Jewish Thought and History

On Building a Better World: The Tension in Jewish Thought between Yeridat ha-Dorot and Aliyat ha-Dorot

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Tamar Ron Marvin


There exists in Jewish thought a core tension between the idea that human beings are continually declining as we become farther removed from the revelation of the Torah, and the idea that we are increasing in holiness as we approach the messianic age. Yeridat ha-dorot, the decline of the generations, is the dominant ethos. Both in terms of basic halakhic principles, such as the primacy of earlier authorities, and in terms of the value of respectful engagement with our predecessors, yeridat ha-dorot permeates Jewish culture. We defer to the judgments of great decisors and refract our experiences through the memory of our collective past. There is, however, a countervailing tradition that emphasizes aliyat ha-dorot, the ascent of the generations. This perspective does not diminish the stature of earlier generations, but rather sees the past as processive and progressive, building towards a higher spiritual level. I would like to suggest that an emphasis on aliyat ha-dorot, with full acknowledgement of the opposing tendency, is vital to the Jewish future, especially one in which the modern State of Israel flourishes.

In one of the aggadot of Rabba Bar Bar Hana’s adventures in Bava Batra 73b-74a, he journeys with a caravan merchant through the desert, where he encounters the remains of the biblical Generation of the Wilderness. They lie face up, expressions of intoxication on their lifeless faces, possessed of enormous proportions—the merchant can ride under a bent knee atop his camel. Rabba Bar Bar Hana, wishing to learn how to correctly tie tzitzit, snips off the corner of one ancient, tekhelet-blue tallit. He and the merchant are immediately frozen, unable to walk. “Maybe you took something?” the merchant knowingly asks Rabba Bar Bar Hana. He releases the tzitzit, and the two continue on their way.

This aggada, often interpreted mystically, holds within it the tension between the decline and ascent of generations. On the one hand, the Generation of the Wilderness is of unfathomable greatness. These are the very people who merited to come out of Egypt, to experience Sinai and the other miracles of their years of wandering in the wilderness, as reflected mythically by their enormous physical size. So great is this early generation that their perfect knowledge of kiyum ha-mitzvot—here, the tying of tzitzit—is beyond the grasp of ordinary humans; this is why Rabba Bar Bar Hana is frozen in place after attempting to access this knowledge. At the same time, there is a somber and ineluctable pathos that the Wilderness Generation embodies: they did not merit to enter Eretz Yisrael, and their intoxicated, preserved faces are forever craning towards the heavens. It is us who are alive to perform mitzvot and advance that hoped-for future era.

Yeridat ha-Dorot
A sense of decline is elicited in numerous passages in the Talmud, notably in relation to figures referred to as rishonim, “first ones” or “early sages.”[1] Perhaps the quintessential statement on the decline of generations is found in Shabbat 112b: “If the first ones (rishonim) were the children of angels, then we are the children of humans. And if the first ones were the children of humans, then we are donkeys.”[2] This seems to be a straightforward acknowledgement that earlier generations were superior. Elsewhere, Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish disagree on this assessment (Yoma 9b). Rabbi Yohanan famously opines, “The fingernails of the early sages (rishonim) are better than the bellies of the later sages (aharonim).” Reish Lakish retorts: “On the contrary! The latter (aharonim) were superior; even though there is subjugation by the kingdoms, they are engaged in Torah study.” But it is Rabbi Yohanan who has the final word. He points out that the first Beit ha-Mikdash was rebuilt in the merit of the rishonim, whereas the second Temple was not rebuilt, because the later generations didn’t merit it.

