Is Torah the Only Wisdom?
How dare we call other wisdom "superficial" when the Torah seems parochial?
“…In the sixth century of the sixth millennium1, the gates of wisdom will open above and also the wellsprings of wisdom below, and prepare the world to enter the seventh millennium.”
And these are the exceptions, the people who have no share in the World-to-Come…Rabbi Akiva says: Also included in the exceptions are one who reads external literature…
The Torah contrasts itself to other forms of wisdom in ways that frustrate pluralists. Though there is disagreement among the Talmudic authorities about the precise meaning of Rabbi Akiva’s term “external literature” (sforim chitzonim)2, the Law applies it to gentile philosophy, whose study it forbids in strong terms.3 Torah scholars are famously given a particular non-time of day for secular studies:
Ben Dama, son of Rabbi Yishmael’s sister, asked Rabbi Yishmael: In the case of one such as I, who has learned the entire Torah, what is the halakha with regard to studying Greek wisdom? Rabbi Yishmael recited this verse about him: “This Torah scroll shall not depart from your mouth, and you shall contemplate in it day and night.” Go and search for an hour that is neither part of the day nor part of the night, and learn Greek wisdom in it.
In his letters,4 the Lubavitcher Rebbe delineates five ways (plus one for unusual individuals) in which the wisdom of the gentiles may be studied, from the greatest to the least:
The derivation of “secular” knowledge through the Torah, since the Torah is the blueprint of the creation,5 like how Yehoshua ben Chananya extrapolated a snake’s gestation period from a verse.6 All such wisdom is literally a part of the Torah, as much as the first of the Ten Commandments.
The study of gentile wisdom as commanded directly by the Torah. Even though this wisdom is not derived from the Torah itself, it is studied at the Torah’s behest. For example, the Sanhedrin studied the interpolation of the calendar and the details of idolatrous and occult practices, to fulfill their Torah obligations.
The study of gentile wisdom in places where Torah study is forbidden, such as the lavatory, in the case where one cannot avoid serious thought. This, too is commanded directly but in a different way.
When one is prevented by one’s ignorance of gentile knowledge from moving further in Torah or fulfilling a commandment, and one then makes up one’s lack. This wisdom is not Torah, and its study is not commanded. Still, it is a prerequisite or preparation for Torah and the commandments. And it may be that the Sanhedrin’s study of the occult, etc. fell in this category.
To grow in wisdom for the sake of earning a livelihood, as much as is necessary and no more, or to make from the wisdom itself a “spade to dig with,” in which case the study of gentile wisdom is preparation for permitted pursuits.
If one is like the Rambam or Ramban, in that one certainly will find a use for any given gentile idea in the service of G-d or His Torah, one may study those ideas before one has any other use for them.7
Consider the first and the highest way the Rebbe describes. Under this method, it is possible to learn “non-Jewish wisdom” through the Torah because the Torah is the blueprint of creation. It would seem that in this case, the non-Jewish wisdom is not non-Jewish wisdom at all but has been miscategorized; what can be known from “external wisdom” in one case can be known through Torah wisdom in another. It is at this point of overlap that we find the following Midrash most puzzling:
If they tell you there is wisdom among the gentile nations, believe them...If they tell you there is Torah among the gentile nations, do not believe them.
If the Torah and “non-Jewish wisdom” can overlap, why are we to doubt Torah among the nations? The snake’s gestation period may have come to the sage from a verse, but it could just as easily come to a scientist from observation. If the gestation period is truly Torah, then it exists among the nations!
By this reading, the Midrash from Eicha Rabba says that Torah is simply another form of wisdom, but one the nations never technically received. Yehoshua ben Chananya was blessed to receive this idea in the form of Torah. In contrast, the scientist had to discover it for themselves. Per this reading, the difference lies not in the wisdom but merely in how wisdom is acquired.
It is unclear how, when they share literally the same ideas, gentile wisdom could be called “external” while Torah could be “inner.” Yet, there may be a different reading of the Midrash, in which the Torah is not a form of wisdom like any other at all.
We have so far been considered the line between inner and outer to run between subjects or creations. Or, in other words, since the gestation period of a certain snake is one creation and one notion, Torah and external wisdom could only possibly think of it identically. Thinking spatially, the metaphor involves Torah "in its place" and the world accruing or growing forth into some new space. Torah is the chicken, and the world is the egg. Not only does it seem petty to argue over which came first when you have their DNA under a microscope, but they share exactly the same DNA. The student of Torah had the advantage merely of seeing that core truth instantiated sooner.
Once Torah is just another wisdom that happens to be located prior, once its status as “inner” is a mere technicality, certain simple questions arise. Simple questions are often the strongest and continue to niggle even under emphatic, complex answers.
Is the Torah really special compared to other forms of wisdom? Does our experience of it reflect the sort of categorical differences the Torah expresses about itself? Isn’t the wisest person the pluralist? Isn’t the best nest built by the proverbial magpie from the shiniest objects it can wrest from their previous context? Isn’t it the dull bird who insists on using only twigs? Don’t a lot of other people believe their religious wisdom is special? Isn’t Torah, well, parochial?
