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Do Charedim Really Believe That Torah Protects?
How can you tell if a belief is genuine?
How can you tell if you actually believe something, or if you just believe that you believe something? Here’s some questions that you could ask yourself:
I. What is your methodology for determining the basis for your belief?
II. Are you interested in clarifying the parameters of this belief?
III. Are you being consistent with how you act in other situations?
IV. Does your belief provide benefits?
V. What would you stake on your belief?
As an example, let’s say you’re in charge of acquiring equipment for the military. Two companies come to you, presenting different types of electromagnetic force field devices which they claim to repel missiles. Certain force fields have been known to be effective in the past, but do these qualify? You haven’t got time to test things yourself - all you can do is figure out whether the companies themselves are really confident and have grounds for that confidence.
The first company shows its extensive research as to the efficacy of the force field. They say that they’ve tested the device to see at under which conditions it is effective and against which weapons. They’re willing to donate the devices at no cost. And they demonstrate that they are willing to rely on this force field themselves and go to the Gaza periphery. Clearly, they are convinced that the device works.
The second company is excited to show their device, but their research is far short of the standard of research that they have done with their other equipment. Nor were they interested in exploring the parameters of the force field’s efficiency and the conditions under which it works. They are charging a high price for the device. And they refuse to go to dangerous areas with their device unless Iron Dome and the IDF are there in force “as backup, just in case it malfunctions.” Clearly deep down, they aren’t so convinced themselves of their device’s efficacy, and they are blinded by the sales opportunity.
Let’s see how all this applies with the alleged belief that learning Torah provides protection that is so significant, it is better for Israel that charedi men learn in yeshivah rather than serve in the IDF.
I. What is the methodology for determining the basis of the belief?
A standard approach in charedi circles is to be very reticent about being sure what exactly Chazal were talking about, and to correspondingly be very cautious about extrapolating to current situations. Chazal say to make a beracha on a beautiful animal? Well, we don’t know exactly what they would define as “beautiful,” so we’ll never make the beracha. Chazal talk about the value of work and self-sufficiency? Well, that doesn’t necessarily apply nowadays, when things are different. Chazal say X? Well, there’s one opinion which says that they didn’t mean it in the case of Y.
Yet look at what happens in this case. Rambam waxes poetically in one of his philosophical-theological sections about people on an incredibly exalted spiritual level (a category in which he does not even place himself!) who can be equivalent to Levites and not have to worry about any worldly concern. And people claim that this takes precedence over his halachic statements in The Laws Of War about who is obligated to serve in a war (where there is no exception for Torah scholars), and furthermore that it applies to any Moishey enrolled in yeshiva.
Then we have Chazal’s statement that talmidei chachamim don’t need to pay taxes for city protection, and people immediately translate that into meaning that an endless amount of 18-year-old yeshiva students don’t need to enlist in the army to help in a milchemes mitzvah. This is despite the fact that actual traditional rabbinic authorities say emphatically that Chazal were only referring to very limited circumstances indeed, and that when the talmidei chachamim themselves believe that they need protection, they are most certainly obligated to participate in that and cannot claim that their Torah does so.
When you’re using a very different methodology than you usually use, it’s time to question whether you’ve changed it in order to obtain the desired result.
II. Are you interested in clarifying the parameters of the belief?
If you really believe that Torah protects so significantly that it is more important than IDF service, then you’d surely want to clarify the parameters of this protection, and act accordingly. Yet nobody does this. Here are some of the parameters that are studiously ignored:
Does the protective effect of Torah even apply when the Torah student is not studying, such as during the night or during vacation? If yes - then why can’t they use vacation periods to get some army training and do some guard duty? If not - then shouldn't yeshivos have no vacation and learn in shifts, so that protection is kept steady around the clock, throughout the year? The army doesn’t have simultaneous vacation for all its soldiers!
Does the protection apply under all circumstances? Bava Kama 60a-b indicates that a time of community-wide misfortune, Torah does not protect, and material steps are advised. And as we noted, Radvaz greatly restricts the extent of the Gemara's ruling about Torah scholars being exempt from contributing towards security, including stating that it does not apply in cases where the rabbis consider themselves in need of protection. Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin wrote that "If you understand that the scholars don't need protection in relatively peaceful times and are exempt from building the protective walls, what consequence has this when compared to a life-and-death struggle, a war which is a mitzvah and in which all are obligated?" You might disagree, but if you think it’s real, then at least spell out the circumstances under which it does and does not help more than military service.
Is the protective effect more potent in the area where the Torah study takes place? Presumably it is, because many stories about its alleged protective effect relate to the particular place where the Torah scholar/ tzaddik lived. But shouldn’t this mean that yeshivos should be situated in places that need protection the most, such as on the Gaza periphery and the northern border? Bnei Brak is geographically one of the safest places, it doesn’t need so much protection! Soldiers go where their protective services are most needed. Note that Netziv says that those providing spiritual merit must actually accompany the soldiers to study Torah and pray on the front line, where the soldiers actually are.
