Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Another View On How Torah Protects

A few years ago, in a post entitled What Is The Mechanism Via Which Torah Protects?, I discussed the concept that Torah protects from harm. This is found in several passages in the Talmud, such as with statements about how Torah scholars protect the army, or in the account of how the sotah can be at least temporarily protected from her punishment by virtue of the Torah that she enables her husband and sons to study. According to the mystical view, Torah study creates spiritual energies and thereby metaphysically influences the universe. The notion of Torah providing protection is interpreted by mystically-inclined people in line with this; learning Torah creates a sort of metaphysical protective force-field, similar to that created by mezuzah around one’s home. As one Beit Shemesh rabbi said when the Grodno yeshivah relocated from Ashdod to Beit Shemesh during Operation Cast Lead, “the yeshivah is providing an ‘Iron Dome’ for Beit Shemesh.”

On the other hand, the pre-mystical classical understanding of this concept was that it related to the personal merit of the person studying (or enabling the study of) the Torah, rather than a metaphysical protection provided by the act of Torah study itself. (See that post for a discussion of the practical ramifications of this with regard to whether yeshivah students today can be said to be providing protection for the State of Israel.) The Talmud’s presentation of this concept is usually not phrased as “Torah study protects” but rather as “Torah scholars are protected.” It refers to the person who has performed the act rather than the act itself. Just as Sodom could have been saved in the merit of righteous people, so too righteous people can create a merit which leads to the machinations of enemy forces being divinely repressed. Likewise, in the discussion of the sotah, it speaks about the zechus, the merit, of Torah and of the sotah enabling her family’s Torah study. Torah study provides protection due to its creating a merit on behalf of the person studying it (assuming that the person is indeed supposed to be studying Torah), which changes the divine plans for that person.

But I recently found another rationalist explanation of the concept of the Torah's protection in the commentary of Meiri (to Sotah 21a). He explains: “Torah protects the world – i.e., that the Torah scholar influences others, and his wisdom enables society to endure.” Meiri is removing all supernatural components from this concept. In his view, the meaning of the statement that Torah protects the world is simply that Torah scholars, with their wisdom, influence society for the better, thereby enabling it to thrive. For many, this will be seen as distasteful and even heretical. Still, this is what Meiri says, and there can be little doubt that Rambam would have explained it the same way. Fascinating!

34 comments:

  1. The Meiri is very against Pshat if he's commenting on a woman who didn't follow the Torah being protected from supernatural death because of the Torah study she enabled. Could you please link the source?

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    1. The whole rationalist interpretation of the Gemara is "against P'shat". Both the proponents and opponents made this clear (although the opponents made it clearer).

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  2. Similarly, Meiri says in Sotah 44a that when the gemara says, "דרוש וקבל שכר" - the reward is the ability to teach and influence others!

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  3. בית הבחירה (מאירי) מסכת סוטה דף כא עמוד א
    אמרו כי נר מצוה ותורה אור תלה הכתוב את התורה באור לומר לך מה אור מאיר לעולם אף תורה מגינה לעולם ר"ל שמשפיע לזולתו ומקיים את הישוב בחכמתו
    this is consistent with a talk iirc from r' a lichtenstein on daat torah
    kt

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  4. Recently I dared to tell a friend of mine that I believe trusting an object to protect you instead of Hshem ONLY ,be it a mezuzah,an amulet,one of those drawings of the tree of Sephiroth mekubalim draw,tombs of dead rabbis/prophets,is mamash idolatry.His response was that I do not know what I am talking about and those practices are 100% kosher!

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    1. & that's why this blog is so necessary. that friend of yours was reflecting the major current (not only ultra) orthodox world-view...

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    2. To be fair to your friend, the only reason you think those things are problematic is because you think they don't work. If trusting an "object" like a lock to protect your house instead of Hashem only is okay, then why not an amulet? I agree with you that amulets are nonsense, but for those who believe in them, they see these things as metaphysical technologies.