Other passages in the Talmud probe the reason for the decline of generations as time proceeds. In Berakhot, Rav Pappa asks Abaye: “What is different about the earlier generations (rishonim), for whom miracles occurred, and what is different about us, for whom miracles do not occur?” Abaye’s response privileges the character and actions of the earlier generations: “They committed themselves to the sanctification of the Name” (Berakhot 20a). Similarly, we read: “Come and see that the later generations are not like the earlier generations. The earlier generations made Torah their occupation and their labor incidental. The later generations made their labor their occupation and the Torah incidental” (Berkahot 25b). Succeeding generations are also compared to the dimensions of the Beit ha-Mikdash: “Rabbi Yohanan said: The hearts of the early sages (rishonim) were like the entrance to the ulam (entrance hall), and those of the later sages (aharonim) were like the entrance to the heikhal (sanctuary); and we are like the eye of a needle” (Eruvin 53a). From Mishna Middot, we know that the entrance to the ulam was forty cubits high and twenty cubits wide (3:7), while the entrance to the heikhal was twenty cubits high and ten cubits wide, that is, each dimension of the heikhal is half the size of that of the ulam (4:1). In other words, the generation of the aharonim is diminished substantially compared to that of the rishonim. Meanwhile, “We (anu) are like the eye of a needle”—not merely diminished, but on an entirely different scale. Following this passage are a series of analogies expressing the degradation of Torah learning: “Abaye said: And we are like a peg in the wall with regard to learning. Rava said: And we are like a finger in wax with regard to reasoning. Rav Ashi said: We are like a finger in a pit with regard to forgetfulness.”

Generational Decline and the Writing Down of the Oral Torah
This pervasive sense of qualitative generational decline is a trope invoked by later thinkers.[3] Rav Sherira Gaon, in his eponymous letter of 986/7, writes: “Because Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] saw all these differences in the teachings of the sages, even though their reasoning was the same, he was concerned that the words should not be gone and lost from them. He saw that their hearts were diminished, the wellspring of wisdom was blocked up, and Torah was departing.” For Rav Sherira, the decline of the generations prompts the writing of the heretofore orally-transmitted Mishnah. He is circumspect, or agnostic, on the causative factor here, recording the decline without providing an assessment of why it occurred. It could be either a qualitative, inherent diminishment of each passing generation or the particular events of Rabbi’s time.

Rambam echoes Rav Sherira’s claim about the composition of the Mishnah in his introduction to Mishneh Torah, but gives an explicit cause for the decline of the generations:

“Why did our holy Rabbi do so, not letting the matter stay as it had been? Because he saw that the students were continually waning, that  troubles were coming, and the evil empire was spreading throughout the world and gaining strength. Meanwhile, Israel was emigrating to the far reaches [of the world], [so] he composed a single composition that would be in the hands of all, in order that it be taught effectively and not be forgotten… In our time, excessive tragedies have increased, and the needs of the hour overcome all, and wisdom has been lost from our knowledge, and the understanding of our learned has been hidden away.”

As Menachem Kellner has pointed out, this is a historical explanation for the writing down of the Oral Torah and, importantly, not a qualitative judgment.[4] That is, Rambam nowhere suggests an inherent decline in the intellectual abilities or spiritual nature of the succeeding generations, instead attributing the decline to contingent factors. While the decline is real, it is circumstantial, and therefore could theoretically be ameliorated.

On the Shoulders of Giants
The ambiguous parable of “dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants” enters Jewish writing in the thirteenth century from medieval Christian thought.[5] It suggests both that present generations are lesser (dwarves) but also, crucially, that they can see further than those who came before, precisely because they sit astride their illustrious predecessors (the giants). Attributing this parable to “the philosophers,” Yeshayahu di Trani (Rid) cites it in his responsa, defending himself against the perception that he has slighted his fellow Tosafist of a generation earlier, Yitzhak of Dampierre (Ri) (Teshuvot Ha-Rid 62). Rid both defers respectfully to his senior while also asserting the possibility that his own view demonstrates progressively greater wisdom.

Shibbolei Ha-Leket states similarly in the work’s introduction:

How is it possible that it would occur in a person’s mind to respond to the words of the early Geonim (ha-ge’onim ha-rishonim) of blessed memory, whose hearts were open as wide as the entrance to the ulam, and one might say of them the parable heard among the wise of the nations, that the philosophers questioned the greatest among them, saying, ‘We acknowledge that the earlier generations were more intelligent and learned than we are, but we still respond to them and refute their words in many places, and the truth is, how is this possible?’ The philosopher responded to them, ‘Who sees farther, the dwarf or the giant? It could be said that it’s the giant, since his eyes are placed much higher than the eyes of the dwarf; but place the dwarf upon the neck of the giant, and who sees farther? It could be said that the dwarf does, for now the eyes of the dwarf are higher than the eyes of the giant.’ Thus are we dwarves riding upon the necks of giants, because we have seen their wisdom and have probed, and our wisdom comes from the power of their wisdom, including all that we say, though it’s not that we are greater than they.

