Monday, April 30, 2007

Yeridas HaDoros -- Some Questions

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 Europe didn't even have one complete copy. The opportunities for learning just weren't there as they are now.

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?

This also leads to another question – how is a generation evaluated? Are they evaluated on the basis of their leaders, or on the basis of the average people? If you will maintain that no one today could ever be a Rashi (a concept that I’m not so certain should exist, but I’ll let it be for the moment) but that the average person today is far more learned in Torah than the average person in Rashi’s day, does that mean that, on the whole, we are better than Rashi’s generation? Or do the gedolim of the generation carry so much weight that they overbalance anything the rest of the generation might accomplish and therefore Rashi’s generation continues to stand head-and-shoulders above us by dint of Rashi himself (and his colleagues)?

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?


Anonymous said...

I think the idea that each generation is farther from heaven than the one before it was originally a Greek idea...

BrooklynWolf said...

Interesting. Do you have a cite for that?

In any event, even if it was a Greek idea, that doesn't mean it's false. After all, it was the Greeks who came up with the idea that the square of the hypotenuse on a right triange is equal to the sums of the squares of the other two sides. The fact that the Greeks had it first doesn't make it false.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

This question has piqued my interest for a long time. I think the question of "which generation is greater" should be divided into several areas. So ask which is greater in terms of: Torah learning quantity, Torah quality, Torah accuracy/authenticy, Kedusha, Mitvah observance, Emunah / Bitachon etc. Do we say there is a YHD for all these areas? I think that is what you are getting at as well. Also which area is the most important to Hashem? and does YHD have anything to do with ranking in Hashem's eyes, or does it mean something else?

The Gm's example that I recall was in the context of praying for rain. While the gadol from a prior generation just needed to take off his shoe in preparation for prayer and it would rain already, the later generation would pray and rain would not come. The other well know one that I recall is the Gm. says earlier generations were men and we are donkeys. I think in both cases this is discussing spirituality and closeness to Hashem.

The issue of not arguing on the scholarship of prior generations has more to do with precedent I think. The Droshos HaRan discusses how later generations could rule differently than prior generations IF the prior rulings were not universally accepted (in other words, there were arguments amongst prior scholars).

The other factor is Mesorah. We can't claim today to have new mesorah, by definition. So we can't originate a radically new Torah idea.

So I would say YHD is more on the spiritual side. This does indeed affect scholarship as well. The closer one is to God, the better attuned he will be to God's word. The Ramchal talks about this in terms of Ruach HaKodesh (RHK) in his Derech Hashem. He says there exists a colloquial RHK which is not on the level of true RHK experienced by Shlomo Hamelech. Rather it is a closeness to God that results in God helping / inspiring the scholar to have insights beyond his normal understanding.

If we assume we are not as spiritual / close to God as prior generations, then it is not a stretch to say this affects our scholarship as well.

So to answer your question:

1) we can't hold a candle to Rashi because our whole generation (and therefore leaders) on on a lower spiritual plane.

2) individuals can be, and certainly are, more knowledgable than prior generations baalei batim. I don't think we can claim higher spirtuality though. Without exposure to modern concepts, most lived with Emunah Pshutah. I imagine they actually cried real tears on Yom Kippur, as opposed to most of us.

3) access to information does result in anything unless you use it. I would argue, that technological changes actually encourage YHD. Think about it: when did the Rishonim period end? About the same time as the printing press. With PC's and the Internet, we have entered a new era I think.

Anonymous said...

There was no TV, DVD, Movies, Gameboy, oranized sports etc. You lived Torah 24x7 (when you weren't tending your vineyard).

BrooklynWolf said...


I'll have to contemplate your thoughts on this matter.

However, I'd like to point that I have to disagree with your last point in your original comment and it's continuation. You can't say that YhD is caused by techinical innovation or modern distractions, since this concept seems to have existed well before either came into play. The techonology of the period of the Tana'im was not so different from the technology of the Amoraim that you can say that it made a substantive difference.

In addition, there certainly weren't any Gameboys, DVDs, etc. in either period, and yet there is the distinction between the two.

Aside from the possibly coincidental fact that the demarcation between Rishonim and Acharonim occurred at about the same time that the printing press was invented, do you have any other reason to believe that technological innovation (absesnt recreational innovation) leads to YhD?

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

Well, as generations pass, the Mesorah gets filtered through more people, kind of like the children's game of "telephone." That is somewhat countered by the fact that the latter generations have the benefit of hearing the arguments of the earlier ones. Thus, within a period the halacha generally follws the later authorities since they are presumed to have heard the arguments of the earlier ones before deciding.

Incidentally, the greatest single generation YHD would seem to be between Hillel and Shammai and their stuents (see Sotah 47b.) I doubt that had much to do with technological change. Considering the description of Hillel's students, the least of whom was Yochanon ben Zakkai, that is a scary thought.

Anonymous said...

You are right, technology is not the only cause of YHD. I am arguing that it is one cause of many.

The Mishna says in Avos that the way of Torah is bread, water and sleeping on the ground. Technology has given us so many comforts, and plenty of food variety. Again technology leads to indulgence which usually distances us from spirituality.

Anonymous said...

I think you have only to read through your own journal to understand the answer to your question.

If our measuring sticks today of what a Gadol is, is how much Gemara he can memorize, how big a dowery he can be bought for, if our practice of Halacha has become skewed because Rabbis feel that Masorah and Chumrot are more important, that keeping up with the Katz's is why we dress the way we do, daven where we daven or send our kids to a particular school... is it any wonder each generation can cite chapter and verse better than the previous generation yet grow in Sinat Chinam and lack of basic Midot?

ADDeRabbi said...

forgive me, but your understanding of the concept seems to be off. the issue is one of authority, not 'spiritual level', though the latter can come into play.
also, it's about eras, not generations.

Anonymous said...

Also, Rashi did not have to study countless acharonim. :)

Larry Lennhoff said...

I wrote about this om my blog Decline of the Generations

Lion of Zion said...

1) could you please quantify or qualify the concept or YD. i mean, how do you compare the gra to rashi? how does one justify the statement that one is greater than the other?

2)does it matter that we a further from har sinai than previous generations? our editions of the most basic seforim (even the tanakh itself) are more accurate than the editions used for hundreds of years. we also have access to thousands of pages of manuscript seforim that previous generation never even knew existed. so in a sense we have a greater mesorah than previouis generations.

3) "why does that same yeshiva fail to produce a leader as great as Rashi?"

rashi was a great scholar. but in what respect was he a leader? (in the sense that, let's say, the abarbanel was.)

4) "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 Europe didn't even have one complete copy."

books in the middle ages were too expensive for most people, who could not even afford the parchment (numerous animal skins were required for just one volume), forget about the ink and labor. think about how much it costs today to write a sefer torah, and muliply that a few times. there is a reason that only one complete talmud has come down to us from the middle ages (its not just because of anti-semitism).