Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
Torah, Army, and the Bizarre Chess Analogy
Rabbi Yair Hoffman has written a response to my critique of his article regarding Torah Study and the IDF, and posted it at Cross-Currents. Unfortunately, it seems that Cross-Currents does not permit me to post a response, and not even to post a comment linking to a response, so I can only hope that readers of Rabbi Hoffman's piece will somehow find their way here.
I. Torah = Chess?!
Rabbi Hoffman's primary counter-argument is simply... strange. In Rabbi Hoffman's original article, he referred to a number of statements in the Gemara that condemn the drafting of talmidei chachamim into the army. In my critique, amongst other objections, I pointed out that these statements specifically mention talmidei chachamim, and are not applicable to yeshivah students. I also pointed out that based on the actions of charedim themselves, it is apparent that they do not actually believe that yeshivah students provide protection. Here is Rabbi Hoffman's response:
Torah sources from the TaNach, through the Gemorah, the Rishonim, Acharonim, to the Gedolei Torah of the past generation all speak of the protective power of Torah. There are essentially two types of people. There are those who disagree with these sources (or try to minimize them by claiming that it is all Agaddatah, or only applies to great Torah scholars, or who try to point out that we don’t see it practically) – we will call these people “Torah = Chess” believers. In other words they think that studying chess and studying Torah are equal in terms of their protective powers.
According to Rabbi Hoffman, if you do not say that the Gemara's references to talmidei chachamim also apply to people who are not talmidei chachamim, then you are saying that Torah=chess. How on earth does that make any sense? If you learn Chazal's words carefully, then you are saying that Torah=chess?! There are many halachos in the Gemara about talmidei chachamim. Nobody claims that they are all equally applicable to yeshivah students. There are even sources which state that nobody today rates as a talmid chacham by the Gemara's definition!
Rav Hershel Schechter addressed these sources in the context of addressing a question about charedim not going to the army, which he describes as "scandalous." Rav Schachter says as follows: "The Gemara says you don't draft talmidei chachamim. Every bochur in yeshiva is a talmid chacham?! It's not so." (You can listen to Rav Schachter at this link, starting at about 40:00 in the streaming version and 51:20 in the download.)
It is clearly absurd for Rabbi Hoffman to claim that Rav Schachter believes that "Torah=chess." I don't know whether Rav Schachter believes that the Torah study of a yeshivah student has protective powers or not, but it's irrelevant. Even if one believes that Torah study has some sort of protective power, this by no means necessarily translates into an exemption from army service!
Rav Schachter also quotes Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky as telling his grandson that if he lives in Israel, he has to go to the army. So Rabbi Hoffman is positing that according to Rav Yaakov, "Torah=chess"?
Or how about Rav Elyashiv, who also minimized a source in Chazal about the protective merits of Torah scholars? This was with regard to a wave of burglaries in a particular Charedi neighborhood. Rav Elyashiv stated that "The principle of תלמידי חכמים אינם צריכים שמירה only applies in a normal situation, before there is a rash of burglaries. However, now that there already was a rash of burglaries it would be considered a miracle for the talmid chacham not to be harmed. Therefore the principle of תלמידי חכמים אינם צריכים שמירה does not apply and everyone has to pay equally for the security company." So Rabbi Hoffman is positing that according to Rav Elyashiv, "Torah=chess"?
Or how about Radvaz? Responsa Radvaz 2:752 greatly restricts the extent of the Gemara's ruling about Torah scholars being exempt from contributing towards security, including stating that it does not apply in cases where the rabbis consider themselves in need of protection. So Rabbi Hoffman is positing that according to Radvaz, "Torah=chess"?
It should further be noted that Rabbi Hoffman's blanket statement that "Gedolei HaPoskim" believe that these sources exempt yeshivah students from IDF service is simply not true. Aside from all the Israeli Religious Zionist Gedolei HaPoskim who clearly hold that at least most yeshivah students should serve in the army, here we have Rav Yaakov ztz"l and Rav Schachter shlita who clearly disagree with Rabbi Hoffman.
When Rabbi Hoffman states that "The Gemorah, the Midrashim, and contemporary Gedolei Torah both from the Zionist world and the Chareidi world all say that Torah protects," this is deeply misleading. Saying "Torah scholars protect" or even "Torah protects" does not equal "all yeshivah students should be exempt from the army."