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    3. G*3: "for those who believe in them, they see these things as...". Surely that is a description of the problem, rather than an acceptable explanation.

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    4. G'3,you cannot compare a lock physically protecting a house with an idol protecting you spiritually.Personally,I do not see any difference between wearing a Chet or a Hamsa and wearing a cross!

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    5. Anonymous June 22, 2017 at 10:12 PM

      G'3,you cannot compare a lock physically protecting a house with an idol protecting you spiritually.Personally,I do not see any difference between wearing a Chet or a Hamsa and wearing a cross!


      any difference? The difference is what the user thinks the symbol is for, and what he's trying to dignify, Jesus or Judaism.

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    6. Wikipedia, HamsaJune 23, 2017 at 8:40 PM

      The hamsa has become a symbol in everyday Israeli life, and to a degree, a symbol of Israel itself. It has come to be a symbol of secularity, and a trendy talisman (the total opposite of idolatry)

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    7. > ,you cannot compare a lock physically protecting a house with an idol protecting you spiritually.

      Because one is real and one is not. But to those who assume both are real, there is no functional difference.

      The question is, may one rely on something other than Hashem for protection?

      Locks and amulets are both "something."

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  5. Meiri, Provencial 13th century Jewish scholarJune 22, 2017 at 10:04 AM

    Rabbi Slifkin, shame on you!
    You apparently didn''t see my commentary to Maseches Makkos daf yud!
    Here's what I said:
    בית הבחירה למאירי מסכת מכות דף י עמוד א
    חביבין דברי תורה מכל שאר דברים אפי' מהקרבת קרבנות הוא שאמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לדוד טוב לי יום בחצריך מאלף טוב יום אחד שאתה עוסק בתורה לפני מאלף עולות שעתיד שלמה בנך להקריב לפנ וזכותה עומד לאדם יותר על כל שאר מצות דרשו רבותינו עומדות היו רגלינו בשעריך ירושלים מה גרם לנו שעמדו רגלינו במלחמת שערי ירושלים שהיו עוסקים בהם בתורה:

    So I am not "removing all supernatural components from this concept" as you claim.
    I maintain that there are both supernatural and natural components. The supernatural component is localized around the person learning and its benefits are immediate.
    The natural component is global in scope and is much more gradual.

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    1. Wouldn't his commentary to Sotah show that when he talks about the zechut of Torah, it's the wisdom one receives from it, not a metaphysical supernatural protection?

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    2. Where do you see a "localized supernatural component" in those words?

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    3. Meiri, Povencial 13th century Jewish scholarJune 22, 2017 at 6:27 PM

      וזכותה עומד לאדם
      But you have a point. It is not just the person himself since I go on to write that Torah study ensures military victory for Jews in war. But still, Torah study only affects other Jews on a supernatural level--not the whole world. So it is still somewhat localized.

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    4. אביי (גיטין דף ו עמוד ב)June 23, 2017 at 6:33 PM

      "אטו כל דלא ידע הא דר׳ ... לאו
      גברא רבה הוא בשלמא מילתא דתליא בסברא לחיי הא גמרא היא וגמרא לא שמיע ליה"

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    5. Meiri, Povencial 13th century Jewish scholarJune 25, 2017 at 4:14 PM

      Dear Abaye,

      You would have a point if the only problem was Rabbi Slifkin's lack of due diligence to research my complete position.
      But he has committed an egregious gross error in his reasoning as well.
      He argued that because I attributed a purely natural effect to Torah study's impact on the entire world, it is somehow taken as my "removing all supernatural components" from the effect that Torah study might have in any other realm as well.
      This reasoning is quite specious---even if I never would have authored my commentary to Makkos daf yud stating explicitly to the contrary.

      It would be akin to claiming that Rabbi Slifkin's conception of rationalism doesn't allow one to maintain that Torah study earns one a greater share in Olam Habba. Why? Because Rabbi Slifkin once stated the following:

      "According the rationalist approach, learning Torah imparts valuable knowledge, improves our character, and teaches us how to improve society (see my post on The Rishonim on Torah Study.) That is it, and that is all."

