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The Soldiers Are Really Doing Stuff
Hishtadlus is not a charade
There's a disturbing theological approach which made the headlines in a Gaza operation from ten years ago, and which once again is raising its head. It sometimes takes hold even amongst people of a more rationalist persuasion, apparently due to their being under the impression that it is a normative Torah approach. I am referring to the claim that the soldiers and weapons of the IDF are not actually doing anything of real significance.
There is an extreme but pervasive anti-rationalist approach, which I was taught in yeshivah, that teva (natural law) is nothing more than an illusion, and accordingly hishtadlus - physical endeavor - is of no real significance. Instead, it is simply a charade that we must go through in order for God to operate. (And to the extent that we recognize God as being the One actually doing things, we can minimize this charade). According to this approach, hishtadlus doesn't actually have anything to do with parnassah (and the fact that people who go to college and to work tend to earn more money than people in kollel is some sort of unexplained quirk of providence.)
Following this approach, the IDF soldiers are not really doing anything innately significant. They are just engaged in a charade that we have to go through - and which some people happen to lose their lives for. To quote someone in the comments to a previous post: “We really, really believe that it is the Torah that protects, and that those serving in the army are doing the 'front end' work, the hishtadlus, but similar to Yehoshua and Moshe, it is the avodas Hashem which wins the war, not the actual fighting.” This is effectively claiming that young men who are learning in yeshivah are helping significantly more than those who serve in the IDF. And the implication is that ideally people should not join the army (but, for some reason, specifically only charedim), so that they can better help Israel.
(NOTE: I want to stress that this viewpoint is by no means universal among the charedi community, especially as of this week; I plan to write more about a positive development in parts of the charedi community of young men who want to join the IDF so that they can do their part to help. And, of course, there are many people in the charedi community helping in all kinds of other practical ways.)
The anti-rationalist position is often thought of as being unequivocally fundamental to Judaism. Many quote Devarim 8:17, which condemns those who say "kochi v'otzem yadi, my strength and the power of my hand made for me these spoils." Some people presume that this teaches us that human endeavor is not actually of any innate value at all.
However, they are forgetting to read the very next passuk, which says “But you should remember that it is your God who gives you the power to make these spoils.” It’s not saying that man does not have power - it’s saying that man must remember that his power ultimately comes from God. The passuk is criticizing those who attribute their successes solely to their own efforts. Physical endeavor is of genuine value and significance - it’s just that one must always remember God’s role, and one must always try to be worthy of His assistance. (The precise nature of God’s providence is complicated and disputed - see my book The Challenge Of Creation, an apt read for this week’s parasha, for extensive discussion.)
Likewise, it’s impossible not to mention Moshe Rabbeinu’s rebuke of the Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven when they seemed not to be joining in the war: “Shall your brothers go to fight, and you remain here?” The Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven did not respond that it’s avodas Hashem which really wins the war and they can do that east of the Jordan. Learning Torah is of great value, but it’s not a substitute for the needs and obligations of the hour. The avodas Hashem of the hour, both then and now, is to join the milchemes mitzva and be moser nefesh for one’s people. Of course, not everyone is fit for that avodas Hashem, but that is the ultimate need, the ultimate potential sacrifice and the ultimate significant act.
The Gemara (Makkot 10a) speaks of how the Torah being studied in Jerusalem enabled the nation to succeed in war. But this just means that that those who are unable to fight - the old, the young, the infirm, the unfit - and who are focused on learning and teaching Torah, are still doing something of tremendous value, creating a society that is worth fighting for and that merits Divine assistance for those fighting. It does not mean that those that are able to fight should instead learn Torah. Never was there such a directive. And the reason was simple: soldiers are needed, because there are things that need to get done and the soldiers actually do it.
This was the absolute normative approach among Chazal and the Rishonim - certainly the rationalist Rishonim, but also the others. Classical Judaism was of the view that teva is real and physical endeavor is of real significance. What changed? The late Rabbi Dr. Menachem-Martin Gordon, in Modern Orthodox Judaism (p. 31), blames the spread of the anti-rationalist approach on Rav Dessler:
Rav Dessler’s book, Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, whose impact on the yeshiva world in recent years has been enormous, represents a radical departure from the Talmudic position (Hullin 105a, Niddah 70b), as well as the medieval philosophic tradition (Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, 3:17), in its denial of the reality of natural law and the cause-and-effect nexus of human initiative (Mikhtav, I, pp. 177-206). For Rav Dessler, the study of the sciences - even medicine, for that matter - is pointless, since the exclusive determinate of human welfare is the providential hand of God responding to religious virtue. Similarly, serious ﬁnancial initiative is unnecessary. The diagnostic skill of the physician (Mikhtav, III, p. 172), the financier’s business acumen (Mikhtav, I, p. 188), ostensibly critical factors in the effectiveness of their efforts, are only illusory causes, argues Rav Dessler. Admittedly, he concedes, one must “go through the motions” of practical activity (the notion of hishtadlut, Mikhtav, I, pp. 187-88) - visiting a physician, making a phone call for financial support - but such is necessary only as a “cover” for the direct Divine conduct of human affairs, which men of faith are challenged to discern. Recognizing the immediacy of the Divine hand behind the facade of human initiative is the ultimate test of faith. One should be engaged in practical effort only for the purpose, paradoxically, of discovering its pointlessness! Therefore, asserts Rav Dessler, to the degree that a man has already proved his spiritual mettle, his acknowledgment of Divine control, could the extensiveness of his “cover” be reduced. Or, alternatively, to the degree that a man is not yet sufficiently spiritually perceptive - wherefore pragmatic initiative might “blind” him to Divine control - should he limit such recourse. Accordingly, b'nei yeshiva are implicitly discouraged from any serious financial initiative - or involvement across the board in any area of resourceful effort, be it technological, political, etc. - since the circumstances of life are, in reality, a spontaneous Divine miracle. (Note Rav Dessler’s necessarily strained interpretation of Hullin, ad loc. and Niddah, ad loc., where one is advised by Hazal to survey one’s property with regularity, and to “abound in business.” in the pursuit of wealth! — Mikhtav, I, pp. 200-01).
Rav Dessler’s position cannot draw support from the doctrine of Ramban, although he assumes such an identification (ibid., III, pp. 170-73). While Ramban defines the ultimate providential relationship of God to Israel as one of ongoing miracle, he essentially never denies the reality of natural law. Israel, Ramban argues, through its fulfillment of mitzvot, is ideally able to transcend nature and engage God in the special faith—miracle association. In actuality, Ramban in fact concedes, such a relationship with the Divine does not generally prevail today, so that one must live, as a rule, in response to natural law. Thus he legitimates medical practice - he himself, after all, was a physician - not as a “cover” for some outright miracle deceptively operative behind the scenes, as Rav Dessler would have it, but as a genuine recourse to an efficacious discipline. (See Ramban, Commentary, Lev. 26:11; Torat ha-Adam, in Kitvei Ramban, II, pp. 42-43.)
Medicine is real and doctors are really healing people. Agriculture is real and farmers are really producing food. Likewise, combat is real and the soldiers are really helping Israel. And they are actually putting their lives on the line for it, which makes their efforts of inestimable significance. Don’t devalue it.
Praying for the safety and success of our soldiers, and for the speedy rescue of the hostages. You can support the IDF Soldier’s Fund at https://www.ufis.org.il/en/donation-en/
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