Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Decline in the generations

I have trouble dealing with the concept of yeriadat hadorot - the notion that earlier generations of Jews were 'greater' than later generations. This can be taken literally (I've read and heard people say no one alive is or could be on the same spiritual or intellectual level as Rav Moshe Feinstein) or be referring to 'eras' of time - no Amora (sage of the Gemara) can argue with a Tanna (sage of the Mishna), no Acharon (contemporary sage) can argue with a Rishon (sage who lived from roughly 1000 - 1500 CE), without another authority of the same era to back them up. I've seen this notion expressed in numerous ways:

  1. Earlier generations were spiritual giants who possessed insight that no one alive today can match. Avraham Avinu effectively deduced the entire torah, both mitzvot d'oraita and mitzvot d'rabbanan. The dor Hamdibar (generation of the desert) climbed to such spiritual heights that a common person at the Red Sea had more prophetic insight than the prophet Ezekiel had in his vision of the Chariot. (The question of why this same generation was among the most faithless and ungrateful of all the Jews is generally ignored). There are other examples, but these give the flavor.
  2. Today we are in galut (exile). We lack the Sanhedrin, we lack the beit mikdash, we lack Kings and prophets, we lack the air of Eretz Yisrael that makes us wise. The Jewish legal system is set up such that lacking those institutions we can never have a court that is 'greater in numbers and/or [interpretations vary] wisdom' than the preceding ones. When galut is over things may be different.
  3. The decline of generations is quite simply the decline of knowledge. At Har Sinai the Jews had a complete system - not just the straight halachot but the meta-halachot of the how to interpret the torah (13 middot etc.), the mystical understandings through kabbalah, and vast amounts of now forgotten oral torah. Relentless persecution has resulted in the loss of that knowledge. Even where our ancestors explained their reasoning, we cannot be sure that the reasons given were the only ones, so we dare not change their rulings.
  4. Alternatively, the decline in the generations is not intellectual at all, but rather the loss of cultural familiarity with halacha, also expressed as a loss of yeriat shamayim (fear of heaven). As Rabbi Chaim Soleveitchik says in Rupture and Reconstruction despite our increase in textual knowledge, loss of mimetic culture (learning by watching the previous generations) caused by such events as the Shoah makes us less able to be at home in our own culture. See also Rabbi Micha Berger's essay in Mesukim Midivash.
  5. There is just too much too know now. Rabbi Akiva never had to learn the variant rulings of the Bavli and Yerushalmi. Rashi never had to learn the Shulchan Aruch and supercommentaries. Rabbi Joseph Caro knew nothing of the rulings of the Yeminites. Basically, it is no more possible today to hold all of Judaism in one's head than it is to be a contemporary renaissance man - to be a genius level artist and a world class scientist is not possible today - both fields have too much to master to let one mortal do both.

Despite this idea having a 2000 year pedigree, it feels like a cop out to me. At some level this is undoubtedly the sin of pride speaking. Nevertheless it seems to me that the greatest poskim of the generation have the obligation to make the rulings they believe to be correct, and not just blindly defer to those who came before.

Part of my problem is that I am not one of those poseks, and none of them agree with me. I can't think of a public admission by a posek in the form of 'X seems wrong to me, but it is clearly the decision made by those who came before, and so I follow it regardless.' I on the other hand have to say this sort of thing far too often.


Charlie Hall said...

"no Acharon (contemporary sage) can argue with a Rishon (sage who lived from roughly 1000 - 1500 CE), "

I don't think this one is universally accepted.

Larry Lennhoff said...

Well, the Vilna Gaon seemed to consider himself a Rishon, but it seems to me an awful lot of effort is expended on finding a Rishon to support a position rather than to simply say "I've looked at the gemmara and this what I think about it."

There are small exceptions to each of the rules, but I think they hold up pretty well as generalizations.

Personally I find this frustrating - why in the world do I need to find a Rishon or even a source in Chazal to believe in a greater than 6K year old earth? The objective evidence is good enough for me. Yet Ravs Schroder, Slifkin, and others seem to think it is worthwhile to show there is support for a position that there is no reason to expect someone from that era to support.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks feels that Judaism has a dual epistemology - there is data accumulated from the rational exploration of the physical universe and then there is data that cannot be found through physical means. That latter data was given to us at Sinai, and constitutes the mesorah. As far as I am concerned, to look for data about the physical universe in the mesorah is a category error.

ADDeRabbi said...

i wrote a long post about yeridat hadorot. it's here:

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I think this concept is a basically a natural attitude which lionizes the past and is at least as old as "the heros of old" in Genesis.

Today it is also a mechanism for explaining how we can accept spiritual greatness in the past, when seemingly in every other area the world progresses. It may not be essential to believe that the Maharsha knew how to learn better than anyone can today, but it probably is essential to explain how it is that a Moshe came to be more than 3000 years ago in the ancient Near East, or why precisely Yaakov is someone to look up to.

IIRC Adderabbi pointed out that the idea of not being able to argue is really more about not being willing to argue. There are numerous exceptions. Not just the Vilna Gaon--I believe R. Moshe Feinstein also argued on rishonim (something confirmed by R. Daniel Eidensohn).

It just takes a certain confidence to argue when there is the perception that "We can't." And perhaps it is for the best, otherwise the pendulum might swing too far in the direction of ignoring or belittling those that came before us.

Do we need a rishon or Chazal to acknowledge scienctific truths? No, of course not. Because we are confident.

Larry Lennhoff said...

The Ramchal (author of Mesilath Y'sharim) says somewhere that contrary to yeridath hadoroth there is actually an elevation of level with each generation.
I've read somewhere that since we entered into the times nearer the coming of the Moshiach that the level of the generations is rising again. Can't find my source or details at the moment, sorry.

Chabad seems to have a principle that at this point in history things that were previously hidden (in particular kabbalah) should now be made more freely available to the common folk.