There is a well-established tradition in Orthodox Judaism called Yeridas HaDoros (the descent of the generations). The idea, simply stated, is that later generations are greater in Torah and spirituality than later generations. No person today, the theory goes, could hope to achieve the heights of Torah that the Vilna Gaon achieved. Certainly no one today can ever hope to approach the Torah knowledge of someone such as Rashi or the Rambam.
This idea has, in fact, been incorporated into Jewish learning for a long time. Tana'im were greater than Amoraim, and no Amora could argue against a Tanna. Likewise, no Rishon could argue on an Amora (yes, I know I skipped a step or two) and so on. Since Rashi and Rambam were Rishonim and we are Achronim (or maybe even no longer that), we couldn't possibly hope to fathom the minds of these great men.
And yet, there is more Torah being learned today than there has ever been throughout history. Literally millions of Jews learn Torah every day, with many of them learning full time. Today, in most communities with an Orthodox Jewish population, there is a program of formal Jewish education at least through high school, if not beyond. In the past, of course, this was not always so - very often some people would go to school only to the extent that they learned the basics and the "serious" learning was left to the elite few. The rest went on to learn a trade.
In addition, we now have tools that allow for the dissemination of Torah throughout the world. The telephone and the Internet, modern translations of classical works into various languages, and organized programs such as Daf Yomi and the like have created an atmosphere of Torah learning that could not have existed at any time other than possibly during the forty year sojourn in the Wilderness.
That all being said, what are we producing? Are we producing more of a lesser quality? Is the Torah being "produced" today inferior than the Torah which, say, Rashi's generation produced?
Or let's look at it this way -- is there any individual today that can hold a candle to Rashi? Just about everyone in the yeshivish community would say no. But can the average Orthodox Jew today stand up to the average Jew in Rashi's day? I think that the answer, without a doubt, is yes -- we can. We're better educated because we have more formal schooling, and we have more tools with which to learn than they did in Rashi's day. For example, today, just about everyone has access to a Gemara whenever they want one -- they either own one or can walk into the nearest shul, bais midrash, library or seforim/Judaica store and get one. Heck, you could even look at all of Shas online. In Rashi's day, when all Gemaras were handwritten, I would be surprised to find that any town had more than a few copies of the complete Talmud. I'm sure many communities in
It seems that we have a disconnect here. The average person today was better than the average person in Rashi’s day, but yet no gadol today can ever hope to compete with Rashi. Why is there no YhD for average people (if you think I’m wrong, please feel free to tell me why you think so), but for the elite, YhD is “ingrained” into our beliefs?
Last, but not least, we have to ask this question – if our yeshivos today are capable of creating an average Jew who is superior to an average Jew of Rashi’s time, why does that same yeshiva fail to produce a leader as great as Rashi? After all, today’s gedolim went to the same yeshivos that the average people went to, and Rashi (or his colleagues) presumably went to the same school that other people in their times went to. But whereas our schools did a far superior job of producing average Jews (probably because of a more formalized learning program extending well into adulthood), how is it that we fail miserably at producing gedolim to equal the stature of previous generations?