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Halachic attitudes towards secular studies revisited




Rabbi Gavin Michal is a student of the philosophical teachings of the Kotzker Rebbe. His short philosophical offerings from the inspirational words in his Kotzk Blogs have become the stuff of legend since he started publishing them some years ago on the now defunct MyShtetl website. Rabbi Michal built his own congregation, Baal Shem Tov, in Orange Grove some two decades ago, and has a thriving congregation.

Jewish Report has published some of Rabbi Michal’s EARLIER BLOGS. He has now built a huge international following on BLOGSPOT. His blog “65) Halachic Attitudes towards Secular Studies:” posted on December 2, 2015 was read by over 9 000 people within days of publication. Rabbi Michal says: “I have tried to present as accurately as I can, many of the teachings that have absolutely captivated me personally.”

65) Halachic Attitudes towards Secular Studies:

The following post is a loose translation of what is, in my view, a brilliant analysis of the secular studies issue, as presented in Peninei Halacha.” class=”sfImageWrapper”>Rabbi Gavin Michal tall1This was because in those days, the main portal through which one acquired secular knowledge was through the writings of Aristotle. And his philosophy promulgated ideas that ran contrary to those of Torah Judaism (particularly the principle of the eternity of the universe which negated the concept of creation, and also the principles opposing Divine providence and those antithetical to the reward and punishment concept).

LEFT: Rabbi Gavin Michal

As a result of indulging in Aristotelian teachings, many Jews of that era became assimilated into the general culture of the times and left the Jewish fold. For this reason we start to see the first wave of opposition to secular wisdom emanating from the Torah world.

It is important to point out that this opposition was never directed against the secular studies themselves, only against the “package” in which they were presented at that time.

The Rashba, for example, imposed a ban upon anyone under the age of 25 who indulged in secular studies from ancient Greek sources.

Similarly the Rivash also discouraged the study of Aristotelian thought. As did the Maharal of Prague who only permitted indulgence in that literature if one needed to acquire knowledge to debate and defeat the Jewish Aristotelian protagonists.


The second (and more intense) wave of opposition to secular studies came about 200 years ago at the time of the Age of Enlightenment. On the one hand, students no longer had to go through the portal of Aristotelian philosophy to gain access to secular wisdom as by then it was already widely spread. On the other hand secular wisdom was so popular and enticing that it seemed to offer people everything they were looking for without the imposition of all the restrictions of religion. In fact it was such a successful movement that at the time more than half of all Jews[10] were drawn into its camp.

Understandably there was much consternation in rabbinic quarters, and secular studies were seen as such a threat, that the opposition to it became in some instances quite vehement.


An outstanding exception to the general rule of opposition to secular study was the famous Vilna Gaon. He went so far as to actively encourage his students to study secular wisdom. He instructed his disciple Rabbi Baruch of Shklov to translate Euclid’s Elements into Hebrew so that they could better understand geometry. The Gaon said that if one lacks a measure of secular knowledge, one will lose out on a hundred measures of Torah knowledge. He believed that Torah and secular wisdom were intertwined.[11]

Another student of the Gaon[12] testified in the name of his teacher that an understanding of the secular sciences was an imperative prerequisite to Torah study. He said that the Gaon mastered algebra, geometry, engineering and music, as well a host of other such disciplines. The only field he didn’t explore was medicine as his father strongly advised him not to do so as good doctors never have much free time for anything else.


Another exception to this second wave of opposition was Rabbi Shimshon Rephael Hirsch, who witnessed the devastating blow the Enlightenment had on German Jews in particular, yet instead of opposing secular studies, he chose to embrace them. He established Torah schools which also offered a high standard of secular education. This approach became known as Torah Im Derech Eretz. He determinedly believed that the way to combat the multitudes that were leaving the Torah lifestyle, was not to ban, but rather to offer religious students exposure to, secular literature in addition to their Torah studies.


From what started out as general endorsement and encouragement of secular studies in Talmudic times, to the first wave of opposition to it during the period of Rishonim, to the second wave at the time of the Enlightenment  – the spirited debate continues today creating a great divide within the religious Jewish community. [See KOTZK BLOG 59) Secular Education – A great Debate or Great Divide?]

We must bear in mind that historically, even among the camp that opposed secular education, all our Torah leaders acknowledged the inherent worth of secular study in essence[13]. It has only been in more recent times that a new trend has emerged where some Torah leaders see no intrinsic value whatsoever in secular studies[14]. They believe that our Torah students will become enticed with secular knowledge and thus be drawn away from religious values.

