For over a year, I have participated in an “Ask the Rabbi” panel responding to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. here is the latest installment. This column, including the responses of my colleagues, can be read at Jewishpress.com
Should you read the Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed if you aren’t perplexed?
No one should ever read the Guide for the Perplexed. It has to be studied and pondered. It is certainly not light fare even for scholars.
There has always been an underlying tension regarding the study of philosophy. The Torah life is based primarily on deeds. Mitzvot command us to act or refrain from acting and therein we find the essence of our Avodat Hashem. Can a person be a good Jew having never learned the Guide? I would certainly assume so. There are risks involved in studying philosophy, and particularly the fundamentals of Judaism. An error in this area is more grievous than a physical sin as it touches directly on the status of our souls.
Yet, part of living a complete Jewish life is pursuing knowledge of G-d, and the Guide is one of the treasures of Jewish spiritual life. Understanding, to the limits of our capacities, the nature of G-d, proofs of G-d’s existence, creation, prophecy and other areas shapes our minds and thus our souls. Rambam’s discourses, in Part III, on good and evil and the different classes and purposes of mitzvot are invaluable to every Jew. Generally, Jewish philosophy will introduce us to concepts such as love of G-d, reverence for G-d and unity of G-d that every Jew must know.
One need not be perplexed, just curious, about the world, and certainly it is better to study the Guide with a knowledgeable Rebbi. And if you are not even curious? There is much in the Torah that should be learned and practiced to keep you dutifully occupied for several lifetimes.
It is not for everyone but a grounding in Jewish philosophy enriches the life of the thinking Jew.
What level of priority should a frum Jew give to studying sefarim like Kohelet, Shir Hashirim, and Iyov?
The Torah’s “measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea,” you have to study Iyov (11:9) would know that. As Rabbenu Yona commented (Avot (2:15), there are an infinite number of ideas in the Torah, all of which shape our lives and make us better Avdei Hashem, and a limited amount of time to learn. And the priority also has to be learning Torah “only from a place where [our] heart desires” (Avoda Zara 19a). Each person is drawn to a different part of Torah.
That being said, the neglect of the three sefarim abovementioned is harmful because what each one offers is profound and unique. Aware of this, I spent decades teaching Kohelet and Shir Hashirim (on Succot and Pesach, respectively) completely multiple cycles of both, pasuk by pasuk. I didn’t teach Iyov, which lacks a Yom Tov on which it is read (!), but also because Iyov is more challenging, and for many people, the ideas are uncomfortable.
Kohelet though superficially austere, penetrates the depths of the human psyche, exposes the gamut of fantasies that preoccupy people, and guides us, sometimes gently and other times forcefully, to the proper way to live, serve G-d, and find meaning in life. And Shir Hashirim is a beautiful love song that metaphorically describes the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people, all the vicissitudes of our history, the tenacity of our faith and God’s love for us, and our vision of the future.
As Kohelet leaves us more perceptive about our personal lives, Shir Hashirim leaves us uplifted about our national lives. Those who peruse it only casually lose out tremendously. The same is true of Iyov, more difficult to learn, but indispensable in grounding us in the ultimate reality and our purpose in life. Halacha shapes how we act. These sefarim shape how we think, and thus should be high priority.
Is it appropriate to read works of fantasy – say, Harry Potter, for example?
I have never been a big fan of science fiction, fantasy, or anything related to that genre. I used to joke that if I needed fiction I would read the New York Times, until that ceased being a joke. I cannot therefore claim great familiarity with fantasy works, including Harry Potter, although I have heard that some authorities are uncomfortable with depictions of supernatural powers that border on idolatry. As long as the content is morally appropriate and the values underlying the narrative are positive, fanciful descriptions of otherworldly forces and powers do not concern me.
Generally speaking, and despite my personal aversions, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook wrote favorably of literature and its virtues. Each person is limited in his or her capacity to see the world, understand different cultures and even empathize with different life experiences. It was certainly true before the era of television, movies and the internet but it is still true today in the sense that we can live narrow lives and constrict our vision of the lives of others by choosing only those outlets that reinforce our view of the world.
Rav Kook affirmed that literature gave us a window into the lives of other people whose experiences would otherwise be alien and unknown to us. Thus, those who abstain from reading literature forfeit the opportunity to broaden their vistas and gain from learning from others. It would seem that works of fantasy partake of this dimension, even if to an exaggerated degree, and expand the imagination of the reader in a way that, if the content is wholesome, is intellectually enriching.
Another benefit, especially for young people, is that if these books get them to read, that itself will serve them well when they graduate to more serious works and to Torah scholarship.