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Reading Secular Books


Rabbi David Sperling

Elul 6, 5773
Hi, I aksed you the question about listening to secular songs and I want to go a step further and ask about secular books and more so that my friend (who wanted me to listen to the beatles, I would never want to) said that there are very genious things in works that are in the genre of "Nonsense" ( and they cause a great deal of healthy thinking and then said I should read a book called "alice in Wonderland" and I am asking about reading secular books, and when I said no he said I’m too scared and should be opened to other things and not only torah books and songs, is he right? Or wrong? Or maybe both? Thanks you so much for your time!
Shalom, Just as with music, reading is also an important part of our lives and it is worth examining and thinking about the books we read. The discussion you mention with your friend closely mirrors two different points of view within the Torah world – those who are opposed to secular knowledge and literature, and those who are in favor (of course there are many positions in the middle that are also held by many Jews). Both Rav Soloveitchik zt"l and Rav Kook zt"l were in favor of literature that is not only pure Torah. (In fact Rav Soloveitichik's son-in-law, Rav Lichtenstein shlitah, who is a major Torah scholar in his own right, is also a top level expert in English literature, having a doctorate in it from Harvard University). On the other hand many rabbis hold the view that one should restrict themselves to pure Torah study, either because of the sin of neglecting Torah study, or because of the foreign ideas expressed in these books. However, even those who do permit (or encourage) reading secular literature, there are certainly differences between types of books, and types of reading. Certain books are written to inflame one's sexual desire, or to promote ideas forbidden by the Torah. These are certainly forbidden. Even with permitted books, one should not fool oneself into thinking that reading such books is a great and lofty pursuit. As I wrote to you about music – every person should know their level and use their time and energies accordingly. If someone can read Alice in Wonderland to gain insights into Hashem's world, then that is great. And there is certainly a genre of literature that deals with the loftiest subjects of the world, and can be counted amongst the wisdoms of nations (as Rav Lichtenstein wrote to me in a personal correspondence). According to those rabbis who encourage such reading, one can gain immensely from such books. But for most of us much of our reading is "parve" use of our time (neither positively good, but certainly not negatively bad). Is one allowed to freely use their time in such a way? While all would agree that it is not an ideal (unless needed as a therapeutic measure in order to serve Hashem better later) – there are many opinions in Judaism that allow such activities. Here one needs an honest appraisal of their spiritual standing. As I wrote to you before - "As one ascends towards a more holy life, one will find oneself wanting to immerse their whole being in G-dly pursuits. This will certainly influence what books they read, music they listen to, and places they frequent. I doubt that the music of the Beatles, even the ones with totally "kosher" content, such as "Yellow Submarine" [or the book "Alice in Wonderland"], would be considered good spiritual food for a tzaddik. On the other hand, one must remember that spiritual growth must be undertaken step by step, and for many people listening to "Yellow Submarine" [and reading "Alice in Wonderland"] is a step in the right direction - especially if it is in place of listening to vulgar songs, or even if it just lets them relax and "be normal"." So, in summary, we can say that there is a fundamental argument as to the value of serious reading of secular literature. Beyond that argument, one also needs to examine the permissibility of the book to ascertain that it does not contain anything forbidden. Then one needs to judge the worth of reading it. That worth will differ from person to person – and even if it has no positive worth (as long as it has no negative effect on you) it may be read. This type of reading should change as a person grows in their spiritual journey. You may want to see another answer on our site that relates to a very similar question – Blessings.
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