Calvin and Hobbes and Judaism

I recently cited Thomas Hobbes in an article that I wrote, and I received criticism for bringing a non-Jewish source in a Torah article. I thought it would be of interest to share my response.

In citing the philosopher Thomas Hobbes I was actually following an ancient practice which recognizes that there is indeed “wisdom amongst the nations” (Midrash Eicha Rabba 2:17) and following the Rambam’s exhortation to “hear the truth from whomever states it.” (Rambam, Introduction to the Shemonah Perakim). As I am sure you are aware, the Rambam, in Moreh Hanevuchim, quotes extensively from secular and Islamic philosophers, sometimes agreeing with them and sometimes disagreeing.  His son, Rav Avraham ben HaRambam, in his work, Hamaspik LeOvdei Hashem, quotes aphorisms and ideas from the Suffi mystics of his time, from physicians and from philosophers. (For references see, The High Ways to Perfection of Abraham Maimonides, Rosenblatt, pp. 48-58)

There is a fascinating saying cited by Rav Tzidkiah Anav in the introduction to his sefer, Shibolei Haleket, that “we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants.”  He quotes the saying from Rav Yishaya DeTrani (Teshuvos HaRid #62) who actually says that he heard it from the “wise men of the gentiles.”  The source for the saying seems to be, no less than, the 12th century Christian philosopher, Bernard of Chartres. (Robert K. Merton, On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript)

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch actually dedicated a speech and day-long seminar on the centenary of the German poet, Johan Freidrich Schiller. He quotes extensively from Schiller in that speech, interspersing his address with divrei Torah and quotes from the works of Schiller. There Rav Hirsch writes, “when we encounter the spirit of wisdom in a mortal human being. In such cases, our Sages do not inquire about the person’s origin, race, creed or color…” (Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Vol. IX, pp. 137-152)

I often heard my own Rebbe, Rav Moshe Shapiro, Ztzl, quote from philosophers and poets during his shiurim — including Thomas Hobbes and Immanuel Kant.  In Yeshivas Mishkan Hatorah, a student once came to him for advice and when he came out of the office, walked over to me with a confused expression on his face and said, “Rav Moshe told me to read ‘If’ – and I have no idea what he was talking about.”  I informed him that Rav Moshe was telling him to read the beautiful poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled “If.”

I think any criticism is part of a broader issue; the lack of appreciation for the “human experience.”  Music, art, literature, sport, humor and travel have intrinsic value and can be sources of wisdom even for a Jew immersed in Torah.

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