Monday, January 12, 2009

Moving yeshivos out of danger zones: doesn't Torah protect?

Question raised on many other blogs: Isn't it hypocritical for yeshivos and talmidei chachamim to move out of towns within range of the Hamas rockets when these same students and talmidei chachamim use the fact that "Torah protects" (Sotah 21a) as a reason for army service exemption?

Firstly, the question makes the assumption that the primary reason for draft exemption is because Torah itself affords protection. Whether or not that is the only source for exempting talmidei chachamim from army service is debatable. The Rambam (end of Hil Shmitah) famously writes that anyone who devotes his life to avodas Hashem can take on the spiritual role filled by Sheivet Levi and be exempt from fighting wars just like the Leviim were. Conspicuously absent from the Rambam is any mention of Torah itself affording protection from danger as a reason for the exemption. At least on a theoretical level (and practical halacha is a separate discussion), the idea of exemption from army duty for the sake of Torah learning rests on more than the idea that "Torah protects".

But even without the charge of hypocrisy, the question still stands: why flee danger when Torah protects?

I don't understand why this question is raised now as if no historical precedent for the issue exists. The story of the Mir yeshiva's escape from Europe to Shaghai during WWII is well known. That escape included saving the likes of R' Chaim Shmuelevitz, R' Yerucham Lebovitz, etc. Question: if Torah protects, why not just leave the yeshiva intact in Europe? Surely the yeshiva itself, if not the surrounding area as well, would come to no harm because "Torah protects". Would those who question moving yeshivos out of the danger zone in Southern Israel similarly think that the Mir should have stayed put? If not, what's the difference between that situation and this one?

But more to the point, the idea that "Torah protects" being an immunity from all danger is simply a straw-man. Halacha itself tells us that we cannot ignore danger because of the promise of Divine protection. Why did the bris milah I was supposed to attend yesterday morning get postponed because the baby was in the hospital with an infection? The same gemara which tells us that Torah protects tells us that no harm can come from the performance of a mitzvah. In fact, the Chasam Sofer goes so far as to say (Shu"t Y.D. 245) that every milah is inherently a dangerous procedure and is permitted only because of this protection that stems from the mitzvah's performance. So why postponse any bris? Why not mal a hemophiliac baby and trust that no harm can come from the performance of a mitzvah?

The answer is that halacha makes distinctions between degrees of danger. For example, even though shluchei mitzvah are promised protection from harm, where bari hezeika, where there is a clear and evident danger, one must take precautions. Poskim also further differentiate between danger that can be avoided e.g. by moving and danger that cannot be avoided - see Sdei Chemed vol 9 #82.

There is no contradiction between claiming Torah protects those who engage in its study and at the same time recognizing that there are limits to that protection. Whether the protection which would be sufficient during times of relative peace is sufficient given 1) the increased danger of war and 2) the possibility of avoiding the danger by moving is not a simple issue.


  1. Anonymous4:35 PM

    That escape included saving the likes of R' Chaim Shmuelevitz, R' Yerucham Lebovitz, etc. Question: if Torah protects, why not just leave the yeshiva intact in Europe?

    Of note; those who went to Shanghai felt that their protection was only due to being part of the Yeshiva.My grandfather had a visa to leave Shanghai and was told by the Roshey Yeshiva, not risk the solitary trip through hostile waters as staying with the (zchus of) Yeshiva would be more secure.Two bochrim who did not heed that advice, were intercepted along that way and spent the war years in a prison camp alone.Both severely regreted it.

  2. Anonymous6:16 AM

    Unfortunately, a better proof of your point is what happened to the Yeshivot that did not flee.
    BTW, most gedolim, apparently mindful of the disastrous spiritual consequences of the exodus of yeshivot in WWI, were against leaving during WWII. It was Rav Leib Malin who organized the movement in Mir to escape.

  3. I was thinking along the same lines as well. If one takes the idea of protection to a limitless degree than one has a kashe unfortunately from so many times in Jewish history that we know communities were destroyed despite their piety and Torah scholarship.