Sunday, April 03, 2005

On Trying To Understand Yeridas HaDoros

It seems to be an axiom in Judaism that no generation can be greater than previous generations have been (or, perhaps more correctly, no generation's leaders can be greater than any previous generation's leaders). No body today, it seems, could ever hope to be the equal of R. Moshe zt"l. Don't even bother trying to reach the greatness of the Chofetz Chaim zt"l or R. Chaim Ozer Grodzenski zt"l. The Vilna Gaon? Forget about it.

And, of course, if you go further back, this concept has been formalized into "law" in that no Acharon can argue on a Rishon (or a Gaon, or an Amora...)

But this is a concept that I have some difficulty understanding. The reason for this difficulty is technology.

I don't think anyone would argue that one of the greatest inventions of mankind (if not the greatest) was the printing press by Guttenberg. Before the printing press was invented, books were expensive (because they were all handwritten). The price of books was such that only the wealthy (or the clergy) could read because they were the only ones who owned books. 99% of the population was illiterate. The printing press, on the other hand, not only made book publishing less expensive, it also made printed material much more accessable to the general public - as now multiple copies of books could be run off at once, rather than having each copy handwritten. Furthermore, because the books were printed off of a press, there was much less of a danger of transcription errors, variant texts, etc.

Because of the printing press, knowledge in the world increased exponentially. Science as we know it would not have been possible without the invention of the printing press. It was one of the factors directly responsible for the Rennissance in Europe.

Now, with the printing press in place, it wasn't only secular works or Christian works that were published using this new technology - Jewish texts were published as well. It wasn't too long after the invention of the printing press that the first Shas was printed. Whereas, before, each Gemara had to be handwritten (making the times that the Gemara was burned in public all the more painful), now it could be reproduced much easier. More people could own their own copies. More people could own their own Chumashim, Mishnayos, Yad Chazakas, and so on.

Of course, as time went on and printing technology got better (we don't still use the same presses that Guttenberg used!), written works became more affordable, more commonplace and more accurate. Scholarship increased in just about all areas of human endeavor. You would think that this would include Torah as well, but that seems not to be the case. R. Moshe can't compare to the Vilna Gaon.

You can take the matter even further to today. Today, you have the Internet revolutionizing the way that people communicate with each other. It seems that it's come to the point where if a world leader sneezes, it's known about half a world away before the drops hit the floor (OK, I'm using a *bit* of hyperbole... but you get the idea). We can communicate with people instantly around the world. We can store materials in virtual libraries that anyone with an internet connection can access. I personally believe that when this time period is looked back upon in history, the birth of Internet will be more influential to world scholarship than Guttenberg's printing press was to world scholarship in his day and the century or two following it's invention.

Today, thanks to the internet, we literally have the opportunity to make the Torah globally available to anyone who wants it. Shas, Rishonim, etc. can all be put on line and made freely available. Much of it already is available on line. Translations of classical works abound in multiple languages. Shiurim can be recording on audio or video and placed on line for anyone to access. People can download and/or print out sheets to help them learn Daf Yomi. The possibilites to find ways to make the Torah available to people and to increase Torah scholarship have never been greater.

And yet, despite the potential for this explosion in Torah scholarship, it seems that no one can (as a rule) ever hope to equal someone from a previous generation. But why does it have to be this way? Why does each generation have to be part of some downward spiral to the end of time? Why can't a generation be greater than the one before it. I think that if there ever was the potential for this to happen, it has now arrived.

That being said, does Yeridas HaDoros *have* to happen? I know that there are some who look at the matter dogmatically and say "Yes, it has to happen..." But I don't want to accept that. I think that we can become better - we can strive to be better than our predecessors, especially with all the means that we have to disseminate Torah today.

24 comments:

Ronasheton said...

Nice blog. : )

The concept of yeridas ha-doros seems intentioned to negate the progressive view of history, or at least explain why Judaism holds that the greatest moral giants of history lived in the Bronze Age.

