The Manufacture of Sulphurous Acid:
On Wisdom as a Catalyst in Torah Study

How does the employment of secular material enhance an educator's ability to teach Torah? Can a teacher do so by simply cramming in this material the night before the class? Is there a defined methodology for doing do? This essay distinguishes between the scientist or academician who attempt to employ a precise method to arrive at definitive factual conclusions, versus the humanist who may lack this clarity but opens up a world of insight and creativity. The latter seeks not knowledge but wisdom. With regard to the search for wisdom, one cannot ignore the personal quality of the endeavor, failure can be as helpful as success, no clear algorithm for the procedure exists' and the insight often comes by serendipity.

Rabbi Carmy utilizes several examples to show how Western thought can enhance the Torah classroom. Understanding the Kantian context helps illuminate R. Dessler's approach to free will; Melville's sermon on Yonah spurs us to think about the nature of repentance; Neziv's reading of migdal Bavel calls to mind modern secular utopianism; an understanding of different theories of property and ownership helps explain aspects of halakhic monetary law we find odd; and the gentile claim that Hashem could vanquish the Egyptians but not the Canaanites makes sense in light of the 1954 World Series. Rabbi Carmy purposely employs one example from popular culture to illustrate that this too can aid in the ongoing search for wisdom.

This article does not offer a "manual" providing all the necessary information for such integration--because none could exist. We are not talking about accumulating information, but of the hard won insight that can only be forged with personal effort in the smithy of one's own consciousness. Such insights emerge out of a lifetime of study and thought, and one cannot just look into the issue on the day before the class. The essay also points out how even the teacher not committed to such integration may be forced to confront such issues as when the students question why yeush, the owner's despair of regaining his or her lost item, allows the finder to keep that item. The true choice may not be between integration and isolation but rather between handling these moments of integration well or poorly. Rabbi Carmy also emphasizes that educators must not allow the outside material to downplay the importance of traditional commentators in the quest for understanding devar Hashem.

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Appeared in: Wisdom From All My Teachers (© ATID, 2003).

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