Orthodox Humanities?

Menachem Kellner Tradition Online | January 17, 2022

TRADITION’s editor recently brought a fracas roiling the halls of the Ivy League to the attention of readers of these pages. As that debate about the state and role of the humanities in American higher education has serious implications for us as a religious community, Menachem Kellner joins in and expands the conversation to its philosophical and theological first principles. Kellner’s recent essay, “Today’s Perplexed: Between Maimonidean Promise and Peril,” appeared in our Fall 2021 issue.

See the index of all entires in this series.

Harvards’s Louis Menand recently asked, “What’s So Great About Great-Books Courses?” He criticized books by Roosevelt Montás of Columbia (Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation) and Arnold Weinstein of Brown (The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing). Montás’ Columbia colleague John McWhorter immediately joined the fray, declaring in The New York Times, “Yes, the Great Books Make Us Better People.” 

I live the life of a garden variety Orthodox Jew, albeit one which finds me as the chair of the Department of Philosophy and Jewish Thought at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s only liberal arts college.  My recently published TRADITION article touches on the questions raised by these writers surveyed above, at least tangentially. My deep concern for the place of the humanities in Orthodox Judaism has been honestly earned over my long career.

The question of the humanities is not the question of secular education. Even (American, not Israeli) haredi parents usually recognize the practical value of a secular education for their children. Modern Orthodox parents who spend a great deal of money to send their children to Yeshiva University or to the Lander College of Arts and Sciences clearly recognize that value. This is also the case with respect to the many Orthodox parents whose children study in the Ivy League. Indeed, the great Yemenite born Maimonides scholar and member of the high court of the Israeli Rabbinate, R. Josef Kafih (1917-2000), held that the term “secular studies” (limmudei hol) makes no sense: if these studies teach truth, they may be holy, not “secular”; if they do not teach truth, they are a waste of time and effort.1

The humanities do not teach truth in the sense clearly meant by R. Kafih, and their study rarely leads to acquiring a profession, at least not directly. If the humanities are important for us it must be for other reasons. What do they teach? One common way of defining the humanities is to say that humanities include the study of ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy, history, law, religion, and the arts. Humanities used to include fields like archaeology, anthropology, and human geography but in recent years many practitioners of these fields have sought to make their fields more “scientific” (and often more “woke”) and appear to have less and less in common with the fields still included under the heading of the humanities.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will include under the humanities those fields which seek to describe, analyze, understand, or give expression to that which makes humans human. Human beings, of course, can be studied in terms of their biology, as a species of animals. Human beings can be studied in terms of their interactions with other humans, as a species of social beings. Humans can be studied in terms of their impact upon their surroundings, and in terms of the impact of their surroundings on them. These fields of studies, and those like them, ignore what makes humans human.

What does make humans human? Unlike monkeys, bees, and whales (so far as we know) humans wonder: what makes us human? Let us then take as the subject of our discussion attempts to do things which only humans do (music, art, literature, philosophy, etc.), and attempts to describe, analyze, and understand those things which only humans do. As Orthodox Jews, ought we be encouraged to engage in humanistic studies or discouraged? I would not be writing this essay were I not willing to argue here for the inclusion of the humanities in any serious Jewish curriculum. I will do so by answering two questions.

1. Who or what are human beings? The Torah teaches explicitly that all human beings are created in the image of God. However, some readers of this essay believe that there is some essential, metaphysical, ontological difference between Jews and non-Jews and that in consequence of that difference Jews as such are in some sense superior to non-Jews as such. In holding this view, such readers follow R. Judah Halevi, Zohar, many Kabbalists, many Hasidic thinkers, and many contemporary Orthodox rabbis, both modern and haredi. I doubt such readers will find the continuation of my presentation at all convincing.

For those of you still reading, we may continue. In that we human beings are created in the image of God, we can be commanded to walk in God’s ways. But what is God’s image? Rambam, in the opening chapters of his Guide of the Perplexed, teaches that it is our intellects in which our divine image consists. This approach has the advantage of following the Torah in treating all human beings as potentially Godlike and underlies Rambam’s radical universalism. Rambam’s approach suffers from at least two disadvantages: it is strikingly elitist and it derives from Aristotle, not from the Torah.