Here the borrowing from Christian culture is acknowledged and adopted enthusiastically in support of the author’s codificatory efforts.

Aliyat ha-Dorot
The countervailing tradition of the progress made by succeeding generations is comparatively less voluminous or strident than that of yeridat ha-dorot, and is largely evinced in later Jewish thought, especially kabbalistic and hasidic thought. The Talmud does contain a few examples of a notion of aliyat ha-dorot: it declares that “the world has six thousand years: two thousand of chaos (tohu), two thousand of Torah, and two thousand of the days of the messiah” (Avodah Zarah 9a). In Sukkah, we find the assertion that “the elder Hillel had eighty students, thirty of them worthy that the Divine Presence (Shekhinah) rest upon them as it did for Moshe Rabbeinu, and thirty of them worthy that the sun stand still for them as it did for Yehoshua Bin Nun, and twenty of them were in between [in worthiness]” (28a). This is a clear statement of the possibility of equal worthiness between a later generation and Moshe himself, receiver of the Torah, as well as Moshe’s direct successor, Yehoshua. There is also the aforementioned contention of Reish Lakish in Yoma that “the latter (aharonim) were superior; even though there is subjugation by the kingdoms, they are engaged in Torah study.” (As noted above, this is contradicted by Rabbi Yohanan, who has the final word; nevertheless, it stands as an opinion.) Against a strong reading of yeridat ha-dorot in the thought of Hazal, we could say that this view was non-systematic in nature and reflects a sense on the part of some sages that later coalesced into a prevalent perspective or ethos.

It is largely in modernity that a notion of ascent and progress is expressed by Jewish thinkers, though not necessarily in the Western, post-Emancipation milieu we might imagine, but primarily among Kabbalists. Hayim Vital, the distinguished student of the Ari (R. Yitzhak Luria Ashkenazi) and Moshe Cordovero in Safed, writes that, despite the diminishment of the hearts, improvement and ascent are possible. In the introduction to his moralistic work Sha’arei Teshuvah, he says, “Hearts have diminished and so too has the knowledge of the succeeding generations, and possessors of ruah ha-kodesh have gone off to their places of rest and left us to our own devices, hungry and thirsty, until despair grew in the hearts of human beings of being able to explore this wondrous wisdom…and this is because the methodology was not written down in a book of how to grow close and approach the holiness within.” For Vital, writing enables growth, and is sorely needed, precisely because of the decline of generations. His diagnosis is the same as Rambam’s—but his prognosis is quite different: we can and should be actively working to ameliorate the decline.

Or ha-Hayim (Hayim Ibn Attar, 18th-century Morocco) writes in his Torah commentary, after citing the notion that “we are like donkeys,” that while we should be humbled and inspired by the spiritual efforts undertaken by prior generations, the verse “holy shall you be, for I am holy” (Vayikra 19:2) is addressed to all the people, specifically “so that all would know they are included in this commandment…and that each person is able to make himself like Moshe Rabbeinu (ad. loc., s.v. ve-timtza).

In Hasidic thought, the closeness of later generations to the light of the coming Messiah is emphasized.[6] In a fascinating passage, Rabbi Pinhas Spira of Koretz, an early associate of Ba’al Shem Tov, explains Ibn Ezra’s famous disregard for the classical paytan Kalir in a collection of teachings apparently compiled by Rabbi Pinhas’s students under the title Midrash Pinhas. There it is recorded that Rabbi Pinhas argued that Ibn Ezra deserves limmud zekhut, the benefit of the doubt, on account of his historical circumstances: “The Tanna’im and Amora’im were adjacent to the destruction of the Temple, and a light was still shining that would soon go out. The later righteous ones (ha-tzadikim ha-aharonim) in these generations are adjacent to the light of the Messiah, and as such it doesn’t imply a renewal in them that they can attain the truth…but Ibn Ezra, who was removed from the light of the destruction and also far from the light of the Messiah, for this reason he did not perceive the level of Kalir” (Part 1, p. 82 in the Biłgoraj edition of 1930).

