Too Much Torah

14 10 2010

[Cross-Posted from Galus Australis]

In Genesis 49:13-15, Jacob blesses the eponymous ancestors of the tribes Zevulun and Issachar and, although the content of the blessings might be a little prosaic to our ears, it has inspired a certain degree of commentary. Zevulun is told that he will dwell by the sea, that he will have many ships, and that he will share his border with the Phoenician seaport of Sidon. Issachar is compared to a crouching donkey with strong bones, which toils hard and pays tribute. In a midrash to the text (Genesis Rabbah 99:9), the rabbis comment upon the fact that Issachar, by virtue of his age, should have been mentioned before Zevulun, and conclude (on the basis of Deuteronomy 33:18) that Issachar’s toil was in the realm of Torah and that Zevulun was being honoured above him for having used his wealth to provide for his brother’s needs.

Like most examples of exegetical midrashim, this one has been largely inconsequential to the majority of Jewish history. And yet, in 1943, when Aharon Kotler founded a large yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, this midrash was on everybody’s lips. In order that married men be able to devote themselves to a life of learning, somebody needs to foot the bills and cover all of their expenses. Taking its mandate from this midrash, and its name from those European funds that enabled religious Jews to study in the Land of Israel before the British Mandate, the “kollel” system is ostensibly a great success. From the perspective of its original aims, however, it is a sad failure.

The first kollel was built in 1877 by Yisroel Lipkin, the founder of the Mussar movement. It was limited to ten students and for a maximum of four years. Today, however – thanks to the work of individuals like Aharon Kotler and Elazar Shach, there are thousands of men in Israel and the United States whose life’s work is to sit and learn. They contribute virtually nothing to their surrounding environment, produce little in the way of novellae that can enrich the corpus, evidence a decidedly skewed perspective on what constitutes Torah (most of these institutions are in the Lithuanian tradition, in which students, for the most part, only study the Talmud and the halakhic codes), and have shown nothing but contempt for the broader Jewish and non-Jewish world. In the US, there is sufficient financial support for them to be tolerated. In Israel, their days are numbered.

The largest kollels in Israel are Ponevezh, in Bnei Brak, and Mir, in Jerusalem, both of which are modelled on yeshivot from Lithuania and Poland, respectively. There are no official publications on the number of non-fee-paying students at these institutions, although there is over a thousand in attendance at Ponevezh, and the enrollment at Mir is close to six thousand. As Noah Efron noted in his highly recommended “Real Jews: Secular vs Utra-Orthodox and the Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel” (2003), ascertaining the amount of money that the government pays these institutions is beset with many difficulties. Given their complete and emphatic rejection of secular and academic life in Israel, can they be said to receive a sum disproportionate to the entitlement of other groups?

It would appear on a sober analysis of the numbers that they do not. And yet, the fact that they accept handouts from the state while openly condemning it has created an environment in which Torah itself is being reviled, and in which there is tremendous resentment of Haredi Judaism. And so, we have to ask: is it worth it?

The philosophy that underpins the modern kollel system suggests that much has been lost in recent years and that, if we are going to combat the pervasiveness of secular society and rebuild the edifice of Torah scholarship, what we need is a radical change of pace. The strikingly innovative nature of the kollel system is not overlooked by its proponents: in order to develop a culture of full-time study and students who have no distractions impinging on their time, such an innovation is deemed to be necessary. This argument is deeply flawed for several reasons.

For a start, there are more Torah students today than have ever existed in the past. Even if one is prepared to take at face value the Talmud’s hyperbolic assertion that Akiva had twenty-four thousand disciples, there is no other period in Jewish history in which the number of scholars even approximates what we find today.

Secondly, the quality of Torah scholarship is of a much higher level today than the proponents of the kollel system give it credit. The assertion that no scholar will ever again attain the greatness of Maimonides or of Joseph Caro is a lie, based on a lie. The perspective that the generations are in decline might find mandate in the rabbinic literature, but is continually belied by reality. To suggest that Joseph Caro was of a lesser stature than Maimonides, or that Maimonides was of a lesser stature than Akiva, is a perspective that finds no justification outside of faith. What is more, the so-called “gedolim” of today – the “great ones” of our present generation – know quantitatively so much more Torah than was known by many of their more illustrious forebears.

Torah grows in every generation. For Akiva, Torah was biblical scripture and the traditions that made their way into the Mishna, the Tosefta and the halakhic midrashim. For Maimonides, Torah was also both of the Talmuds, the exegetical and the homiletic midrashim, and the philosophical and halakhic writings of the early Middle Ages. For Caro, Torah was also the works of Maimonides and his contemporaries, the writings of the Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi codifiers, and the Zohar. To achieve mastery of all of these things, and so much of the literature that has been composed since the 16th century, is to know so much more than anybody in the past, but to utilise so much less.