With reference to God’s actions which can be imitated, what does the Torah itself teach us about God?

The very first thing we learn is that God is a Creator. We human beings cannot create universes, but we can create things of beauty, and in that fashion imitate the Creator. For a variety of reasons we do not ordinarily associate Judaism with the arts, but if we look again at the Torah, we see that Jews were once commanded to build beautiful structures, fashion beautiful articles of clothing, and craft implements of artistic merit. This is obvious from the detailed instructions for the building of the Tabernacle in the desert, the building of Temple in Jerusalem, the fashioning of the priestly raiment and the various accouterments of Tabernacle and Temple. Bezalel’s special talents allowed him to receive divine inspiration in fashioning these things; this is emphasized in the Torah (Exodus 31:3) and by the Talmud (Berakhot 55a).

But the Torah does not only teach us to value beautiful things, it also implicitly reverences literary beauty: after all, what is the Book of Psalms if not a series of exalted poems? The classical prophets of Israel wrote words that have inspired the world for thousands of years, not only because of their content, but also because of the beauty of their expression. Whatever else Tanakh is, much of it is a work of surpassing literary beauty. Surely an example of literary creativity in service of the imitation and worship of God.

The Talmudic rabbis also seemed to have valued and even reveled in literary beauty – how else can we understand the effort involved in creating aggadot and midrashim which stimulate literary analyses and imitation to this very day? Moreover, R. Soloveitchik z”l, reveled in the creativity of Halakhic Man, and even if that model is presented principally as intellectual creativity, there can be no doubt that it was a reflection of his enchantment with all realms of human creativity (as demonstrated in these pages by Walter Wurzburger). Jews as Jews are called upon to imitate their Creator through their own creativity.

Creativity, artistic and otherwise, is hardly the special preserve of Jews. Not only that, but once we realize that we Jews are also “only” human beings, we should begin to wonder: has anything ever been written, painted, sculpted, musically composed of value by non-Jews expressing humanity’s creative spirit, showing sensitivity to the human condition and illuminating it?

Further, as humans we should, should we not, strive for self-reflection? Must we as Jews impoverish ourselves by ignoring the insights into humanity on the part of non-Jews?

Over and above aspects of creativity in literature and the arts, Midrash also teaches us that we fulfill the mitzva of walking in God’s ways through acts of kindness to our fellow human beings (Sifrei Ekev 49). Clothing the naked: as with Adam and Eve, progenitors of all human beings; visiting the sick: as with Abraham, a Noachide, recovering from his circumcision; and burying the dead (as with Moses). Clearly, Hazal saw these moral behaviors as expressions of walking in God’s ways. It is equally clear that Talmud and Midrash contain not a few stories of morally perfected non-Jews  (e.g., Kiddushin 31a about Dama ben Natena). Moral behavior is not something unique to Jews. It is a human possibility and, in Jewish terms, more than a possibility, an obligation. Ethics is a humanistic discipline (as opposed to “meta-ethics” which only interests professional philosophers) and as such (and not only as such) should certainly interest Jews.

Historically, philosophy has challenged us to look at God’s universe in wonderment and examine our place in it. That is one humanistic discipline that no religious person, Jew or non-Jew, has any right to ignore.

In sum, the imitation of God through creativity and morality are open to all human beings. It is incumbent upon us never to allow the real to determine the ideal. If we can imitate God through creativity and moral behavior towards fellow humans, we are obligated to do so.