The concept itself is given in the Talmud where it is speculated that if "we are like men then earlier generations were like angels. If they were like men then we are like donkeys".

So if in Talmudic times they may have been "like donkeys", what are we like? Amoebas?

No, the concept teaches us to revere those that came before us.

It's a bit fallacious to say that "R. Moshe couldn't compare to the Gra". Whether or not he in particular could or couldn't, it seems to be an article of faith to some that the Gra could in fact compare with rishonim (by that token, its ridiculous to suggest that every rabbi classified as a rishon was as learned or "great" as the Gra). The Gra himself felt no compunction about disagreeing with rishonim. Apparently people were buzzing that the Gra is comparable to a tanna, in his lifetime no less. R. Chaim Volozhiner felt that was excessive hyperbole and clarified that he was actually comparable "to the Ramban".

It's really fruitless to play these games, but if we accept that the Gra was a Torah prodigy there is no real reason to say that one comparable to the Gra, and by extention a rishon, cannot be in the future to come.

BrooklynWolf said...

Rona,

Thank you for the kind comments and the compliment.

I can perfectly understand the "need" to revere the Torah giants that came before us. Judaism today would be unrecognizable without the efforts of the likes of Hillel, Shammai, Rebbi, Rabbi Akiva, Rav, Shmuel, Abaye, Rava, Ravina, Rav Ashi, Rashi, the Rambam, the Ramban and the Gra. These men certainly deserve to be revered for the work that they did. That wasn't my point at all.

My point was the axiomatic rule that seems to be in place that states (in my wording, of course) that no matter how successful we are at spreading Torah to Jews all over the world, no matter how much more capable we are of advancing Torah scholarship today, we can *never* hope to equal the greatness of the previous generation. Considering that there is today, just "budding from the ground" so to say, this vast network of Torah resources on the internet, via email and via audio and video recording that didn't exist fifty years ago, I would think that we might be capable of producing a Torah giant today who just might be the equal of a Rishon. And that doesn't have to take away from any of the accomplishments of the Torah giants who have gone before us. Having someone as great as a Rishon today doesn't take anything away from the GRA; it doesn't make him any less in our eyes - it simply makes the one who accomplished this great scholarship better.

The Wolf.

JoeCool said...

I think that you overstate the impact of the printing press. It probably did have a huge effect in Western Europe, but it had almost no impact on Russia (which had nearly 90% illeteracy rate well into 1920's). Also, among jews literacy rate was always much higher than that of the host population. Remember that while christian libraries were maintained by monks and were off-limit to general population (I've even seen claims that most of the clerics were also illiterate), jewish libraries were typically maintained in the local communities and were accessible to most men.

Also, printing technology may have had an opposite effect. While Rashi or Rambam could have been intricately familiar will extant jewish writings, in our time there are so many books, that it would not be possible for a mere mortal to develop mastery of them all.

BrooklynWolf said...

Thank you, Joe for your response.

I suppose it is possible that I am overstating the importance of the printing press, but I don't think that you can discount it entirely either. It did revolutionize the way people think. I'm not familiar with Russian history and so have to take your word on the illiteracy rate there. I wonder why reading did not catch on there?

In any event, the PP did have a major effect. Before it's invention, I'd imagine it would take well over a year to produce a Shas (it takes a Sofer that long to produce a Sefer Torah and Shas is MUCH longer than the Chumash. I would imagine that not every shtetl could have their own Shas, let alone other works. However, the PP made it possible for not only communities or rich people to have copies of these works, but even people of moderate means. And while it's true that the Jewish literacy rate was generally higher than the surrounding population, literacy is not of much help if you don't have the books to read.

