So, what IS the Gedolims' Justification?
After I wrote about the collector at my door who freely agreed that he was going against Chazal and the Rishonim and Jewish tradition, someone posted the following question:
Rabbi Slifkin: a la your Karate Mussar article, could you present the perspective of the *gedolim* on the kollel issue? You've written about the self-justifications of the chareidi world when it comes to the real reasons why they don't go to the army, etc. but I wonder what is the reasoning of the gedolim of our generation, not the hamon am. That is, not only Rav Chaim (who didn't just arrive on the scene as a nonagenarian of course), but Rav Shteinman z"l, Rav Elyashiv z"l, etc. After all, as your new friend pointed out, they also know the Chazal and rishonim. I found that to be a thought-provoking point. I'm not suggesting that we submit to their authority. I'm asking what are they thinking.
An excellent question! Indeed, as I have stressed many times, one should fully understand a position before disputing it. So, here is the explanation.
The first thing to bear in mind is that it's not as though the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah sat together and looked at the sources and considered the situation and worked out a developed position, resulting in a communal policy. Rather, the mass kollel phenomenon is something that evolved over time, based on several different factors. So we should not be surprised if it indeed cannot be reconciled with classical Torah positions.
As an analogy, consider the case of the Gedolim declaring it heretical to challenge Chazal's statements about the natural world. Now, as can be seen from the Talmud's discussion in Pesachim about the sun's path at night, all the Geonim and Rishonim, bar none, were of the view that Chazal were indeed saying that the sun goes behind the sky at night, and most of them are of the view that Chazal were mistaken about this. So how does such a view go from being universal to heretical? Because it's not as though the Gedolim sat and investigated this topic. Rather, their position evolved over time from a number of different influences - sixteenth-century innovations in metaphysical interpretations of the Talmud, the reaction to the haskalah, etc. By the time all this coalesced into a blanket position that Chazal's statement about the world are infallible, there hadn't even been an attempt to reconcile this with the views of all the Geonim and Rishonim on the passage in Pesachim. Which is why the Gedolim refuse to even discuss it - because they have no way to do so.
The same is true with the contemporary mass kollel movement and the rejection of the Talmudic/ Rishonic ideal of being self-supportive. There was all kinds of influences which caused this to gradually develop. These include:
The innovative transformation of the mitzvah of Torah study by R. Chaim of Volozhin, in which Torah lishmah, newly defined as meaning study for its own sake, became an ideal, with enormous metaphysical power;
The destruction of European Jewry, which caused rabbinic leaders to declare "Es la'asos l'Hashem, heferu Torasecha" and overturn previous norms in order to make up for the Torah losses of Europe (and fictitious views of pre-war Europe led people to believe that there was much more Torah study back then than actually existed);
The immigration to Israel and blending with the Old Yishuv, in which there was a tiny number of Jews who dedicated themselves to studying Torah in the Holy Land while being supported by voluntary donations from abroad;
The emergence of the welfare state and of great wealth among Orthodox Jewry, via which mass kollel became practically viable;
The threats of the haskalah and modern society resulting in hostility to secular education and to stepping outside the safety of the Beis HaMidrash;
The IDF compulsory draft, for which Toraso u'mnaso is the only legal exemption;
The primacy of Torah in Judaism resulting in a belief that learning Torah is an idealistic/ superior way to live.
All these factors (and probably others that I've forgotten) converged to cause the evolution of the current charedi system of mass kollel and children not being educated or raised to work for a living. When people raise objections from sources in Chazal or the Rishonim or tradition, all that happens is that there is an ad hoc attempt to explain these away.
Understanding the various factors involved is, of course, necessary for understanding how to counter this tremendously harmful development, which threatens to destroy Israel's economy, followed by the military, followed by the country. But understanding the causes doesn't mean that the solutions can be easily figured out. Changing the mindset of an entire generation is an immense challenge.
Dropping the draft would help and is the smart thing to do, but it is difficult to implement because it is grossly unfair and currently illegal. Teaching the correct traditional views is something that I'm attempting to do, but runs into problems because people just say that "the Gedolim say otherwise."
Twenty-five years ago, the late Dr. Yehuda Levi (of Torah Study fame) told me that he asked one of the Gedolim (I forget who) that surely now that numbers had recovered since the Holocaust, it was time to cancel the "Eis La'asos" and revert to the traditional norm of people working for a living. The Gadol replied that this indeed may be the case, but he lacks the authority to do so, since he is not as great as the Gedolim who instituted the change. Thus, the extreme approach to Yeridas HaDoros in charedi society means that a temporary emergency measure can never be undone.
It's a big, big problem, that is getting bigger every year; recent changes in parts of charedi society are numerically insignificant compared to the rest. There's no easy or quick solution. We have to try a number of different strategies. This is one of the biggest crises facing the Jewish People, and we all need to figure out what we can do to address it.
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