2. Let us turn to two related questions: what is the Torah and to whom is it addressed? The first question is not so simply answered. Let us see why. Rambam included physics and metaphysics in Torah and would certainly not have included the Zohar (had it existed in his day). It is a safe assumption that those who include the Zohar in the midrashic canon would not have included physics and metaphysics in Pardes, as did Rambam. Leaving that question aside, what parts of Torah (whatever we include in it) ought to be emphasized? My father z”l once told me that in his yeshiva in Hungary his rosh yeshiva criticized him for spending too much time on midrash at the expense of Gemara. (It later stood him in good stead as a remarkable darshan.) We are all familiar with the narrow curriculum in most haredi yeshivot, and the very different curricula in “Lithuanian” as opposed to hasidic yeshivot. We are all also familiar with stories of students in the Lakewood Yeshiva hiding Gemaras in their mussar books during the short time set aside for the study of mussar each day. A joke, no doubt, but it teaches something about different curricula in the “yeshiva world.” Is Nakh included in “Torah”? Not if you look at the curricula of haredi yeshivot. There are thus many different Orthodox answers to the question, “what is Torah?” and what it includes.

I suggest that we follow Rav Kook’s dream of a “central universal” yeshiva and add the humanities to what is in any event a flexible yeshiva curriculum. In doing so I build upon the thought of  R. Aharon Lichenstein z”l, who often spoke of “the role of literature in religious life” (while, admittedly, keeping the study of literature out of the bet midrash in his yeshiva).

To whom is the Torah addressed? Menachem Hirshman has shown that Hazal were divided on this issue: was the Torah addressed only to Israel, or, ultimately, to all humanity (kol ba’ei olam)? The school of R. Yishmael taught that the Torah was meant ultimately for all humanity. David Gillis and I have argued that Rambam agreed that the Torah is meant for all humanity2 and that in the messianic era it would become the inheritance of all human beings. It is our job of Jews to make the world “messiah worthy” so that the Torah will ultimately be shared by all. Since the Torah is meant to be adopted by all human beings, it makes no sense to think that the “human sciences” will play no role in the messianic Torah. If that is true, then, in line with the Zionist project, it is incumbent upon us to make the present world as messiah-like as possible. One way of doing that is by making room for the wisdom and beauty of the humanities in the tents of Torah, thus beginning the task of undermining barriers which are ultimately meant to be overcome.

Once we acknowledge our shared humanity, we must ask: ought we live in our shared modernity, or only next to it? Rambam lived in his reality, as did Rabbis Soloveitchik and Lichtenstein. By that I mean that they acknowledged the beauty and value of (aspects) of the cultures in which they lived and sought to integrate (as opposed to ignore) those aspects into their Judaism. In Rambam’s case it meant insisting on the importance of (Greek) physics and metaphysics for understanding Torah. In the Rav’s case it meant utilizing modern European philosophy better to express the nature of Halakhic Man and of the Halakhic Mind. In the case of R. Lichtenstein it meant his constant reversion to human insights gleaned from his study of literature. Need I remind the readers of this essay that each of them was a master Talmudist?

It is my impression that many of the students and successors of the Rav and of R. Lichtenstein live more next to the modern world than in it. No Jew I have ever met rejects the technological products of modernity; however, many at the same time deny that the culture that gave birth to that technology has any intrinsic value. This essay was prompted by a debate over the value and importance of that culture. I do believe that the study of the humanities can make us more empathetic and better citizens. However, my argument here is addressed to Jews: not only is the study of the humanities worthwhile, but it is religiously mandated.

Menachem Kellner, Professor of Jewish Thought (emeritus) at the University of Haifa, is the chair of the Philosophy and Jewish Thought Department at Shalem College, Jerusalem. His most recent book is We Are Not Alone: A Maimonidean Theology of the Other.


  1. Joseph Kafih, “Secular Studies in the Rambam” in Crossroads: Halacha and the Modern World (Zomet, 1987), 109-116.
  2.  Menachem Hirshman, “Rabbinic Universalism in the Second and Third Centuries,” Harvard Theological Review 93 (2000), 101-115; and Torah Lekhol Ba’ei Olam [Hebrew], (Ha-Kibbutz ha-Meuhad, 1999).

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  1. […] Blau joins Jeffrey Saks, Menachem Kellner, Chaim Waxman, and Shalom Carmy‘s discussion of Orthodoxy and the state of the humanities, […]

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