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Guns, Terrorism and Torah
Reality vs. Anti-Rationalism
To what extent does Torah protect? This is something that I’ve discussed on numerous occasions, but there have been some interesting developments.
The charedi town of Modi’in Illit/ Kiryat Sefer, located just over the Green Line, is often subject to break-ins and theft from their neighbors. Just under two years ago, residents of the town created HaShomrim, an organized group to protect against break-ins. They are unarmed, but since they are facing burglars rather than armed attackers, they manage with numbers to identify and restrain burglars until the police arrive. This is an extremely significant development - while Americans may be familiar with such civilians initiatives, it is very novel for Israeli charedim, for whom such “hishtadlus” is usually seen as something for non-charedim to take care of.
Fast forward to January 2023, and following the shootings outside a synagogue in Neve Yaakov, there was a dramatic rise in request for weapons permits from charedim to guard synagogues. (In Israel, it’s more difficult to get a gun than in the US, especially if you didn’t serve in the IDF, but it is possible with sufficient training and if circumstances warrant it.)
But on the other hand, there is the position of Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein, son-in-law of Rav Elyashiv and prominent halachic authority in the charedi world (and known to ArtScroll audiences through the popular “What If…” books).
In the past, I have discussed several positions of Rav Zilberstein regarding security matters. There was his statement that the best protection against being blown up on a bus is to learn Torah on the bus, which he derived from the Gemara, but which I argued was (A) not at all what the Gemara is saying, according to several commentaries, and (B) not actually true (see my post Practically Speaking, Torah Does NOT Protect).
Then there was his response to a question asked during one of the Gaza operations about waking sleeping children to take them to a bomb shelter when the siren sounds. Rav Zilberstein said that since it is God Who protects us, and our acting safely is only out of an obligation to perform hishtadlus, there is no reason to wake children, since they are exempt from hishtadlus. Yes, you read that correctly.
Now, with the current alarm in charedi commuities about the threat to synagogues, Rav Zilberstein was asked a question by an avreich who was alarmed that nobody in his synagogue has a weapon. The avreich asked if he can apply for a gun permit, which involves volunteering for 45 hours monthly (outside of yeshiva hours) for security patrols. Rav Zilberstein replied that the question was a tragic reflection of a lack of understanding of how Torah protects. He added that “a person who learns Torah knows that when he learns Torah, he spreads the perfect protection of the Torah over himself and his entire city which protects from all harm, like it says in the Gemara in Sotah, that the Torah protects and saves.”
Rav Zilberstein further quoted his late brother-in-law, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who explained that for this reason there was no need for yeshivos in Bnei Brak to flee during the Gulf War, because their Torah learning would protect the city. He quotes the Ohr Somayach as having said during World War One that every bullet has an address, and there’s no chance of someone being injured if the bullet wasn’t intended for him, whereas no physical protection will help if the bullet is intended for him. (This fatalistic phrase did indeed originate in World War One, though it’s not clear if the Ohr Somayach was the original source.)
Rav Zilberstein does acknowledge that there is “a mitzva to do hishtadlus” and that it’s forbidden to go to a dangerous place because “the Satan prosecutes at a time of danger.” But, he says, closing a Gemara to patrol with a weapon cannot be the required hishtadlus, because terror attacks happen in order to encourage us to learn more Torah. And furthermore, he adds, a synagogue is not a particularly dangerous place, and any attack at one is a message from Hashem that we should be focusing more on Torah and prayer. “These are the true weapons of Am Yisrael,” Rav Zilberstein emphasizes.
Gosh. If only our ancestors in Biblical times had known that! Instead of responding to dangers with soldiers and weapons, they could just have learned Torah!
Rav Zilberstein’s anti-rationalist perspective is a denial of both reality and Jewish traditional responses to danger. But it’s important to stress it does not necessarily characterize what the charedi community actually believes, as we see from all the charedim who want to get gun permits. And when there were rockets from Gaza, the charedi yeshiva in Ashdod fled to Beit Shemesh.
When pushed to give a theological explanation for why sometimes security measures are taken, such as the yeshiva that left Ashdod, there are answers like those given by Rav Zilberstein about how there is a difference between a regular place and a makom sakanah (dangerous place). But it makes no sense to make such a stark distinction between Torah helping protect from danger, which happens specifically in order to make people learn more Torah, and then it suddenly providing no significant protection at all. When danger gradually increases for soldiers, they send in more soldiers and more weapons, they don’t just give up! (Note that the Dati-Leumi yeshivos sent students to Ashdod, in order to provide community support.)
I am hopeful that it won’t take tragedies for the charedi community to realize that reality is real, and to adopt the appropriate theological framework to deal with it. As I once pointed out, according to the rationalist rabbinic authority Meiri, the meaning of the statement that Torah protects is simply that Torah scholars, with their wisdom, influence society for the better, thereby enabling it to thrive.
Of course, this only applies to Torah scholars that are wise.
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