Accept the truth no matter what its source
After devoting three chapters in the book of Numbers with ninety-six verses to the story of the non-Israelite prophet Balaam, Scripture adds another two verses In Deuteronomy 23:5–6 to remind us that God refused to listen to Balaam and turned his planned curses into blessings.
1. Why did the Bible allocate so many verses to the non-Israelite?
2. Should we pay attention to non-Jewish views?
In his Introduction to his Shemoneh Perakim, Maimonides states that he will be explaining the Mishnah Pirke Avot with ideas derived from ancient Jewish sages, Midrashim, the Talmuds and many other sources, including the works of non-Jewish philosophers of early and later generations, and many other texts. He warns his readers not to dismiss the ideas of non-Jews simply because they were written by non-Jews. We must “accept the truth no matter what its source.” He repeats the same concept in his introduction to his Guide of the Perplexed where he states he will present the views of the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle, views he accepts as true. He repeats this again when he discusses the science of astronomy in his code of Jewish laws, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Kiddush Hachodesh 17:24. He acknowledges there that he derived his understanding of “the wisdom of astronomy and geometry” from books written by the ancient Greeks. “But since all of these ideas are subject to clear proofs, leaving no room for doubt, one should not concern himself about the author’s identity, whether the idea was composed by a prophet or a non-Jew. When anything is rational and obviously true, pay no attention to the individual who made the statement or taught the idea, but to the proofs and reasons that he presented.”
The attitude of Nehama Leibowitz
Maimonides was not the only scholar who accepted the truth when the source was not Jewish. There were many. The Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School Journal of 2005 relates the famed twentieth century scholar Nehama Leibowitz’s response to those who criticized her for including non-Jewish views in her Torah commentaries. She wrote: “It is true that I cite the words of people who are not observant of the mitzvot, if their words seem correct to me, and can reveal the light of Torah and display its greatness and holiness to the student. [I work] according to [Maimonides’] principle: ‘Accept the truth from wherever it comes.’” She cites the “extreme reformer” and “anti-Zionist” Benno Jacob as an example. She learned “from his books… more than from many books written by bona-fide God-fearing Jews…. Several times, I showed talmidei hakhamim [Talmud scholars] details from Benno Jacob’s important book Auge um Auge and they thanked me and rejoiced as if discovering a great treasure. Should I hide the name of the author? This I cannot do.”
She states that “even Abarbanel [the fifteenth century sage who was driven from Spain with other Jews in 1492 because they would not convert to the Catholic faith] in select places quotes the words of a Catholic bishop, and accepts his opinion over the opinions of [the traditional rabbis] Radak and Ralbag.”
The judgment of Baruch Epstein
Another twentieth century scholar, the famous author of the book Torah Tememah, Rabbi Baruch Epstein, asked in his book Baruch Sheamar. Why do Jews begin their morning services every day with ma tovu, words that extol Jews, but whose source is the non-Jewish prophet Balaam, a man who tried to curse and destroy Judaism? Isn’t it inappropriate to include his words as a prayer, in the synagogue, as an introduction to the service of God? He answered simply and truthfully, the truth is the truth no matter what its source!
It is remarkable how people ignore this sage advice and how they choose to be ignorant rather than accept the truth from non-Jews. Many go so far as to reject a secular education because it is primarily the views of non-Jews.
I would like to share some personal reminiscences. I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. In the first half of the twentieth century, all the rabbis of the larger congregations, and there were quite a few, had Ph.Ds. My dad, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Drazin, received his MA in psychology from Columbia University and his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. His thesis, on the History of Jewish Education, was published in Hebrew and in English. Being interested in study, dad acquired not only a regular ordination from Yeshiva University, but also a semicha yadin yadin, that authorized him to act as a judge.
After serving a synagogue for 31 years, he was the president of a Baltimore Jewish day school and ended his life serving for seven years as the Director of the Institute of Judaism and Medicine in Jerusalem, making contributions to Jewish medical ethics. He used his understanding of psychology to develop the idea, later called the Baltimore plan, of making appeals for State of Israel Bonds during the High Holiday services, thereby gaining millions of dollars for Israel. He also used this skill to write a book called Marriage Made in Heaven, on the problems of sex and marriage, a book published in Hebrew and in English, which saved the marriages of many observant Jews who knew very little about sex. He also wrote much on Torah. And yet when he died in 1976, rabbis suggested that his family should not include his secular title Doctor on his gravestone because it was unsuitable to mention a secular degree. We demurred.
Sometime later, I was serving on a board that was looking for a rabbi at a Baltimore synagogue. The choice came down to two candidates. Both had rabbinical ordination. One had an MA from Yeshiva University and the other only had a high school education. Against my view, the congregation chose the man with the high school education because they felt that the secular education of his competitor reduced his piety. The congregation later suffered because of its decision for the rabbi lacked the education, background, and skills to handle a large growing congregation.
One last story. This is about a rabbi who rejected a secular education and non-Jewish ideas simply because of their source. He was a Jewish high school teacher who refused to educate himself beyond high school, a man who was responsible for the thinking of many young people. He told me that there was no need to study anything other than Jewish sources because the Talmud contains everything that one needs to know. When I pointed out that the talmudic formula for pi, the circumference of a circle, was imprecise, he responded that the Talmud is correct and science is wrong. When I told him about Maimonides’ statement, he arrogantly dismissed Maimonides as mistaken.
The Torah devoted 98 verses to the non-Israelite prophet Balaam, the man who tried to curse the Israelites. The Torah does so to teach that the truth is the truth no matter its source.
 This is a version of a chapter from my book “A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary” published by Urim Publications.