The challenge of parochialism is a powerful intellectual tool that should not be rejected out of hand. Only G-d can even theoretically create “something from nothing.” Only He can actualize a non-potential, can cause without being the cause. In our mundane reality, causes/explanations and their effects are closely related; in some sense, they have to “touch.” So if you come to me and say, “Everything is explained by X,” that X is going to have to be very impressive.
If I say, “Everything is explained by G-d,” perhaps it’s because I define G-d as that existence which all other beings rely upon to exist. If I say, “Everything is explained by the flat earth” or “the Illuminati,” the statement is either going to be trivially true (“flat earth” is defined away until something like G-d remains, in an instance of assigning a known form to the unknown) or a gross exaggeration. These things are definitionally parochial; they are not baseline realities but grew up in small causal backwaters, on a single planet, or in a single species, etc. They cannot “get underneath” the vast number of things they are called upon to explain, and we should be skeptical.
The Torah talks about the gestation period of the same snake as any snake owner might discover. There are other things about the snake the Torah might not mention, such as the shade of its scales, that a snake scientist might document.8 The snake is the object under discussion. How can Torah claim to be “inner” with gentile wisdom about the snake called “outer”? Is the Torah not only superficially about snakes? And when it is about snakes, does it not speak to them only “from the outside” in a way snake science does not? How is the Torah not merely one stream of wisdom that in this context is quite “outside” the correct understanding of the thing? If gentile wisdom is parochial in the sense that it cannot explain Halakha, why wouldn’t the opposite relationship hold?
On the other hand, the more parochial the Torah, the less we should assume it views things the way gentile wisdom does. The most popular gentile wisdom today would say that anything important can be encountered under lab conditions, that G-d might live under the next rock you overturn, that the call is never coming from inside the house because the house is dead stone down to its innermost room…
The Midrash describes the Torah as the blueprint of creation. But blueprints do not exist entirely apart from the buildings they describe once those buildings are constructed. The blueprint does not merely give birth to the building. It is not replaced by the building the way the chicken can be replaced by the egg and the chicken inside it. Even if the blueprints are burned, they constitute the inner form of the building based upon them. They are, after all, what the very form and function of the building were built from.
In other words, there are two fundamentally different ways of knowing the same form of the exact same building. I can study it from the outside once it is built and arrive at a precise understanding of its rooms and their dimensions, or I can study it from the inside before it is built, the spiritual principle on which it was based and from which it was extrapolated, the plan, the blueprint.
For many years I assumed the phrase “external wisdom” meant "wisdom external to Judaism." In truth, it means "wisdom acquired from the outside." The line between inner and outer, between Torah and gentile wisdom, does not run between ideas, separating some ideas into holiness and others into mundanity. The line runs through each idea. Every creation possesses both an inside and an outside. Everything in our reality divides into (1) what it is, from the outside and (2) how it relates to its Source from the inside.
We mistakenly assumed that the gestation period of a snake is one thing. The Torah informs us, only G-d Himself is truly One. The gestation period of a snake is at least two things, an inside and an outside. Every creation, by definition, is a duality: it is created and so is derived from a Creator, but it is created and so exists in the realm defined by relationships with other creations, including inquisitive human minds.
It is thus no insult or denigration to call other wisdom “external” or “superficial.” These terms do not take away anything those sciences would claim. Gentile wisdom, all worldly wisdom, tells us thoroughly and correctly what there is to know about a given reality from the outside. The gestation period of a snake, or, for that matter, the origins of life and the age of the universe, encountered by a mind assessing them from without, will attain profound wisdom of the thing, but never that wisdom which created it from within, the wisdom of the One G-d.
This is not to say that a G-dly perspective on a matter won’t totally transform and recontextualize our understanding. The Torah teaches us that one thing's inner and outer aspects can be further removed from each other than two different things.9 The Torah’s goal is to reveal and help us exemplify the unity of each creation that prevails despite the distance between their inner and outer truths. That’s why the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai was occasioned by the vision of the divine chariot,10 for the prophetic manifestation of G-d’s Wisdom is for all manner of earthly beasts and creatures to reflect their sources in the Divine. And thus the final Mishna says, about the Torah,11
Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta said: The Holy One, blessed be He, found no vessel to hold blessing for Israel, save for peace.
The Torah exists not just to reveal the otherwise missing truth of each thing’s relationship with the Creator but to (thereby) demonstrate the deep unity and peace between the two truths. While the Torah is not a work about snakes and is “parochial” to snake zoology, it is far more immediate to the snake than any wisdom seeking to understand the snake from the outside while maintaining that there is only one snake.12 The Torah’s wisdom reveals each thing's soul and unites it with the body, reconciling the deepest primordial antagonism. It’s all about love and peace, in the end.
Ultimately, if G-d is truly G-d, the first existence upon Whom all creations depend, the wisdom describing his relation with Creations is not parochial at all. In fact, by our new understanding of “inner” and “outer,” the Torah should describe the relationship of gentile wisdom itself to the Creator. That is, the Torah should somewhere tell us what gentile wisdom is not just as we encounter it as embodied human minds, but how He thinks about it.