II. Geographic Concentration
In my critique, I noted that the concept of Torah providing protection is that it is concentrated in the area where the Torah scholar actually is. Rabbi Hoffman claims that I "made this up." Really? Let's see. The Yerushalmi, Chagigah 1:7, speaks about teachers of Torah being the protectors of the city. In general, reason indicates that if one accepts the concept of zechus - merits created by good deeds - that they spread outwards, decreasing in intensity with distance. A person's merits are strongest for his immediate family, and for those in his town. For righteous people to have saved Sodom, they would have had to have been living in Sodom.
And the charedi world agrees. The Chazon Ish, and, yibedal lechaim, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, said that Bnei Brak is safe from missiles. The Torah study of that town apparently protects it, and it alone. Likewise, when the 300-strong Grodno yeshivah relocated from Ashdod to Bet Shemesh due to the war in the South, a prominent Torah scholar in Bet Shemesh was quoted in the Chadash weekly as stating that "We have no doubt that the efforts of the residents of Bet Shemesh, such that the sound of Torah should not cease from one yeshivah, is the 'iron dome' of the city; it is the true protection, and the cause that our residents have not been part of the bloodshed." The merits of those facilitating Torah study provide protection that is greatest in its immediate locale.
Yet the charedi Gedolim ordered the charedi yeshivos to flee from Ashdod. Why? There are two possibilities, and neither look good. One possibility is that they don't really believe that the Torah study of yeshivah students protects to the degree that soldiers are able to provide protection (which, according to Rabbi Hoffman, means that the Gedolim believe that Torah=chess). The other possibility is that they do believe that the Torah study of yeshivah students protects to the degree that soldiers are able to provide protection, but they also feel that the remaining risk is still one that yeshivah students should not take. But if soldiers are risking their lives to provide protection for others, why shouldn't yeshivah students do the same, if they are claiming an exemption from the army due to providing equivalent protection?
III. Protection from Economic and Health Problems
In my critique, I noted that the statements in the Gemara about the protective value of Torah scholars refer to protection from all kinds of harm – economic harm and disease as well as military threats. Yet one never sees that the charedi world considers themselves less requiring of help in these areas; if anything, the opposite is true! Rabbi Hoffman responds as follows:
Not sure what the point here is exactly. Is Rabbi Slifkin attempting to disprove the statements in Chazal that Torah affords protection? And aside from pandering to some stereotyped notions, how is he proving this exactly? Because Chareidim recognize the need to go to top doctors? Actually, Rabbi Slifkin is no longer minimizing “Torah > Chess.” Here his point here is to show that “Torah = Chess.” There is no other way of reading his challenge.
It is curious that Rabbi Hoffman claims that there is "no other way" of reading my challenge, because he has apparently failed to understand the plain meaning of my words. I was not attempting to disprove the statements in Chazal that Torah affords protection. Rather, I was demonstrating that Charedim themselves do not believe that their Torah study protects from economic and health problems such that they do not need to do their practical hishtadlus. In Rabbi Hoffman's world, this means that charedim believe that Torah=chess. For the rest of us, this means that charedim do not believe that aggadic statements about the protective benefits of a Torah scholar can be applied in a practical way today to the Torah study of the masses.
IV. Is There Really A Danger?
In my critique, I observed that it's just plain silly to claim that we would lose "crucial protection" if some (and not all) yeshivah students spend some time in the army. Yeshivos give their students a month off in Nissan, three weeks off in Tishrei, and three weeks off in the summer – and did so even during the war in the North. If that’s good enough for a fifth of the year, it’s hard to believe that a couple of thousand young men in the army at any given time, while there are tens of thousands still in yeshivah, can cause a crucial security problem. To this, Rabbi Hoffman responded that "Yeshiva students still study during Bein HaZmanim." Indeed, some study to a large degree. But most are learning only a small amount, which apparently is not a grave threat to national security. Indeed, as pointed out, they even did this during the war in the North. If it's safe to have such a decline in Torah study for a fifth of the year, why can't they spend some time in the army?
V. Gedolei Torah from the Zionist World
In Rabbi Hoffman's original article, he attempted to argue that Religious Zionist Gedolei Torah believed that yeshivah students should be exempt from army service. Rabbi Hoffman quoted a story about Rav Kook, and I pointed out that he neglected to mention that the incident concerned the British army in WWI, not the Israeli army defending Israel! Rabbi Hoffman claims that this omission is irrelevant, since "Rav Kook was arguing for a release based upon studying Torah." But it makes all the difference in the world when this is being weighed up against the small importance of helping England, versus the tremendous importance of defending the Jewish People and Israel (not to mention the fact that it was virtually impossible to eat kosher food and keep Shabbos in the British army).
