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Chochma Bagoyim – Using Secular Methodology for Personal Development

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Is it permissible to use "non-Jewish" methods such as Meditation, for self-improvement? Not long ago Rabbi Leib Kelemen[1] wrote to me to say that his Rebbe, Rabbi Wolbe ztz"l, quoted the chazal (Talmudic source): "Chochma bagoyim, ta’amin – Torah bagoyim al ta’amin" (you should accept that the non-Jewish world has brilliant wisdom but not that it has Torah) in this context. Rabbi Wolbe explained, wrote Rabbi Keleman, that the difference between Chochma (wisdom) and Torah is that Chochma refers to scientific and natural knowledge about the universe. Torah refers to the field of values and self-improvement. One is therefore not encouraged to use secular methodology for purposes of self-development, as whatever methods are necessary, are already provided for us in the Torah.

I replied that even the Mussar system based on the thirteen Midot of behavior, first articulated by the Cheshbon Hanefesh[2] and then taught and popularized by Reb Yisrael Salanter[3], was in itself an adaptation from the work of Benjamin Franklin, a devout Christian, documented in his autobiography. Rabbi Kelemen responded with a letter he had previously written to Rabbi Buxbaum of Aish Hatorah in which he writes:

"Regarding Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography being Rabbi Mendel’s source: The pieces don’t seem to fit. Although Franklin completed Part Two of his autobiography (the part containing the list of 13 virtues) in 1784, that part of the autobiography wasn’t published until 1817.

(The French publisher Jacques Buisson obtained and published a pirate edition of some of the autobiography in 1791, but he only possessed Part One, which contains no reference to the 13 traits. J. Parsons and The Lady's Magazine each republished Part One of the autobiography in 1793. It was Benjamin's grandson, Temple Franklin, who finally released the entire document in 1817.)"

It may appear from the above dates that it was purely coincidental that the Cheshbon Hanefesh and Benjamin Franklin conceived of the same text and methodology independently and virtually simultaneously. It would be equally strange if Franklin plagiarized it from Rabbi Levin, a possibility suggested by Rabbi Kelemen! Neither thesis though is born out by the Cheshbon Hanefesh himself. The Cheshbon Hanefesh acknowledges quite openly that he has taken his approach from a "new invention as revolutionary as the discovery of the printing press." While not mentioning Franklin by name[4] he indicates that the idea is not his own. It appears that his comparison of the Franklin method to the printing press is how he deals with "Chochma bagoyim, ta’amin – Torah bagoyim al ta’amin" (you should accept that the non-Jewish world has brilliant wisdom but not that it has Torah): Franklin’s method is not Torah; it has no content; his method is pure process and technique. Just as we use printing-presses discovered, owned and operated by non-Jews to print our Sefarim, so we are permitted to use processes developed by the Gentile world to improve our characters provided those processes do not conflict with our Torah.

What then is the meaning of Torah bagoyim al ta’amin" (do not believe that the non-Jewish world has Torah)? To understand that statement we need to define Torah. Torah is a body of Divine wisdom communicated by Hashem exclusively to the Jewish nation through Moshe at Sinai. The Torah (written plus oral) given at Sinai is perfectly complete. No additional versions have been given or ever will be given. Therefore we do not accept any claim by another nation to have Divine knowledge not included in the Torah. However, Chochma bagoyim, ta’amin – the non-Jewish world definitely has an enormous resource of empirical wisdom collected through generations of research and reflection. We clearly believe in the existence of that wisdom, honor it[5] and access it to enhance our own lives in whatever way we can. Secular wisdom takes the form of insights about human nature that have evolved through disciplines such as literature, science, medicine, and psychology.

Meditation technique is the result of thousands of years of documented research of the sub-conscious carried out in Asia. The Orient has probed the human subconscious for millennia more than has the West. There is no reason why we should not benefit from their Chochma. Like Benjamin Franklin’s methodology, it is process and not content, and therefore it does not conflict with any Torah Value. On the contrary, many Chasidic masters used meditation techniques. See Aryeh Kaplan’s works on Jewish meditation. It is probable that the early pious men of Jerusalem who used to pause for an hour before davening each day, were also engaging in meditation, or what we would call Hitboneinut (reflection) orHitbodeidut (aloneness with oneself) to settle their minds and focus their Kavanah (attention). We could speculate a little wildly and wonder whether Avraham used meditation techniques to discover Hashem, and if so whether he taught that to his children whom he later sent to the East with the gifts which the Zohar tells us "were wisdom". In this case the methodology developed in Asia may even have its sources in our own tradition.

While I am suggesting the legitimacy of using meditation technique from India and Asia, I am in no way associating any such legitimacy for Jews to follow Asian the religious practices and beliefs of others. Many beliefs and religious practices in parts of Asia are forms ofAvodah Zarah (Idol Worship) and are therefore forbidden to us. However, the Cheshbon Hanefesh and later Reb Yisrael Salanter borrowed process from an exponent of Christian thought and values without grafting as much as an atom of alien belief into Torah. There may well now be situations where we can benefit from studying the methods and processes developed in the non-Jewish world that can help us focus our davening, diminish our egos, and serve Hashem with purer hearts[6].



[1] Brilliant author of Permission to Believe.

[2] By Rabbi Mendel Levin first published in 1812.

[3] He republished the Cheshbon Hanefesh in 1845.

[4] I understand that an earlier edition of the Cheshbon Hanefesh does in fact mention franklin by name, but that this was removed in later editions!

[5] Cognizant of the fact that as widely accepted as any scientific theory is in its time, it is often abandoned later in the face of more subsequent research.

[6] It is important to check that these processes are congruent with Torah, and therefore if you are interested, you are encouraged to discuss this with your own Rabbi or Torah mentor before engaging in it

Latest update: October 07, 2014

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