Your final comment is interesting, but I see a flaw in your logic. In the secular world, this has led to specialization - a doctor is rarely a general practitioner now, s/he is a heart surgeon, an OB/GYN, a psychiatrist, a podiatrist, etc. But, overall, however, medical knowledge has continued to advance - and even people who specialize (i.e. your average pediatrician, for example) certainly knows more about medicine that Hippocrates or Michaelangelo or even the Rambam.

The Wolf.

JoeCool said...

Jews didn't live in tiny russian villages before the PP. They lived in large cities, where a beis medrash had a decent library. It wasn't untill Chmielnicki's pogroms that jews started to migrate to village life. Your point about specialization is well taken, but it does not support your conclusion. Rambam could speak authoritatively about many diverse topics: halacha, hashkafa, medicine, etc. Today, it is doubtful that anyone could match that. A specialist is, by definition, not an expert outside of his primary field.

Anonymous said...

you're forgetting koheles, v'yoser meheyma b'ni hizoher asos s'forim harbe eyn ketz...

writing things down reduces demand on memory. the more seforim people have the less likely they are to know them inside out. the rishonim memorized manuscripts. they had less material to learn and knew it all bal peh. In addition, they had more b'mesora, so they were taught orally how to interpret things we now have to read to discover. One reason the gra was so outstanding was his phenomenal memory in having all of safrut chazal at his fingertips and be able to take it all into account at once, to help correct texts and the like.

knowledge improves in some ways and people become sophisticated thinkers, building on the insights of previous generations. we seem to gain in analytic skills but to lose in depth and breadth of knowledge. we analyze to fill in gaps in our mesora and in what we know and remember.

I think that yeridos hadoras is a conflict that is consciously meant to be in tension with the notion of ikvasa d'mischicha. even the notion of ikvasa d'mishacha is confused, in that its not clear if everything is improving or getting so bad that moshiach must come (and both can be true)

BrooklynWolf said...

Joe, once again, thank you for your reasoned response.

On the contrary, I think my point about specializaiton does support my conculsion. Although, thanks to our advanced knowledge of medicine there are no (or very few) general practitioners, nonetheless, even a heart surgeon today knows more about childbirth and delivery than Hippocrates did. Even specialists today have more background knowledge than the ancients did in their day in the whole of the field.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

Anonymous,

Your point about writing taking away the need for memorization is well-taken. However, I would think that this "problem" (which I'm not convinced really exists -- but that's a separate argument) is offset by the greater accuracy in recording our Mesora. All over the Gemara you have disputes over whether a Tanna said A or B (or maybe even C). But with the ability to write things down, we can accurately record our Mesora. I would think that the ability to accurately record things (whether it be in writing, on audio or video, or digitally) would greatly offset any loss in required memory.

The Wolf

JoeCool said...

It's possible that Hippocrates knew extremely little about obstetrics (doctors did not start getting involved in birthing untill sometime in the 18th to 19th centuries), but I am willing to bet dollars to donuts that a midwife from 2000 years ago would be preferable to a modern day podiatrist with his freshly printed M.D. on the office wall. But that's not important to my point. If someone like Rambam could have claimed (with some degree of legitimacy) mastery of close to 100% of wisdom available in his day, no one today can be expected to master anywhere near that percentage of today's wisdom. Using your doctor example, today's doctor may know more in absolute terms than his predecessor, but relative to available medical information, his knowledge may not be as all-encompassing. A thoughtful person in this situation would somewhat less assured under such circumstances than someone in earlier generation would have been.

In fact that is my own understanding of Yeridas HaDoros. It's not that we and our contemporaries are more stupid or less knowledgeble than those before us, we just have a more limited spectrum of knowledge that we are forced to concentrate on.

dilbert said...

very nice blog. I am sorry I have not visited before. the ADDeRabbi has a very nice post on yeridat hadorot if you have not already seen it. It is a bit of a different point of view

BrooklynWolf said...

