God vs. Mechanics
In the previous post, I critiqued Eytan Kobre's nasty screed by the simple technique of cutting-and-pasting the entire article and switching a few phrases. (Alas, some people did not realize that I had done that, and were wondering at my unusually verbose and haughty style!) Satire can be a cheap way of writing, and sometimes facile in its comparisons and contrasts. However, in this case, I decided that his points were really much more applicable to the charedi community than to the Zionist enterprise.
In this post, however, I am inspired by a comment made by somebody called "Kevin from Chicago" to single out a paragraph of Mr. Kobre's article for detailed examination. I think that it sheds much light on why charedim approach the notion of Torah study vs. military service very different from those following in the legacy of the rationalist Rishonim. Here is the paragraph:
Welcome to Jewish reality — also known as reality, period — where spiritual causes bring about material effects, both positive and negative; where the “action” all takes place in the spiritual realms, with the ensuing this-worldly results, substantive as they seem to the human eye, being mere afterthoughts. Our deeds, ours alone, activate spiritual forces on high that, in turn, determine the course of human affairs.
This is not a description of "Jewish reality." It is is a superb description of the mystical Jewish approach to reality, but it does not describe the rationalist Jewish approach to reality. Aside from the fact that the rationalist approach views the physical universe and the laws of nature as being very real and valuable, rather than an illusory deception that exists to enable free will, there is also a substantial difference with regard to the function of our deeds.
As I have written previously, there is a difference between the rationalist and non-rationalist/ mystical approaches to Judaism with regard to avodas Hashem, the service of God. Rationalists understand the purpose of mitzvos, and religious life in general, as furthering intellectual and moral goals for the individual and society. The action all takes place in this world, and the this-worldly results are no mere afterthought, but are the straightforward result and purpose.
Mystics agree that mitzvos provide intellectual and moral benefits, but see their primary function as performing mechanistic manipulations of spiritual or celestial forces in the celestial realm. For example, the mystical approach views shiluach hakein not as an act of compassion designed to perfect our character, but rather as an act of cruelty designed to manipulate angels, and in turn to manipulate God (unfortunately there's no better word for it) into being good to us.
When it comes to Torah, this difference does not just play out with regard to the essential effect of learning Torah, as discussed in a previous post. It also plays out with regard to how the effect is perceived as being actualized. Allow me to explain.
The mystical approach, based on the innovative view of R. Chaim of Volozhin, is that learning Torah creates all kinds of spiritual worlds and forces. As Mr. Kobre writes, "Our deeds, ours alone, activate spiritual forces on high that, in turn, determine the course of human affairs." Learning Torah effects a mechanistic manipulation of spiritual forces, in which God doesn't really play an active role. The consequence of this way of thinking is that learning Torah automatically provides a defensive shield for the nation, and kollel is automatically a good thing. After all, one is learning Torah, and Torah activates spiritual forces.
With the rationalist approach, on the other hand, mitzvos are performed and Torah is learned not to manipulate forces, but rather in order to fulfill God's directives regarding how to better mankind. Accordingly, there is no automatic assumption that learning Torah, while always increasing one's knowledge, is necessarily always a good thing. It depends on whether it is a fulfillment of God's will, in order to better mankind. And the Torah itself, and Chazal made it clear that certain other values play a role - such as sharing the military burden, and supporting one's family. Learning Torah is not bettering mankind when it is selfish and demands the extensive financial and military support of the rest of society, especially when there are no services or even basic gratitude offered in return.
It's not clear whether Chazal (and which of Chazal) should be described as being closer to rationalists or mystics, or indeed if these terms are at all applicable to the worldview of Chazal. But I would suggest that in this aspect, Chazal are closer to the rationalist view. The few scattered statements in Chazal about Torah providing protection do not mean it in the mystical sense of mechanistically activating spiritual forces. Rather, they mean it in the sense of it providing a merit in God's eyes. (I can't, as yet, conclusively prove this, but I'm working on it; and I certainly think that this is how many Rishonim, who had no concept of mechanistically engineering spiritual forces, understood Chazal.) And learning Torah only provides a merit if it's the right thing to do!
Welcome to the rationalist Jewish approach to reality. Unlike Mr. Kobre, I wouldn't be so presumptuous as to claim that my school of thought is the only one that has ever existed! My believing it to be correct does not require me to believe that all great people have always felt similarly. Other people are free to follow different schools of thought - as long as they are not claiming that theirs is the only Jewish approach, and making the rest of society foot the bill.