Anti-Rationalism and the Kollel System
In the previous post, I discussed the approach to financed Torah study in the times of the Rishonim. In Ashkenaz, financing Torah study was unheard of; virtually all Torah scholars were self-supporting, and the only thing that was permitted was financing Torah teaching. In Sefard, while there was a system of financial support for Torah scholarship, this was partly because there was very little of it to support. Furthermore, many of the Rishonim in these lands limited this license to Torah scholars who were serving in a professional capacity for the benefit of the community. In addition, even to the extent that financial support was permitted, it was constantly stressed that the ideal is to be self-sufficient, even at the cost of learning less.
Given that history, how is it that today there are so many halachic authorities in the Charedi world who say that it is perfectly legitimate to finance mass kollel, and that there is no reason for people to strive to be self-supportive? It is true that Judaism does change, but this is a complete inversion not just of halachah, but also of values!
The answer usually given is that this reflects yeridas ha-doros. We live in emergency times that require emergency measures - Eis La'asos l'Hashem, Heferu Torosecha. We live in such a spiritually impoverished generation that it is essential to boost Torah study via financial means. And the Rishonim could become the Rishonim even while working to support themselves, but today people cannot.
The problem is that this perspective is inherently rooted in an anti-rationalist approach that is ignorant of history. It may well be true that mid-twentieth century America was a spiritual emergency zone. But it cannot remotely be said that the situation today, in the 21st century, is an emergency situation compared to the time of the Rishonim. There is vastly more Torah being studied than ever before. People have idyllic, romanticized views of the past, which have no basis in fact. The state of Torah study in much of Sephard was exceedingly weak.
Furthermore, the idea that we today cannot match the Rishonim of Ashkenaz who were financially self-sufficient, because we would never become as great as them, is based on a non-rationalist view as to who these Rishonim were. From a rationalist perspective, there is no reason to believe that they were actually more intelligent or more spiritually dedicated than the best people of our era. The reason why society today does not produce anyone revered as a Rashi, a Rosh, or a Rambam, has nothing to do with any inherent deficiency in people today. Rather, it is due to three factors:
One is that it was much easier to become proficient in the whole Torah when the whole Torah wasn't very big. People today spend a good chunk of their learning schedule studying material that simply didn't exist 800 years ago. And if someone were to only learn what the Rishonim learned, they probably wouldn't be respected today.
Second is that it is assumed today that the Rishonim were much more brilliant than they actually were. Of course Rambam was a genius, and his Mishneh Torah is a work of genius that has much more to it than meets the eye. But it doesn't contain the genius of Rav Chaim Brisker's chiddushim!
Third is that it is the historical context, in combination with the previous two factors, that makes the Rishonim appear unmatchable. If Rabbi Ploni today were to write a work of Torah scholarship that is equivalent to the works of the Rishonim, it would simply go unnoticed. But send it back in a time machine to 800 years ago, and now you'd see that it has endless commentaries and Rabbi Ploni is hailed as Rabbeinu Ploni, one of the Rishonim who made an amazing and vital contribution to Jewish scholarship.
For all these reasons (and others), we see that is the contemporary anti-rationalist outlook which leads to the rulings and values of the Rishonim being completely undermined.