This selection is part of a letter sent to the Talmudic scholar, R. Alter Hillowitz.

[19 Sivan, 5709]

..With regard to your note regarding the statements of Migdal Oz (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Avodas Kochavim, the beginning of ch. 2) that Rambam never read the texts of Meirus1or the like.2 [You state] that from [Rambam’s] statements in Moreh Nevuchim, Vol. III, chs. 29-30, and his letter to the sages of Marseilles, the opposite appears to be true.

My understanding also leans in this direction. Although in these chapters a forced explanation could be given — there was a tradition communicated to Rambam that these concepts were stated in pagan texts, as Migdal Oz explains — that explanation cannot be given regarding what is written at the conclusion of ch. 49.3 See also the preface to Shemoneh Perakim.4

[Indeed,] the statements of Migdal Oz are astounding in my eyes; in particular, because he quotes Moreh Nevuchim, Vol. III, in his gloss (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:10). Perhaps it is possible to explain that since the wording of Moreh Nevuchim is a translation from the Arabic, it is possible that [the author of] Migdal Oz understood that the wording is not exact and the intent is that there was a tradition communicated to Rambam regarding all the statements made in that text. And perhaps [the author of] Migdal Oz never saw the letter mentioned above.

[Nevertheless,] further explanation is necessary because Migdal Oz should have at least mentioned [the statements in] Moreh Nevuchim.

Explanation is also required why, in the Mishneh Torah, Rambam did not cite the law that permits [studying pagan texts] in order to understand their rites and deliver rulings concerning them,5 [allowing this study] even in practice. This is not evident from his statements in Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 3:2 and Hilchos Sanhedrin 2:1. Afterwards, I saw that the Minchas Chinuch, mitzvah 511, discusses this issue, but leaves it unresolved.

* * *

With regard to your assertion about the statements in Tanya, ch. 8, concerning secular knowledge, [although the standard published texts speak of] “pagan wisdom,” this term was not in the first printing. Instead, it is a later addition, inserted out of fear of the censor. In some other printings, it was changed to “other types of wisdom” (Lemberg printing, 5616, and others). They were not content with this and added (Vilna printing, 5632, and others) a marginal note saying that he uses [this knowledge] for depraved matters and research into heresy.

[The Alter Rebbe continues, stating that such knowledge] “enclothes [one’s mind] and makes it impure... with the impurity of kelipas nogah... unless [he uses them for a positive purpose].... That was the motivating rationale of Rambam, Ramban, and those who followed them who were involved in such wisdom.”

You discuss in your letter [what the Alter Rebbe’s perspective might be regarding] pagan wisdom. On the surface, [such wisdom] is from the three impure kelipos, for it is forbidden [to study it, as it is written:]6 “Do not turn to false deities.” On the other hand, it appears necessary to say that [such wisdom] is from kelipas nogah, for it is permitted to study it to understand [pagan] rites and deliver rulings concerning them. This is the motivating rationale of Rambam who was involved in their study. Thus [the study of these texts] is included in the passage of the Tanya cited above. This appears to be the intent of your letter to me.

According to my humble opinion, it is impossible to say so. If one studies pagan wisdom without the intention of delivering rulings concerning it, he causes the attributes of Chochmah, Binah, and Daas in his G‑dly soul to become impure with impurity stemming from the three totally impure kelipos as is true with regard to other prohibitions. And if a person is studying for the sake of understanding [in order to be able to] deliver a ruling, [his thoughts] are included in holiness. If, as stated in Tanya, ch. 7, such a statement applies with regard to making a comic remark that is merely for the sake of stimulating one’s thoughts [in order to be more receptive to the subsequent Torah learning], certainly, it applies in this instance, because the study would be preparation for — and part of — the study of the Torah.

A situation analogous to that described in your letter can be found with regard to forbidden foods which are from the three impure kelipos. Nevertheless, if one eats them when there is a threat to life, our Sages permitted them [to be eaten] and they are permitted (entirely); see [Tanya,] Iggeres HaKodesh, Epistle 26. [The fact that a person’s] intent is not for the sake of Heaven, to serve G‑d through this, is relevant [only] with regard to kelipas nogah (ch. 7, loc. cit.).

The reason that it is possible for one to elevate pagan wisdom [although it] is from the three impure kelipos even though they are bound and connected to evil, parallels the motif in which one’s purposeful sins can be transformed into merits, because it is through them that he [ultimately] comes to [a great love of G‑d] (as explained in ch. 7 there). [The same concept applies] in this context, for through [this knowledge] he clarifies the words of Torah.

* * *

Since we are speaking about the Tanya’sstatement: “That was the Rambam’s motivating rationale...,” I will expound upon a very surprising idea that arises when looking cursorily [at this passage]. On the surface, the Alter Rebbe is coming to explain why Rambam involved himself in the study of these types of wisdom and explains that he knew how to use this knowledge for [the sake of] the Torah and its mitzvos.

It is difficult to understand why [the Alter Rebbe] singled out Rambam;[there are many sources that indicate the importance of studying secular wisdom. Among them:]The Torah commands us:7 “He shall provide for healing.” It is a mitzvah to calculate the seasons and the movements of the constellations (Shabbos 75a). It is forbidden for a Torah scholar to live in a city that does not have a doctor (Sanhedrin, the conclusion of ch. 1), [one of the officers of the Beis HaMikdash was] ben Achiyahwho was responsible for treating [the priests with] digestive problems (Shekalim, the beginning of ch. 5); it was said of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah (Horios 10a): “You have so much [knowledge]....8 And Rabbi Shimon ben Chaliftawas described as an “achiever in different fields”9 (Chulin 57b), etc.