JoeCool

Your points are well taken. I certainly won't dispute that just about any woman today will want a midwife (although I don't think that that would be the case for a midwife of 2000 years ago. I used to be an EMT and I would venture that *I* was better trained in childbirth than a midwife of over 2000 years ago - but that's a separate argument) over a podiatrist when it comes time to deliver a baby. And I also agree with your point that doctors (and any other form of academian, really) only learn a smaller fraction of the available knowledge in their paticular field than was done in the past.

And in any event, even a doctor not in his field knows more about medicine outside his field than a general practioner knew in previous generations. I'm no doctor, but I'm willing to bet that today's heart surgeons still have to know general anatomy, can deliver babies, splint broken legs and diagnose strokes better than someone from the Rambam's day could have. They are simply far less ignorant than their predecessors were, even if they have had to narrow their focus of study to a smaller subset of the whole field of medical knowledge. Being better rounded in a more ignorant manner is NOT a plus in my book.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

Dilbert, thank you for your kind comment. I was not aware of his post, but I will check it out. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

The Wolf

JoeCool said...

Calling great scientists and thinkers of the past ignorant is a big mistake. It implies that current knowledge somehow appeared out of nothing. In fact, there are continuous threads from the past to the present. Isaak Newton once wrote that If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants. He obviously understood that those giants were not ignorant.

BrooklynWolf said...

JoeCool, you are correct. Ignorant was a poor choice of words. But clearly, they were not as knowledgeable as we are today. And while it's true that our medical knowledge is built upon their earlier discoveries, we *still* know more about medicine than Hippocrates.

The Wolf

JoeCool said...

Ok, so you have this cardiac surgeon who is tops in his field and may even be a better all around doctor than some guy 2000 years ago who thought that applying bird guano to his scalp would cure his boldness. But, he spent more than 20 years of his life in school just getting to this point. He knows next to nothing of economic, music, architecture, astronomy, physics, history and many other things. He may seem like a genius when you just had a bypass surgery, but the rest of the time and outside of his only field of expertise, he is just a boorish peasant driving a mercedes. And 200 years from now his surgical skills will be compared unfavorably with that of a butcher.

BrooklynWolf said...

JoeCool,

I don't know that the average physician back in the bird-guano-to-cure-baldness day had much expertise outside his field too.

While I'm certain that there were some who had well-rounded educations, I wouldn't be surprised if the vast majority of them were experts (as much as one could be in the day) in their field and had only tangential knowledge of other fields.

If you want to compare the two groups, you can't compare the most-educated doctor of old to the boorest doctor of today - you have to place the physicians in each group in a bell curve and then compare the like portions of the bell curve. In doing so, I'm sure you'll find that the top 10% of today's doctors (not in terms of medical skill, but overall intellectualism) easily outclass the top 10% of physicians in the bird-guano days. Likewise, the bottom 10% (the "boors" who know little but thier craft) will also easily outclass the bottom 10% of phyusicans from 2000 years ago.

Your last comment is entirely correct. Medical advances in the next two hundred years will make today's practices of medicine seem barbaric, as those of 1800 seem barbaric to us (remember Dr. McCoy's disgusted comment about actually cutting into people to do surgery...). But that just furthermore proves my point - today's physicians know not just about medicine - they also know biology, chemistry and a host of other fields. Yesterday's physicians wouldn't have known what a carbon atom was.

The Wolf

JoeCool said...

Think of it this way. It was possible for Rambam to be a court physician (he had to be pretty distinguished in that field to earn this position as a jew) and still produce major works of jewish philosophy and and law. It was possible for Michelangelo to be the greatest sculptor of his time and still produce major works of painting, architecture, clothing design, etc. It was possible for Isaak Newton to leave a major impact on nearly every branch of physics while also dabbling in religion, philosophy, politics, and monetary reform.

What are recent examples, Michael Jordan trying and failing at baseball? Some "flavor of the month" celebrity lending their name to a line of clothing designed by someone else? The amount of study required to reach apex in one field, almost definitionally precludes excellence in another.

