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Nov 26, 2012

The Iron Dome of Bet Shemesh

A Guest Post by Rabbi Scott Kahn

Chadash weekly related a fascinating story that demonstrates the power of Torah study to defend against missle attacks.

The newspaper explains that the constant sirens that overtook Ashdod during last week’s fighting not only endangered the students at a certain yeshiva, but also disturbed their learning.  Accordingly, the yeshiva moved to a beit midrash in Nachalah u'Menucha here in Beit Shemesh.  Many local institutions and yeshivot helped with the logistics, including preparing meals and doing the students’ laundry.

The story continues, "One of the important talmidei chachamim from the Kiryah HaChareidit told us, 'There is no doubt that the volunteerism of the population of Beit Shemesh so that the sound of Torah study not stop... is the Iron Dome of the city; it was the true shield upon us, and that which is the reason that the residents of the city (i.e., Beit Shemesh) are not part of the cycle of bloodshed.'"

I find this attitude very troubling.

I agree that Torah learning is a means of guarding the city (albeit an indirect one, in a time which is not yet the geulah shleima).  Yet if the volunteerism for the sake of Torah is the real reason that Beit Shemesh was not targeted, wouldn't it have made more sense for the yeshiva to have stayed in the South, which was obviously more in the line of fire than Beit Shemesh?  Indeed, couldn't we argue that by welcoming the yeshiva to Beit Shemesh, the residents who accept that Torah is guarding them rather than Tzahal were being extraordinarily selfish?

Wouldn't the natural extension of their philosophy be that instead of helping the yeshiva relocate, people should have encouraged them to stay and learn in Ashdod - on the front lines - where they could do the most good?  In fact, shouldn't all yeshivot that abide by the philosophy that Torah guards the city (and accordingly assert their right to stay out of the IDF because their learners are doing more for Israel by learning than by fighting) have relocated to the South, rather than encouraging the yeshivot in the South to relocate to Beit Shemesh?  Again, I don't deny that Torah guards the city.  But the hypocrisy in situations like that mentioned in Chadash is astounding, and demands a response.

This stands in stark contrast to the Hesder yeshiva in Sderot, headed by Rabbi Duv Fendel, which temporarily relocated its Kiryat Gat branch to Sderot, and instituted shifts so that Torah was learned in the Beit Midrash for 24 hours a day.  This yeshiva, the students of which serve in the IDF, supported the war effort both physically and spiritually.  If the Chareidi population claims that their learning is in lieu of actively fighting, and that their only contribution to the war effort is their learning (unlike the Hesder yeshivot, which both learn and send soldiers to the front), I would expect that they would be even more stringent about relocating to the most endangered areas.

I would, accordingly, like to make a suggestion to resolve the ongoing impasse regarding Chareidi service in the IDF.  Perhaps the most obvious solution is to take the Chareidi public at its word: that its yeshiva and kollel students are the equivalent of IDF soldiers, and are doing their part to protect the State of Israel.

What if the Chareidi yeshivot and kollelim for students aged 18-22 were administered by a new branch of the IDF?  The IDF would allow the curriculum to be completely determined by the administrations of the yeshivot and kollelim themselves.  The hashkafa of these yeshivot and kollelim would not be affected, nor would any aspect of the yeshiva day.  The primary differences would be that:
  ---    The students would be paid like other members of the IDF
  ---    They would have the same hours every day as regular enlisted soldiers in the IDF – and an unauthorized absence or lateness would be punished as such things normally are in the army
  ---     Students would be expected to learn specifically for the safety of the State of Israel
  ---     In the event of hostilities, the students would be sent to learn at yeshivot near the front, rather than staying safely out of harm’s way, in order to maximize the protective merit of their Torah study

I know full well that this will never be accepted.  Secular Jews would complain that it is not fair to allow such a large population to learn rather than fight in the army.  That said, my real question is whether or not the Chareidi leadership and public would accept such an arrangement – and if not, why?

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  1. You missed a bigger irony. Not only should they have stayed in the South, but when they were in the South, their learning didn't help the situation, which is why they kept getting disturbed by the siren and had to leave. If their learning didn't help Ashdod, why assume that their presence safeguarded Beit Shemesh?

    1. Fair point - but I believe that even the staunchest member of the Chareidi public would acknowledge that learning Torah isn't absolute protection, as this is not yet the era of the Geulah Shleima - that is, when the relationship between our actions and the Divine response is direct and apparent, rather than indirect and cloudy. Maximally, the Chareidi public would say that learning helps, though in the case of clear and present danger it is no guarantee. Thus, there is reason to accept (from their perspective) that it helped in Beit Shemesh, where there was less danger to begin with. Still, it remains selfish, even if not inexplicable.

  2. "There is no doubt that the volunteerism of the population of Beit Shemesh so that the sound of Torah study not stop..."

    This means that once they decided to move, the people in Bet Shemesh earned merit by helping them relocate - not any kind of replacement of or superiority to the IDF as you extrapolate. I'm less bothered by calling Torah "the true shield" for Bet Shemesh, since there was none deployed for the city, and ultimately it's just a metaphor.

