This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Non-Euclidean Theocracy *

In the campaign leading up to the January 2013 Israeli elections, a pamphlet was circulated in the name of the ḥareidi “United Torah Judaism” (UTJ) party. At the centre of the Hebrew page stood the solitary word “Euclid.” The smaller print below explained: no, this is not the name of some drug, but rather that of a Greek mathematician whom our Jewish children will be compelled to study instead of Mishnah—unless you can avert that dreaded catastrophe by casting your votes en masse for the UTJ party in the coming election.

Euclid FlyerWhen the pamphlet was first brought to my attention I was all but certain that it had to be be a hoax or parody created by political opponents or pranksters. Of all the heathen authors whose names might have been invoked to instill terror in the hearts of the black-coated denizens of Bnai Brak or Me’ah She’arim, Euclid was arguably the worst fit for the role. One cannot fault them perhaps for being unaware of the numerous medieval Hebrew translations of Euclid that exist in manuscripts. But how could they not know that the celebrated Rabbi Elijah the Gaon of Vilna—so revered by the Lithuanian yeshiva culture that makes up a large portion of the UTJ constituency—was an ardent admirer of the ancient geometer, and even commissioned his student Rabbi Baruch Bendit of Shklov to produce a Hebrew translation of Euclid’s Elements—”which elucidates the complete science of measurement, angles, rectangles, triangles, circles, ratios and values” (as it states on the title page of that edition). A separate primer on elementary geometry titled Ayil Meshullash was published under the Gaon’s name, probably based on his private notes.

The Gaon believed that mathematics, like the other sciences, is an indispensable tool for a proper understanding of the Torah. Rabbi Baruch quoted his teacher as asserting that “insofar as a person is deficient in knowledge of secular subjects, he will be deficient one hundredfold in the wisdom of the Torah. For the Torah and secular knowledge are bound together.” Another disciple reported similarly that Rabbi Elijah had made a point of mastering algebra, geometry and music theory, impelled by his conviction that “all the sciences are necessary for our Torah and are included therein.”

Rabbi Baruch added that considerations of national pride should also motivate Jews to learn geometry, since (in keeping with a time-honoured Jewish belief), all the scientific and philosophical wisdom of the nations had originated among the Hebrews but had subsequently been appropriated by our oppressors during the exile. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to deflate their superior attitudes by mastering the disciplines that belong to our authentic heritage.

On December 9 1787 the renowned English philosopher of Utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham was traveling through Eastern Europe, where his brother Samuel, a prominent engineer and industrialist, was serving in the employ of Prince Potemkin and the empress Catherine the Great. Jeremy spent some time with his brother hoping to implement some of the innovative architectural ideas that he was developing in his “Panopticon.” In the course of a journey through the town of Slonim (now in Belarus), Jeremy discovered to his chagrin that he was unable to find a vacancy at any of the town’s respectable inns. He was forced to lodge the night with a Jew, a rabbi who was the proprietor of a hardware store.

Bentham was surprised to note that his host, a modest representative of the local bourgeoisie, possessed two glass-enclosed bookcases that housed between 250 and 300 Hebrew volumes. The rabbi took particular pride in two scientific works in his collection: a book on astronomy to which he had added a diagram of his own, and an edition of Euclid's Elements. As fate would have it, the library that so impressed the British philosopher would be destroyed a few years later in a fire.

It is possible to identify Bentham’s unnamed hardware merchant as Rabbi Samson ben Mordecai who presided over the rabbinical court of Slonim and whose name was signed to one of the letters of approbation accompanying Baruch of Shklov's translation of Euclid. That volume was printed in The Hague in 1780; the other three letters were all by Dutch rabbis. Rabbi Samson's words echoed the themes voiced by the translator, that Jews needed to familiarize themselves with the scientific curriculum in order to refute the accusations by hostile nations that we are a barbaric and ignorant people, in the spirit of the Torah's words "for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say: Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

As it happens, the same Rabbi Samson ben Mordecai of Slonim hosted yet another famous European philosopher—or to be precise, a young man who was beginning his trajectory toward a brief but distinguished philosophical career.

A brilliant young talmudic prodigy named Sh’lomo ben Yehoshua, stifled by the arid rabbinic culture of his native Lithuania, was desperate to broaden his intellectual horizons. Sh’lomo later wrote in his memoirs how he was assisted in his quest by a certain rabbi in “the town of S.” who possessed some proficiency in the German language as well as with the rudiments of science and mathematics, and also owned a useful collection of books in German. The youth trekked on foot to S. where he was able to make his first acquaintance with some old tomes on optics, physics and medicine. Our young scholar later moved to Prussia where he adopted the name “Salomon Maimon” in honour of his intellectual hero, Maimonides.

It is quite certain that the youthful Maimon’s benefactor was the very same Rabbi Samson of Slonim who encouraged the Hebrew translation of Euclid’s Elements, and that this modest initiation into modern scientific studies facilitated Maimon’s eventual acceptance into the philosophical salons of Berlin where he made a name for himself as one of the foremost critics of Kant and as a commentator on Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. Maimon’s life in Germany was full of hardship, and he was never able to rid himself of the stigma of his crude eastern European mannerisms; but even his deriders were deeply impressed by his quick and instinctive grasp of difficult mathematical reasoning.

In light of the great esteem that Euclid and his teachings inspired among such respectable rabbis, it is all the more astonishing that the UTJ should have selected him as their example of a heathen whose reputation ought to frighten pious Jews into casting their votes for their party. Nevertheless, as far as I have been able to discover, the campaign leaflet is an authentic one that was really commissioned by the UTJ. None of this inspires confidence in either the erudition or the integrity of the advertisement’s authors.

Alas, it is almost axiomatic that ignorance and deceit will converge at the intersection of politics and religion.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Chronicles and Commentaries
Chronicles and Commentaries

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, June 7, 2013, p. 9.
  • For further reading:
    • Bartal, Israel. “Jeremy Bentham and Samson of Slonim: Two Book Lovers’ Story.” In Studies in Ashkenazi Culture, Women’s History, and the Languages of the Jews Presented to Chava Turniansky, edited by Israel Bartal, Galit Hasan-Rokem, Ada Rapoport-Albert, Claudia Rosenzweig, Vicky Shifriss, and Erika Timm, 1:207–226. Jerusalem: The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History and Center for Research on Polish Jewry, The Hebrew University, 2013.
    • Christie, Ian R. The Benthams in Russia, 1780-1791. Anglo-Russian Affinities Series. Oxford and Providence: Berg, 1993.
    • Etkes, I. The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image. Translated by Yaacov Jeffrey Green. The S. Mark Taper Foundation Imprint in Jewish Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
    • Fishman, David E., and Yoichi Funabashi. Russia’s First Modern Jews: The Jews of Shklov. New York and London: NYU Press, 1996.
    • Lichtenstein, Kalman, ed. Pinḳas Slonim: Record and Face of a Town, Ruin of the Community, in Memoriam. Tel-Aviv: Irgun ʻOle Slonim be-Yisraʼel, 1961.
    • Shuchat, B. Raphael. “The Debate Over Secular Studies Among the Disciples of the Vilna Gaon.” Torah U-Madda Journal 8 (1998): 283–294.