More Important Than Learning Torah
It's not just Religious Zionists who think Israel takes precedence
In Sunday’s post, I discussed Rambam’s ruling that one should not stop learning Torah to perform a mitzva, if the mitzva can be performed by others. Some cite this as a justification for yeshivah students not to serve in the IDF. In response, I quoted Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. He indicates that the applicability of Rambam’s ruling to army service could be disqualified on technical grounds, if one considers army service as an obligation on every person, not just a task that needs to be done. But he does not go into that in detail, because he prefers to stress that this halachah is simply not applicable here on basic grounds of morality. Rav Lichtenstein elaborates on the idea that serving in the army is not just about a specific mitzvah of milchemes mitzvah, but rather a more fundamental idea of what Judaism is all about. Caring for the nation is foundational to Judaism, and army service is the most basic expression of that.
In response, some argued that one cannot simply arbitrarily decide that some Jewish/ Torah values take precedence over learning Torah. But, as Rabbi Tzvi Liker reminded me, none other than Rav Moshe Sofer (a.k.a. Chasam Sofer), a staunch opponent of any reformations of Judaism, does precisely that.
This relates to the well-known dispute in the Gemara between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai about learning Torah versus working. Rabbi Yishmael teaches that the study of Torah is to be accompanied by earning a livelihood, as per the verse that we recite in Shema, "Ve'asafta deganecha - And you shall gather your grain." Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, on the other hand, says that one should devote oneself to Torah, and God will ensure that one's needs are provided for. Abaye observes that many followed the lead of Rabbi Yishmael and succeeded in both working and learning, while most of those who followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai did not succeed in either.
Enter Chasam Sofer, in two passages that appear at the end of this post. He cites a view that one should ideally follow Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and dedicate oneself solely to Torah. He argues that when Abaye observes that many people didn't do well in that path, this is because they didn't really devote themselves to it properly, but a special person who is truly dedicated to Torah will manage to succeed. Chasam Sofer himself says that "we" (it's not clear who he's referring to) follow Rabbi Nehorai, who argues with Rabbi Meir's instruction that one should teach his child a trade, and says that he will only teach his son Torah.
So far, this sounds very much in accord with someone representing the charedi side of Orthodox Judaism. But now comes the "but." And it's the "but" to end all "buts"!
But, says Chasam Sofer, but, this is only true in the Diaspora. In the Diaspora, there is no reason to work at a trade except to earn a living; furthermore, enhancing the economy of one's host country accentuates the fact that the Jews are in exile. Accordingly, if one can truly dedicate oneself to Torah and manage to live that way, there is no reason to work, and this is what Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was referring to (and Chasam Sofer argues that even Rabbi Yishmael would agree, though it seems to me that many of Chazal believed in the innate value of work).
In Israel on the other hand, says Chasam Sofer, it's entirely different. In Israel, one does not only work the fields in order to make a living. There is also the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz, settling the land. In the same way as one stops learning Torah to put on tefillin, says Chasam Sofer, one stops learning Torah to farm the land, which is the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz. The idea here is that learning Torah is not a replacement for living Torah. There are certain things that are a basic Jewish requirement, and which therefore take precedence over learning Torah. And one of these is fulfilling the Torah’s ideal of the nation of Israel living in its homeland and developing it.
Chasam Sofer explains that yishuv ha'aretz does not just mean living in Israel; it means developing the country. He further says that this does not just mean farming; all industries and professions are part of settling the land and giving it honor. Chasam Sofer even adds that it would be a deficiency in the honor of Israel if a certain profession does not exist there, requiring products to be imported from abroad.
This is amazing. According to Chasam Sofer, there is a mitzvah for people in Israel to leave yeshivah and learn a profession quite separate from the requirement to provide for one's family. It's important for Israel to have doctors and engineers and all the professionals that a country requires in order to have honor (and to counter the brain-drain that currently exists). Likewise, people who make aliyah to Israel and bring their professional skills are fulfilling the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz in a much more significant way than merely by living here.
Chasam Sofer didn’t live in a time of Jewish sovereignty and an IDF. But it’s pretty obvious that if developing the Land of Israel and its economy is more important than being permanently in yeshivah, all the more so is defending Jewish life here. Everyone has to study Torah, but some things are so fundamentally important to Judaism and the Jewish People that they require one to take time away from that.
The charedi community prides itself on maintaining Chasam Sofer’s loyalty to Torah Judaism. It’s strange that they aren’t interested in being loyal to Chasam Sofer’s understanding of what Torah Judaism is.
Note: I plan to be in the US in February, in New York and Florida. If you’re interested in bringing me to your shul as scholar-in-residence, please be in touch.
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