Today, it is inconceivable that anybody may attain the status of the “Rishonim” (those who lived between the time of the Geonim and the publication of the Shulchan Arukh; c. 1040-1550 CE). This is despite the genius and the charisma of later generations of scholars like the Vilna Gaon, Akiva Eger, Schneur Zalman, the Rogatchover Gaon, the Brisker Rav, Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the Chofetz Chaim, the Chazon Ish, Moshe Feinstein and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. To suppose that the clarity of their insights was less bright, or that the novellae that they constructed were less sharp, solely by virtue of their having been born at a greater distance from the revelation at Sinai would be to ignore both their insights and their novellae, and to focus only on a dogmatic appraisal of their place in history.

If it were the case that paying for an entire community to do nothing but learn might produce more scholars of their calibre, nobody could argue against it. Instead, there is every indication that it does not. The kollel system has yet to produce a single scholar worthy of either praise or emulation. Their rejection of both the Enlightenment and the information revolution has meant that they are crawling along at a far slower pace than their scholastic contemporaries in the university and the non-Haredi yeshiva, which is where the real developments are taking place today. While several of the great scholars of our past and present have received generous stipends from benefactors, the kollel as a system of mass-education has produced only lazy and belligerent individuals, who feel entitled to the money that they are receiving, and who evidence great contempt for those in the community who do not support them.

They are a testimony to the simple fact that a life of scholarship suits only certain people, and that others are better adapted to different tasks. To rob future generations of their doctors and poets, their musicians and engineers, for no other reason than the faulty premise that “the study of Torah is equal to them all” is not just a bastardisation of our tradition. It is also a crying shame.




5 responses

15 10 2010

Very interesting post, but I think you may be slightly off. Maybe we can quibble about this or that, but is it really true that contemporary chidushim are as fascinating as earlier ones, or contemporary responsa are as innovative and interesting? Unfortunately the self-perception that you’re not as good can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, your list of great an innovative scholars includes a man who died in 1994 at the latest. Who is so great (from the traditional camp) that is still living? I’m not saying that in reality there is no one good left. Obviously that’s never going to be the case, and even if there is a Dark Age, there will be light afterwards. But your post didn’t take into account how this self-perception is itself stifling and can create the very situation it claimed already existed, it only mentioned that funding this situation hasn’t helped.

15 10 2010
Simon Holloway

You are correct – in fact, this is something that has come up in the comments thread on Galus too, where this post was originally published. But I don’t agree that chiddushim today are any less interesting. Perhaps within the Haredi world, which insists so stringently upon its own inferiority. Rav Shteinman is still spoken of as a “godol“, and he yet resides in Bnei Brak. So too the various other members of Degel haTorah’s (and the Agudas) Council of Torah Sages. I cannot speak for these people, although I am sure that they are all very clever.

I didn’t mention him, but Adin Steinsaltz belongs on that list as well. Of course, this is all so very subjective, and one man’s “godol” is another’s apikorus. I think that there is still tremendous room for new and mighty Torah, but it’s not going to happen if we suppose that the Torah of yesteryear is paradigmatic. So long as people keep thinking that the only way to be a scholar is to rewrite the Shulchan Arukh, then we are condemned to living in the shadow of the dead.

16 10 2010

No one is even rewriting the Shulchan Aruch. Today’s rabbinic scholarship is just collections of prior scholarship and, at best, deciding between them. True, outside of the strictly traditional circles it may be a bit different, but I guess I personally find it more interesting in the pen of someone who wasn’t expected to say something new rather than someone who was.

I would add another angle, which is the more modern in time we get the more reluctant traditional scholars are to employ even a taste of outside scholarship. Outside scholarship was less obviously threatening to religion when it was more scholastic. Thus you’ll get an occasional reference to, say, Buxtorf in traditional literature of 2 or 300 years ago. The Peri Megadim will advise students to use the innovative Bible published by Elias Hutter. The Chasam Sofer will endorse parsley as the proper vegetable for karpas on Pesach because in Arabic krps means celery. But as outside scholarship became more obviously threatening to religion and tradition, not to mention that an entirely different kind of Jewish learning emerged which was heavily influenced by this scholarship, it became much less possible to look outside for a little something to enhance the scholarship on the inside. This makes things more inbred and flat.

21 10 2010
Andrew Greene

I was surprised by your inclusion of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, alav hashalom. He was a very successful charismatic leader, but I don’t think his level of scholarly achievement put him on par with the others on your list.

I agree with your postscript that Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Talmud translation and commentary, however, certainly stands among the great and timeless achievements of Torah scholarship.

21 10 2010
Simon Holloway

Your point is well taken, Andrew. I would include the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe in that list, but not the current. My reason for adding him was because Galus, where I originally published this article, has a heavy concentration of Chabad correspondents. Nonetheless, it was specifically for the inclusion of his name that I introduced the list as testifying to “the genius and the charisma of later generations”.

I have tremendous respect for the Lubavitcher Rebbe but, unlike Lubavitchers (and like you), I hardly see him treading in the footsteps of Maimonides.

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