‑d-fearing individual. Only then is it possible to produce students who live up to the title of Adam (“man”) — from the word Adameh L’elyon (“I will compare to the Supernal”) - one who is similar and in accordance with the will of G‑d.

Unfortunately, in recent years the ills of colleges have partially infected the Yeshivas as well.25 Some of them, unfortunately, have elevated the accumulation of knowledge to their primary focus, while fear of Heaven has been relegated to a secondary level of importance. The results of this approach are readily apparent.

In generations gone by, students already knew how to behave in a Torah manner from the home, and from the Jewish environment surrounding them in the street. The Yeshiva, therefore, was only needed to add knowledge of Torah. Today, however, the only place that can provide fear of G‑d for the youth is the institution of the Torah school, the “Cheder,” or the Yeshiva, which are founded on fear of Heaven. This is imperative for the continuation of proper Jewish education in our times.

Therefore, the heads of the Yeshivas must instill faith in G‑d and fear of Heaven as the primary foci of their curricula. They must explain that all of our studies and in-depth discussions come only because of the fact that such is G‑d’s will. True, our Sages tell us26 “The Illuminator within Torah will return them to the proper path.” But who knows when this promise will be fulfilled? Meanwhile, the student, or alumnus, can teach Torah in terribly distorted ways! After all, they have knowledge of Torah!

This is the main point of education: Strengthening the bonds of the students to their Judaism, and deepening their identification with it to the point that they are ready to give up their lives for it, much as the children in the time of Mordechai and Esther called out27, “Whether to life or to death, we are with You.”

Pure Torah28

The Syrian-Greeks waged war against Judaism by defiling all of the oil in the Beit HaMikdash. They had no problem with Jews studying Torah; they insisted, however, that it should be treated equally with their own wisdom, with sciences and other forms of knowledge. When Torah is compared to science, and is considered just another intellectual pursuit like all other forms of wisdom — that is defilement and impurity.

The entire concept of purity and defilement is supra-rational. As Rambam writes29: “The dead body does not defile, and the water does not purify. It is a decree that I [G‑d] have decreed, and a statute that I have set.”

This is the symbolism of their having defiled all of the oils. Oil symbolizes wisdom30. When Greek wisdom enters the Temple of Torah, and is elevated to the degree of importance accorded to the Torah, then one must even sacrifice his life to fight back.

The lesson for our times: There are those who claim that since the Torah is “your wisdom and understanding before the eyes of the nations,”31 what harm could come if we will study Torah together with - and with the same approach and the same reverence as - science?

Chanukah teaches us, however, that in this manner not only does the pure oil not manage to purify and elevate the impure, but it, too, becomes defiled. The resultant destruction is not only in spiritual terms, but is also manifested physically, just as the Greeks “violated their property and their daughters,32” all as a result of the defilement of the oil.

The truth is that non-Jews, in and of themselves, cannot possibly have control over Jews. It is only because of the Jews themselves - “your demolishers and destroyers, from within you will they issue forth”33- who allow the Greeks to enter the Temple, that their spirit is able to control the Jewish people. When we don’t allow the Greek wisdom entry into the temple of Torah, the oil remains pure.

Morning Studies34

“The first of your dough shall you set aside as an offering for G‑d.35” The word Arisotechem, meaning dough, also means a crib or bed. Thus, the verse can be interpreted as follows: A child should be brought closer to G‑d, i.e. taught Torah, immediately at the beginning of the day, when he rises from his bed.

Even in those schools where Torah is studied for only several hours a day, rather than the entire school day, it is necessary to ensure that the time set aside for holy studies be at the start of the day. When the children are calm and relaxed, a much better quality of Torah study is possible than at the end of the day, when they are tired out.

One should not follow the view of those who err, thinking that the main thing is just to fill the quota of hours for Torah studies. According to their faulty reasoning, it makes no difference at what point in the day those hours are spent. The truth is, however, that even though the obligation to study Torah applies even when one is tired, it is patently obvious that there is no comparison between the quality of study when tired and the quality of study when rested. Therefore, an attempt should be made to ensure that all schools should set their times for Torah study at the beginning of the day.36

Five Approaches to Studying ScienceBased on Igrot Kodesh, vol. 3, p. 122. 167.

Not all scientific areas are equal; there are many different categories. There are issues that are forbidden and off-limits, such as the study of idol worship, which is clearly prohibited by the Torah in the commandment38 “Do not turn to the idols.” Such study is completely forbidden for curiosity’s sake; it is only permitted when studying it to be able “to understand and teach” what is considered idol worship and what is not.39

On the other hand, the natural sciences are not forbidden in and of themselves, though they do involve spiritual risk and even damage.40 One who studies them in any way except for the manners which will be discussed, is “defiling the intellectual faculties of his Divine soul,” according to the Tanya41.

Within the natural sciences, there are various approaches:

The Highest Level – Knowledge Through Torah

First of all, there are issues that the Torah deals with directly. Though they may be scientific in nature, they are nevertheless a valid part of Torah, of G‑d’s wisdom and will. Rambam writes42 that there is no difference between the verses “The sons of Cham were Kush and Mitzrayim” and “I am the L_rd your G‑d.” Therefore, all aspects of Torah wisdom — even the study of aspects of idol worship — are as holy as all other parts of the Torah. Even when they are studied out of idle curiosity, they are a part of Torah.

