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What Is The Mechanism Via Which Torah Protects?
There is undeniably a traditional concept in Judaism that Torah provides protection from harm. Previously, I have noted that the extent and parameters of this protection are classically (and logically and practically) understood very differently from how contemporary charedi apologists explain it. However, in this post, I would like to discuss a different angle: the very mechanism understood to lie behind this protection. It turns out that this is yet another powerful example of the difference between rationalist and mystical schools of thought.
As we have discussed before, the mystical and rationalist schools of thought have very different ideas regarding what mitzvos actually do. According the rationalist approach, mitzvos improve our characters, our intellect, and society - and do nothing else. According to the mystical approach, on the other hand, mitzvos primarily serve to create and manipulate various metaphysical energies. To pick one example, according to the rationalist approach, mezuzah serves to remind us of our duties, whereas according to the mystical approach, mezuzos create a metaphysical force-field that protects our homes.
The same is true for Torah. According the rationalist approach, learning Torah imparts valuable knowledge, improves our character, and teaches us how to improve society (see my post on The Rishonim on Torah Study.) That is it, and that is all. Which is not, of course, to trivialize these functions - from a rationalist perspective, these are of immense importance! With the rise of mysticism, on the other hand, came a new and primary function of Torah study. As expressed by R. Chaim of Volozhin in Nefesh HaChaim, the primary function of Torah study was now seen as being to create spiritual energies and thereby metaphysically influence the universe. (See my post on The Goal of Torah Study.)
The notion of Torah providing protection is interpreted by mystically-inclined people in line with this. Learning Torah creates a metaphysical force-field around one's city, similar to that created by mezuzah around one's home. The more Torah that is learned, the more powerful the force-field. As one Beit Shemesh rabbi said when the Grodno yeshivah relocated to Beit Shemesh during Cast Lead, "the yeshivah is providing an 'Iron Dome' for Beit Shemesh."
The rationalist approach to the notion of Torah providing protection would be very different. (Note that I am not talking here about extreme rationalist interpretations of Maimonides, but rather about mainstream rationalist approaches that reflect Chazal's understanding in this area.) It would relate to the idea of the personal merit of the Torah scholar, rather than a metaphysical protection provided by the Torah study itself. Note that the Gemara's presentation of this concept is not phrased as "Torah study protects" but rather "Torah scholars are protected." It refers to the person who has performed the act rather than the act itself. Just as Sodom could have been saved in the merit of righteous people, so too righteous people can create a merit which leads to the machinations of enemy forces being divinely repressed.
(This is similar to the topic of benefiting someone who has passed away, discussed a few weeks ago. According to the mystical/ charedi approach, you can benefit anyone who has passed away, via learning Torah and transferring "spiritual currency." According to the classical/ rationalist approach, on the other hand, there is simply no mechanism for such a thing. Instead, only the descendants and disciples of the dead can benefit them, via creating a merit for them.)
One may wonder if there are any ramifications to this difference. In fact, the ramifications are very significant. Consider the following statement by Jonathan Rosenblum, in a criticism of Yesh Atid's plan to limit the number of yeshivah students receiving a full exemption from the draft: "I cannot understand how any believing Jew could ever think that we have enough Torah learning, and all the more so in the present security situation in which six million Jews in Eretz Yisrael find themselves." This reflects the mystical approach in which Torah study provides metaphysical protective energy, and thus the more Torah that is studied, the more protection is provided. With this perspective, it makes little difference as to whether the person should ideally be learning Torah or doing something else - the starting point is that Torah provides metaphysical protective energy.
According to the classical/ rationalist approach, on the other hand, protection is earned not by Torah study itself, but rather as a consequence of the merit of the person learning it. Accordingly, the first question to consider is whether it is indeed meritorious, i.e. whether it is indeed appropriate for the person to be learning Torah. If a community is inappropriately avoiding their share of the national burden, or displays no concern for the rest of the nation, then their Torah students will not necessarily be a source of merit. If so, they do not provide any protective benefits.