Does religious life benefit from studying the secular liberal arts? In this 2012 essay, Yeshiva University professor Shalom Carmy argues that literature, history, and philosophy enrich an education grounded in the halachic tradition. The study of humanities sheds light on the human condition, making us more aware of the divine presence and the man’s place in the order of creation. Especially for students raised in the larger ethos of modern liberal democracy, a halachic education complemented by the humanities can equip students to live in a counterculture that is uniquely able to balance freedom and tradition.
Imagine an Orthodox discourse firmly anchored in the real dogmatic and experiential fundamentals of our theological orientation: the uniqueness of the individual, the intimate relationship of the individual to God, who addresses us with Torah and mitsvot, who knows us in our particularity and accompanies us in our quest to dedicate our lives in obedience, faithfulness and creativity. Such a discourse would not be oblivious to scientific research but would never lose sight of divine providence, the dignity of the individual, the absolute authority of the divine command. Such a discourse would know obedience and struggle and infinite loneliness; it would also know creativity and joy and infinite companionship. Would it not be more conducive to human dignity and yirat Shamayim than a discourse ruled by surveys, sentimentality and the latest theories, dressed up as eternal scientific truths?
Is the idea of building one’s life on these realities a mere wish fulfillment, a heroic romance, good for sermons but unconnected to the weary days and endless nights of our lives? Not if we translate the ideal into the particularities of individual existence. Here the liberal arts, despite their avowedly partial and particular angles of approach, the subjective orientation that facilitates their imaginative scope, and despite their apparent inefficiency, negotiate the prosaic world of modern civilization more helpfully and more realistically than an exclusive reliance on the general results and shifting theories of the sciences.