    However, saying Bet Shemesh kept out of "the cycle of bloodshed" is more disturbing: there were sirens in Beitar, sirens in Yerushalayim, bombs as you say falling in many Torah communities in the south. It seems more appropriate to associate with the greater klal yisrael when putting in efforts for protection - whether those efforts are physical or spiritual hishtadlus - that we should all be protected, not that my little city should be exempt regardless of the terror elsewhere ch"v.

    But meanwhile I'm reading only your translation, not the original. So it gets tricky to interpret the actual intention of the quote.

  3. even the staunchest member of the Chareidi public would acknowledge that learning Torah isn't absolute protection

    You would be surprised - and possibly appalled - at the singularity of השקפת עולם of some of "the staunchest member[s] of the Chareidi public.

    As long as chareidim honestly and genuinely believe that it is their way of life which is the true and only way a Jew can or should, comport him/herself and that they are far superior to such perceived "untermenchen such as Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Liberal (add labels ad nauseam et ad libitum), or that HaShem only listens to prayers emanating from pious and holy Chareidi larynxes then learning Torah will never be a form of protection - absolute or otherwise. Such "learning" is פסול מלכתחילה.

    (NB: Apologies for the length of the penultimate sentence!)

  4. The freeloaders need to stop pulling con jobs on their benefactors and to read an "As if" bit of advice http://cardozoacademy.org/current-thought-to-ponder-by-rabbi-lopes-cardozo/god-and-sandy-ttp-319/

  5. The Charedi world justifies the draft exemption for yeshiva students based on the following:

    1. Torah learning protects everyone
    2. The boys are engaged in מלחמתה של תורה
    3. Talmidie Chachamim don't need protection

    Based on these it would seem that the Yeshivas should stay where they are. If the boys who are learning are engaged in war just like the soldiers why should they abandon their posts? In addition if Torah learning protects, let them stay where they are and be protected by their Torah. Their move undermines the claim for draft exemptions and looks very bad.

    See Yeshivas are moving north out of danger, what about the protection of Torah learning?

    Should yeshiva students move away from the South to avoid the missiles?

  6. R' Dovid Fendel, Rosh Yeshiva of the Hesder Yeshiva in Sderot claims that it may be an issur d'oraysa to flee the South in a time of war based on the Rambam:

    רמב"ם בספר המצוות ל"ת נ"ח : וזה לשון הרמב"ם: שהזהירנו מלירא מן הכופרים בעת המלחמה ושלא נברח מפניהם… וכל מי שייסוג אחור כבר עבר על לא תעשה- שלא תעשה זה מוטל על כל הציבור וכל מי שיכול להחליש בעזיבתו ועוזב מפחד- כבר עבר על לא תעשה

    The Rambam states that this issur applies to everyone (כל הציבור) which would certainly include the Yeshiva students there.

    Source: http://bit.ly/xbALXi

  7. http://thepartialview.blogspot.com/2012/11/shaimos-from-huerricane-sandy-buried-im.html

  8. A very wise man once told me to be careful not to be too insular because eventually you begin to believe your own PR releases - everyone needs someone who can tell them the emperor has no clothes.
    Joel Rich

  9. R. Kahn,

    To reiterate a comment I made on R. Slifkin's blog, if Torah learning is acknowledged by charedim as not providing complete protection, but being a "zechut" which has the capacity to stave off harm, then once the point of genuine "sakana" is reached, and Torah learning is no longer an effective defense, it potentially makes sense to change locations to a place where the "zechut" can still work and keep the city out of harm's way. Point being, there's an internal logic to this that (twisted as it may be) is not necessarily "hypocritical".

    That said...
    1. It's a transparently SELF-SERVING philosophy.
    2. It's NO EXCUSE not to help physically, either in the army or other national service.
    3. It's incredible GA'AVA to claim sole credit for defending the city.
    4. It's a terrible KAFUI TOVA to all the mesirut nefesh of those who DO put their lives on the line.

    So I'm with you in the larger picture. Please share your thoughts here more often!

  10. Thanks - What I find hypocritical is the statement made in Chadash (which Chadash is clearly advocating on some level) that this is the real reason Beit Shemesh was not targeted. The rest is internally consistent to a degree, but the claim that this is the real reason for our safety implies that Torah learning is not a zechut, but The Shield that took care of Beit Shemesh. If so, then go South, my friends!

  11. The yeshivos in the south were in a "catch 22":

    learning Torah protects and saves only in the actual time of study (תורה בעידנא דעסיק בה מגנא ומצלא בעידנא דלא עסיק בה אגוני מגנא אצולי לא מצלא, Sota 21a).

    Now, the students in those yeshivos found it hard to sit in learn due to the constant disturbences of air raid sirens etc. So their Tora study, and its protection, were adversly affected.