BrooklynWolf said...

That may be JoeCool, but let me try a different tack:

Let's say I agree with your premise for the moment. The fact of the matter, however, is that when we discuss Yeridas HaDoros, we're discussing one field - Torah study. We're not *really* discussing the Rambam's excellence as a physician - we're discussing his ability to learn Torah. Considering that to be the case, why can't today's luminaries be as great or greater in Torah study than previous generation's leaders?

The Wolf

JoeCool said...

Ok then. Rambam's sources consisted of (a) scripture, (b) talmudic period literature, and (C) geonic period literature. That's it. Today, if you master all of that, you would still need to learn mishne torah, arba turim, shulchan oruch, aruch hashulchan, and mishna brura just to begin to understand the halacha, much less to have enough confidence in learning. Even someone of the stutre of R' Moshe Feinstein had said "...perhaps I should have refrained from rendering decisions and certainly from publishing them...”

BrooklynWolf said...

But that's like saying that as a doctor, the Rambam only had to learn basic anatomy and herbology. That's it. Today, if you want to practice medicine, you also have to cover biology, organic chemistry, phyisology and a host of other medical studies - and yet today's doctors are more well-rounded than physicians of the Rambam's period.

The Wolf

JoeCool said...

You were doing ok, untill you started with today's doctors are more well-rounded again. Let me give you an example from a real life. Not a real doctor, but a dentist. Still the same principle. A few weeks ago I lost a filling. I went to a dentist who collected $25 and told that I need to get a root canal. For this I have to go to another dentist. After he is done torturing me, I have to come back to my dentist who will do some build-up work than fit me for a crown which he will have some lab manufacture and then come back to have the crown fitted. A mere 20 years ago all this work would have been done by one guy in the space of a week. Instead, this is turning into a 6 week adventure with 3 dentists. Has Dentistry made big strides in the last 20 years? Absolutely! Are today's dentists more well-rounded? Absolutely not!

BrooklynWolf said...

Oy, I'm sorry to hear about your dental troubles JoeCool.

Perhaps you have subpar dentists? My dentist can do root canals, and general dental work.

But you're missing the point - sure we have medical (and, I suppose dental) specialization now, but even specialists know more about general medicine (i.e. a heart surgeon still knows more about childbirth) than a doctor from a thousand years ago - despite having more to study and more to learn. And there are some valid reasons for this - the least of which is that people are better able to study/learn in the evening than they were before the invention of the lightbulb (thus increasing one's productive hours per day) and the more advanced methods we have of storing and organizing information - first with printed books, then later with other innovations.

The Wolf

JoeCool said...

Look all dentists can do root canals, but an endodontist will probably do a better job, cleaner and less painful. Since we now have lots and lots of endodontists it makes sense for general dentist to concentrate on what they're best at.

The lightbulb made more of a difference on egg production than learning. We had candles and oil lamps for a very long time. Since learning took place in communal beis medrash, the cost of lighting was born by a whole community. Besides, chronic sleep deprivation is not the best way to increase learning. Printed books are not by default anymore organized than handwritten once are.

Obviously, I am not going to convince you. It just that it seems axiomatic that having more materials available makes it harder not easier to become an expert. And that is if you only concentrate on only one discipline. If, for example, you decide that college education is essential perhaps through graduate level, your total learning time is cut down. There are other modern conviniences that will eat into your learning time. Meanwhile, the amount of essential material to cover keeps growing.

BrooklynWolf said...

JoeCool,

Although we do not agree, I do appreciate the time and effort that you have spent in discussing this issue with me.

No one is going to dispute that there is more material to study today, both in Torah and in medicine. And no one will dispute that specialization has become somewhat of a necessity due to the amount of material and the advancements made in each field. But overall, I still feel that dispite specialization, today's scholars can still be more generally well-rounded, even out of their field of specialization, than the generalists were a thousand years ago.

The Wolf