Furthermore, since the Torah is the “map” and “blueprint” of G‑d’s creation43, it is possible for Torah sages to derive knowledge of all areas of wisdom from within their studies of Torah44. For instance, we are told45 that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya extrapolated a snake’s gestation period from a Verse. Similarly, we are told46 that Shemuel and Rabbi Hoshiah, through their in-depth studies of Torah, obtained a thorough understanding of astronomy.47

Scientific Study Directly Mandated by Torah

Examples of this include:

The central Jewish court is commanded to calculate the calendar.48 They are also required to know all aspects of idol worship and the occult.49 Another case, the family members of the Prince, Rabban Gamliel, received permission to study “Greek wisdom” out of communal need, since they came in constant contact with members of the government50, etc.

These studies are not Torah study per se, but they do constitute a mitzvah nonetheless. This is true even before the studies are practically applied towards establishing the calendar or the like.

Rambam, for instance, clearly states51 that he studied the sciences from non-Jewish sources. It obviously could not have been just in the first manner discussed — i.e. study from within Torah itself. However, his studies of the idolaters’ tracts brought about a benefit — with that knowledge he was able to explain and rule on aspects of the prohibition of mixing milk and meat, the prohibition against shaving the edges of the head, etc. Similarly, his studies of Greek astronomy52 allowed him to explain the calculations involved in setting the calendar, etc. Thus, his studies would be included in this second category — studies that can be applied for the sake of Torah.

[The Gaon of Rogatchov, Rabbi Yoseph Rosen, in his Tzafnat Pa’aneach53, explains that the prohibition against reading books of idolatry is only in effect while that form of idolatry still exists, but not after it has been abandoned54. In his view, that is why Rambam was allowed to read books of idolatry. However, Rambam himself clearly records55 that in the northern lands and India there are still idol worshippers. In fact, even to this very day there exist in India many of those groups, serving the same idols in many of the same ways.]

Scientific Study To Prevent Prohibition

There are places where a person may not contemplate matters of Torah56. If one finds himself incapable of avoiding serious thought, he should think about mathematical or scientific calculation or the like. This may be the intent of the following Midrash:57

“The verse states, ‘It is not in the heavens.’ Said Shmuel: Torah is not found in the astrologers, whose mind is in the heavens. They asked him: Aren’t you both an astrologer and a Torah great? Shmuel replied: I only would consider matters of astrology when I was exempt from Torah. When is that? When in the lavatories.”

Since it is forbidden to think about Torah thoughts there, and it is only through the scientific calculations that this person is able to guard himself against thoughts of Torah in this place, those calculations and thoughts are a part of the fulfillment of a negative commandment, and not just an activity that is for the sake of heaven.

Scientific Study as Prerequisite to Torah and Mitzvot

Sometimes a person is stymied in his studies of Torah, or in his desire to do a Mitzvah, as a result of ignorance in scientific areas. He may then apply himself to studying that relevant area in order to be able to fully comprehend the topic in Torah, or in order to be able to properly fulfill that Mitzvah. For instance, the Talmudic sage Rav stated:58 “I spent eighteen months with a shepherd, so that I could know which wounds are permanent and which are temporary.”

It may be that the Jewish court’s study of idolatry and magic (discussed in category 2) may be included in this category as well.

Scientific Study as Prerequisite to Permitted Pursuits

This category includes one who sees other forms of wisdom as no more than a career through which to support himself - a “spade to dig with.” The same would apply to one who involves himself in thinking about ways to improve his business in order to earn a living. The limitation attached to this category is that it would only be permitted to the extent necessary, but not more.59

Rambam’s LamentIgeret HaRambam, Shilat ed., vol. 2, p. 502.

“I hereby inform Rabbi Yehonatan the Kohen, and all of the wise people and friends who read my writings: Although even before I was formed in my mother’s abdomen, the Torah I did know, and before I left the womb, I had been set aside for its study, and I was given to disseminate its wellsprings, for it is the love of my life, the wife of my youth, and in its love did I toil from my youngest years; Nevertheless, many foreign women have become her co-wives, Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonites, and Hittites. G‑d knows that they were taken in the first place only to be for her cooks, butchers, and bakers, to show the nations of the world her beauty for she is exceedingly fair. Nevertheless, her time has been shared, since my heart has been split to many parts with all kinds of wisdom.”

Igeret HaRambam, Shilat ed., vol. 2, p. 502.

If a person is certain beyond doubt that he will be successful, at some later time, in utilizing scientific knowledge for serving G‑d or studying His Torah — as were Rambam, Ramban, and their ilk — he may study the sciences even when they are not presently needed for his understanding of Torah or fulfillment of a Mitzvah.

This permissibility is a novelty. Normally an undesirable activity is only allowed when it helps for the immediate fulfillment of a Mitzvah. For instance, a negative commandment is overruled for the fulfillment of a positive commandment, but only when the Mitzvah is being performed at that very same time.61

This is the only method that can explain how Rambam was permitted to study medicine from the books of Galinut, even though at that point in time he had no need for it, as his brother was supporting him. Similarly, Nachmanides was expert in many fields of science, even those he did not use for his livelihood.

Indeed, in the above-mentioned letter Rambam writes, “we have taken foreign women… G‑d knows that they were taken in the first place only to be cooks and butchers… Nevertheless, her time (Torah’s) has been shared.” In other words, this was his original intent in his studies of medicine. It was only later that “the wheel turned,” and when his brother died he was forced to use his secular studies for the sake of earning a livelihood.