Torah Against Terror?

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27 Oct 2015
Rav Uri Sherky

In the wake of the recent spate of terror attacks in Israel, there have been calls for people to take action to prevent these attacks. Some of the specific actions being sought are for people to learn Torah. Thus, for example, in the US there is a “Shmira Project” – organizing people to learn Torah as a way to “do their part” to protect people in Israel.

But at the other end of the scale, Rav Uri Sherky, of the dati-leumi Machon Meir, told his class that the calls to strengthen Torah and prayer are “utter nonsense.” He clarified that “it is obvious that we must always strengthen the study of Torah and fear of Heaven, but it’s beside the point.” Rav Sherky stated that what needs to be done is to empower the nation on both a national level, via enforcing Israeli sovereignty, and on an individual level, with people learning how to defend themselves in combat. He argued, “Don’t hide behind slack-handed religious activity, which has nothing to do with what’s happening.” Predictably, this triggered a furious response from others, such as former Shas minister Shlomo Benizri, who described Rav Sherky as being the “partner of Amalek.”

Before analyzing this topic, let’s first scale down the rhetoric. It’s clear that Rav Sherky is not opposing increasing the study of Torah, just as it’s clear that his opponents are not opposing increasing military enforcement and individuals learning self-defense. Rather, the dispute is primarily over emphasis. But I would like to add that there is also crucial relevance to rationalist vs. non-rationalist worldviews.

Let us first note that if we look at traditional sources, we certainly do not see that Torah study is prescribed as the primary response to security threats. In Tanach, of course, there is no mention whatsoever of learning Torah as protection against danger – instead, it is military action that is described, along with prayer. In the writings of Chazal and classical Torah authorities, we likewise see that with regard to spiritual efforts to ward off danger, the primary emphasis is on prayer, not Torah study. Yaakov, when meeting Eisav, is said to have prepared himself for prayer, appeasement and battle – there is no mention of studying Torah. Traditionally, if Jews were in danger, other Jews sought to spiritually assist them by praying for them, not learning on their behalf.

Still, Torah study is also traditionally stated to have protective value. The Gemara (Sotah 21a andMakkos 10a) says that the study of Torah protects a person from certain types of harm. In addition, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 108a and Bava Basra 7b) rules that Torah scholars are exempt from the expense of building protective walls for the city, since they are protected by virtue of the Torah they learn.

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. And of course, it’s hard to say that such notions have significant empirical value for us – just think of the Torah scholars who have been murdered in terror attacks, sometimes on their way to perform mitzvos. But in this post, I would like to return to a different angle, that I have discussed previously – the very nature of this protection.

As we have discussed before, the mystical and rationalist schools of thought have very different ideas regarding what mitzvos actually do. According to 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 difference between rationalist and mystical approaches with regard to the relevance of Torah study to providing protection is similar to the topic that I discussed in my essay “What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?” 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.

Likewise, in this case, the mystical/ charedi approach is that Torah study creates metaphysical protective forces. These can be set up to protect one’s own city. But they can also be exported, via declarations of designation, to other places.

The rationalist approach to the notion of Torah providing protection would be very different. (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 relates to the idea of the personal merit of the person studying Torah, rather than a metaphysical protection provided by the Torah study itself. This personal merit can perhaps also be effective for one’s community, but it is not an entity or commodity that can be transferred.

It seems that the rationalist approach has stronger support from classical sources. The Gemara inSotah speaks about the zechus, the merit, of Torah, rather than speaking of the “protective power” of Torah. And the Gemara speaking about Torah scholars not requiring protection does not phrase it 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.

In summary: According to classical Judaism, the primary way of defending ourselves against our enemies is with military means. The primary spiritual defensive tool is prayer. You can also create a merit for yourself by learning Torah, and you can pray on behalf of anyone. But you can’t export the merit of your Torah to other people.

This article originally appeared on Rabbi Slifkin’s blog.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.