I recall a number of years ago, while learning in the kollel at Yeshivas Toras Moshe (for a time underneath the guidance of Rabbi Moshe Twersky, Hy”d), a conversation I had with another great sage who taught at the yeshiva, Rabbi Michel Shurkin. Rabbi Shurkin is famed as a close disciple of both Rabbi Yosef Dov (Joseph Ber) Soloveitchik and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, both revered leaders of the Jewish people in their time.
While I initiated the conversation (I don’t recall about what), Rabbi Shurkin turned the topic toward myself, asking about myself, my background, etc. It came up that I was from a small Jewish community in Brooklyn in the neighborhood of Manhattan Beach, which I had been away from during my (at that point) five plus years studying in Israel. Yet, I related, the community had gone through a sort of renaissance under the leadership of its (then) new rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Plutchok, and that I had heard it continued to expand and expand since I had left it, particularly following the opening of a kollel in the neighborhood.
Rabbi Shurkin offered this sentiment in response to my remark about the kollel. “When I was young, ‘kollel’ was a dirty word. But today, everyone understands — kollel is the key!” I can still remember Rabbi Shurkin’s distinctive hand motion as he said those words, like he was turning an imaginary key in the air. In other words, Rabbi Shurkin was describing the modern phenomenon of the successful growth of Jewish communities correlating to the opening of “community kollelim.”
However, Rabbi Shurkin also referred to the negative sentiment toward kollel that was prevalent in his younger years, though it certainly still exists in great force today, even within communities of Jews who self-identify as Torah observant.
So what is the view of authentic Jewish tradition toward Torah scholars being supported by a stipend in order to continue Torah study? While this topic is too large to tackle all at once, let us catch a glimpse of the traditional position as I discovered it while continuing my daily Tanach study.
My chapter of Tanach for today was I Kings (Melachim Aleph) ch. 21. It describes the tragic story of how the abominable King Ahab (Achav), together with his irredeemably wicked wife Jezebel (Izevel), desiring the land belonging to his neighbor Navoth the Jezreelite, conspires to have Navoth framed for a capital offense and executed. Once this is done, Ahab confiscates Navoth’s land. The prophet describes the diabolical Ahab as follows:
“Only there was none like Ahab, who sold himself to do wickedness in the eyes of the Almighty, who was led astray by his wife Jezebel” (21:25).
So it sounds like Ahab was THE WORST — “there was NONE like Ahab who SOLD HIMSELF to do wickedness in the eyes of the Almighty”!
Yet, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 102B) makes a surprising statement about this same Ahab:
“Rav Nachman said: Ahab’s sins weighed equally to his merits.”
WHAT!?!?!? How can this be? This question is not lost on the Talmudic sages, who follow up this radical statement with just this question.
“Rav Yoseph challenges this: The person about whom it is written, ‘Only there was none like Ahab who sold himself to do wickedness in the eyes of the Almighty, whose was led astray by his wife Jezebel,’ and about whom we have learned (via oral tradition): ‘Every day she would weigh out golden coins to idols’ — and you say his sins weighed equally to his merits!”
Good question, eh? Now hear the Talmud’s astounding answer:
“Ahab was generous with his money, and since he benefited Torah scholars with his possessions, that atoned for half of his wickedness (so that he was considered half righteous).”
As I understand it, this means that just as Ahab allotted of his money to be donated to idol worship, he equally gave of his money to benefit the learning of Torah scholars. In other words, his monetary support of kollelim was a mitzvah of such great weight that it atoned for his great wickedness, about which the text is so emphatic.
In conclusion, it certainly seems that support for Torah study is a cause of the greatest merit, and should be valued by all Jews, even, or perhaps most of all, by those who have much to atone for.