In my humble opinion, the above can be explained after prefacing with an understanding of several different approaches to studying and knowing secular wisdom. In descending order, they are:

a) the knowledge of such wisdom from the Torah, like a wise man who is shown a blueprint and understands all the particulars from it. Similarly, the Torah is the blueprint and draft from whose design the world was created (Bereishis Rabbah, the beginning of ch. 1). As is related in Bechoros 8a, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah learned [the length of] the gestation period of a snake through [the exegesis of] verses from the Torah. And Midrash Tehillim (ch. 19) relates that Shmuel and R. Hoshaya who, through laboring over the wisdom of the Torah, learned from it “everything that exists in the heavens.” Needless to say, [this includes all the points of secular knowledge] that are explicitly mentioned in the Written Law and the Oral Law. For all of this is the Torah itself, which is G‑d’s wisdom. As Rambam writes (Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin, ch. 10, principle 8): “There is no difference between ‘And the sons of Cham were Kush and Mitzrayim10... and ‘I am G‑d, your L‑rd.’”11

b) Studying these types of wisdom because the Torah directly commanded to do so. For example, there is a positive commandment for the court to calculate [the months and the years] (Rambam, [Mishneh Torah,] Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh 1:7). [To do so, the court] must know the paths of pagan worship and magic as mentioned above. The School of Rabban Gamliel was granted license to study Greek wisdom because this was a communal necessity (see Tosafos, entry arur, Menachos 64b; the Alter Rebbe’s Hilchos Talmud Torah, Kuntreis Acharon 3:1), and [there are] further [examples]. This study is not Torah study, but it is a mitzvah — like any of the other mitzvos that are of Scriptural or Rabbinic origin — even before one uses it to actually sanctify the new moon.

c) When one is compelled to think about other wisdom, [because] he is in a place where it is forbidden [to think about] the words of the Torah. [In such an instance,] the law is that one should think about calculations (see the later authorities; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, the beginning of sec. 85). It is possible to say that this is also included in the words of the Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 5:6) when [after Shmuel said that Torah knowledge is not found among astrologers], the Sages asked him: “Behold, are you not an astrologer [and a great Torah scholar]?” and he replied: “I did not look at [astrology] except when I would visit the lavatory.” This also is a mitzvah, but of a third type.

d) When a person studies the Torah or desires to observe a mitzvah, but cannot because he lacks knowledge of these types of wisdom. As a natural consequence, he will satisfy this need, as Rav commented (Sanhedrin 5b): “I lived with a cowherd for 18 months to know which blemishes are of a permanent nature and which are temporary.” This study is considered neither Torah study nor the fulfillment of a mitzvah. It is, however, a preparatory step and preface for the [study of] Torah and [the performance of] its mitzvos. Perhaps the court’s study of the particulars of pagan worship and magic is included in this category.

e) Gaining knowledge — to the extent necessary, but no more — for the sake of one’s business, to earn one’s livelihood (see Derech Mitzvosecha, p. 104b). Alternatively, [it is permitted] when one uses that knowledge itself as a profession and a medium to earn a livelihood.12 Thus [the study] serves as a preparatory step and a preface to a permitted matter.

* * *

All of the examples found in the Torah and in the words of our Sages regarding Jews who involved themselves in secular knowledge can be explained according to one of the above motifs. Hence, it is not appropriate to ask why the Sages involved themselves in such matters and then to provide one of the above explanations. The matter is obvious. Either it is explained by a [Scriptural] verse, a statement of our Sages, or because this is everyday conduct.

The [Alter] Rebbe’s [implied] question stems from Rambam’sstudy [of secular wisdom. Rambam] writes explicitly that he studied from the books of the gentiles. (Hence, [his study] was not of the first type mentioned above.) The question is not primarily about Rambam’s study of pagan texts (as mentioned in Moreh Nevuchim, as cited above), nor is it about his study of the Greek texts of astronomy (as he writes in Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh, the conclusion of ch. 17), for through these he explained the rationale for the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon.[The rationale for studying these texts] is included in the second approach. [Instead,] the force of [the Alter Rebbe’s] question comes from [Rambam’s] study of other wisdom, e.g., the study of medicine from the texts of Galen. It is impossible to say that [Rambam’s] intent was to use this knowledge as a medium to earn a livelihood, for he studied this knowledge at the time when he and his household were being supported by his brother, as is known from Rambam’s letters. Similarly, Ramban was knowledgeable in many types of wisdom and did not use all this knowledge as a medium to earn a livelihood.

To answer this [implied question, the Alter Rebbe explains] a sixth approach [to the study of secular knowledge].

* * *

f) It is permitted to study secular wisdom even when, as of yet, the lack of this knowledge does not prevent one from understanding the Torah, provided one knows how to use [this knowledge] afterwards for the sake of Divine service or Torah study.

This clarifies the preciseness of the wording in Tanya: “That — using a singular form — was the motivating rationale...,”although previously, [the Alter Rebbe] had mentioned two reasons why [secular wisdom] could be studied.13 For the motivating rationale of Rambam while studying [this wisdom] involved only one reason. Afterwards, however, the wheel [of fate] turned against him and when his brother died, he was forced to use his wisdom as a medium to earn a livelihood.14

* * *

It is also worthy to note a [further] reason for mentioning Rambam and Ramban,based on Shaar HaGilgulim (Introduction 36; see also the sections from Shaar HaGilgulim from the Chida [concerning Rambam and Ramban]) which states that both did not merit [to study] the wisdom of Kabbalah, or at least did not do so until the end of their lives. The connection between the knowledge of the spiritual cosmos [taught by] Kabbalah and also applied kabbalistic knowledge and natural science is understood.

With respect and with blessing,

M. Schneerson