In Tzidkat Ha-Tzaddik, Rabbi Tzadok ha-Kohen of Lublin (1823-1900) is direct about aliyat ha-dorot: “Each Jewish soul has special powers of holiness; in accordance with the number of generations that has passed, so are the amount of the powers of holiness and words of Torah that are revealed in the world. For this reason in each succeeding generation holiness becomes more revealed” (p. 116). Rabbi Tzadok qualifies this assertion with the “commonly known” fact that the generations diminish, but notes that later generations have the benefit of possessing the matters revealed to all those who preceded them, “as in the parable of the dwarf on the back of a giant.” Elsewhere, he writes (in the name of Rebbe Simhah Bunem of Peshischa), “Even though souls diminish in each generation, it is in any case that the point in the heart is refined more in each generation” (Peri Tzaddik, p. 217).

Sefat Emet (Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905) is more equivocal in his sense of possibility for present generations, citing the Talmudic dictum that “the fingernails of the early sages are superior to the bellies of the later sages,” but also noting, “the matter is that the patriarchs brought down His holiness, may His name be blessed, to all their seed after them” (on Lekh Lekha, 23). He continues: “And each person needs to seek His holiness, may He be blessed, by means of discernment (hitbonenut) in knowing the strength of the Creator, may His Name be blessed, according to the best of his ability.” If not negating the prevalent view of decline, Sefat Emet here promotes the merit drawn down by later generations and their continued responsibility to seek that which is holy.

Rav Kook famously took a progressive view of history, progress which he himself attributed to the spread of kabbalistic thinking in general and hasidic thought in particular. The locus classicus of his perspective is found in Orot Ha-Kodesh, in which he writes:

The theory of evolution (hitpatehut), which is currently overtaking the world, is truthful in terms of the kabbalistic secrets of the world more so than the other branches of philosophy…when one penetrates into the inner truths of the foundation of this increasing evolution, we find in it the Divine matter illumined with complete brightness, which is actually Ein Sof in action, becoming worldly so as to draw out into action the potential powers of Ein Sof…this manifestation is entirely evolutionary and ascends as the matter is revealed in its constituent parts (2, p. 537).

For Rav Kook, the course of history is an ascendent, progressive process of Divine unfolding, and not an infinite regression. With the deep connections between contemporary religious Zionism in Israel and the thought of Rav Kook, this idea plays an active role in current perspectives on the possibility of progress towards an ideal society.

Overturning an Earlier Court and Hilkheta ke-Batra’ei
In the realm of halakha, we have the concept of hilkheta ke-batra’ei, the idea that halakha follows the most recent decisors. This is another powerful contemporary means of accessing a progressive view of history from within Jewish tradition. Menachem Elon writes of hilkheta ke-batra’ei, “This great admiration for the words of the early authorities (rishonim) did not prevent the halakha from establishing in the course of time an overarching principle in Jewish decision-making—which is seemingly contradictory to this principle of preferring the former (rishonim) to the latter (aharonim), but which was imperative to giving authority to the learned of the later generations to determine the halakha according to the circumstances and problematics that emerge in their day. This overarching principle establishes that hilkheta ke-batre’ai (the law is according to the words of the latest authorities) and it is found in our tradition from the era of the geonim (Ha-Mishpat Ha-Ivri, 1:233).” Elon contends that the principle does not negate the esteem in which early authorities are held while empowering current decisors to enact law in a manner sensitive to contemporary situations. He goes on to call hilkheta ke-batra’ei “a major deciding principle in Jewish jurisprudence (ba-mishpat ha-Ivri)” (ibid., 1:235).

