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Theodicy or Idiocy?
Was the massacre God's punishment for a certain group of people?
I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised, but we should still be dismayed. And while some will be angry at me for writing this rebuttal and drawing attention to the phenomenon, the blame lies with those who are spreading the message that needs rebutting.
In the wake of the horrors that have taken place, some people have taken a very disturbing approach to theodicy - the vindication of a compassionate God in the face of evil. Instead of taking the Iyov(Job)-style approach that we cannot understand God’s ways, or the approach of a personal cheshbon hanefesh (examining ourselves for shortcomings), they are declaring that they know exactly why God enabled these terrible things to happen.
It’s a Divine punishment for the sins of the secular Zionists, of course.
In order to pull off this explanation, people make two claims: that it was secular Israelis who suffered, and that there’s a clear secular sin that was committed. Let’s examine each of those claims.
I. Is there a message in who was harmed?
There were a deluge of claims that only secular kibbutzim and towns were attacked by Hamas, not the religious ones which had their gates locked for Shabbat. Now, even if this were true, it would simply illustrate the rather obvious fact that having locked gates is a good security measure. It wouldn’t demonstrate anything about the divine value of religion. You could just as well argue that the awful Har Nof and Neve Yaakov massacres happened because charedi Jews don’t have guns, and the Meron tragedy occurred because charedi Jews tend to have little regard for professional safety regulations and the venue was a disaster waiting to happen. These things are true, but not evidence of any Divine messaging.
As it happens, though, it’s not even true. Yes, there is a video of Hamas terrorists stopping at a locked gate. But afterwards, they broke through another way and opened the gate.
The latest and most extensive presentation of this sort of theodicy comes from Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, rosh yeshiva of Toras Moshe. In an article that is being quoted and spread by his fans, he repeats the claims that only secular yishuvim were harmed:
“There are two frum yishuvim and 20 non-frum yishuvim. Not one incident happened in any of the frum yishuvim. Tifrach had a simple lock and somehow this stopped the heavily armed terrorists. It makes no sense... You have to be blind to not see there is something happening here.”
Yet as a mathematician, he should know that if there’s 20 secular towns and 2 religious ones, it’s just statistics that the religious ones are less likely to be attacked. And one of the religious yishuvim was saved as a result of a very alert head of security who was female - perhaps this shows that women should serve in the IDF?
But his claims are not even true. Alumim is a religious yishuv, and people were killed. Tifrach, on the other hand, is to the east of Ofakim, and it was safe because the terrorists didn't get that far - they were stopped by the armed Jews in Ofakim.
And even if it were mostly secular Jews who were killed, would that be a Divine message that their way of life is wrong? What about the fact that it happened on Simchat Torah, and will forever mar that chag for us - maybe that’s a Divine message that there’s something wrong with the Torah community? And again, what about the terrible massacres in Har Nof and Neve Yaakov? What about the greatest non-terrorist civilian tragedy in the history of Israel, in which 45 charedim were killed in Meron, and no secular Jews at all? Was that a Divine message that their way of life is wrong? Of course not; in those cases, people like Rabbi Meiselman say that we cannot understand God’s ways (or twist it to make it still the fault of the secular). Only when secular people are killed do they triumphantly claim that it’s God’s punishment for their ideology.
II. What was the alleged sin?
So, what is the clear secular sin that brought this on?
Rabbi Meiselman points to two sins. First, he claims that the “Israeli Left,” in the name of “stupid, liberal” claims about saving democracy, decided to “destroy the country” and “they intentionally destroyed the morale of the military“ and “there was no social cohesion remaining in Israeli society.”
I must point out the irony here. This is a rabbi who, a few years ago, sat on the dais at an anti-Israel-government rally with 20,000 anti-Zionist Satmar chassidim, in Manhattan, where the speakers described Israel as an "evil regime," and talked about how “the very existence of the state is a rebellion against God” and about how “the [Israeli] army was founded on murder and blood spilling.” He argues against praying for the welfare of soldiers because it’s a “political” action rather than a religious act of concern for those who risk their lives for us. And he’s accusing others of destroying army morale and harming social cohesion?!
Meanwhile, R. Meiselman’s entire take on this tragedy is that it’s a Divine punishment for those who opposed judicial reform, which is about half the population. That helps army morale and social cohesion?!
And in any case, with regard to his claim, Hamas did not succeed with their attack because society lacked cohesion or military morale was low. They succeeded because the IDF made a gigantic mistake in underestimating them, and was slow in its response.
