Sunday, September 7, 2008

Chochmah Lishma? The Purpose of Scientific Endeavor

Often times one encounters those who wish to treat the quest for knowledge as inherently good. Education is treated as a virtue and disinterest in excelling in secular knowledge is viewed as sacrilege. “The desire for knowledge for its own sake is more widespread than is generally recognized by anti-intellectualists. It has its roots in the animal curiosity which shows itself in the cosmological question of children and the gossip of adults.” (Introduction to Logic & Scientific Method, Morris R. Cohen and Ernest Nagel, Harcourt, Brace L& World Inc. ©1934, page 399). Outsiders, and indeed some insiders, are confounded by observant Jews who have no interest in interrupting their Torah study to pursue a secular education when it serves no direct purpose.

With the advances in our standard of living and life expectancy brought about through science and universal education it is not difficult to find reason to appreciate for the ברכה that we have been given. But some argue, “Its applications are not the only value of science, however. Science is knowledge and thus and end in itself. The laws and principles discovered in scientific investigation have a value apart from any narrow utility they may possess. This intrinsic value is its satisfaction of curiosity, the fulfillment of the desire to know.” Copi page 458. I do not disagree with this assessment per se, but I disagree that the value described is “intrinsic." Devoid of utilitarian benefit such research is only a value in the same sense as any other hobby or mindless entertainment…and only if one actually finds it enjoyable. Entertainment value is utilitarian, if indeed we consider it a value, and certainly subjective. The only reason why spending one’s life studying biology or physics can be considered more worth than spending one’s life devoted to mastering a role playing game is that the former, with success, will produce benefit for society while the later will only provide entertainment for oneself and one’s associates.

In Torah, only service of God is inherently worthy. Eating, sleeping, and providing for one’s physical needs are only meritorious when done with the intent to serve one’s Creator (O.C. 231). Though we are obligated by Torah to preserve our lives and the lives of others, a life for life’s sake isn’t virtuous. Those actions which we are required to do to preserve our lives must be done not just to satisfy our desire for pleasure, or even existence, but as a means to fulfill God commandments or to make it possible to fulfill God’s commandments. Certainly those activities which we are simply not forbidden to perform but by no means obligated must likewise, according to our own level, contribute to our service of God in some way.

There are different ways that learning secular subjects can potentially contribute to one’s service of God. In his article “Science in Torah life” (Challenge: Torah Views On Science and Its Problems), Rabbi Leo Levi shlita has a comprehensive list of possible motivations for learning secular topics in a way which might meet the qualification that one’s actions be l’shem shamayim. Perhaps most significant is to further one’s Torah knowledge in accordance with the Vilna Gaon’s statement that, “according to how much a man lacks knowledge of the other wisdoms, correspondingly he will lack a hundred-fold of Torah wisdom.” (ibid page 100). Certainly no greater reason to learn secular wisdom could be found than to increase one’s Torah knowledge. But to be l’shem shamayim this must not be a mere justification but one’s actual motivation, and even then must be tempered by the realization that many Rabbinic luminaries both before and after the Gra achieved levels of Torah scholarship we could only dream of with their secular education being less than what we would constitute the bare minimum any of us receive today.[1] Furthermore I believe it fair to say tht not everything which has a college course dedicated to it would be what the Gra considered a “wisdom” that is necessary for acquiring Torah.

At any rate such kavanos and cheshbonos only are helpful when the study of a subject is otherwise permissible. There is certainly a need to consult a Posek when one wishes to pursue secular studies and determine whether any such “l’shem shamayim” purpose for such study was enough to render the general injunction against establishing fixed times for studying chochmah other than Torah (Rama Y.D. 246:4) inapplicable. Likewise it is only permitted provided there is no heresy in the subject matter (ibid, see Igros Moshe Y.D. 3:52 about literature which discusses, but does not advocate, such issues). One needs to determine whether any literature one reads raises problems because it contains romantic or militaristic themes (O.C. 307:16). In short, even when one hopes to learn secular wisdom l’shem shamayim, the ends do not necessarily justify the means, there are halachic issues to be considered (even if in the end it is permitted).

“Chochma”, just as anything else in life, must be acquired l’shem shamayim. Sa’adia Gaon recognized that scientific knowledge provides pleasure, and even “nourishment”, to the soul. However he notes that “Among the scholars there are some who maintain that there exists nothing with which an individual ought to occupy himself in this world except the quest of scientific knowledge” (page 393) but argues “exclusive preoccupation with physical science would constitute an abandonment of the cultivation of the science of religion and religious law, whereas the only reason why the love of the former has been implanted in man is in order that it might support the latter, both together making an excellent combination…” (page 394). Our lives must be centered around our avodas Hashem, and any of our needs must be performed bearing in mind how they directly or indirectly assist in that goal. Within Torah sources we see different possible ways that secular studies can be elevated to holiness, but only when done without violating Torah prohibitions. To actualize that potential for holiness we must purify our motivations and consult proper guidance to assure that we do not transgress relevant halachos.

[1] Presumably one need not be concerned with the levels one is otherwise unable to achieve until “after on has filled his belly with bread and wine”( לאחר שמלא כריסו בשר ויין) Y.D. 246:4, see also Rambam Yesodei HaTorah 4:13.

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