It is none other than Rav Kook's son, Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, who described such misappropriations of Rav Kook's position as “a distortion and utter falsehood.” He explained that "whereas in England, the demand was that the yeshiva students fight for a foreign army, here we are fighting for our hold on the land of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem. This is undoubtedly a milchemet mitzvah." Would Rabbi Hoffman have us believe that he understands Rav Kook's position better than Rav Kook's own son?!
I further pointed out that Rabbi Hoffman's attempts to recruit Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook and Rav Shaul Yisraeli in support of his thesis were a distortion of their views. Rabbi Hoffman does not argue with my correction - he simply says that others disagree. Indeed they do. But this does not mean that it was legitimate to misrepresent their view. Furthermore, here again we have Rabbi Hoffman effectively saying that according to Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook and Rav Shaul Yisraeli, Torah=chess!
VI. No Halachic Exemption for Torah Students
A crucial point that I stressed is that there is simply no traditional halachic exemption for yeshivah students. There are exemptions - in the case of milchemes reshus, but not for milchemes mitzvah - for people who are newly married, who have built houses, and who have planted vineyards. The precise details of these categories are discussed in halachic literature - does it apply to someone who has re-married? How many trees is considered a vineyard? There is no discussion in halachic literature of the details of the exemption for a yeshivah student, however. The reason is that there is no such exemption.
Rabbi Hoffman, however, claims that there is such an exemption in traditional halachic literature:
In Hilchos Shmitah v’Yovel 13:10 we learn of Shaivet Levi’s special status and treatment. Three Halachos later (13:13) the Rambam says that anyone who wishes to devote himself to full time Torah study can share the status of Shaivet Levi.
I've addressed this much-abused Rambam in a dedicated post, but here is a brief summary. First of all, Rambam is not making a halachic statement here at all. As is common with the closing paragraphs of the different sections of the Mishneh Torah, Rambam here is presenting mussar rather than halachah.
Second, it stretches credulity to posit that Rambam, in discussing the halachos regarding going to the army in Hilchos Melachim u'Milchamos chapter 7, entirely omitted an extremely significant category of exemption, and simply obliquely hints at it elsewhere.
Third, Rambam is clearly not making a full comparison of Torah students to the tribe of Levi. The special status and treatment of Levi mentioned by Rambam includes that Levi does not gain a inheritance in the land of Israel. This did not and does not apply to Torah students!
Fourth, even if one wishes to claim that Rambam neglected to mention an exemption in Hilchos Melachim, and implies it here, what kind of person is Rambam talking about? Here is a quote from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein:
...Even if we grant that the Rambam's statement does imply a categorical dispensation in purely halachic terms, it remains of little practical significance. We have yet to examine just to whom it applies. A levi [sic] is defined genealogically. Those who are equated with him, however, literally or symbolically, are defined by spiritual qualities; and for these the Rambam sets a very high standard indeed. He present an idealized portrait of a selfless, atemporal, almost ethereal person - one whose spirit and intelligence have led him to divest himself of all worldly concerns and who has devoted himself "to stand before God, to serve Him, to worship Him, to know God; and he walks aright as the Lord has made him and he has cast off from his neck the yoke of the many considerations which men have sought." To how large a segment of the Torah community - or, a fortiori, of any community - does this lofty typology apply? To two percent? Five Percent? Can anyone... confront a mirror and tell himself that he ought not to go to the army because he is kodesh kodashim, sanctum sanctorum, in the Rambam's terms?
Again, however, the most straightforward understanding of Rambam is that there is no comparison of spiritual elites to the tribe of Levi vis-a-vis a halachic exemption from army service. Rav Asher Tanenbaum, who was the secretary of the Va'ad Ha-Yeshivot in Israel, heard from Ha-Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer that it is a falsification to claim based on this Rambam that yeshiva students are exempt from military service.
VII. The Issue of Fairness
In my critique, I noted that even if the current security situation does not require everyone to be drafted, it certainly requires a lot of people to be drafted. It is unacceptable for the charedi community to declare that this manpower should only be drawn from other communities and not from its own. Rabbi Hoffman quotes an assessment from the top IDF experts that there is no manpower shortage. Well, there is also no shortage of dollars in the Jewish people, but that doesn’t mean that when someone comes collecting, you can simply avoid doing your part and rely on the dollars coming from others. The IDF has to recruit a certain number of people every year. Why should only non-charedim make up this manpower? Let us return to Moshe Rabbeinu’s words, “Shall your brothers go out to war, while you remain here?” He does not allow for these tribes to stay beyond the Jordan and learn Torah. And nor does he say that the extra manpower is needed. Rather, Moshe Rabbeinu makes a simple argument from fairness.
