Another Revolution in Judaism
One way or another, many people today are worked up about revolutions and reformations in Judaism. In light of that, I was very surprised at the results of my investigation into the topic of what a person can do for someone who has passed away. It revealed that there has been a complete reformation in this area, yet it is one that has slid by without people noticing or objecting.
For those who didn't read my monograph on this topic that I posted, here is the brief summary: Today, it is almost universally believed that anyone can learn Torah and do mitzvos to give an aliyah to the neshamah of someone who has passed away. It is further almost universally believed that this has always been the normative position in Judaism, with no dissenting views. But prior to the late 19th century, every authority to weigh in on this topic stated that one cannot learn Torah (or do other mitzvos, with the possible exception of charity) to benefit the soul of someone who has passed away, unless that person was your ancestor (or otherwise had an influence on your life).
It's not quite a complete revolution, because there are still Torah scholars who maintain the traditional position; in a footnote in my monograph, there is a great story about Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky. But I think that this is the exception rather than the rule (I would welcome being corrected on this if I am mistaken).
How did such a revolution take place? How did a concept go from novel chiddush that is opposed by all Geonim and Rishonim, to normative viewpoint with no mention of dissenting views, in just 150 years?
Could it be that people are simply unaware that this is a novel chiddush that is opposed by all Geonim and Rishonim? In many cases, this is undoubtedly so. But amongst Torah scholars who generally research traditional views on matters, and who write about this very topic, it's difficult to imagine that they are entirely unaware of this.
In some cases, it occurred as a result of people wanting to encourage Torah study. To quote a certain prominent Rosh Yeshivah (this is a second-hand quote, so I don't know if the quote is exact): "Although there is no classical source for the concept that one can transfer the reward of mitzvos to other people, we want to do things for people who have passed away, and we want people to learn Torah, so we encourage this concept and hope that Hashem has a way of connecting the dots."
In other cases, it occurred as a result of people wanting to obtain financial support for Torah study. For example, there is a popular book about how to give an aliyah to the neshamah, which makes no mention of the Geonim and Rishonim, and which speaks about how the best aliyah is given by funding Torah study in a kollel; it further states that the second-best aliyah is given by tzedakah and that the best kind of tzedakah is funding Torah study in a kollel. Not surprisingly, this book is co-published by a kollel, which is dedicated to, and funded by, this concept.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well, if you follow the view of Rambam and others regarding being supported vs. working, and you believe that the contemporary mass kollel system is not a good thing and should not be propped up, then there is no reason for distorting classical Torah views on how to help someone who has passed away. If you believe that the contemporary mass kollel system is a good thing, then you will generally be in favor of attempts to support it, but you still might be leery of distorting the history of rabbinic positions on this matter in order to take financial advantage of people (especially people who are mourning the loss of someone). On the other hand, a person might be so desperate for financial support that this does not stop him. Chazal say that "if a person does not teach his son a trade, then he has taught him to steal" - and distorting the history of rabbinic positions on this matter is much easier than stealing! (Note that unless a person has been in dire financial straits oneself, one should not judge the actions of others in such circumstances. It is the fault of the system that brought them to this point.)
Whatever the reason, we see here yet another example of how the normative and traditional positions of Torah Judaism are sometimes not only modified, but completely overturned.