      If Rabbi Slifkin would find such an inference from his words objectionable and even slanderous (and I'm sure he would), then surely he should find his inference into my words equally objectionable and slanderous.

      Rabbi Slifkin, I call upon you to preserve your personal integrity and do the honest thing -- amend this post to correct your horrid distortion of my position.
      My position is that Torah study does in fact ensure Jewish victory in war.

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    6. Isn't it rather arrogant to arrogate Meiri's name for yourself?

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    7. The Meiri in Makkos is simply citing the Gemara, not giving his own explanation of it. The only thing that he adds there is וזכותה עומד לאדם, As Aryeh pointed out above, his commentary to Sotah show that when he talks about the zechut of Torah, it's the wisdom one receives from it, not a metaphysical supernatural protection.

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    8. Wow. Kornreich just admitted that he slandered R. Slifkin on his blog! (See http://slifkinchallenge.blogspot.co.il/2015/12/merits-from-masechtos.html) He has no shame, apparently.

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    9. Meiri, Povencial 13th century Jewish scholarJune 26, 2017 at 4:24 PM

      To DT:
      Citing the gemara without any additional interpretation means I accept the plain understanding of it: That Torah study ensures Jewish victory in war.
      The fact that I do not attempt to re-interpret it towards a more rationalist slant means I fully accept that Torah study has supernatural effects on other people (as well as natural effects of its wisdom impacting the wider world).

      Aryeh above makes the same incorrect deduction as Rabbi Slifkin. I'll try to make myself perfectly clear.

      In Sotah I am commenting on the phrase אף תורה מגינה לעולם describing the effect of Torah study on the wider world. True, that effect is not metaphysical.
      But in no way does it preclude the possibility (which I maintain in my commentary to Makkos daf yud) that Torah study can also have metaphysical effects on specific people under specific circumstances--like Jews going to battle.

      To Astounded:
      I checked the website you refer to and I don't see anywhere that Kornreich infers from Rabbi Slifkin's words that Torah study does not earn one a greater share in Olam Habba.
      To the contrary. In the comments, he seems to acknowledge that this indeed would be an invalid inference. He makes a much more modest inference which seems perfectly justified.

      And what's worse, you are conceding my point:
      Once you characterize Kornreich's alleged inference as slander against Rabbi Slifkin, then surely you would characterize Rabbi Slifkin's inference as slander against me!
      You should also be calling upon Rabbi Slifkin to correct this post!

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    10. Meiri guy, you accuse Rabbi Slifkin of misinterpreting the Meiri, but your interpretation is one that is a bit flimsy. Are you going to put so much stock in a reference to the Torah meriting the world, versus Torah meriting the individual, when one could easily say (as was mentioned above) that the Meiri was just constrained by the language of the Talmudic passages. It's not that he quoted something he disagreed with, it's that he used language parallel to the Talmud, and never thought you would take that language to make distinctions in his own belief system.

      It is well-known that the Meiri actively reeinterprets away from mystical approaches. This is probably what drove him to explain how Torah protects in a non-metaphysical way. Why would we want to interpret him in a way that makes him mystical for some things, but not for others, when we have very little evidence for that?

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    11. Meiri, Povencial 13th century Jewish scholarJune 28, 2017 at 2:49 PM

      What exactly do you mean when you say I was "constrained by the language of the Talmudic passages"?
      How is the language of that talmudic passage in Makkos more constraining than the one in Sotah?

      I do not cite every aggadic passage found in the Talmud within my commentary. When I do cite it, without providing a rationalistic interpretation (which I do often), it should imply that I understand it in the straight-forward non-rationalistic manner.

      I don't see any great distinction within my own belief system if I allow Torah study to have some metaphysical element that impacts the physical world.
      After all, isn't the entire phenomenon of "Sotah waters" an example of something physical impacting the physical world through a metaphysical connection? What about tzaraas?