In response, Rabbi Hoffman states that the request is only to exempt those studying Torah, not the entire charedi community. He agrees that that the chareidi community should also participate if they are not learning Torah: "Rav Shteinman agreed as well, and was the driving force behind Nachal Chareidi. Unfortunately, the Yesh Atid initiative destroyed the growth opportunity for the recruitment of Nachal Chareidi."
Unfortunately, Rabbi Hoffman has matters exactly backwards. Had the charedi community been serious about sending non-Torah learners to the army, then the Yesh Atid initiative would never have gotten off the ground. Nachal Charedi only has around 1000 soldiers, which are actually mostly from the Zionist community. The Charedi community was never remotely interested in identifying which boys are not seriously learning in yeshivah and sending them to the army. The idea that a few hundred charedim in the army represents a fair sharing of the burden by the charedi community - a community that claims 66,000 draft exemptions - is absurd and offensive.
VIII. The Issue of Concern and Gratitude
The problem of charedim not serving in the army is compounded by their lack of concern and gratitude for those who do serve. Rabbi Hoffman agreed that it is important to express our sincere hakaras haTov and pray for the welfare and well-being of the IDF, and lamented that it is "unfortunate that some do not." To this, I objected that he is vastly downplaying the extent of the problem. It’s not “some” who do not. It’s the entire charedi world.
Rabbi Hoffman responded that "it is a significant amount, but it is not the entire Chareidi world.... There are many, many Chareidim who dedicate their learning and Tefilos to ensure the safety of soldiers and the populace. It is dishonest, and wrong to spew such hate speech."Obviously I did not mean that there is not a single charedi person who davvens for the welfare of the IDF. But, as a general pattern, it is absolutely true to say that the charedim do not express hakaras hatov or pray for the safety of the soldiers, and absolutely false to say that only "some" do not. Of the hundreds of thousands of charedim in the rallies last week, how many express hakaras hatov or pray for the safety of the soldiers? How many charedi shuls and yeshivos say the Misheberach for the IDF, or recite Tehillim for their welfare? How many charedi yeshivos dedicate their study sessions to the IDF? Does Mir? Ponovezh? Lakewood? Chevron? Kol Torah? Ateres Yisrael?
IX. The Issue of Unity
In the concluding part of my critique, I objected to Rabbi Hoffman's calls for unity. Rabbi Hoffman expresses surprise at this. But the reason for my objection is not that I am against unity. Rather, I strongly feel that unity does not mean refraining from criticizing the wrongdoing of others, and nor does it mean talking about love and peace. Unity is when everyone shares the responsibilities and concerns of the entire nation.
Virtually no charedim serve in the army. The entire charedi community just demonstrated against efforts to enforce army service for a relatively small number of charedim. Rabbi Hoffman wrote a very lengthy article which attempted to justify the charedi stance. It included just two sentences about how everyone should show concern and appreciation for those who serve, and it severely minimized the extent of the problem with those who do not. It also severely minimized the problem with charedim who, according to Rabbi Hoffman's own thesis, should serve in the army but do not. Rabbi Hoffman has not written an article for the charedi press about how they should show concern and appreciation for those who serve. Nor has he written an article for the charedi press about how they should identify who is not really learning in yeshivah and send them to the army. Yes, he wrote an article criticizing Ami magazine for stripping Rabbi Dov Lipman of his semicha and comparing him to a Nazi, and I commend him for this. But this is hardly sufficient.
So, yes, I repeat: Rabbi Hoffman, please spare us your calls for unity on this issue. If you are concerned about real unity, then please work to address the problem that charedim do not share the burden of army service. And if you are concerned about expressions of unity, then please work to address the problem that charedim do not express concern or gratitude for people in the army. In the meanwhile, please understand that many people, following the views of Gedolei Torah, differ with your understanding of the issue, and are severely disappointed and hurt by the charedi world. Like Rav Schachter, we consider it scandalous. This does not mean that we are "spewing hatred" or out to "bash charedim." Such condemnation of our perspective is not conducive to love, peace or unity.