Of Wisdom… Secular and Sacred

Chanukah celebrates more than a miraculous victory; it celebrates the triumph of the miraculous over the natural, and the sacred over the mundane and desecrated. We identify this triumph of the miraculous with establishing the preeminence of Torah vis a vis generic wisdom. (Mosarta…zaidim b’yad oskei torahsecha =[and] you delivered… the malicious into the hands of those who busy themselves wit the study of your Torah).

Since at least the pre-Chanukah period of Hellenization of large swaths of the Jewish population, Jews have grappled with the confluence, congruence and conflict of Torah and generic Chochma. In contemporary Judaism this tension is most evident in various debates over the relative quality, quantity and goals of Torah and secular education, in particular higher education. Ba’alei T’shuva, whose own educations typically inverted both the sequence and initial primacy of these two competing/contradictory/complementary branches of learning are generally more conflicted and bring unique questions and perspectives to bear on these nettlesome issues.

Apropos to the Chanukah spirit I’ve translated a brief but profound insight on the topic from one of the seminal Torah thinkers of the previous generation. Due to my great respect for the author O.B.M. and my fear over distorting his message I have refrained from adapting the piece and have attempted what I hope is a faithful, hence quite literal, translation. In so doing the lyricism and beautiful poetic meter of the original has been done great injury and some meaning may have been lost or distorted as well. If it has I hope to clarify the meaning to the best of my understanding and ability in the comment thread.

HaShem’s will is expressed in two units. One unit was expressed by the works of creation in a cosmos that was created through ten ma’amoros* and another unit was expressed at the foot of Mt. Sinai through Torah that was given through ten dibros*. Both are revelations of His will. Yet there is an underlying difference in the way that the Divine will revealed in each of these units is actualized. The way that the Divine will expressed through the works of creation is actualized is coercive. Whereas the way that the Divine will expressed through the Torah is actualized is through the exercise of human free-will. “Let there be light” is a ma’amar that is realized by way of an imperative, compelling law of nature. “Though shalt not prostrate thyself” is a dibra that is realized by way of the free-will of choice.

The wisdom of nature/the natural sciences is indeed the wisdom (of analyzing) the laws of G-ds will that were revealed to us through the ten ma’amoros. But since this wisdom is merely the wisdom of the will of G-d that was revealed to us by a “coercive” presentation it is, as a unit of wisdom, external and peripheral to Torah Wisdom that is the wisdom of the will of G-d that was revealed to us by a “non-compulsory” presentation. This distinction lends us insight into the idiom of the sages who referred to all disciplines other than Torah as “outer” wisdom. This is because the 10 dibros comprise the inner content of the 10 ma’amoros. “If not for my covenant day and night (the Torah) I would never have established the laws of heaven and earth (nature)”. That is to say, G-d never revealed Himself in the “coercive” presentation except to create a setting upon which he could reveal Himself in the “non-compulsory” presentation.

* Ma’amar and dibra/dibur in the singular. Both words mean “saying” or verbal expression. The nuanced difference of meaning in terms of the quality of the communication being expressed by either ma’amoros or dibros is the main topic of this passage.

This paragraph appears in Pachad Yitzchok –Chanukah M’a’amar 4. Anyone capable of studying it auto-didactically or with a mentor in the original is strongly urged to do so as it is best understood in the context of the entire essay and because (not that it needs my approbation) it is a philosophical masterpiece.

Originally Published Dec 21, 2006

13 comments on “Of Wisdom… Secular and Sacred

  1. Ron – “the fair” is being way too liberal & fairy tale oriented. I would think that its more like an amusement park where way too many rides are shut down for maintainance and malfunction issues after you’ve been waiting on the lines for an hour or two. And if you have a seasons pass to Çedar Point and you find yourself stuck in Six Flags you might not be getting too much fun or whatever other than scenic views. Let’s not forget the fluffy cotton candy that seems to be the only nourishment readily Available for a small fee. If you don’t have the correct seasons pass or the sense to move on to the correct amusment parks that’s where it gets tricky. Happy cotton candy imbibing and roller coaster riding. When life gives you way too many ups and downs just join an amusement park and make rollercoaster rides out of highs and lows. Its way more fun that way trust mé. I highly recommend top thrill dragster at Çedar Point and Kingda Ka and Medusa at Six Flags.

