Thought for the Week: Do we believe in Decline or Progress?

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 14 October 2015

Over the last few months I have been very occupied with questions of legitimacy and authority.

Partly, this concern has been driven by conversations around status in our movement, and whether we have the right to be innovative; partly it’s because I’ve been teaching “Progressive Rabbinic Decision Making” as part of the MA at the Leo Baeck College, which means that I have been reading widely on Progressive halachah and issues of authority.

As a result, it feels like nearly every sermon I have given of late has had a common theme, asking about our right to be radical, to subvert, to re-vision what our Judaism can look like. In one way or another, I keep saying the same thing – that we are not bound to the choices of previous generations that we have inherited. We learn from them, and respect them, but in every generation we are also obligated to look afresh at our textual inheritance.

The thing I keep coming back to is my utter rejection of a little known, but hugely important Talmudic concept which has shaped much of the classical approach to halachic change. This is yeridat hadorot – the decline of the generations, the assertion that as we move through history each subsequent generation is less intellectually and spiritually able than the one before.

It finds its clearest expression in the Bavli, where Rabbi Zera states: “If the earlier scholars were sons of angels, we are sons of men; if the earlier ones were sons of men, then we are like donkeys”.
Or in the Yerushalmi, where Rabbi Ishmael ben Rabbi Yose says: the difference between our generation and the one before “is just like the difference between gold and dirt”.

This is more than just a romanticization of the past. It serves as a handcuff that ties us to the forms of religious life that we inherit.
The idea that past generations were spiritually, religiously, superior to all who came after them lends itself to an inherent conservatism. It says that the right to be subversive, to be radical, to overturn Torah, was the preserve of a particular period in time – that of the early Sages. It says that later generations do not have the right to innovation or creativity, to be lenient in our decision making. Our religious life is limited to a role as inheritors of the decisions and interpretations of the past.

Interestingly, a parallel argument took place in the medieval church: between those who believed they had a right to innovation and those who believed that this was the preserve of earlier authorities; between those who believed that it was possible to look again at the sources, and those who believed that all should be seen through the lens of earlier authorities.

Which means that, bizarrely, my own view is best expressed (save for the gendered language) by an 11th/12th Century Benedictine theologian, Rupert of Deutz:
“Who can be properly indignant,” he wrote, “when, after their fathers before them dug one or two holes, their sons and heirs dig yet more by their own labour in their common property.”

I am proud that we continue, through our own labour, to be diggers in Torah and Rabbinic Literature – our common property. We continue to engage with the full breadth of Jewish tradition, applying the values, learning and understandings that we have accumulated over hundreds of years, in search of truth and meaning.
We are the antidote to yeridat hadorot – believers not in the decline of the generations, but in the possibility of ascent. Progressive Jews, believing in progress.