      I think we rabbinic rationalists follow the Rambam in this matter.
      The Rambam in his Iggeres Techiyas Hameisim famously wrote that we should --whenever feasible--strive to give a rationalistic interpretation to wondrous events recorded in Tanach. It is certainly preferable theologically to assume G-d would not act capriciously with the laws of nature that He set up with such deep wisdom.
      But the Rambam goes on to say that there comes a point where such re-interpretation is not feasible. We must believe that nature-miracles are real and that they really took place. The waters of the Nile actually turned into real blood. The staff actually turned into a real snake.
      Those are the Rambam's examples.

      If one is incapable of placing limits on his rationalism and would insist that his "belief system" cannot accommodate any nature-breaking miracle in principle, (meaning ALL events must be explained naturalistically, as Rabbi Dr. Slifkin once wrote: "The only matter that will be totally beyond the realm of science will be the very first moment of creation." (Science of Torah, Page 123) the Rambam says such a person has undermined a foundational belief of the Torah, and by implication, is denying the possibility of a literal resurrection of the dead.

      We see the Rambam had a form of rationalism that does not preclude the existence of real, nature breaking miracles.
      That being the case, I don't see why my form of rationalism MUST deny any metaphysical effect Torah study may have upon the physical world.
      If is was not feasible for me to re-interpret the passage in Makkos metaphorically or naturalistically for whatever reason, then I have no issue understanding it literally.

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    12. Thought I'd Seen It AllJune 28, 2017 at 9:52 PM

      I think that literally speaking in the name of Meiri is the most presumptuous, disrespectful and arrogant thing that I have ever seen.

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    13. Meiri, Povencial 13th century Jewish scholarJune 29, 2017 at 12:11 PM

      Is that all you have to say in response, Rabbi Slifkin?

      Pity, it seems some people in the 21th century just don't have a sense of humor...

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    14. Interesting that you see the zechut referred to by the Meiri as outright miracles occurring for the Torah-learner. And that denying outright miracles in divine providence for individuals is tantamount to denying the possibility for all miracles.

      Both the Rambam and Meiri would disagree with you.

      > That being the case, I don't see why my form of rationalism MUST deny any metaphysical effect Torah study may have upon the physical world.

      You don't think it would affect the world. The chiluk you created is that it might not help the world, but the zechut is "omed" for man, which you interpret as necessarily requiring particular divine providence for anyone studying Torah. Certainly Maimonides thinks personal divine providence is a rare occurence, certainly not for just someone who learns Torah. I don't know Meiri's stance, but I would say it is similar.

      I quoted above that Meiri goes out of his way to interpret the "schar" for learning Torah is the ability to teach others. I should say that he is saying that the zechut of that is "omed" for him in that way.

      It must be so because he does it in so many places as such.

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    15. "Interesting that you see the zechut referred to by the Meiri as outright miracles occurring for the Torah-learner. And that denying outright miracles in divine providence for individuals is tantamount to denying the possibility for all miracles."

      Wrong on both points.
      You completely misunderstood the comparison being made to what you must consider the Rambam's "distinction in his own belief system".

      "You don't think it would affect the world."
      True, but more accurately, he doesn't think it would affect the ENTIRE civilized WORLD. That is clearly what the Meiri is talking about when he uses the term "יישוב". You, like Rabbi Slifkin are making a totally unjustified extrapolation to assume there is no other way Torah study can affect the world metaphysically on a much smaller scale.

      And you haven't addressed the challenges leveled above:
      How is the Meiri "constrained by the language of the Talmudic passages" that prevents him from interpreting them naturalistically? What on Earth does this mean?
      Why can't he simply inject his naturalistic explanation like he does in so many other places?

      And what about the metaphysical effects of the Sotah waters on the Sotah herself, and the merit of Torah learning that metaphysically forestalls these effects on her physical body?
      Are you claiming the Meiri must be denying that all this is true without ever telling us?