We find just such a description in the Torah of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (d.1812), the Alter Rebbe. The following pair of short discourses13 has, to my knowledge, never before been published in English. They contain many wonders extending far beyond the scope of today’s discussion. I leave them for the reader to dream and puzzle over, as I have.
Regarding the increase of superficial/external wisdom of the gentiles and the decrease of the sweetness of the Torah among the people of Israel. Since this is a time of exile, the longer Israel is more in exile, the more the inner wisdom of the Torah wanes and the wisdom of the gentiles waxes. This is why in the days of the Tannaim,14 who were wondrous masters of the inner Torah,15 the gentiles’ wisdom was not as great as it is now. And this is enough for the understanding.
More on the Above Topic
Regarding the gentile wisdoms, for they are increased now in matters of war and crafting wondrous thins with great diligence, and they add [now] to their ancient wisdom to the extent that they call their predecessors fools of little wisdom and [consider] the world to be growing wiser, and from this their heresy devolves upon them,16 by saying that wisdom is added to the world as it exists longer.
In truth, however, they are mistaken and walk in darkness. Certainly their words are true regarding their wisdom, that it’s much greater than their predecessors’. But to call their predecessors fools in matters of wisdom is a lie, and the opposite is true—the ancients were greater in wisdom than them, but not in these matters in which hey have now improved and grown wise.
For all their modern wisdom and analysis pertains to the physicality of things, such as victory in war with wonderous works, flaring flame and ships that fly through the air and the like. But in less physical areas their wisdom today has decreased compared to their predecessors.
The wise ancients were primarily occupied with spiritual matters, as is written regarding the Egyptian sorcerers who were the wise ones of Egypt who were in turn the wisest of all the earth, as is known, and their wisdom allowed them to turn staffs into snakes, and the like, as mentioned in Torah, and this even their wisest can’t do today, for it depends on great spiritual wisdom, like Bilaam with magic and whispered spells. So, too, regarding Daniel, is says the king requested his wisdom and found him ten times better, and what wisdom did he seek? Dream interpretation, from their wisdom and not their prophecy.17
It is true, however, that their physical knowledge was not as great as it is today. The reason: All wisdom in klipa18 derives from the fallen sparks of holiness, as the wisde of Kabbalah know. At first these sparks descended into spiritual matters, but as exile continues longer, the wisdom descended into the physical, and they no longer know spiritual matters at all. On the contrary, as exile continues, their spiritual wisdom decreses and descends further into physicality.
Corresponding to the years 5500-5600 on the Jewish calendar, or 1740-1840 on the Gregorian. The “gates of wisdom above” is interpreted by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to refer to a new revelation of the Inner Torah, whereas the “wellsprings of wisdom below” correspond to the external wisdom of the nations.
The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 100b) says the phrase refers either to the heretical works of groups like the Sadducees or to biblical Apocrypha like Ben Sira. The Jerusalem Talmud, by contrast (Sanhedrin 10:1), says Rabbi Akiva is specifically referring to the Apocrypha, which is worse than heresy in some respects.
Per the Rebbe’s letters, this is the innovation of the Alter Rebbe in ch. 8 of Likkutei Amarim, regarding Rambam and Ramban.
Everything about the snake might be theoretically obtainable from the Torah. Still, the fact that we must go through such a process only seems to lend to the question rather than answer it.
This is not so hard to accept if we consider that G-d, the inner cause of each creation, is infinitely removed from every link in every causal chain. In contrast, each link is only finitely removed from any other link. Thus, a grandfather and grandson might be quite different from one another, but the grandfather’s external (biological) nature could be infinitely more removed from his own inner (Divine) nature.
Indeed, some authorities think that the reason the Hebrews made a statue of a golden calf, in particular, was to instantiate the Face of the Ox on the divine chariot. To this day, we read the visions of the chariots in association with the Sinaitic revelation, Isaiah’s vision for the Torah portion of Yisro and Ezekiel’s vision on the holiday of Shavuos. The vision of the Chariot is central to the Kabbalah, itself called the “Inner Torah,” which in our context makes it the Inner of the Inner, that part of the Torah reflecting how the Torah itself is grounded in G-dliness. See Likkutei Sichos, vol. XXXIII, first Sicha of Shavuos.
We immediately see that the Torah as Inner Truth relating each thing to the divine creates new leeways in understanding seeming contradictions between Torah and secular wisdom, without needing to make any concessions in the truth of the Torah’s statements.
The sages of the Mishnaic period, approximately two millennia ago.
The inner Torah refers to the Torah’s esoteric wisdom. See above, footnote 10.
The Alter Rebbe here ostensibly refers to the enlightenment and its new heresies. And more could be said to this point, and many other points, in the discourse.
The interpretation of dreams was considered a form of wisdom rather than a revelation from above.
Wisdom whose existence derives from the concealment and inner exile of G-dliness.