Fascinatingly, if one examines the numbers of religious people who have left the Torah system over the last 100-year period, it is not clear which of the two ideologies suffered more attrition. All the modern institutions on both sides of the divide seem to have lost a similar number of alumni to assimilation.

Thus, till now, it has not been possible to say with any degree of certainty which system has succeeded in maintaining more adherents than the other.


Finally, the Peninei Halacha cannot resist stating his own arguments in favour of combining both religious and secular studies:

Particularly in our modern times and for the future, it is essential for most religious students to be well-educated in secular matters. This is because in truth, secular study has always been essentially endorsed and encouraged by most of our sages throughout our history.

Secondly, from Talmudic times to the Vilna Gaon, excellence in secular education has always been one of the best ways of creating a kiddush haShem (where non-Jews respect Jews because of their prowess and expertise in the secular and professional world).

Thirdly, through pursuing a secular profession, a graduate of the yeshivas can live with dignity by supporting their families with honour. A good profession will place then in a respectful position amongst their peers.

Fourthly, the Peninei Halacha steadfastly maintains that going forward, the most effective way to keep people from leaving the fold in our times, is to allow them to access secular knowledge together with their Torah studies.


(The closing words are mine and no longer a paraphrase of Peninei Halacha).

If ever there was a time when secular education needed to be emphasised, it must be now, in our times and particularly in our market economy. Where is the dignity in keeping religious people poor and (secularly) illiterate? Even the previously forgotten multitudes of indigenous peoples of the Third World are all being allowed more and more access to education and are already emerging as a significant middle class. Where is the kidush haShem in intentionally leaving our own people behind to fill their places at the lower stratas of society?

The Vilna Gaon asked many times: “Compared to the Torah scholars of the past, what are our contemporary scholars doing when it comes to kiddush haShem? In previous generations our scholars made an indelible imprint in the hearts of non-Jews who came to respect religious Jews for their secular knowledge.”[15]

As noted previously[16] the hareidi segment of our religious population generally discourages and even forbids secular education. It has now grown so large that for the first time they have overtaken the numbers of the Modern Orthodox segment that does encourage secular studies and professional work. One of the hareidi leaders, Rav Shteinman, recently said that it is better to steal than to get a secular education. This, he said, is because one can always give the money back, whereas the damage of a secular education can never be erased from the soul.

The unsuspecting Torah public need to be made aware of these numbers, trends and statements.

If things continue as they are – until and unless there is some change in mindset of the hareidi leadership, or a bolstering of the centrist movement – the average religious Jew in our times and in the foreseeable future will be (secularly) uneducated and illiterate.

What dignity will others find in that?


[1] Peninei Halacha Likkutim 1, Chapters 14 and 15.

[2] This view is consistent with the Torah ImDerechEretz model. The Torah Umadah model gives a more elevated status to Secular Studies. See:KOTZK BLOG 59) Secular Education – A Great Debate or a Great Divide?

[3] NetivHaTorah, Chapter14.

[4] “Giluy  haEloki hanaleh beyoter sheyeshno baolam”.

[5] Shabbat 75a, as explained by Rambam and Maharal and others.

[6] “Ha’isuk bechochmot ayno nechshav bitul Torah”.

[7] I am aware that some may challenge this conclusion by saying that he needed to know astronomy in order to understand the calendar which is crucial for various halachic observances. But many commentators understand the reference to ‘astronomy’ as a reference to secular wisdom in general and not astronomy in particular. Again indicating that secular learning is not bitul Torah.

[8] Bava Kama 82b.

[9] “Zu hayta amadat Chazal.”

[10] “Verov hatzibbur hayehudi nimshach achar hahaskallah”.

[11] “HaTorah vehaChochma nitzmadim yachad.”

[12] Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, in his introduction to his book ‘Peat HaShulchan’.

[13] “Muskam al kol Gedolei Yisrael sheyesh erech beyediyat Chochmot chitzoniyot.”

[14]“Omnum bedort ha’acharonim hayu bein gedolei Yisrael shehoru she’adif lilmod beyeshiva shein mushlavim balimudei chol”.

[15] Kol Hator 5,2

[16] See: KOTZK BLOG 59).


Rabbi Michal also has a large following on Twitter and recently started publishing the aptly-named #shortkotzkvorts, most recently, his fourth, on  December 10:

4) The ‘Truthful’ Naysayers:

Naysayers always bring a very negative and unhelpful energy to whatever situation it is that they want to oppose.

But sometimes even perpetual objectors and cynics may appear to be truthful and appropriately forewarning.

