The phrase Torah u-madda (literally, “Torah and science”) refers to the attempt to bring together fruitfully secular study and traditional Jewish learning. In America, the slogan is largely associated with the intellectual ambitions of Modern Orthodoxy of the kind nurtured at Yeshiva University. Elana Stein Hain, in the first essay of a symposium on the subject, examines the case for Torah u-madda set forth by one of its most prominent exponents: Rabbi Norman Lamm, the late former president and chancellor of that institution.
Rabbi Lamm wanted Orthodox Jews to be curious and confident—that is, curious about all forms of knowledge, but confident in their commitment to Torah. But his arguments are primarily directed over his right shoulder, towards those who are quite confident in Torah but are not curious about madda: those who see “Torah only” as the way to live a truly religious life. For people who are confident but lacking in curiosity, Rabbi Lamm’s arguments still stand 30 years later.
However, today there are also many in Orthodoxy who are not just curious but who value madda deeply. And even those who do not value it deeply are nevertheless exposed to it all the time whether through books, the Internet, or the arts. Moreover, many yeshiva-day-school students pursue degrees—both undergraduate and graduate—at secular universities, where they enjoy a sophisticated madda education. What is more concerning for this subset is confidence: ensuring that Torah does not lose its vitality.
The [question] for this group is not whether madda is valuable; it is whether and how madda should influence our understanding of Torah.
Since time immemorial, people have asked themselves the most basic questions about what it means to be human, our place in the universe, what it means to have a relationship with God, what a good life looks like, how to construct a good society, and how we ought to respond to injustice. . . . I believe that bringing some of the framing questions of madda into the beit midrash [house of study] provides a fruitful way to relate madda and Torah: doing so can help us access the implicit ways that Torah addresses these questions.