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    You need math, English for Torah: Rebuttal to Chief Rabbi Yosef

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 5 July, 2021.

    Last week The Jerusalem Post reported that the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel objects to pupils learning the so-called core curriculum that includes math and English. The chief rabbi says everyone should learn Torah.

    Quite right of course; everyone should learn Torah, plenty of it, but it’s rather hard to learn Torah without the aid of the skills imparted by what is called the core curriculum.

    The fact is that handling math and English is good for you and it helps you become a better Jew. Look at math first. You need mathematics and measurements in order to observe Shabbat. You need them in order to count the Omer. You need them in order to build a sukkah. You need them in order to construct an eruv. You need them in order to have kosher tzitzit and tefillin, a kosher lulav or mikveh (ritual bath).

    You can’t live a Jewish life without a mastery of numbers. Rav Soloveitchik reminds us in his Halakhic Man, “The halachah fixes firmly established and clearly delimited laws, statutes and measures for each and every commandment – what constitutes eating and what are its measurements, what constitutes drinking and what are its standards, what constitutes a fruit and what are its stages of development and distinguishing characteristics, the 39 categories of work on the Sabbath and their measurements, the measurements of a tent that defiles, partitions, units of monetary value, and many more.”

    Mathematics is a God-given gift. The Talmud says, “The laws relating to standards, interpositions and partitions are laws revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai.” (Eruvin 4a, Sukkah 5b)

    One cannot believe in God without math, or understand math without God. The founder of Bar-Ilan University was asked, “What is the difference between your university and others?”

    He answered, “In all of them, two and two make four, but at Bar Ilan, it is because of the will of God!”

    You need English in order to learn and live in Israel or any other country. It is almost impossible to manage anywhere without at least a modicum of English. It is not only that the most widely used language in the world is English (and in Israel, Arabic cannot be discounted or minimised). It is not only that some trades and professions are international and the literature is in English. Internally, throughout the Jewish world, Hebrew is essential, but the structure and development of language in a general sense is part of every nation’s cultural self-awareness.

    I am not saying that English as such is the basis of Hebrew (though many Hebrew words do seem to have an English background). The study of Jewish texts (including Torah) includes etymology and grammar. The Torah sages say the ability to speak is man’s distinguishing mark. Isn’t the massive rabbinic literature largely concerned with linguistic investigation? Don’t the vast array of rabbinic works – including Rashi – delve into an amazing array of languages? The linguistic element of the core curriculum cannot be regarded as dispensable. In its own way it contributes to your Torah knowledge and makes you a better Jew.

    The problem, however, is not whether it is necessary to have a modicum of general culture; the problem is priorities. What is the ultimate aim of the study of general culture? Judaism has no doubts. The aim is Torah.

    The Jewish principle is Torah im derech eretz, Torah knowledge with general culture. “With” denotes using general subjects as the support and handmaids of Torah. What general subjects contribute is the constantly unfolding evidence of the equilibrium, the grandeur and greatness of God’s creation.

    Samson Raphael Hirsch puts into the mouth of God the question, “Have you seen My Switzerland?” Not Switzerland for its own sake, but Switzerland as something that God has made. God’s gifts are not merely Switzerland, or math and English, but art and music too, and many other disciplines.

    Philo says the arts “heal by means of fine music all that is harsh and inharmonious or discordant in the soul, under the influence of rhythm, meter and melody.”

    The Eight Chapters on Ethics written by Maimonides elaborate this theme from a range of angles including nutrition, medicine, engineering and even carpentry. Maimonides quotes the words of King Solomon, “Know God in all your ways” (Proverbs 3:6). By learning general subjects we know more about ourselves and experience more of God.

    True, many students are likely to treat the core curriculum as more important than Bible and religion. Their feeling that they can manage quite well enough without God and Torah is to be deeply deplored. But time can and might move them closer to faith, and when that moment comes, they will look back at the education they gained and find its religious dimension inspiring them to make a Jewish contribution to world society.

    What do I mean by a Jewish contribution to world society? Let me explain by a personal experience.

    Once upon a time I was a law student and gained legal degrees. I even lectured part-time in the law faculty of the University of New South Wales. The more law I learned, the more I appreciated halachah. I made a distinction between mishpat (jurisprudence) and halachah, and emphasised that though mishpat is often divorced from religion, halachah insists that the source of law – and its sanction and authority – is God.

    At the Great Synagogue in Sydney, where I was the chief minister for 32 years, I had the annual privilege of addressing the judiciary and legal profession at a Jewish service marking the opening of the legal year. A distinguished congregant who specialised in forensic science told me how proud he was that I spoke what he called proper law. However, in fact, I used legal idiom to prove how blessed the world was to have the Jewish sense and science of law with its seminal concepts of human equality and social justice.

    A Jew who knows Judaism has something to give the world. The Jew who is a Jewish lawyer will be a better lawyer. The Jew who is a Jewish businessman will be a better businessman. Rav Kook said, “May the time come when those who are great as doctors will be great as Jewish doctors”.

    It is good for Torah if one knows math and English. It is also good for the world.

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