In the 9/18/98 issue of the Jewish Press, a letter appeared by an anonymous junior at Yale University. The junior, who had been raised as an Orthodox Jew and had received all of his earlier education at yeshivas, claimed that he had been led away from Judaism through his studies of philosophy. He mentioned one professor who “laughed at Judaism and called its customs ridiculous,” while inspiring the student to study philosophy. Because he no longer kept the laws of the Torah, he was regarded as “a much honored student at Yale” yet “a renegade” to his parents. Stephen Rochester, SY ’97, wrote him a letter in response which he requested we print here.
Dear Jew at Yale,
I want to share with you several thoughts that I had after reading your letter, “Do I need help?” (Jewish Press, 9/18/98). I hope that you will consider my words and find them instructive.
Before beginning, I should mention that one motivation for writing you is that I believe I can relate to your situation. I graduated from Yale two years ago with a degree in philosophy and am also a Torah-observant Jew. Our experiences differ in that I became religious at Yale, after growing up in a non-observant home. Thus, it seems we are traveling along the same path, only in opposite directions. As such, I hope I can provide the “understanding and thoughtful” voice that you requested.
Since graduating, I have been learning in yeshiva, and, more specifically to you, comparing the worlds of philosophy and Torah. In a letter of this size, it would be impossible to present all of the differences, so I will limit myself to just one—should you like to discuss these matters further, I will leave my phone number and address with the Yale Free Press and would very much enjoy speaking with you.
I ask you to compare the Phaedo to Parashas Vayechi. In these two texts, we read about the final hours of Socrates and Jacob, respectively the father of philosophy and the father of Israel. Even a cursory glance reveals the profound differences between these two men and the lifestyles they represent. Socrates exhorts his bereaved wife and children to leave him so that he can attend uninterrupted to the more important matters of philosophy with his associates. Socrates is in prison, convicted of corrupting the young, a charge not unwarranted when we recall that many of the tyrants who had seized control of Athens a few years before had been his students.
Most important, we must remember his words. Rather than being distressed, Socrates actually looks forward to his hemlock, declaring to his friends that death will finally unshackle him from the chains of corporeal existence. Hence the famous, or infamous, Socratic dictum: Philosophy is but a preparation for death.
We see an extremely different picture in Parashas Vayechi. The very opening words capture this difference: “And Jacob lived.” Moreover, the Akeidas Yitzchok learns that the Torah uses the word “vayechi” instead of “vayagar” to show that Jacob not only survived in Egypt but flourished, living in tranquility and harmony. This explains why Jacob spends his final hours, not in jail as a convicted felon, but as a respected citizen, living in wealth amongst his beloved children. He does not exhaust his remaining powers, intellectual and otherwise, arguing about the necessary and essential opposition of the Forms of Hotness and Coldness, but blessing his children and ensuring that they would develop into the most wondrous nation known to man.
In the end, Jacob chooses life and Socrates chooses death. The reason for this is that Jacob believes in G-D and serves Him with all his being, whereas Socrates manifestly does not. Jacob commits himself to something truly beyond the limited, mortal world, and hence, his life possesses an infinite possibility. Socrates, however, rejects everything that is greater than himself, and so he is increasingly forced to withdraw into smaller and smaller worlds. First, he must leave the city in which he lives, then his family, and finally life itself.
It might seem to you that a G-Dless lifestyle leads to a larger world
because it is free of the many responsibilities with which our Creator
endows us. It might seem that this new freedom affords new experiences
that are not permitted in the Torah. But please remember the lesson of
Socrates. Despite its apparent beauty and greatness, Socrates’s world is
in truth a small, shrinking world. He cannot go anywhere beyond himself,
and for this reason he covets death.
Stephen J. Rochester
Joseph A. P. De Feo
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