      This extrapolation of yours to exclude any other effect Torah study might have is quite flimsy indeed.

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    16. > How is the Meiri "constrained by the language of the Talmudic passages" that prevents him from interpreting them naturalistically? What on Earth does this mean?
      Why can't he simply inject his naturalistic explanation like he does in so many other places?

      The gemara in Sotah says that Torah is "maginah leolam". To explain how Torah study protects the world, Meiri interjects the naturalistic explanation of Torah scholars sharing their wisdom.

      The gemara in Makkot refers to "omdot ragleinu" as referring to Torah. Playing on that language, he says that Torah is better than other mitzvot since its "zechuta omed l'adam" more than other mitzvot.

      Now, you claim that this is metaphysical, but I nor you have any idea what that means, and he clearly doesn't explain. But it's not like he just quoted us the pshat of the gemara. It says nothing about zechut. What he did was add in his own pun to tie together two sugyas about the greatness of Torah learning.

      This means he was constrained by the language of those two passages. He used its language, and did not go far beyond its language.

      > And what about the metaphysical effects of the Sotah waters on the Sotah herself, and the merit of Torah learning that metaphysically forestalls these effects on her physical body?

      Firstly, the Sotah is different. The ailment is spiritual, so the solution (learning Torah) is spiritual as well. This wouldn't bother the rationalist once the concept of Sotah is accepted. Even the Rambam brings it in Sotah 3:20, and most would agree that the Rambam would downplay or deny any miraculous event or protection that comes from doing mitzvot.

      But your assumption that the Torah's zechut is to forestall physical effects on someone's body - does it say this? Remember, the Meiri is a rishon. He is free to interpret, even if you think that the implication is one way or another. The Mishnah and gemara are unclear as to the parameters of that zechut. It could go in either direction, maybe her learning helps her devise ways to naturally stall the ill health effects of the divinely poisonous potion. Or maybe it is a magical or metaphysical protection. The Talmudic position is ambiguous.

      It seems that he sees the "toleh" is not a delay in her dying, but that it motivates her to teach Torah to her husband and children, and they therefore will not speak ill of her. Admittedly, I struggle to see what he's getting at with this line:

      > זכות של תורה הן שעסקה היא בתורה אע"פ שלא נצטוית בכך הן שהשתדלה בלמוד בניה ובעלה. מכאן אמר בן עזאי חייב אדם ר"ל ראוי לו ללמדה תורה שאם תשתה תדע שהזכות תולה לה ותשתדל בכך ולא יוציאו *לעז על מים המרים* שאף בחשודה בעיניהן הרבה יהו דנות שזכות תולה לה

      But there's more about how Torah protects. Meiri writes:

      > ותלה את המצוה בנר לומר לך מה נר אינה מאירה אלא לפי שעה כך מצוה אינה מגינה אלא לפי שעה ר"ל שכל שאין דעתו עליה נשאר ערום אבל מי שזכה לחכמה אינה זזה ממנו

      It seems pretty clear from his writing on protection that he sees wisdom as protecting one from making mistakes. He writes for the need to have actions mixed with correct perceptions, and that not everyone will be able to achieve the two.

      So I'm not sure why you feel forced by the Sotah woman to make distinctions in the Meiri's thought that don't exist.

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    17. I think there is another miscommunication going on here.
      You said:

      "The gemara in Makkot refers to "omdot ragleinu" as referring to Torah. Playing on that language, he says that Torah is better than other mitzvot since its "zechuta omed l'adam" more than other mitzvot.
      Now, you claim that this is metaphysical, but I nor you have any idea what that means, and he clearly doesn't explain."


      You seem to have ignored much of the comments above. I didn't just say the term "זכותו עומד לאדם" indicates a supernatural component to the effects of Torah study in isolation. It was emphasized (about 4 times) that when the Meiri continues in that same section to state that the Torah study of Jews ensures Jewish victory in battle--this is where we see a supernatural component in the Meiri's view.

