Thursday, November 05, 2009

What does the Talmud really say about working and secular knowledge?

by Lurker

In his post from yesterday, SM contends that the rabbinic authorities in Babylon during the time of the Talmud espoused a philosophy that rejected interaction with the secular world, and looked down upon people who worked for a living, rather than devoting their time exclusively to Torah. He further implies that this was in contrast to the philosophy of the rabbinic authorities during the same period in Israel:
...we are inculcated into believing that real Jews do not interact with the secular world... We are slow to unlearn this because of the Talmud itself. The grand panjandrums of the Babylonian Institutes took advantage of the respect afforded to all religions in Babylon and rather looked down on their non-rabbinic co-religionists in Babylon and Palestine who had to work for a living. Don't believe me? Look at the conflicting statements about the value of work in the Gemara and work out where each contributor lived.
This is a wholly incorrect analysis of the views found in the Talmud Bavli. As with many issues, the views of the Babylonian Amoraim (and the Tannaim before them) on this matter were, in fact, far from monolithic: Some were in favor of involvement with the secular world and study of secular knowledge, while others opposed it. Some advocated engaging in a worldly occupation, whereas others argued for Torah study exclusively. Furthermore, there is an apparent preference for the former.

SM urges us to "look at the conflicting statements about the value of work in the Gemara and work out where each contributor lived." So let's take him up on his challenge.

Here are just a few examples that vividly demonstrate the existence of this dispute among the Talmudic authorities, and the prominence of those who were firmly on the side of worldly occupation and secular knowledge:
  • The gemara in TB Berakhot (35b) describes this dispute explicitly: The Tanna R. Yishmael says that one should work for a living in addition to studying Torah, whereas the Tanna R. Shimon b. Yohai says that one should only study Torah:
    "Along with [Torah study], engage in a worldly occupation" -- these are the words of R. Yishmael. R. Shimon b. Yohai says: "Is that possible? If a man plows in the plowing season, and sows in the sowing season, and reaps in the reaping season, and threshes in the threshing season, and winnows in the windy season, then what [time] will be devoted to Torah? Rather, during a time when Israel performs the will of God [i.e., studies Torah], their work is done by others."
    After citing this Tannaitic argument, the gemara cites two of the most prominent Babylonian Amoraim, Abaye and Rava, who -- even though they are well-known for disagreeing on many issues -- both endorse R. Yishmael's opinion that one should engage in a worldly occupation, and reject the view of R. Shimon b. Yohai:
    Abaye said: "Many have done according to R. Yishmael, and they succeeded; as for those who have followed R. Shimon b. Yohai, they did not succeed." [Likewise] Rava said to the Rabbis: "I would ask you not to appear before me during Nisan [the time of the grain harvest] and Tishrei [the time of the grape and olive harvest], so that you should not be anxious about your income during the rest of the year."
    Note that Abaye and Rava are both Talmudic figures from Babylon; not Israel. Obviously, this is inconsistent with SM's contention that the rabbis of Babylon were against working for a living.

  • The gemara in TB Shabbat (33b) tells a story that dramatizes just how extremist R. Shimon b. Yohai was in his view that one should only study Torah and not work. But the story then continues by saying that he was harshly castigated and punished by God for this!
    [R. Shimon b. Yohai and his son] came out [of their cave], and saw people plowing and sowing. He said: "They neglect eternal life, and engage in temporal life!" Every place upon which they cast their gaze was immediately burnt. A heavenly voice came forth and said to them: "Have you emerged in order to destroy My world?! Return to your cave!" So they returned [to the cave] and dwelled there for twelve months, since they say: "The punishment of the wicked in Hell is for twelve months".
    Note that R. Shimon b. Yohai and his son are being described here as among the "wicked" ("resha'im"), who are obliged to spend a year in Hell as penance!

