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The Drowning Man
A parable about the charedi belief that their Torah protects us
Things got pretty heated after my post Guns, Terrorism and Torah. I pointed out that Charedim only profess to believe that their Torah learning offers significant supernatural protection to themselves and others. In practice, like everyone else, they don’t take the Aggadic statements about Torah protecting to have any real-life application that would lessen a need for physical protection. That’s why the charedi yeshivos fled the South during the Gaza operations instead of remaining to offer protection, that’s why the charedi settlement of Kiryat Sefer has armed guards, and that’s why some charedim very sensibly believe that each synagogue should have someone with a gun (and if only all charedim had taken that approach, some tragedies could have been avoided).
This did not go down well with my ideological opponents, who keep the comments section lively and have even started an entire blog dedicated to rebutting this one (the third such anti-Slifkin blog to have been created!). They insisted that charedim benefit themselves and others with the special supernatural protection of Torah, and that they really believe it. But, they said, while this special protection is supernatural in origin, it’s not supernatural in the way it is implemented. They added that it’s a mistake to believe otherwise, and cited the famous parable of the foolish drowning man who turns down the rescue boat and helicopter because he says that God will save him. In this vein, they explained that God provides His special help via naturalistic means.
And what are these naturalistic means? Well, according to my opponents, the special power of Charedi Torah is that not only does it protect the entire country, such as by helping Iron Dome work properly, it particularly helps the Charedim. And it does so in that it is the supernatural cause of their having disproportionate political power (which is not, as you might think, to do with their being a voting bloc that agrees to anything for money). And this in turn enables them to spend their lives in yeshiva or working without having to go the army, while the Zionists do all the hard and dangerous work of being soldiers.
I’m not kidding. This is literally what they argued.
And so I came up with a better parable than the drowning man. It goes as follows:
A group of people were stranded during a rising flood. They were all trying to figure out how to survive. But one man said, "God will save us!" And he sat down to pray.
The others said, "Look, God has already given us the means to be rescued! There's all kinds of materials lying around, there's even a partially-working power saw, we could build a boat!"
But the praying man refused to help. He said, "No, I am only relying on God! He will help us, in the merit of my prayers!"
The others also prayed, but after their prayers, they worked on building a boat. It was hard work. But the praying man refused to help. He said, "No, it’s more important for me to spend all my time praying, so that God will help us!"
Building a boat with the partially-working power saw was a little dangerous, and nobody was thrilled about using it. They agreed to take turns doing it. But the praying man refused to take a turn. He said, "No, I don’t want to do anything dangerous! I am only relying on God! He will help us!"
Finally, as the flood waters rose ever higher, the boat was ready. The others got into it. And the praying man said, "Hold on, I'm coming with you!"
The others said, "But didn't you say that you were relying on God to save you?"
The praying man replied, "I sure did! And He did save me! He sent me you people to build a boat!"
The others had some harsh things to say, but the praying man rebuked them harshly for disrespecting the special power of his prayers.
The real reason why charedim don’t want to serve in the army is that it is particularly threatening to their way of life (which is true). But it wouldn’t look good for them to admit that they therefore just want everyone else to shoulder the difficult and dangerous burden of IDF service. And so they come up with an explanation of how the Torah study of the charedi community provides essential security benefits.
But if Torah provides protection, why did the charedi yeshivos flee the South? My opponents were not quite sure, and admitted that it might have been a mistake, but they suggested that if the yeshivos felt afraid, then that legitimized them leaving. Needless to say, that argument is ludicrous. If they truly believe that their Torah offers protection, then it is their duty to stay and provide it for the tens of thousands of people that were living in the South and who did not want to leave or who were unable to do so. And this in fact is what charedim in the entire country should be doing - putting their yeshivos in places that most need protection. Not doing that either means that you don’t believe that Torah protects, or that you don’t care to put yourself out to help others who need help.)
(Note that this is what Religious Zionists actually do. They put yeshivot in towns around the periphery and in less secure areas, such as Kiryat Shemona and Sderot - not necessarily in order to provide supernatural protection, but to provide spiritual and moral support to people in those areas, alongside the military protection that religious Zionist soldiers provide.)
But even if charedim are not providing those in need with the concentrated local protection which they claim to believe their Torah provides, isn’t their Torah nevertheless providing a certain degree of protection for the entire country? Doesn’t that justify them avoiding sharing the burden of army service?
The answer is no. The actual sources in Chazal about Torah protecting are not about it having some innate supernatural power. Rather, as I discuss in my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism, they are about virtuous people earning the merit of special protection (which can be explained both according to the mystical and the rationalist approach, as I shall discuss in future posts). Torah which is studied selflessly, as part of creating a virtuous nation - such as the Torah learned in regular schools, in hesder yeshivos, and by people who are building up society - earns that protection. Torah learned without such virtuousness does not. And there’s nothing virtuous about demanding that the difficulties and danger of army service have to be shouldered by everyone else and not by your community (and not even showing appreciation for it).
Meanwhile, I’m very excited about a series of posts that I am preparing, about the many benefits of Judaism from a rationalist perspective - including military protection as well as numerous other things. Stay tuned!
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