Knowledge Problems

Monday, June 19, 2006

Yeridat Hadorot: Beleiving DOES Make It So.

All the precious things she had
In the days of old
Jerusalem recalled
In her days of woe and sorrow,
When her people fell by enemy hands
With none to help her;
When enemies looked on and gloated
Over her downfall. (Eichah)

Tho we are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are... (Tennyson)

We are a failing people, a springless autumn... We are become Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with memory of other things. (Faramir, Lord of the Rings)

The notion of yeridat hadorot (the decline of the generations) is one that permeates Orthodox though and attitudes. The idea that earlier rabbinical figures were inestimably greater than later rabbinical figures is a cornerstone of Orthodox Jewish life. Every Baal Habos and 4th grade-student can tell you that this is true without any reservations or conditions. Contemporary rabbinical figures, be they neighborhood rabbeim or the present gedolai hador, are in no way comparable to figures of generations past; the Chafetz Chaim, the Netziv, the Vilna Gaon. And yet those figures are likewise in no way comparable to earlier figures such as Rambam, Rashi, or R'Saadya, whose greatness is scarcely conceivable to us. And those figures are likewise incommensurable with earlier authorities, R'Akiva, R'Yehuda HaNasi, Hillel. And those individuals are finally in no way comparable to the prophets, Eliyahu, Shmuel, and ultimately Moses, Aaron, and the Patriarchs.

The idea that present generations are in some way but a pale shadow of former generations can be found broadly in both Jewish and non-Jewish culture. One might say that a first hint of this attitude in Judaism is already present in the exaggerated life spans reported in Genesis chapter 5, and then again in Genesis 6:4, where the Nephilim are referred to as "the heroes of old, the men of renown." Genesis chapter 11 suggests that the early civilization of Babylon was so advanced that "nothing that they propose to do will be out of their reach." Later, we have the Talmudic expressions of this idea, such as that from Shabbos 112b (Soncino): "R. Zera said in Raba b. Zimuna's name: If the earlier [scholars] were sons of angels, we are sons of men; and if the earlier [scholars] were sons of men, we are like asses..."

One can see in the mythology of many other culture (Greek, for example) also the idea that the men of former times had capacities far beyond those of contemporary men, and were capable of deeds which contemporary men can scarcely comprehend. Indeed, the accomplishments of those early men where of such a magnitude that even the gods were forced to take note. In modern storytelling, this idea has perhaps its most potent presentation in the fiction of Tolkien, where the Men of earlier ages had near-supernatural powers, exaggerated life spans, and were closely affiliated with the gods and other transnatural agents (e.g., Elves). In Tolkien's mythology, those early Men left behind majestic stone cities and monuments, silent testimony to a level of achievement and power at which the diminished men of the present age can only gape and marvel, and then weep at how far they have fallen.

But in the wearing of the swift years of Middle-earth the line of Meneldil son of AnĂ¡rion failed, and the Tree withered, and the blood of the NĂºmenoreans became mingled with that of lesser men. Then the watch upon the walls of Mordor slept, and dark things crept back to Gorgoroth. (Elrond, Lord of the Rings)

This belief in declining aptitudes and capacities can be found also in the regard of the medievals for the works of Greek philosophy and medicine. In encountering the works of Aristotle and other Greek thinkers, the intellectuals of the Middle Ages were awed by the products of an intellectual culture which seemingly surpassed their own in every conceivable way. Indeed, the profundity and scope of Greek thought made it seem almost a sacrilege for one to raise critical questions about received Greek wisdom. And therein lay the problem, of course. As it has been pointed out, the worship of Greek thought may well have delayed the dawn of the empirical method and with it modern science.

With regard to the current Jewish perspective on this idea, it is difficult to say in exactly what way later generations are supposed to be inferior to previous generations. Is it in brute intelligence? Is it in creativity? Is it in spirituality? Is it in access to some mystical divine knowledge — ruach hakodesh? There is a recent book by Menachem Kellner which explores how Rambam understood this idea, but it's a pretty safe bet that Rambam's interpretation is not the popular understanding. I would suggest that the popular understanding is rather a loose fusion of all of the above. Thus, earlier generations were incomparably greater in intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, spirituality, creativity, and any other desirable attribute we can think of. I suspect that a poll of Orthodox people would probably reveal such an understanding to be the dominant one.

As usual, it is not my intention (nor within my capacity) to do a scholarly exercise in the concept of yeridat hadorot. I suppose you should read Kellner's book if you want that. Rather, here I just want to make the following simple suggestion:

"Yeridat Hadorot" is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It's very simple: If the contemporary intellectual community collectively believes that its faculties and capabilities are far inferior to those of previous generations, then it will be loathe to amend, revise, or replace any of the ideas and rulings of earlier generations. One can see this effect in the reluctance of the medievals to revise Aristotelian accounts of the cosmos, and one can see it in the resistance of Orthodox Jews to modify halachic practices or to permit hashkafic innovation. Under an attitude of yeridat hadorot, one cannot propose any idea that might run contrary to the position of an earlier luminary, because — in virtue of yeridat hadorot — the earlier luminary must be correct, and thus the later innovation must be inferior, if not heretical.

Thus every potential expression of a halachic and hashkafic idea must be carefully censored by its author to make sure that it does not run contrary to the sanctified expression of a previous generation. If a new idea in fact does present the appearance of conflict with earlier ideas, then it is necessarily wrong and must never see the light of day. One can observe this self-censorship even within Orthodox music, which is so fearful of saying something hashkafically incorrect that it resorts to endlessly repeating passages from Tehillim, which are very old and therefore very safe.