  2. Jaded, we all come to the fair with a pekl, but the opportunity and the responsibility remains with us as to how we will use it.

    Besides, some of the folks with the most oddly wired circuitry are the most talented and have the opportunity to be close to Hashem in ways the straight-down-the-middle, off-the-shelf-circuit types could never dream of. It won’t do to just point to your noggin and blame it for every mental, spiritual and ethical burp.

    I know — I try it all the time.

  3. Bob Miller thanks for the linkings (that’s lower case g )

    Çhaim G probally hashgacha pratis this way I get a grammar lesson and a mussar musing.

  4. Jaded-

    Your comment ended in a period rather than a question mark. Was that willfull or predestined?

  5. JT wrote ” the fact that everything is predestined in the neuronal circuitry systems of the individul end user…”

    As Jews we don’t accept this as a fact. We don’t reduce people to purely physical machines. If we were high grade industrial robots, no mitzvot and related rewards and punishments could apply to us.

    Also see:




  6. Rabbi Schwartz, quite the intoxicating lesson in in-depth communication and your presentation gives new depth and meaning to the concept of multifaceted posting with good wording.
    Quick sidetrack thought on “the divine will expressed through the torah is actualized through free will” the fact that everything is predestined in the neuronal circuitry systems of the individul end user this stuff messes with the free will thing.We can pretend we our fixing fonts /changing to more exciting colors,but if boring font times new roman and color teal is predestined,any effort changing and creating new color mixes wont matter mostly.We can decorate our lives with endless strands of colorful christmas lights /acts of altruism and mussar musings until we dont know the difference between “Alei Shure” and “The Mind and the Brain”.If my destiny code has undiscipined energy and no shot glass collection owning incorporated in intial html code , then I could incorporate the heaviest of mussar works into my daily brain workout regimen, but this will not mess with pre-programmed jaded is undisciplined . I could build the heaviest of wooden shelves, but my shot glass collection will still shatter in unison if its pre-destined in the coding that I will experience a shot-glass collection shattering.
    How could G-d give us rules and expect us to listen, if sinning is sometimes pre-programmed already and no amount of discipline will fix that .

  7. Excellent piece Rabbi. For some reason I was completely fixated on this one verse (Mosarta…zaidim b’yad oskei torahsecha) in the davening this morning.

    There are so many attributes of praise recited in each day’s davening that some may seem at times (forgive me) superfluous or redundant. We KNOW they’re not, but at 6:30am, doing the BT “lag, skip, catch-up” thing, it’s usually easier to just read and move on than delve on any one’s particular meaning.

    Thank you for this beautiful, and indeed relevant essay which is as illuminating as any 9-cupped candelabra. Now I know why I kept getting stuck (the peel) on this verse – because YOU were going to expound on it (the flesh) here today!

  8. As far as coercive vs. free will: A superficial view of reality will apprehend a tyranical hand directing things. But a more penetrating and probing vision will discern a King who (kavayochol) exercises His will through the consent and cooperation of, and collaboration with, those governed.

  9. Call it a “hidden agenda”. The Cosmos is “there” it is overt for all to see study and scrutinize. That the Torah is a revelation of G-d’s will is not overt, yet it IS the purpose of the revelation we call the Cosmos or nature as well.

    An orange must have a peel. Even though one can make marmalade out of the peel the actual flesh of the orange which is it’s raison d’etre is not that component of the orange that meets the eye. The Pachad Yitzcok is IMO identifying primary purposes with the internal and secondary purposes with the external.

  10. Rabbi Schwartz-

    Thank you for this fascinating piece.

    I understand the idea of the two units, but I’m baffled by the correlations: coercive equals external and peripheral; non-coercive equals internal.

    Can you clarify?

  11. This is why science without Judaism as the core belief system can lead one to a bleak, mechanistic model of the universe in which human free will is impossible, and no praise or blame for human actions can rationally exist. Such a model lies at the root of modern society’s decadence and despair.

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