Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Philosophical Question

Many years ago, in the Provencal city of Montpellier, the community was violently split over the issue of their children’s education. One group held that the best thing they could do was to teach their children classical studies like Greek philosophy in addition to Torah. The second group noticed that, in far too many cases, students who began the path of secular studies were drawn further away from Judaism in the long run. This group felt that not only was it inappropriate to teach such potentially dangerous material to children, they felt that it should be forbidden to anyone under the age of twenty-five.

There was a lot of heated debate about the two approaches, but both groups remained intractable. The anti-philosophy group eventually decided to devolve on themselves and their descendants a cherem if any one of them would pursue secular studies prior to the minimum age. The pro-philosophy group tried to circumvent the force of this declaration by declaring the first group in cherem if they were to follow through with their ban. In return, the anti-philosophy faction declared this tactic non-halachic and considering putting their opponents into cherem for their audacity! Fortunately, both groups eventually agreed to place their controversy before the Rashbah, zt”l.

He responded, “This question could be compared to a group that decides to issue a cherem on another group to force them to refrain from eating onions because the food can be detrimental to the heart, as we see in Nedarim 26. Since there is no halachic prohibition against eating onions, such a cherem will certainly not take effect. All the more so in our case, where one group wishes to issue a ban against what they perceive to be a spiritual threat and their opponents wish to obstruct them.

The Rashba concluded, “Do you think that if someone wished to refrain from wine and used the force of a formal ban on himself to assist him in his effort, the community could stop him by issuing a cherem against him? On the contrary, the Torah calls this man holy! All the more so does the cherem of the proponents of secular studies not take effect against a group who feels that they are simply trying to save their spiritual lives. They are merely trying to do what they can to prevent this chochmah that has been responsible for causing so many to fall from spreading in their community!”

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