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Reading with Sacred Intention

Moshe Sarna
April 12, 2024

As a Modern Orthodox Jew who cares deeply about interacting with the outside world, the Jewish value in studying literature has been at the forefront of my mind in recent years. Many great contemporary Jewish thinkers have engaged deeply with secular literature, though I’ve never been quite sure why. I’ve heard stories of Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, and even Rav Asher Weiss, a Charedi posek, studying literature in college or displaying their wide breadth of knowledge in these areas. What importance do these Gedolim see in studying literature, and what is the Torah’s stance on it?

Clearly, the 24 books of Tanakh present a diversity of literary styles—historical notes along with poetry. Beautiful metaphors and complex structures can be seen in the late Prophets as a way to effectively convey the word of Hashem. Yes, there are books such as Divrei Hayamim and Melachim, which focus on detailing a story to be preserved, but there are also literary works that are impactful in their own right. For example, Shir Hashirim is a book of love poems symbolizing our relationship with Hashem using incredible imagery and compelling verse.

But the Rabbis’ opinions on literature obviously explore texts beyond Tanakh. In the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin, Rabbi Akiva states that Jews who read non-Jewish books are excluded from the World To Come. This does not only suggest that the study of literature is prohibited but even implies that doing so is tantamount to denying fundamental beliefs of Judaism. However, the Talmud later qualifies Rabbi Akiva’s statement about secular books to include only the books of heretics. Additionally, the Yerushalmi specifies that one who reads books like Homer is similar to one reading a letter—neither good nor bad. Although heretical books are viewed with great severity, the bulk of literature remains permissible to read.

Why might the Rabbis’ have this negative view of literature? It makes perfect sense that heretical materials or books that would lead one astray are prohibited. But the fundamental obligation to study Torah influences their view as well. Yehoshua after he enters Israel is commanded “והגית בו יומם ולילה”—you shall speak in Torah day and night. In Masekhet Kiddushin this pasuk is brought as proof to prohibit a rabbi from learning secular knowledge even though this rabbi had already completed studying the Talmud. This constant obligation clashes with anything that is not seen as a mitzvah or necessary action. It forces one to ask oneself “is what I’m engaging in worth time away from immersing myself in Torah?”

The final roadblock to reading secular texts is a prohibition called Nivul Peh—dirtying one’s mouth. This prohibition applies to any sexually explicit materials and was heavily debated when the Rabbis were deciding whether to include Shir HaShirim in Tanakh. In the end, the book was included, but the debate continued about whether it had the full status of a holy book. Many said, in line with the prohibition against reading or listening to sexually suggestive content, that this book had almost no holiness. In contrast, Rabbi Akiva said this book is the holiest of holies, recognizing the potential of this powerful writing to better one’s service of Hashem. Nonetheless, reading Shir Hashirim for its poetic content rather than recognizing it as an allegory is strictly prohibited by all opinions. This prohibition in no way implies that if a book has a few inappropriate scenes, the whole book cannot be read—Nivul Peh only requires that these explicit portions be skipped.

Having explored the question of studying secular literature, I believe that three main categories of books arise. The first is works that have sexually explicit motifs or heretical statements antithetical to the opinions of our Rabbis—the messages conveyed are not worth the experience of reading these books, and they should have no place in our community. Another level is books that are permitted, and maybe even necessary, to read. For instance, this year in AP English we read many books that are in no way inherently religious but beautifully parallel my senior-year Tanakh studies of Bereshit. Books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden have helped me gain a deeper understanding of the stories learned in Tanakh. Similarly, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein explained that he read literature, like the poetry of Robert Frost, to help him understand interpersonal relationships, which bolstered his ability to interact with his peers.

The last level is the hardest one to decipher: literature that is not explicitly prohibited by our Rabbis but also does not bolster religious beliefs or enable someone to fulfill Torah values. I think many of the books that we read in Yeshiva high schools may fall into this last category. Judaism values time to a high degree, and any non-constructive act, though not explicitly prohibited, should be weighed carefully before embarked upon.

The Modern Orthodox community acknowledges the power of modern culture and attempts to integrate it into traditional practices to improve our ability to be ovdei Hashem. Literature is seen as one of the most important realms of secular culture that needs to be taught, and I think with great reason. Books contain priceless lessons for leading a Torah life that may not be easily accessible in traditional texts. However, in my experience, English classes are not consistently framed in the context of self-improvement or connecting to Hashem. Emphasizing “the Grand Conversation between Torah and the world,” which is part of SAR’s mission statement, I think we sometimes view our secular studies and Jewish studies as two different realms interacting with one another instead of two studies blending together to improve our avodat Hashem. Rav Lichtenstein, who held a doctorate in English literature from Harvard University, spoke of this necessity to direct every action and thought towards Hashem, nullifying our will for His. We all must strive to act with this intention, not only in reading literature but in every aspect of our lives as Modern Orthodox Jews.