Even before his eyes open in the morning, the kollel student has in his head the rapid-fire flow of verses, laws and teachings from the prior day’s learning. The words of Modeh Ani exit his lips while he reaches to shut the alarm before it wakes his family. Soon he will be on his way, confronted with many topics of halacha and hashkafa.
He will concentrate on the pages in front of him and ask questions: What is it that is being said here? What exactly is Rashi alluding to? Why is it phrased in this way?
If the answer is obvious, he will ask why the statement needed to be made at all. If there is a seeming contradiction in what he’s reading, he will seek out explanations and clarifications. He is looking for foundation and principle, for what is to be included and excluded. He wants to know what is expected of the Jew.
And yet kollel students are derided by a fair number of people in our community. Perhaps this is due to misconceptions about whom a kollel student is and what he represents – a proper understanding of which gets to the very heart of whom we are as a people and why we were created in the first place.
What is the reason for our existence? The question has been debated by philosophers and intellectuals throughout the ages. For religious Jews, the answer was given when Am Yisrael stood at Har Sinai and received the Torah. From that moment on, the study and fulfillment of its instruction would be the defining purpose of our lives.
Torah learning is our connection to Hashem, the cornerstone of our faith, the very essence of our being. A Jew must have interwoven into every aspect of his life what it is that Hashem wants from him. In other words, he should strive to achieve spiritual perfection. How? Through cleaving to Hashem, the Ramchal tells us (Mesillat Yesharim chapter 1). And this cleaving comes through studying Torah.
Now we understand the function of the kollel. As a consequence of the Jews having splintered into so many different factions, there has been an ongoing decline in Torah scholarship. Things are not as they once were. The Talmud (Berachos 35b) states, “The earlier generations made their Torah fixed and their work temporary.” Since we no longer have this level of study, the kollel is a means to ensure a viable foundation for higher Torah learning. It is a means to defend against spiritual decline and conserve the fundamentals of a Jew’s life.
If it is not possible for all of us to immerse fully in Torah, we should at least attach ourselves to those who do. These are the people who sustain the world, because it is the Torah that makes the world exist (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 137b, Pesachim 68b, Nedarim 31a). Kollel students are not very different from the Kohanim and Levi’im of long ago who carried the responsibility of maintaining the Beit HaMikdash on behalf of the rest of the nation.
The word kollel means “collection” or “gathering” and is an institution of full-time advanced learning of a variety of Judaic subjects. The intent of the program is to have a quorum of Jews who study full time and are supported by others. This is the concept given in the Torah by Yaakov to Yissachar and Zevulun, who established a partnership with one learning Torah full time and the other working fulltime, dividing the reward between them.
On a practical level, the kollel provides a training ground for communal rabbis and leaders. If we want to ensure future generations’ commitment to Judaism, it is incumbent on us to preserve the core of Judaism – the scholars and teachers who transmit and elucidate the Torah. This fact of life becomes obvious from a basic survey of the many communities – Atlanta, St. Louis, Dallas and Philadelphia, among others – that have become home to high-level kollels and seen concomitant spikes in Jewish religious observance.
A kollel system as large as Lakewood (with more than 4,000 students), even though beautiful, is an anomaly. Most community kollels consist of only a handful of students – sometimes as few as six or seven. Of some 13 million Jews worldwide, a miniscule percentage learns full time and receives a small stipend (usually less than 200 dollars a week).