The contemporary intellectual community is therefore constrained by their idolization of earlier generations to work "between the cracks," filling the small gaps in earlier ideas or tentatively extending them to modern situations, but never truly challenging, defending, constructing, deconstructing, revising, or replacing.

By embracing the attitude of yeridat hadorot, the present generation thus guarantees that it IS in fact far diminished in all senses from previous generations.

By fearfully restricting themselves to a much narrower set of allowable halachic and hashkafic positions than was allowed to their predecessors, our present-day Jewish intellectuals ensure that their creative output, their intellectual productivity, and their spiritual expression, cannot be anything but a pale and unflattering imitation of what previous generations had been able to achieve. There is thus no doubt that future generations will lament the depravity of our own generation in comparison to former ones, because by embracing the yeridat hadorot attitude we have already ensured that it is so.

I don't mean to suggest that our esteemed predecessors weren't indeed exceptional people. There was only one Vilna Gaon. Only one Newton. Only one Maimonides. But their greatness was a product of both their intrinsic intellectual/motivational capacities and the times and circumstances in which they lived. There are certainly people alive today who have intrinsic intellectual/motivational capacities comparable to these larger-than-life figures. There are Newtons and Rambams growing up among us. However, if these individuals are taught from the start that they need to censor all their ideas and insights to conform with sacred prior doctrine (and so as not to disturb anyone's fragile religiosity), then they will certainly never develop their full potential for intellectual achievement. They won't become the next Rambam or the next Newton because they have been taught that this path is not permitted to them.

Yeridat Hadorot, true or false? True, but only when we make it so.

You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it. (Avos)

Don't say, "How has it happened that former times were better than these?" For it is not wise of you to ask that question. (Kohelet)

Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule. (Gandalf, Lord of the Rings)



  • Great Post ! I find the idea of yeridas hadoros to be psychologicaly depressing for the beleiver as well, and I think it breeds an inferiority complex into the potential reformers that Judaism so direly needs right now.

    Look as our collective brilliance trickles away unused into legislation of micro bugs in asparagus and water filters.

    By Blogger Ben Avuyah, at Jun 20, 2006, 1:07:00 PM  

  • Great post.

    It takes strength of character and faith in one's abilities to challenge established notions.We should strive to bolster those abilities not inhibit or stifle them from the outset.

    By Blogger smoo, at Jun 20, 2006, 2:55:00 PM  

  • Excellent post.

    By Blogger Mis-nagid, at Jun 20, 2006, 5:00:00 PM  

  • Thanks guys! It is indeed depressing to think that our best days are behind us. Fortunately, I don't think it's true, at least not for humanity at large. As for Judaism, I wonder...

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Jun 20, 2006, 6:47:00 PM  

  • Perhaps the greatness of a Newton or a Rambam is the inherent willingness to challenge and go against the grain as well as the posession of great intelligence and creativity. Those are rare qualities, and even more rare when combined in one person.

    By Blogger The Jewish Freak, at Jun 21, 2006, 5:01:00 PM  

  • Nice post. I once posted about how in fact the great thinkers in Jewish history seemingly always bucked the trends and faced lots of opposition, but ultimately they prevail.

    By Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell, at Jun 26, 2006, 10:18:00 PM  

  • I just read your post, MFM. Good points. I'm not sure, though, that the out-of-the-box thinkers necessarily prevail in the end. I mean, what happened to Ralbag? Sure, everyone will say he was a "big person," but does anyone read his books or subscribe to his philosophy? Perhaps we need to give it a few more centuries? Maybe same for M. Kaplan?

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Jun 27, 2006, 10:07:00 AM  

  • Bad post.

    The previous generations are only greater in matters of Torah and Ruach Hakodesh. People will say they were greater in inteligence, creativity, wisdom etc, but only in relation to matters of Torah. For Torah is built on tradition and Mesorah, and the closer you are to the begining of the mesorah, the more realiable we can expect one to be. Also, the longer time that has been spent on ideas to be around, the more they have been open to ideas and the more valid they become. There are numerous rabbis from over the years and the middleages, but only a few are considered to be worth learning today. Nobody suggests what we follow the ways of the Talmud in medicine because "they were greater"

    the only reason why Orthodoxy still does not change rules that might need changing is because we have no Sanhedrin, or a authoritative body to make wide changes that everybody would be willing to say, yes that is correct, I have no dispute with you.

    The talmud talks about overturning of laws from previous sanhedrins.

    So while, its fun to play the excercises you did, the facts of the situation argue against you.

    By Blogger Irviner Chasid, at Aug 9, 2006, 11:21:00 AM  

  • >One can observe this self-censorship even within Orthodox music, which is so fearful of saying something hashkafically incorrect that it resorts to endlessly repeating passages from Tehillim, which are very old and therefore very safe.

    Very insightful point. I think its only partly the case, since the unwillingness to write a lot of new lyrics is partly because of laziness, a dearth of real lyrical talent and even plain old style, as in the style of setting pesukim to music dictates that many writers of jewish music don't even think of doing anything else. Nevertheless, I think you made a great point.

    By Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell, at Oct 17, 2006, 2:25:00 PM  

  • Thanks a lot, Mississsippi Fred. Love your blog, by the way!

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Oct 17, 2006, 3:33:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home