III. A sin of secular arrogance?
Later, Rabbi Meiselman explains the main secular sin that brought on this tragedy, and it’s a refrain that I’ve heard from several others. The sin was in thinking “kochi v’otzem yadi,” attributing too much power to the IDF and not enough to Hashem:
“The total bankruptcy of the people who think they understand how the world works and how to defend the country and how to run a society without Torah and leave Hashem out of the picture, is being shown in the most extreme way for everyone to see.”
First, note the irony of R. Meiselman criticizing others for being overconfident about understanding how the world works, while he is absolutely confident that he knows God’s own calculations.
Second, what on earth is he talking about? This is the most right-wing and religious that the country has ever been! There’s more people being supported in full-time learning than ever before in history! The government is the most religious (in the charedi sense) ever! If there’s any message here, it’s surely that being religious and right wing does not bring greater security.
Third, the problem here was not that the IDF overestimated its own power. It’s that it underestimated Hamas. The IDF easily had the power to stop Hamas doing such a thing (and it is very unlikely to ever happen again); they just didn’t take Hamas seriously enough to place sufficient forces there, and they were not organized enough in their response. (And if you want to argue that the IDF really isn’t powerful enough, then I know of 150,000 people in yeshivah that could help.)
IV. Does the protection of Torah and Tefillah replace army service?
Rabbi Meiselman then claims that the message is that we need to learn more Torah, because it is Torah rather than the IDF which is protecting:
“We have to get the message that the world stands on our learning and our davening, and that is how we contribute the maximum that we can to protect Eretz Yisroel.”
The audacity is extraordinary. Here’s a claim that davenning provides the maximum protection coming from someone who for years has proudly opposed davenning for the soldiers. So maybe it’s his fault that several hundred soldiers were killed?
Meanwhile, to support this very extreme claim, R. Meiselman cites the Gemara:
“The gemara in Bava Basra says you collect taxes in the city to support all the city’s needs. For basic necessities like water, taxes are collected from everyone without exception. But for defense of the city, Torah scholars are exempt because their Torah contributes to the protection of the city. This idea comes straight from the gemara and it is paskened by the Rambam. It wasn’t made up recently by some contemporary radical right-wing chareidi. Torah has tremendous protective value.”
Yes, the idea that Torah scholars (not students!) do not need to pay certain taxes is in the Gemara. However, R. Meiselman, despite being rated as a great Torah scholar, is apparently unaware that Radvaz 2:752 greatly restricts the extent of the Gemara's ruling. This includes stating that it does not apply in cases where the rabbis consider themselves in need of protection. And Chasam Sofer says that it only refers to exemptions from city taxes that are placed upon Jews in exile, not for defense against genuine military threats. Radvaz and Chasam Sofer thus accept the obvious truth that in the threat posed to Jews by their Arab neighbors, whatever protection is provided by Torah scholars is not significant enough to release them from their shared obligations towards defense.
V. The Unity That Has Resulted
Rabbi Meiselman later claims that as a providential response to secular Israelis trying to tear the country apart, “99% of the country is now united... Hashem made sure there is achdus.” Well, first of all let’s point out that the students of the yeshivos represented by Rabbi Meiselman are certainly not involved in real achdus. Real achdus means sharing all responsibilities, especially the most difficult ones.
Second, to the extent that people are regretting the split over the last year, it seems to be the people on R. Meiselman’s side who are reversing their position. Consider former IDF Deputy Chief of Staff and left-wing Meretz Party lawmaker Yair Golan. A vocal critic of the government over the past year, he was branded a “left wing traitor.” Yet his actions on Simchat Torah were incredible and saved many people. And there’s a beautiful story in The Times of Israel about a charedi volunteer for Zaka who met Golan, hugged him, and said to the cameras, “I was incited by the poison that the right-wing public poured on the left-wing public. I hated him. Now I love and admire him. And I’m really sorry.”
As for the rest of the country - we are united against Hamas, not with charedi beliefs, and not behind the government. In fact, there is overwhelming public agreement that the current government - the most religious and pro-charedi government in history - is a complete disaster.
Meanwhile, everyone knows that the charedi demand for a full legal exemption from the IDF for people in yeshivah, for which their MKs were recently urgently pushing, is now a total non-starter. No non-charedi MK will vote for it. Nor are they likely to get their enormous and ever-growing budgetary demands for yeshivos. Israel is taking a gigantic financial hit from this war, and there won’t be billions thrown at those who refuse to work. And so the chareidi way of life is going to take a massive blow.
Is that a sign and punishment from God?
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