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Merits, Not Masechtos
“Should the chareidim serve in [Israel’s] military, or at least serve in some other capacity such as recognized public service commensurate with military service?”
This was the question posed by a journalist to Rabbi Avi Shafran, media liaison for Agudath Israel of America. His reply was that "in the view of chareidim, they are already doing so." As he explains, "a religious Jew sincerely believes that his or her life, based as it is on religious observance, charity and Torah-study, helps ensure the security of Jews."
Rabbi Shafran continues to elaborate how many major world events are shaped not by raw military power, but rather by unexpected events and freak occurrences which mask Divine providence. He concludes: "Divine providence is at work in the world; and spiritual merits, not superior munitions, are what matter in the end."
Superficially, this seems like a solid religious argument. However, on closer inspection, it falls apart.
From a traditional Jewish perspective, it is indeed divine providence that determines the security of the Jewish People. And from a traditional Jewish perspective, such providence is indeed contingent upon spiritual merits. However, Rabbi Shafran's error is to assume that masechtos (Talmudic tractates) equal merits. This is strongly rooted in a non-rationalist worldview, in which Torah study and mitzvos have a mechanistic function of manipulating spiritual energies. Both the rationalist and the classical Jewish perspective, on the other hand, is that merits are solely a result of following God's will as determined by the Torah.
On Tisha B'Av, for example, the proper activity is to mourn for the loss of the Beis HaMikdash, and that is how one accrues merits. It does no good to learn Bava Metzia on Tishah B'Av - that is not what God wants on that day. Likewise, Rav Steinman noted that it is wrong to learn Torah if one's wife needs help. Learning Torah does not automatically accrue merits. It only accrues merits if it is the right thing to do.
The question, then, is not "are the charedim learning Torah, giving charity, and being otherwise religiously observant" - it is "are the charedim doing Hashem's will, as determined by the Torah, in avoiding army service?" And the answer to that is clearly a resounding no.
From a halachic standpoint, as we have explained on many occasions, there is simply no exemption in a milchemes mitzvah for Torah students. There are clear exemptions for a newlywed, or someone with a new house or new vineyard, in the case of a milchemes reshus (but not a milchemes mitzvah), yet no exemption is presented for Torah students.
From a historical standpoint, Torah study was never presented as an optional alternative to military service. When the tribes of Gad and Reuven wanted to stay on the other side of the Jordan, Moses did not tell them that that would be satisfactory if they learn Torah. Not even the tribe of Levi was exempt from army service. There is a Midrash which says that a thousand people from each tribe had the job of praying, but this was praying, not learning, and it was done on the front lines. Likewise, the Netziv says that some Torah scholars were exempt from military service, but he notes that to make up for this, they had to pay higher taxes, perform national service, and pray on the front lines.
From a hashkafic standpoint, the idea that Torah scholars provide some degree of protection has some support, but the idea that the Torah study of a yeshivah student provides equivalent protective service to that of a soldier has no basis. Furthermore, charedim are never interested in discussing the hashkafos of the nature and parameters of the protection that they claim their Torah provides.
Finally, from a realistic standpoint, we have noted that there is no empirical reason to believe that charedi yeshivah students actually have any protective benefits. Furthermore, when push comes to shove, charedim themselves certainly don't act as though they believe that their Torah study is producing tangible protective benefits. When danger threatens, charedi yeshivah students flee, demand IDF protection, or learn to use guns. They never believe that their Torah study provides any practical benefits, either in the realm of security or in the realm of removing the yoke of worldly affairs, other than enabling them to avoid army service.
So please, Rabbi Shafran, save us your spin. As all perceptive observers know, the reason why charedim do not serve in the IDF has nothing to do with an alleged belief that their Torah allegedly provides significant protection. Rather, the reason is that they fear the threat that army service would pose to their way of life. Rabbi Shafran is supposed to be representing the views of the Agudah Moetzes, but the only Moetzes member to discuss this topic, Rav Aharon Feldman, explicitly wrote that the reason charedim avoid army service is because they are afraid of the effect that it would have on their youth. Even Mishpachah magazine recently quoted Rabbi Betzalel Cohen as saying “For years the chareidi establishment stated the reason for not going to the army is because of limud Torah. But the real reason is that they want the boys to remain frum.” This is understandable, but there are also the factors of the halachos of milchemes mitzvah and sharing the burden of national responsibilities. Given their disinterest in those, I doubt that their masechtos earn many merits.