This also appears in the Jewish Star
by Rabbi Avi Billet
I’ve always marveled at the notion that Jewish men or women do not need to get any education beyond a Torah education. The thought that we might close off our brains or deprive ourselves of G-d’s gifts to this world is anathema to my existence, especially when we live in a time when knowledge is so readily accessible.
However, one need not leave the walls of the Beis Medrash to discover that people like Maimonides, Nachmanides, the Gaon of Vilna and others were heavily steeped in sciences and non-Torah subject matters — in addition to their being top-notch Torah scholars.
In Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s responsa on electric matters, he often spends dozens of pages describing the mechanics and technical matters of scientific realities before entering the realm of halakhic discourse.
The Talmud (Shabbat 75a) and the Sifrei (170) say that while one may not learn the ways of the other nations of Canaan in order to practice their ways, “One is permitted to learn about the things they do, to understand and to teach” a proper path. Of course, “their practices” refer to activities which are specifically polytheistic, pagan, or ritualistic — outside the pale of Judaism. But if the knowledge one will gain will make a person more well-rounded, the Talmud seems to be giving the learner its blessing.
The Talmud Shabbat takes this idea a step further and says that a person who does not learn about the seasons and constellations is not fulfilling a mitzvah of Devarim 4:6.
Amazingly, one of the criteria for a person to be appointed to the Sanhedrin is that he have an understanding of witchcraft and magic (Sanhedrin 17a, bottom), (Menachot 65a, top).
The common denominator of these bullet points is the allowance, the acceptance, and the necessity of having a general education beyond one’s Torah education.
This discussion stems from a fundamental interpretation of Devarim 18:9-13. “When you come to the land G-d gives you, do not learn to do the abominable acts of those nations. [Here the Torah lists kinds of necromancy, sorcery and magic.] Anyone who does these is perverting an abomination against G-d. It is these activities that are causing the nations to be chased out of the land. Be ‘tamim’ with Hashem your G-d.”
On “Do not learn to do the… acts” Rashi quotes the Talmud cited above to suggest we are in need of an education to know what is out there, so we can act accordingly and know how G-d wants us to behave, as well as the behaviors G-d abhors.
Therefore I would like to suggest that “Tamim Tihyeh Im Hashem Elokekha” means “Be complete with Hashem your G-d” in the sense of having as well-rounded an education one can have. Being complete means we have a life-long task of educating ourselves about not only Torah, but anything which can be defined as a G-d-given science.
Whether it is astrology, philosophy, political science, rules of governance, understanding the stars and the zodiac (Ramban has a lengthy commentary on this section of the parsha in which he intimates that these magic “sciences” are real and were put on earth for a purpose – just not a Jewish purpose), mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, medicine, health – all of these are available to us to study and to understand, so we can have a complete knowledge of G-d and His world.
How will we know what to do with it all? The next verses in the parsha say we are to be guided by a prophet, just like Moshe.
In our days there are no prophets for us to follow. We have, on the other hand, a legacy of right and wrong, of the proper path versus the improper path, of what is pleasing to G-d versus what is not pleasing to G-d.
What is unacceptable, however, is to write off knowledge of the world as “goyish,” and to claim that pursuit of ideas which do not smack of Torah is to be avoided because it is something a Jew “doesn’t do.”
Not everyone needs to be a professor or scholar, but to avoid intellectual pursuits using Torah as an excuse is, at least according to one passage from the Talmud, the equivalent of not fulfilling of a mitzvah.
Remember the slogan of the United Negro College Fund since 1972: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”