      It is clear that such an effect of Torah study is indeed supernatural, and he is not constrained whatsoever by the language of the passage. There is nothing ambiguous here. The Meiri assigned a supernatural component to the effects of Torah study.

      You write:
      "The Mishnah and gemara are unclear as to the parameters of that zechut. It could go in either direction, maybe her learning helps her devise ways to naturally stall the ill health effects of the divinely poisonous potion. Or maybe it is a magical or metaphysical protection. The Talmudic position is ambiguous.

      It seems that he sees the "toleh" is not a delay in her dying, but that it motivates her to teach Torah to her husband and children, and they therefore will not speak ill of her."


      I can't believe I'm reading this.
      Either you are joking or you are extremely desperate. The term תולה in this context clearly means forestalls.

      Even the Rambam says the merit of Torah delays the immediacy of the fatal effects of the Sotah waters:
      ג,טו [כ] סוטה שהיה לה זכות תלמוד תורה--אף על פי שאינה מצווה על תלמוד תורה--הרי זו תולה לה, ואינה מתה לשעתה; אלא נימוקת והולכת, וחולאים כבדים באין עליה עד שתמות אחר שנה או שתיים או שלוש, לפי זכותה--והיא מתה בצביית בטן, ובנפילת אברין.

      So you are creating ambiguity in the sugya where none exists, just to prop up this alleged commitment of the Meiri to having only natural effects of Torah study. (Which the even the Rambam doesn't subscribe to and was anyway disproved by the Meiri's comment in Makkos that Torah study ensures Jewish victory in battle.)
      Give it up.

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  6. I'm not sure there is a big difference between Torah study creating spiritual energies that influence the universe and Torah study assisting the personal merit of the person studying (or enabling the study of) the Torah. After all, there has to be mechanism through which the zechus operates, and spiritual "force-fields" or "iron domes" a are just some people's way explaining/understanding the concept using analogies. Likewise, very few would say that learning Torah protects if it is done robotically and mindlessly, where there is little or no personal merit involved. I just think the choice is not binary.
    Interesting post!

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  7. The Charedi world has moved away from the "Torah protects" PR, almost certainly because it was transparently and obviously false, so much so that even they - who never really believed it in the first place - could no longer bring themselves to make the argument.

    Instead, they are looking to piggyback off of liberal platforms, i.e., the suggestion that the state has an ethical obligation to provide benefits for all of its citizens. That's a bogus bit of sophistry too, but its clear from the Eisenstein interview that this is the new tactic.

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    1. This view has become mainstream in the European Union and is now becoming dominant in the US Democratic Party as represented in the Bernie Sanders wing of the party. Actually, in Israel, the founding MAPAI Socialist Labor Zionists implanted this view...the that state has the right to confiscate all money and property in the state and then redistribute it to "deserving" people, which usually means the friends and relatives of those in power. In the UK, Thatcher tried to move away from this, but the Corbyn-wing of the Labour Party is attempting to bring it back.

      This is the whole argument over "inequality" in society, as if that is a bad thing. This views it as being "unfair" if someone is better off than someone else. The answer is that the state has the right to stick its hands in to everyone's pocket and essentially STEAL their money, in order to ensure "equality".
      What is the Torah's view? As I understand it, the Torah says one has to help the poor, no one should starve or have no clothing or a roof over his head, but there is nothing wrong with working hard and becoming rich as long as you don't forget those less fortunate.

      It is unfortunate that elements of the Haredi world now are buying this view that the state is obligated to give everyone a nice, comfortable middle-class lifestyle, even if they refuse to work, because it leads inevitably to degeneration. As I understand, in the idealized Scandinavian Social Democratic societies, until some years ago, one could live a lower middle class lifestyle one's whole lifetime by living off unemployment and welfare handouts, but they have moved away from this and now demand that the unemployed find work or undergo job training. Thus, the Haredim can not expect the "miracle" that they referred to of unending support, which flows from their political power, to last forever. This is also not including the social pathologies which come from this which exist in their communities, and which will only get worse.

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