The Kotzker Rebbe, however, takes a different view and says: “Even if an objector is justified and suggests in the name of Truth, that something should not be created, developed or constructed – know that he is not representing Truth.”

In Kotzker philosophy, the battle is to always find a way for real Truth to be compatible with the positive energy of creation and progress.

Continue Reading


  1. BRIAN

    Dec 15, 2015 at 8:51 am

    ‘     Gavin has painted the target and then shot the arrow -the people he quotes knew the whole Torah cold .Their Yirat Shamayim and Torah knowledge ensured that any secular pursuit was only in fulfulment of revealing H’ glory.

    The average Orthodox Jew in South Africa(speaking for myself) today cant even name the books in the Tanach but can tell you the names of 10 single malt whiskies ,he can tell you the net worth of every member of Sunday Times rich list and is disgusted by Haredi poverty.

    Gavin cant understand why Haredim are so self defeating-(does he understand how quantam theory works,or why mushrooms have unami or why Power Law Theory works either-i dont know) but those dont worry him as much-but Haredim -they worry him.

    There are 7 billion people in the world doing as Gavin wants-how many avreachim(scholars who learn for the sake of learning full time) are there above 50 years old in the world?

    3-4000 maybe.

    The Jews make every list available-money,science,arts,

    Wherever you look-Jews-be it in politics,retail,banking etc.

    Kol HaKavod but let G-D have a few lousy avreichem -if not for them we would all be Hedge fund managers etc.-H’ has plenty Mark Zuckermans around –



    Why dont YOU pester  Zuckerman to convert his wife and child and give $100 MIL to Chabad,Mir,Breslov ETC and let the Haredim learn-ZEVULON AND YISSOSCHAR’

  2. Gavin Michal

    Dec 18, 2015 at 9:19 am

    ‘Sorry you are so upset Brian. Hashkafic matters can be debated till we are blue in the face but numbers have gravitas.

    There are well over 70 000 men who study full time in adult institutions in Israel alone. Never mind the huge full time Kollel institutions in America. In 2009 62% of Chareidim did not work and had to be supported by the state and charity. 

    1 out of every 3 six year old Israeli school children is Chareidi. This means that in a few years time, a third of the Israeli population will not work nor serve in the army. Add to this the fact that they have the highest birth rate in the world and the numbers get staggering. They have already overtaken numbers of modern Orthodox Jews and are now clearly in the majority and growing. They will dictate the norms and trends within the Orthodox community.

    Rabbi Eichenstein, one of the closest people to Rav Shteinman said, regarding full time Torah study for adults;

    \”The generations before did not do this. All our traditional  rabbinic sources teach that it is not the norm for the average person  to study Torah day and night as his only pursuit…the norm is for a person to be involved in a combination of Torah and work…\”‘

  3. brian

    Dec 19, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    ‘Hi Gavin

    If its numbers you want-H’ allows over 10 million criminals to be supported daily in prisons arround the world.

    over 70 000 paedophiles are sustained clothed and fed -do you not think H'( with your blessing) allow the world to sustain 70 000 Torah scholars.

    You know also that you exaggerate 70 000-the majority of those are yeshiva students -who we can equate to University students.

    H’ allows 151 million students to attend University worldwide -why begrudge him his Torah scholars-who else will stand up for your G-D and His Torah that you profess to love?

    He allows over 50 000 professional footballers to kick a piece of leather in a field fulltime.

    Can he not allow a similair number to learn Torah?

    How many Torah scholars for our 7 billion population do you deem fit?

    Be it soccer players,paedophiles or University students -what do you deem fit?

  4. Gavin Michal

    Dec 20, 2015 at 10:47 am

    ‘The 70 000 number is from the Israeli Interior Ministry and outdated by about ten years so the numbers would have increased dramatically by now. The statistic is not not for Yeshiva students but for married men.

    The essential question though, that needs to be debated (not fought) is whether full time study for married men who never work nor even take smicha (which even precludes them from working as rabbis or teachers), is part of traditional rabbinic Judaism or not.

    The Chazon Ish who started this system (in 1945) did it as a temporary measure after the Holocaust in order to rebuild the numbers. 

    And, as Rav Eichenstein said recently: \”Now the Torah leaders have to decide – that temporary decree of the Chazon Ish – when does it end? Is it over or if it’s not over, when will it be over?\”

    That’s the great debate within the Torah world right now.


    Its a legitimate debate that requires neither aggression, sarcasm, disrespect nor hysteria.’

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