Learning continued at a steady, strong pace this week as the first- and second-year students got deeper into the principles of Shabbat, and specifically melakha she'eino tzrikha li'gufo. Third- and fourth-year students finished covering siman 98 in Yoreh Deah, which lays the foundations of bitul and the requirement of sixty. This siman also addressed general psak issues such as the parameters of safek d'rabanan likula, for a rabbinic doubt we are lenient - what types of things are considered rabbinic (is it only when the locus of the safek, the doubt, is in the rabbinic law, or even when the locus is in the Biblical law, but the outcome has only rabbinic implications?) and what types of things are considered to be a safek (does it apply if other people could, or should be able to, know the relevant information?). They then turned to the topic of not intentionally nullifying prohibited foods, which is covered in the next siman, 99, and which has tremendous practical ramifications for industrial kashrut. We will be looking at many practical teshuvot in this area next week.
In their Modern Orthodoxy class, Beit Midrash and first year students addressed the age-old issue of the value of and the dangers inherent in an intellectual engagement with the broader world - Torah u'madda, for short. Looking at a range of Rambam's writings, from the Mishneh Torah and the Guide, students saw how Rambam considers certain intellectual fields (physics, metaphysics, theology and philosophy) to be a way to fulfill the mitzvot of knowing, loving, and having awe for God, and that the study of them actually constitutes a part of Talmud Torah. Rambam, however, also recognizes that to study metaphysics and theology when a person is not ready to deal with the challenges that they present to a traditional Torah perspective is dangerous and should be avoided. And yet, he also states in his introduction to the Guide, that to "protect" Torah from these questions is to do damage to one's religion, i.e., that a true religion should be able to handle such questions. How one is to balance these competing values and dangers is a true challenge. Today, most areas of secular study do not present such a threat to Jewish belief and commitment. But there are some fields - Biblical criticism readily comes to mind - that can be very undermining of someone's religious beliefs. This is not to say that there are not answers and people who have the intellectual maturity and depth of commitment not only will not be harmed by it, but can gain from such study. However, is it responsible to assume that it is appropriate for everyone to study such fields, or to study them without guidance and support? The issue of accepting some limits on our intellectual pursuits - as we do on our drives for sex, food, money and power -is one that we need to consider seriously, and one that we discussed quite heatedly in this week's Modern Orthodoxy class.