The sanctity and authority of earlier generations by whom the masorah is passed down to the present day is a core principle in Jewish thought, finding expression in halakhic and theological contexts alike. Attendant to this is a pervasive sense of decline, be it intellectual or spiritual in nature, and inherent or circumstantial in cause, between the early authorities (rishonim) and the later authorities (aharonim). Beginning with the various dicta of the Talmud and elaborated by later thinkers with the phrase “diminishment of the hearts,” yeridat ha-dorot is the dominant perspective on the Jewish past, attested to by figures from Rambam to the Mehabeir (Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulhan Arukh). At the same time, there is a notable ambivalence in the meaning of this sense of decline, as well as significant countervailing ways of thinking about the progress of succeeding generations. Rambam, who points with regret to the decline of learning in his own time, explains this with regard not to essentialist characteristics of later generations, but as a result of the sociopolitical circumstances of his day. Beginning in the thirteenth century, it is noted by Ashkenazi thinkers that though we may be dwarves (or donkeys, as the Talmud has it), we are seated on the shoulders of giants, with the privilege of seeing yet farther than they. A century later, in the same cultural sphere, emerges the primacy of hilkheta ke-batra’ei, giving the last word in legal decision-making to the later courts with their knowledge of current situations. And with the popularization of kabbalistic ideas in the early modern world, and especially in the development of hasidic theology, the possibility of ascent, of growing towards the light, is evidenced.

How might we build upon the possibilities engendered by a concept of aliyat ha-dorot, or hitpatehut in Rav Kook’s terminology, to address the exigencies of our own time? We can decide to take a more optimistic, less adversarial view of change as we enter into the late stages of modernity. We can take upon ourselves to make fuller use of the vantage point we have been given, seated astride the giants of our remote and recent past, be it in the domains of Torah, humanities, or the sciences. Instead of reacting to the disenchantment of the modern era with a sense of loss and diminishment, we are charged with embracing the significance of our particular place in the long history of our people. This means taking on the responsibility to grapple directly with the problems facing our present generation, from yet-unresolved halakhic issues of technological and social change to humanity-wide problems, such as the persistence of global poverty or climate change, that require a Jewish response. It impels us to address the challenges facing the postmodern Jewish State, with its significant non-Jewish minority populations and growing chasm with Diaspora communities. Rather than see ourselves as degraded with respect to our predecessors, we have grounds for being abundantly grateful to inherit their wisdom and knowledge, charged with applying it toward building a better world.

[1] There is some disagreement about who these early sages are exactly, with Rabbi Akiva and Elazar ben Shamua, Tannaim of the fourth and fifth generations, respectively, being suggested (Eruvin 53a). What is significant here is that succeeding generations are seen as being in decline.

[2] Note also the similar statement in Bava Batra 58a, “Compared to Sarah, all people are like a monkey in comparison to a human, and Sarah compared to Eve was like a monkey.” This, and following, translations are my own.

[3] It is also medieval thinkers who promulgate the idea of decreasing levels of inspiration and attendant sanctity in the divisions of the Tanakh: see Sid (Shnayer) Z. Leiman, The Canonization of the Hebrew Scripture: The Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence (New Haven, 1976), 64.

[4] Menachem Kellner, Maimonides on the “Decline of the Generations” and the Nature of Rabbinic Authority (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 37-54.

[5] For the use of the parable in Western thought, see Robert K. Merton, On the Shoulders of Giants: The Post-Italianate Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); and in Jewish thought, Avraham Melamed, On the Shoulders of Giants: The Debate between Moderns and Ancients in Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Thought [Hebrew] (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2003).

[6] Ahron Marcus (1843-1916), an early scholar of Hasidism as well as Judaism in antiquity and himself a Hasid (and a Zionist), attributes to Ba’al Shem Tov the idea that prior generations were steeped in Aristotelian philosophy that denied the creation of the world, whereas a better and more pure ethos was now taking hold, in which the world’s createdness was again acknowledged (in the Hebrew translation of Der Chassidismus [Hamburg, 1927], Ha-Hasidut, trans. Moshe Seinfeld [Bnei Brak, 1980], pp. 14-15).

Tamar Ron Marvin holds a Ph.D. in Medieval and Early Modern Jewish Studies and is currently a semikha student at Yeshivat Maharat. A 2022 Vatichtov Writing Fellow, her work has appeared in various academic and Jewish publications, including The Association for Jewish Studies Review, Medieval Encounters, and The New York Jewish Week.