A manual of Jewish belief (a guide to real Judaism) for the thinking individual.
Copyright © 1977 by R' Avi Shafran
[Web Page Last Revised: Tuesday, June 29, 2004 02:32 PM ]
Chapter 7. The Constant Decline.
At this point it is necessary to make an important idea understood. Though at first glance this may not seem to be a basic religious belief, it is an imperative truth, the acceptance of which is essential to the attainment of a correct Jewish outlook.
There has been a steady decline over the past three thousand years in the intellectual capacity of the human race.
At the time of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, the Jews of the day were on a higher level of nearness to G~d than anyone had ever attained until then or was to attain for millenia afterwards. The forty-nine days the Jews had spent in the wilderness was a purification period (the number seven is always representative of purification, in the Bible, as in circumcison which takes place on the eighth day, or the six days of creation leading up to the holy seventh; the forty-nine days were seven 7's, or the culmination of an unprecendented nearness to G~d) which resulted in the spiritual status of the fiftieth day. On that day, the Ultimate Absolute G~dly Knowledge was given to the Jews. The Talmud often praises the great level of holiness that the "generation of the desert" had attained.
There has been a definite decline in holiness and hence understanding of the truth, continuing through history, since that generation. Whether this decline has encompassed specifically Jews, or non-Jewish society as well; whether it is a decline only in the capacity of Torah learning or in all general knowledge as a whole, is subject to controversy. We will return to these points shortly. One crucial point is clear: The decline has been at least in Torah learning, at least among Jews.
A student of the Talmud can see the evidence of this decline in the fact that the Mishna, the first written codification of the intricate oral law, is written in a very unelaborated style which, though suitable enough for the people of the time in which it is was written (about 1700 years ago), is almost incomprehensible today, owing to its drastic brevity. The authors of the laws which were incorporated by R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi into the body of the Mishna seem to have taken for granted that its readers would assume much as a matter of simplicity. 300 years later the need was already seen for an elaboration of the Mishna. The Mishna itself, plus this immense elaboration, consisting of all the details that the Mishna-writers had not written, thinking them obvious, is known as the Talmud.
A few hundred years after the completion of the Talmud, many of its major and minor points became the topic of arguments among the great scholars of the day, first the Gaonim and later the Rishonim. The scholars of the twentieth century find difficult some of the writings of these later sages. They argue their intentions and understand them differently.
Every new period, as it was ushered in, bore witness to the existence, and influence of the Decline.The ability to comprehend and apply the laws of the Torah has diminished with time. The best effort our most intelligent minds may make does not even approach the accomplishments of the men who wrote the Talmud.
It is not actually too outrageous to propose that the Decline affected (and continues to affect) non-Torah learning (i.e. scientific creativity, mathematical comprehension, philosophical and logical ability, etc.) in just the same manner in which it affects the ability of men to learn and understand Torah. It is a bit of a problem to even differentiate between these two types of mental exercises, Torah learning and secular learning. Torah encompasses all human (and superhuman) knowledge and is the ultimate truth and last word in all subjects, including the sciences and philosophy. The same general types of reasoning and understanding that are used in science and mathematics are the foundation of Torah-comprehension. It would appear that a truth is a truth is a truth, and that the Decline encompasses the understanding of all wisdom.
But, the reader will jump and exclaim, that is ridiculous! We are doubtlessly better educated than our ancestors, and our technology is so much more advanced than theirs. Our society lives with luxuries and accomplishments that were undreamed of by the generations that lived before us.
These arguments are unintelligent and quite conceited. The only reason that we seem so advanced compared in retrospect with previous generations is because – and only because – we have so much more with which to work. The discovery of electricity, for example, was for the most part chance. The proposition of the relationship between mass and energy, upon which nuclear physics is largely based, was not the culmination of the thoughts of the succeeding generations, the final outcome a result of the last generations' superiority over the previous ones. Rather, it was to a great extent the work of one man, and had Einstein not lived when he did, his theories might still lie dormant in the dark realm of the unknown.
Our point is this: G~d has given the world gifts throughout history, sudden insights into the secrets of the universe. As surely as electricity or the Theory of Relativity were such gifts, likewise was the discovery of fire by primitive man. Or the knowledge of the making of bread, which is the universal staple of the [western] world's diet, but which in its natural form (whole grain) is hardly edible. G~d endowed man of prehistoric times with the idea of rubbing two flints together to create a spark of fire, and with the idea of cutting down wheat, grinding the kernels into flour, mixing it with water, kneading it, and baking it. Likewise G~d gave mankind the seemingly chance discoveries and realizations that it egotistically claims as its own. If the question of why G~d waited so long to reveal electricity or relativity plagues the reader, let me hint that this is a "why" question; see chapter 2.
Going a bit further, even when modern minds do follow through the evidence and carefully proceed to a true conclusion, resulting in the discovery of a truth, it is in essence a different phenomenon from the accomplishments of the ancients. Where the mind of the "primitives" were constantly erupting in national bursts of superior mentality and brilliant profundity, resulting in vast organized states, resulting in the Egyptian pyramids and secret sciences, in the Mexican art treasures, in the Great Wall of China, and the culture of Greece, all of our modern bit-by-bit climbing presents a weak comparison.
[Note that ancient accomplishments such as the pyramids are so far beyond the meager abilities of today's technology that there has been speculation that they were built by visitors from other worlds.]
At any rate it should not be too hard for the reader to realize that the poeple of, say, a thousand years go, had they had electricity at their fingertips, or had they known that e=mc2, might have done with these secrets tenfold what our generation has done. It could even be argued, that even with all our advanced technology we cannot live peacefully with one another or eliminate crime or poverty and that this is evidence of how little we really have accomplished.
Conversely, if we had lived in ancient times, confronted with the problems our ancestors solved, with no more than the means that were available to them, we might never have survived as a race.
Our advanced technological condition is no proof to our intellectual superiority. It may even itself indicate the presence of the Decline.
This principle is recognized in circles other than the Orthodox Jewish. Experts in modern literature themselves state that modern authors, even the best, cannot be compared to the literary genius of the outstanding men and women of that field who lived hundreds of years ago. No philosophy major will even entertain the thought that Bertrand Russell accomplished as much as did Aristotle. This leads us to believe that the Decline has affected and continues to affect all branches of man's intellectual endeavors, which culminate in the learning of the Ultimate Truth contained in the Torah.
Returning to the general scope of the subject, the Decline, though most definitely existent, is gradual and only figures of hundreds of years can make any noticeable difference. However, the important thing to remember constantly when trying to understand the true Jewish view of life is that whenever people who lived long ago are discussed we must never lose sight of the fact that they were of a different genre of intelligence than we are. This must be kept in mind when studying the literary works of such men.
For the student of history it is an interesting and religiously-strengthening experience to research the Decline, noting the especially prominent manifestations of the spiritual-intellectual fall. Among the periods meriting special attention are the years immediately following the revelation at Sinai, the era of the later Kings, the period of the early Tannaim (when, incidentally, the first argument concerning Torah-law is recorded to have taken place, and when the founder of Christianity probably lived), and the times when the Holy Temple was destroyed.
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