  12. Shmuel -
    1) It is a מחלוקת אמוראים whether Torah always saves or only when it is being learned.
    2) Even Rava, who says that it only saves when one is actually learning, agrees that it acts as a shield - meaning, it is not powerless, just less powerful than it would be otherwise. Is that a reason to abandon the areas most in need altogether?
    3) If learning is not effective enough for those in yeshiva to stay in the South, how can they claim exemptions from the IDF on the basis of "We're doing the real protecting"? They can only protect the places that are already reasonably safe! According to this logic, isn't that akin to a soldier abandoning his post to go check bags at the Kotel, which is a far safer assignment? I certainly would never accuse them of thinking that - which begs the question of whether they actually believe that their learning is as important to the war effort as the weapons of the IDF. Perhaps they do in theory, but I don't know how far they are willing to take that philosophy - hence my thought exercise regarding whether they would accept the IDF "Torah Corps" I suggest above.

  13. The bottom line is that there is no detectable earthly correlation between whatever metaphysical "protection" learning may provide and actual defense of our towns and cities.

    I like your idea as it would ferret out those Yeshiva students who actually do believe that their learning is benefiting society.

  14. Face it, we have ample Divine guidance on how to lead Torah lives, but our basic understanding of our impact on current events is tiny.

  15. Scott Kahn for Mara D'asra!!

    Ari Enkin

  16. If Torah study protects, why did the Chazon Ish have to create the "learn don't earn" philosophy (ohmigosh, an innovation!) to replenish the decimated Yeshivah population from Europe? Shouldn't they have all survived the Holocaust?
    Chareidim running for cover says something scary - it's an admission that the philosophy's own proponents don't believe in it but will continue to pretend they do to get free money from the government and not help contribute to the State. It's like stealing your buddy's lulav because it's nicer than yours and you're really medakdek on hiddur mitzvah!

  17. Since all you commenters oppose their philosophy
    Go ahead Boycott them
    if you live in Beit Shemesh refrain from helping them


    You won't, because in your deep insides you sense they're right.
    (and you can't stand it)

    1. First of all, Mr. Anon, most commenters here do not "oppose their" philosophy. They are just intelligent enough to realize that, if such protection exists, it exists in a way that cannot be measured here. Thus, they realize that any claim that that a particular group of learners is protecting a particular city is beyond stupid.

      Further, if anything, some that are paying lip service to this "philosophy" deep inside sense that it's narishkeit. (Especially many in the Chareidi world who can't handle such thoughts and thus get all obnoxious about it.)

    2. You avoided a direct head-on response,

      ah,you must consider these americans suckers(after all,they get convinced by the State to part with their money):

      Dear Friends,

      My wife and I are fortunate to be in Eretz Yisrael for a few days. There have been moments when the Matzav, as it’s called, has been very personal - the siren that sounded yesterday hastened us to a secure room or Miklat. It was the second recent occurrence in Yerushalayim. In cities in the south, it is many times a day.

      It binds all the people into one. One, not only in the plight of having to run for shelter. We are one in holy faith. The Israeli people are strong in faith, in Emunah BaHashem, whether they are observant or not. There is tremendous determination on the part of young and old - we are not caving in to terror, we are not wavering in our belief that we belong here, that it is correct for Am Yisrael to be home - in our national home - in Eretz Yisrael.

      The very fact that Jewish people stay put and have, in the main, not fled their hometowns is a huge expression of commitment and resolve. It generates encouragement to all of the country.

      I visited and spent some time in Yeshivos this afternoon. The sounds of learning, the Kol Torah announces clearly who is in the right. It articulates exactly why we are here - and why we aren’t going to leave. A great measure of Chizuk is afforded by the sounds of Torah emanating from the Batei Medrash, some where our YILC students are learning. The sounds of Torah drown out the effects of the sirens. You can hear and enjoy that kind of sound all day and night in Yerushalayim and throughout this Holy Land. It is the sound that holds the promise of our final victory.

      May it come soon.

      Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum

      Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst

  18. very beautifully written, Rabbi Teitelbaum. Thank you. I dont know if the letter is being quoted by the commentator or if Rabbi Teitelbaum is the commentator, but it does not matter. I am pretty sure Rabbi Kahn appreciates the sound of Torah and the chizuk it affords. After all, Rabbi Kahn is a rosh yeshiva. The discussion his post provoked was around the question of Torah and how much physical protection it provides in relation to yeshivas moving out of the danger areas.

  19. For the life of me, I can't understand why the idea that the Torah protects can be taken to mean anything that has practical implications. If someone's in a dangerous place and bullets are flying in his direction, does anyone really think he should learn Torah as protection, rather than either hide or fire back?

    How is the situation in Israel any different? Because it's not quite as dangerous as described above? That's just a difference in degree of danger but the principle is the same

  20. I agree. I just wrote last week that I cant blame anybody or criticize them for wanting to get out of a danger zone.

    that being said, the article is not doing that nor claiming practical application of that protection. The article is calling out those who moved because of the danger but then said that Bet Shemesh was protected because of the learning. If they apply the protection to an area that is safe, they should be effecting the protection in the area that really needs it.

    It is a "lsheetasam" sort of argument, I think. According to them that it does work on a practical level, as they claimed it did in Bet Shemesh, it should also have worked at least to a degree in Ashdod, and they then should have stayed there to protect Israel.


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