  • The gemara in TB Sotah (49b) describes the argument between the rabbinic authorities who advocated the study of secular knowledge, and those who opposed it. Among those who advocated it were no less than the family of the Nesi'im (the Presidents of the Sanhedrin, who were descended from Hillel the Elder). These included R. Gamliel, R. Shimon b. Gamliel, and R. Yehuda HaNasi, redactor of the Mishna. The gemara tells us that in R. Gamliel's school, half of the students focused their studies upon Greek wisdom, rather than Torah. And this is cited by two Amoraim as an argument in favor of secular education:
    "R. Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel in the name of R. Shimon b. Gamliel: There were 1000 youngsters in my father's institution; 500 studied the Torah and 500 studied Greek wisdom."
    The gemara then goes on to point out that it was only natural for R. Gamliel to instruct his students in Greek wisdom -- since he nurtured and encouraged close interaction with the secular (Roman) authorities.

    Note also that the Amoraim who cite this as an argument in favor of secular education are R. Yehuda and Shmuel -- both of Babylon, not Israel. Again, this conflicts with SM's claim.

  • R. Yehuda HaNasi, descendant of R. Gamliel, followed in the tradition of his illustrious ancestors, and was educated in Greek/Roman science. This is clearly illustrated by a beraita in TB Pesahim (94b), which describes a number of disagreements between the rabbis and the non-Jewish scholars regarding the physical structure of the universe, along with R. Yehuda HaNasi's opinion on who was right, and why. These arguments existed in the context of the ancient model of the cosmos, in which the earth is a flat expanse sitting on top of water; and the sun, moon and constellations revolve above the earth in a transparent "sphere" ("raki'a"), which is actually a dome, or a hemisphere. In the following passage, the beraita addresses the question of where the sun goes after it sets, and how it moves during the night from the western horizon to the eastern one: According to the rabbis, the sun travels at night above the sphere. (This makes the sun invisible to us at night, since the sphere's outer surface was believed to be opaque, as opposed to its lower surface, which is transparent.) Whereas according to the non-Jewish scholars, the sun travels underneath the earth at night:
    "The sages of Israel say: During the day, the sun travels below the sphere; and at night, above the sphere. And the sages of the nations of the world say: During the day, the sun travels below the sphere; and at night, below the ground. Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] said: 'And their opinion [of the Sages of the nations] appears [preferable to ours], since during the day, the springs are cold; but at night, they are hot.'" [I.e., the subterranean waters are apparently being heated by the sun, which is travelling underneath (or through) them.]
    The first item worthy of note here is that the rabbis were well aware of the prevailing secular science of their day. Even more fascinating and revealing is the approach of R. Yehuda HaNasi when confronted with a contradiction between rabbinic tradition and empirical evidence: He did not say, "the mesorah from our rabbis is always right, so the secular scholars are obviously misinterpreting the evidence". Rather, he said, "the scientists appear to be right, so our tradition must be wrong" -- and accordingly, he proceeded to amend his model of the universe. The lesson inherent in this for those in the modern "frum" world, and their so-called "gedolim" -- who foolishly cling to models of the universe that have been disproven by empirical evidence and science -- should be painfully obvious.

    The same beraita in Pesahim also addresses the question of whether the constellations move within the sphere (as do the sun and moon), or whether they are attached to the wall of the sphere, which itself revolves:
    "The sages of Israel say: The sphere is stationary, while the constellations revolve. And the sages of the nations of the world say: The sphere revolves, and the constellations are stationary. Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] said: 'An argument against their view [of the Sages of the nations] is that we never find the Wain (Ursa Major) in the south or Scorpio in the north.'"
    To this R. Aha b. Yaakov objected: "Perhaps it is like the pivot of a millstone, or like the hinge of a door."
    In this case, R. Yehuda HaNasi rejects the non-Jewish view, rather than the Jewish one. But consistent with his previously cited statement, he rejects it not on account of it being in contradiction with the Jewish mesorah, but rather, because it appears to conflict with observable phenomena. Here, however, R. Aha b. Yaakov argues against the Jewish view, and in favor of the secular one. Note that R. Aha b. Yaakov is a Babylonian Amora -- one of those whom SM would have us believe rejected the influence of the secular world.
In summary: It is clear that, contrary to those who claim otherwise, there were plenty of preeminent Babylonian rabbis in the Talmud who advocated working for a living, as well as the study of secular knowledge.

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