Is the intent of the person studying Torah relevant? It's generally accepted that reciting Tehillim for the sick is most effective if the sick person's name is mentioned and/or "had in mind." Presumably, Torah study and the prayer of Torah students is likewise most effective if explicitly done with the goal of protecting those at most risk. If so, then since soldiers are the ones most at risk, why don't charedim, when beginning their study sessions or dedicating their yeshivos or during davenning, specify that their learning is to protect the soldiers and davven for them specifically? (Many, though not all, are doing it now, but they weren’t doing it beforehand - when several hundred soldiers were killed on October 7th.)
What is the desired balance between soldiers and yeshiva students? Is it that as many people as possible should learn in yeshiva, and that dati-leumi and secular men should likewise go into full-time learning, and nobody should serve in the army? Presumably most charedim do not believe this. So how many people do we need in yeshivah to provide this alleged protection that cannot be gained from other people learning Torah? Is it an absolute number, or a percentage of the population? If the latter, what is the percentage? In one generation, nearly half of all 18-year-olds will be charedi. Do we need them all to be exempt from IDF service, in order to provide protection? What about when it’s 80%? What if there is a great decline in the number of secular/ dati soldiers? Is anyone interested in figuring out the answer to this crucial question, and preparing the charedi community for when things have to change?
III. Are you being consistent with other situations?
There are plenty of sources that Torah protects from sickness and disease (see e.g. Devarim 7:15, Berachos 5a). In no case do charedim believe that this is significant enough to release them from doing the exact same hishtadlus that everyone else does. Rav Chaim Kanievsky did initially claim that learning Torah protects from Covid, and sought to keep yeshivos open as normal, but this was opposed by major figures in the charedi world. And charedim don’t believe that their cities require less medical services, or that they can suffice with a lower standard of medical care.
And there are many more sources, and of more weighty (i.e. Scriptural) authority, that one should trust in God to provide economic sustenance. Now, you could argue that charedim certainly believe in that, which is why many don’t work. But that could simply mean that they are relying on other sources of support. And indeed, that is what we see. With shidduchim, yeshivah students general ensure that the girl’s side is providing a generous dowry/ apartment, they don’t rely on bitachon. Charedim rely on sources such as the government and engage in full hishtadlus to secure that funding, to the extent of emptying out the yeshivos in order to campaign for votes (and they supported the withdrawal from Gaza in order to get money for yeshivos).
And when do we ever see charedim being willing to accept others talking about Hashem helping, in place of material effort? Imagine saying to a collector, “I’m going to do something even better than give you money - I’m going to learn and davven for you!” Or imagine the Prime Minister offering UTJ that instead of money for yeshivos, there will be a program via which people learn for the merit of yeshivos!
In all other areas of life, charedim do not rely on miracles, do not believe that they will get supernatural support, and do the exact same hishtadlus as everyone else. Only when it comes to military service do they suddenly claim to believe that supernatural protection replaces material effort.
IV. Does your belief provide benefits?
The belief that learning Torah provides a more important defensive service than serving in the army is amazingly convenient. Army service is extremely difficult, and carries very serious risks, on both a spiritual and physical level. And it’s also risky on a sociological/ political level, since if charedim join the army, they are quite likely to finish their army service not being charedi. Learning in yeshivah, on the other hand, is intellectually and spiritually rewarding, and carries no risks whatsoever.
And there’s another tremendous benefit to believing that Torah protects: assuaging the conscience. It enables a person to argue to others, and convince himself, that there’s actually a really good reason why charedi yeshivah students don’t go to the army, in the national interest, and it’s not just out of a selfish desire to take no risks on behalf of the country and to have everyone else do the difficult stuff. With this belief, you can feel good about yourself, even superior.
כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם. The Torah does not merely say that incentives corrupt judgment - it stresses that they even corrupt the judgement of chachamim and tzadikim. Nobody should consider themselves immune from bias, and when a judgment is incredibly self-serving, one should be especially hesitant to be certain that one is correct.
V. What would you stake on your belief?
If you genuinely believe something, then you’re willing to “put your money where your mouth is” and stake things on your belief. For example, non-Charedim really believe that soldiers help protect us, and therefore send soldiers to dangerous areas, even at risk to their lives.
But charedim are not willing to stake anything at all on their purported belief that Torah protects. The city of Bnei Brak claims to believe that their Torah protects them from missiles, but is not willing to forgo Iron Dome. Charedi towns over the Green Line demand the same IDF protection as anyone else. Charedi yeshivos claim to provide protection for the cities where they are located, but won’t place themselves in the cities which need it most. And if they happen to be in a city which suddenly actually needs protection, they flee rather than stay and provide it for the people who remain.
When you don’t seem interested in using your usual methodology to ascertain the grounds for your belief, and you’re not interested in exploring how it applies, and the ramifications just so happen to be that you don’t have to do any of the really difficult tasks and everyone else has to do them on your behalf, and your belief means that you can still feel good about yourself, then any intellectually honest person should be wondering if perhaps their alleged “belief” is really so sincere and justified.
Of course, the idea that yeshivah students are protecting Israel isn’t the real reason why charedim don’t join the army. It’s just a convenient belief, for PR and to assuage their own conscience.
We’ll discuss the real reasons in another post. Meanwhile, if you appreciated the importance of this post - especially in light of Israel’s future - please share it with others.
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